Most fans of AFL football think they know the story of its creation - colonial sporting hero Tom Wills pulled together a set of rules from a mixture of British and Irish games designed to keep players fit during the cricket off-season. The first recorded match is said to have taken place in 1858 and a year later the first set of codified rules was printed. Before we knew it, speccies were taken and behinds were kicked.
But there’s another theory that’s gained some credence over the years – that our national code was heavily influenced by a game the Indigenous people of western Victoria played. If you’ve watched NITV’s footy show, you’ll already know the name of it: marngrook.
Marngrook was played with a ball made from possum skin, filled with charcoal and tied with kangaroo-tail sinew. There were no goals, but one of the major elements of the game was kicking the ball high into the air, then leaping to catch it, which some historians say inspired the marks of AFL. In fact, insofar as there was a winner, it was generally thought to be the person who kicked and/or leaped highest, keeping the ball off the ground.
Protector of Aborigines in Victoria Richard Thomas wrote down his observations of the game in 1841, saying, “The men and boys joyfully assemble when this game is to be played. One makes a ball of possum skin, somewhat elastic, but firm and strong.
The players of this game do not throw the ball as a white man might do, but drop it and at the same time kicks it with his foot. The tallest men have the best chances in this game. Some of them will leap as high as five feet from the ground to catch the ball. The person who secures the ball kicks it.”
There’s more circumstantial evidence to suggest a connection. Tom Wills was raised as the only white kid in his area, and is said to have played with the Indigenous children on his dad’s property, speaking their language and presumably joining in their games. Although there has been some back and forth on whether the Indigenous game would have been played (a) in the area and (b) before Wills went over to England for schooling, the recent discovery of Mukjarrawaint man Johnny Connolly’s personal recollections in the State Library of Victoria seem to suggest it was.
In Meanjin Quarterly, Jenny Hocking and Nell Reidy also pointed to the contents of an unpublished letter from Wills to his brother Horace, in which it’s clear the local game was not merely a straight adaptation of British rugby, but shared marngrook’s focus on keeping the ball in the air.
“[T]he adaptations made in the new game of Australian football was a matter of geography - that the grounds were too hard for rugby, in which players were routinely thrown to the ground. The game then had to be adapted to keep the players and the play off the ground... Wills’ cousin Colden Harrison also recalled this potential for injury as central to the game’s early form, that Wills considered rugby ‘unsuitable’ for working men who needed to stay fit for work as well as for cricket.”
While there is a lot to suggest that contemporary AFL stems from the game marngrook, still the football history wars continue. In a 2008 article for The Monthly, John Hirst discussed sports historian Gillian Hibbins’ then-recent rejection of the idea.
In The Australian Game of Football Since 1858, she dismissed the notion as a “seductive myth”, concluding, “Understandably, the appealing idea that Australian football is a truly Australian native game recognising the Indigenous people, rather than deriving solely from a colonial dependence upon the British background, has been uncritically embraced and accepted in some places.”
Regardless of where the game originates, AFL today is undeniably ingrained in contemporary Indigenous culture, attracting players and supporters from the First Nations. The celebration of that contribution is what makes Marngrook Footy Show so essential...
Watch Marngrook Footy Show on Thursdays at 7:30pm on NITV. In the meantime, watch Grant Hansen and members of the Marngrook Footy Show panel reminisce on their favourite moments in the program's history right here: