Contributed by: Brett NortheyThe origin of Australian Rules football is often speculated on, but there are few definitive answers. It does seem likely that it had many influences in its formative years.
Australian Rules football has been a constantly evolving sport, and surely does not resemble the early versions of the code in colonial Victoria back in the 1850s. There were many versions of football evolving at this stage, with some allowing the ball to be picked up, some allowing forward passing, others banning one or both. It probably is not the case that Aussie Rules evolved from any other sport, but rather they all influenced each other then diverged into what we know today, such as soccer, Rugby, Australian Rules and Gaelic football. It is often thought that Gaelic must have inspired our modern game, because of the similarities, but the truth is that although Gaelic football has ancient roots, it had long been supressed and only strongly returned in Ireland after the formation of the GAA in 1884, after Australian Rules was well on its way.
A primeval sport that preceded all these was the games played by small towns in which whole communities would turn out once a year, forming two teams often numbering in the hundreds, and in one giant scrum, attempt to move the ball, through any means, to their nominated goal (in some cases something as simple as a wharf). One such game is still played on the Orkney Islands off the north of the Scottish mainland. There are other examples elsewhere in Europe.
However, there is another ancient sport that has some claim to have passed its heritage on to the great indigenous Australian game. Marn Grook was played by Aborigines in parts of Victoria, and there is evidence that the men described as the founders of Australian football were exposed to the game. It is not much of a stretch to imagine they must have had it in mind when writing down the first known set of rules. There are many similarities between Marn Grook and the game we know today, and it may well have been an important contributor to Australia's national sporting obsession. Perhaps it is only a coincidence, but Aboriginal players are also amongst some of the most talented playing in the AFL, exceeding the levels that might be expected given their overall numbers in the Australian population, and the lack of opportunities many receive. Names like Goodes, Wells, McLeod and Wanganeen all quickly come to mind (as do many others).
Within 20 years of the rules for modern football being codified, they had spread to other colonies in Australia, influencing the forms of football played there, and being largely adopted in places such as Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia. By Australia's federation as an independent nation, bringing all the colonies together in 1901, Australian football was the dominant sport in the majority of Australian states, and in recent decades has begun to establish a stronger presence in the remaining areas. This weekend (Saturday 21st August) the AFL commemorates the game of Marn Grook during the blockbuster between finals contenders Sydney and Essendon at Telstra Stadium (the main 2000 Sydney Olympic venue). Read more about the Marn Grook Trophy on the AFL website.
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