A match made in Heaven?

A match made in Heaven
Titlepage of <em>The ABC Football Guide and Register: Season 1888</em>. (NAA: A1786, 3485B)

Rugby tourists playing Australian Rules – how could such a game have been allowed to happen? Not just one game but over half of the games in a tour!

In June 1888 the first English touring rugby team came to the Australian colonies. Not only did they compete in their favoured code in New South Wales and Queensland but they gave Australian Rules a go as well.

The ABC Football Guide and Register: Season 1888 warned the local teams not to take the Englishmen lightly. And it has to be said that the tourists fared quite well – they won 14 of their 25 Aussie Rules matches and came close to embarrassing a few of the big names. The visitors lost to perennial champions Geelong by only three goals.

The combination proved popular with the football-mad Victorians – nearly 30,000 people watched the visitors’ first Australian Rules game against Carlton at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) on Saturday 16 June.

So how did the English learn the Australian game? The Victorian Football Association (VFA) – the founding Australian Rules organisation in Victoria – arranged some coaching in Melbourne and it was also rumoured that Australian cricketers visiting England had given their hosts a few private lessons.

But it’s probably fair to assume the English had never heard of ‘rabbiting’ before. ‘The Laws of the Australasian Game of Football’ prohibited the practice of ‘one player stooping down so as to cause another to fall by placing his body below the other’s hips’. And there were many more strange rules and terms to come to grips with, like slinging, a mark, a behind and bouncing the ball.

The 1888 laws of Australian Rules football make interesting reading today. For example:

  • each game was decided only on the number of goals kicked
  • there was no finals series and the premiership was awarded to the team on top of the ladder at the end of the season
  • teams did not all play the same number of matches
  • in the dreary months of June and July matches were 20 minutes shorter than during the rest of the season

The 25 Australian Rules and 16 rugby games were squeezed into a three-month tour of Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland – all without the benefits of modern transport.

Eight of the 1888 VFA teams still play in today’s AFL competition – Geelong, which won seven of the first 11 VFA premierships, Carlton, South Melbourne (now the Sydney Swans), Richmond, Essendon, Melbourne, St Kilda and Footscray (Western Bulldogs).

This football guide is part of the National Archives extensive collection of copyright records. Copyright came under Commonwealth control from 1 January 1907 with the introduction of the Copyright Act 1905.

  • read caption below
    1888 England v Australia tour dates
  • read caption below
    Rules of the game, 1888
  • read caption below
    League ladder for 1886–87

A selection of records relating to Australian Rules football and rugby

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017