Explore the History of australian football

Several London newspapers gave very favourable comments, alluding to the physical fitness that is necessary, the amount of skill required, and its spectacular flavour. There is no sport that I know of equal to our game of football for making the ideal soldier, for pluck, self control, resource, coolness, dash and initiative are its essential characteristics.[1]

In the years just prior to the start of the Great War discussions had taken place regarding the feasibility of staging Australian football exhibition matches in England and the United States. James Smith, a former St Kilda captain who had played 130 VFL games, was responsible for a plan which might actually have seen the game played by top players in London in 1914 had not the war intervened. The war did not exactly scupper the plan, however. Far from it - it actually helped bring things to fruition, because by 1916 a large number of leading Australian footballers had enlisted in the overseas forces, and many were based in England. Consequently the idea of bringing some of them together to provide the London public with an exhibition of the skills of Australian football was hatched, and on Saturday 28th October 1916 at Queen’s Club, Kensington the match took place. The competing teams represented the Queen’s Club Third Division and the Combined Training Units, and all proceeds from the match would be donated to the British and French Red Cross.. (A total of roughly £400 was raised.)

Bruce Sloss, formerly of Essendon, Brighton and South Melbourne, was skipper of the Taire Division, while the Training Units were captained by Charles “Redwing” Perry of Norwood (wrongly referred to as Percy in Victorian accounts of the match). Among the crowd, which was variously estimated at between 3,000 and 8,000, were the future King Edward VIII (then Prince of Wales), and King Manuel of Portugal.  The match received a great deal of publicity, and was arguably the most important game of Australian football played outside Australia up to that point.  Just nine weeks after the match, the Tair Division’s captain Lieutenant Sloss was killed by a shell while on active service in Armentieres, northern France.  He was twenty-eight. Many other participants in the game never again saw Australian shores.

Training Units kicked with the aid of a strong breeze in the opening quarter and dominated affairs, kicking 2.5 to the Third Division’s 0.2. “The fastness of the game was a revelation to the Londoners, who were delighted with the brilliancy of the high marking and the long kicking.”[2] 

The second term saw the Third Division make good use of the breeze as they added 2.8 to 2 behinds to lead at the main interval by 3 points. The pattern of the team kicking with the aid of the breeze dominating affairs continued in the third quarter as the Training Units reclaimed the lead by adding 2.2 to 0.3. During the final term Third Division produced the best football of the match to draw level with Training Units before pulling away to a fairly comfortable 16 point victory. Final scores were Third Division 6.16 (52) defeated Training Units 4.12 (36). According to press reports the best players for the victors included Harold Moyes of St Kilda and Carl Willis of South Melbourne, both of whom kicked 2 goals, Percy Jory (St Kilda), Les “Leggo” Lee (Richmond) and Dan Minogue (Collingwood). Most conspicuous for the losers were Jack Cooper of Fitzroy, Percy Trotter (East Fremantle), and Les Armstrong (Geelong). However, it would appear that the cabled report of the match on which all newspaper articles were based was compiled by a journalist conversant only with the VFL who completely ignored players from other states with whom they were unfamiliar. (Percy Trotter would have been well known to him as he was a former prominent Fitzroy player.)

The reaction of English newspapers and periodicals to the match was broadly positive. For example, the “Weekly Despatch” stated “Australian football, owing to the absence of the puzzling offside rule, and the infrequency of checks, has proved its possibilities as a game to draw large crowds”.[3] Meanwhile a slightly less complimentary assessment appeared in “The Referee”: “The regulation to prevent excessively rough play is good, but it deprives the game of the stoutness characteristic of ours, although the colonial exposition lacks nothing of strength or resourcefulness”.[4]

Somewhat sadly, Australian football failed to capitalise on these generally favourable assessments, and future attempts to promote the game in Britain were sporadic and often ill-judged.[5] It is tempting to speculate on what might have happened had someone like James Smith possessed the drive and the financial wherewithal to promote the game in England in the immediate post-war years when people’s minds were generally quite open to new initiatives. Almost a century on, however, Australian football is probably no better known in England than it was during the brief high water mark of 28th October 1916.

FOOTNOTES

[1] “The Australasian”, 4/11/16, page 26.

[2] “The Advertiser”, 30/10/16, page 9.

[3] As reported in “The Daily News”, 30/10/15, page 6.

[4] Ibid, page 6. The implied notion that Australia remained a colony might well have been a view shared by most English people at the time.

[5] For example, when highlights packages of VFL matches were sold to the UK TV station Channel Four in the 1980s the accompanying marketing material unabashedly sought to highlight the game’s more brutal aspects, and as a result the term “Aussie No Rules” was coined. Perhaps unsurprisingly this strategy failed to garner a significant audience for the sport in Britain.

Percy Trotter

Les Armstrong

Jack Cooper

Dan Minogue

The AIF Match - Saturday 28th October 1916: Queen's Park Third Division verses Combined Training Units at Queen's Park, Kensington