The contested history of Australian Rules Football

Year 10 student, Oliver McDonald, won the Young Historian Gold Medal for his entry into the History of Sport category of the 2020 Australian History Challenge. He also won the Young Historian Silver Medal in the Year 10 category. Here is his award winning submission.

The first Australian Rules Football game was a match between Melbourne Grammar School and Scotch College on 7 August 1858 in parkland outside the Melbourne Cricket Club in Richmond. The match was played over three Saturdays where it ended in a draw with one goal for each side. The schools selected their own umpire for the game with Scotch College selecting Dr John Macadam and Melbourne Grammar School selecting Thomas Wentworth Wills. The new game, Australian rules was credited to Tom Wills who had recently returned from Rugby School in England where he claimed that he got the ideas for the game from. Wills was known to be a talented Rugby and Cricket player. He suggested that the game could be used to keep the cricketers fit during the winter. The Melbourne Football Club was formed in 1858 for the cricketers to keep fit and Geelong Football Club was established in 1859 with rules being agreed by a committee on 17 May 1858. Whilst the rules were initially believed to have been adapted from rugby to Australian conditions, more recently new evidence has been exposed about the potential influence of Indigenous games on the sport. Some historians of Australian rules argue that there is an undeniable relationship between the Indigenous football games, including Marngrook, and Australian rules whilst others refute any relationship between the two games.

When Australian rules first began, Wills proclaimed that he had generated the idea from playing rugby in England. The sport had to be adapted because of the hot Australian weather which made the ground a lot more dryer and therefore harder than luscious paddocks in England. As a result of the conditions Wills had to change the game to remove a risk of injury to the cricketers. Hacking (kicking or tripping an opponent) was banned, scrums were removed from the game and those who caught or marked the ball in the air were rewarded a free kick. Players were allowed to run with the ball until 1865 where players had to bounce the ball at least every 10 metres. As opposed to rugby, there were no offside rules and the ball was to be kicked through the two goal posts instead of having to run past a line. In 1891 the centre bounce, used at the beginning of a game and to restart the game after a goal, was introduced into Australian rules which makes it unique to other similar sports. Despite some similarities between English rugby and Australian rules football there are some distinctive differences.

Proponents of the notion that Wills introduced Australian Rules Football based on English rugby centre their arguments on the lack of documented evidence to support any indigenous influence. Roy Hay, one of the games historians, believes that “The idea that [Indigenous football] was somehow a blueprint for the game that the white men developed in Melbourne around the late 1850s – I have searched high and low, and many other historians have done [the same], to find out if there is substantial evidence that supports that, and really we can find none.”[1] Similarly Dr Greg de Moore, a football historian, has not been able to find any evidence of a connection between Indigenous games and Australian rules in 10 years of research.[2] De Moore stated that “I’ve found nothing that documented that [Wills] saw the game. [Wills] never made reference to it, and no one else made reference to it.”1 It is argued that there is no evidence that Marngrook was played in the area where Wills grew up, whether or not he seen or played Marngrook and that the rules of Marngrook influenced Australian rules.[3] The overwhelming majority of the written documentation from this period was written by the British settlers and reflected their point of view. Therefore, these historians base their position on the colonial experience of the Europeans settlers as being the only perspective from which history can be told and that an absence of documentary evidence of a link between Marngrook and Australian Rules means that there is not any.

Some Historians believe that the Indigenous played Australian rules with the European settlers, but the game originated with the Europeans. Roy Hay gave out his idea that it was indigenous who made their way into the white man’s game rather than the settlers being influenced by Indigenous football. The main argument is that the indigenous people joined in Australian rules as soon as it began amongst the colonisers in the late 1850s. The Indigenous “survivors who were left in the missions and stations around the periphery of Victoria, saw the white men playing their game and forced their way into it.”1 In Roy Hay’s opinion there is evidence that the Indigenous played Australian Rules with the colonisers but no evidence that they played a similar game by themselves prior to European settlement.

The Australian Football League’s (AFL) historical opinion was that there was no influence by the Indigenous on Australian rules football. Gillian Hibbins, an AFL historian, was commissioned to write a piece for the AFL’s official 150 year history produced in 2008 stated that Australian rules football was not related to and had not been influenced by the Indigenous game of Marngrook and that any such suggestion is a “seductive myth”.[4] Whilst Hibbins admits that it would be appealing to see a relationship between Australian rules and Marngrook she proclaims that it was “derived solely colonial” origins, even though there are many differences between Australian rules and English rugby. Hibbins also noted that there was no documented evidence of a connection between Marngrook and Australian rules as “There is no mention in existing family documents or in those of his fellow football founders… On the contrary, there is much evidence to show that Wills, in fact, favoured Rugby School.”[5] The reluctance by AFL to admit any links between indigenous football and Australian rules remained the official position based on the controversial views of Hibbins.

The views of Historians that believe that Marngrook influenced Australian rules are largely based on evidence about the childhood of Wills. They argue that Wills grew up in the Grampians region where he befriended indigenous people and was exposed to the indigenous game of Marngrook. Jim Poulter introduced the thought that the Indigenous game of Marngrook contributed to Australian rules in the 1980s. His great grandfather had grown up with the Wurundjeri people. Following mass dispossession of traditional lands and devastated by smallpox, in 1852 Poulter’s grandfather participated in the final inter-tribal corroboree on Wurundjeri land at Pound Bend in Warrandyte where he experienced an aboriginal football game. Poulter himself played in the centenary game for Scotch College against Melbourne Grammar in 1958 and became interested in the history behind the game. His research led him to James Dawson who had arrived in Melbourne in 1840 and had established friendships with the indigenous including the Tjapwurrung which was the tribe amongst whom Wills lived. James Dawson provided several references to aboriginal football played at intertribal corrobborees at which the Tjapwurrung were present[6]. This suggests that Wills may have experienced such Indigenous football games with the Tjapwurrung people. Further, the diaries written by William Thomas, the Protector of Aborigines in Port Phillip, in 1852 refer to the indigenous football match at pound bend in 1852. The diaries revealed that the players did not throw the possum skin ball “as a white man might” but kicked it high with the top of the foot and “some of them will leap as high as five feet or more from the ground to catch the ball” [7]. These sources show that there is a real possibility that Wills was influenced by the Indigenous games.

More recently, further evidence was discovered in 2017 which gives greater credibility to the view that Wills was exposed to the Indigenous football game of Marngrook in his youth. Transcripts found in the State Library of Victoria reveal an interview with Johnny Connolly, a Mukjarrawaint man, who portrays his experience playing Marngrook in the Grampians region in the 1830s to 1840s. Johnny Connolly’s eyewitness account was found amongst papers of the ethnographer A.W Howitt and reveals “In playing a game at ball which they kicked about[,] the different totems present two different sides”3. The impact of Colonial settlement on the Mukjarrawaint people was significant and their culture was lost through dispossession and violence along with their history. This primary evidence strongly suggests that Marngrook was played amongst the indigenous prior to European settlement.

There are many historical references that suggests the similarities between Marngrook, and Australian rules indicate that there is a connection between the games. In particular, keeping the ball in the air, kicking it high and marking are distinguishing and common features. As described by William Thomas “the ball is kicked up in the air… when the ball is caught it is kicked up in the air again by the one who caught it”3 which suggests that some of the rules of Marngrook were included in Australian rules. However some historian including Roy Hay and Dr Greg De Moore dispute this relationship as they believe that for the first 20 years of Australian rules was played as a “low, scrimmaging rugby – style game”1. However, this is in contrast to an unpublished letter by Wills to his brother which supports the view that Australian rules football has always been a game based on keeping the ball off the ground3.

A significant amount of evidence supporting the relationship Marngrook had on Australian rules is circumstantial as it is oral history past down from the indigenous elders. The culture is to pass down history through song, dance, stories and art which makes some people doubt the evidence. Combined with the devastation of Indigenous communities that occurred upon European settlement, most if not all documented evidence is by Europeans, whilst the history from the point of view of the indigenous has been lost. Titta Secome an indigenous elder remembers the stories about Marngrook that her grandmother and aunties told. The stories were told about Marngrook being played at the foot of Halls Gap in the Grampians where many tribes would come together. Titta Secome recalls that “someone would pull out the possum – skin ball. They’d stand in the centre of the oval, like it is today, and each goal post is made up of spears.”[8] Based on oral history indigenous communities believe there is an undeniable link between Marngrook and Australian rules.

In 2019 AFL changed their position on the history of Australian rules and proclaimed that it was influenced by the Indigenous games. The indigenous footballer Adam Goodes was apologised to by the AFL for not supporting him during his career in relation to the racism he experienced and the impact of the dispossession and disempowerment of the indigenous and their community.[9] The AFL said “Aboriginal history tells us that traditional forms of football were played by Australia’s first peoples all over Australia, most notably in the form of Marngrook. It is Australia’s only indigenous football game – a game born from the ancient traditions from our country.” Accordingly, the AFL now strongly supports the “undoubted influence” Marngrook had on Australian rules.1 Jim Poulter considers that Wills did not reference Marngrook in created Australian rules because “society at that time could not cope with the idea of adopting an Aboriginal game, so [Wills] said he invented the game”8. Due to racism the settlers felt superior to the indigenous and therefore the game would not have been accepted if Wills had given credit to the indigenous for the game.

Ultimately, there are still two side to the debate that about the indigenous influence on Australian rules football. There are some historians who believe that the game was not influenced by Marngrook and that it came solely form Wills and his experience of rugby in England. Other historians believe that Australian rules was influenced by Marngrook based on stories from indigenous elders and evidence that links back to Wills when he was young. Whilst the indigenous and many historians believe that Marngrook influenced Australian rules football some of the racism that has existed since the settlement by Europeans still remains and needs to be addressed this view is universally adopted.

[1] Roy Hay’s book

[2] A National Game: The History of Ausgralian Football, De Moore, 2008.


[4] “The Australian Game of Football since 1858”


[6] [The Languages and Customs of Several Tribes of aborigines in the Western District of Victoria, written in 1881] Referred to in The Age article.




Bibliography: 2020. History Of Football – AFL.Com.Au. Available at: [Accessed 11 July 2020].

Encyclopedia Britannica. 2020. Australian Rules Football | History, Rules, & Facts. Available at:  [Accessed 11 July 2020]. 2020. The AFL Has Changed Its Stance On The Origins Of The Sport, And Historians Are Baffled. Available at: [Accessed 11 July 2020]. 2020. Indigenous Influence On AFL ‘Confirmed’ By Historical Transcripts. Available at: [Accessed 11 July 2020].

Hocking, J. and Reidy, N., 2020. Marngrook, Tom Wills And The Continuing Denial Of Indigenous History. Meanjin. Available at:  [Accessed 11 July 2020]. 2020. ‘Bring The Game Home’: Elders Say Hosting Match Will Be Just Recognition For Footy’s Birthplace. Available at:  [Accessed 11 July 2020].

Flanagan, M., 2020. Searching For Marngrook. The Age. Available at:  [Accessed 11 July 2020].