The Melbourne Rules : An Esoteric History compiled by Brian Membrey


1938 : A Rules Revolution

Faced with dwindling attendances and with no assistance from the League (with many of its own clubs struggling to meet their obligations and only being saved from serious financial trouble by record gates at finals matches, the Victorian Football Association announced in early September, 1937 a potentially major overhaul of the rules under which its clubs played.

The plan came several weeks after the Association's board of management invited umpires to submit proposals that in their opinion would make the game more attractive.

Commentators immediately suggested that the Association would have to break away from the Australian National Football Council rules and abandon its agreement with the V.F.L., a loose arrangement undertaking that each body should work in the interest of the other, but with an undertaking that players could not move from one body to the other without a clearance from their original club..

On 15 October, 1937, the Association formally ended the agreement, claiming that in the previous two years the Association had shown no improvement in attendances or finances and had received no assistance from the League.

(In turn, it was said that many league clubs were struggling to meet their obligations,especially in terms of player payments, and were only saved from serious financial problems by the dividends received from record finals attendances).

The Association invited the League to enter discussions with a view to striking consensus on alternatives more amenable to the Association, but no such talks eventuated.

The dropping of the agreement saw the Association banned from membership of the A.N.F.C. and meant that players could cross from one body to the other without a clearance from their previous club, although with disqualification for three years as a result.

At one meeting of the V.F.A., s delegate claimed that with no agreement in place, Association clubs would be able to 'filch' players from the League as frequently as League clubs currently did with Association players, but a senior official put the situation in perspective ...:

"We should not be afraid that half our players will transfer to the League." he said. "Only five or six Association players each year are capable of making the League grade. The agreement has always been detrimental to the interest of the Association."

The Association met on 14 February of the following year to consider the new rules, the most revolutionary being the introduction of the “throw-pass”  which allowed the ball to be thrown as long as it with two hands and below the level of the shoulder.

Central to other changes was a plan to reduce the number of players to 16 by effectively eliminating two followers, a.k.a. ruckmen, in order to open up play which was becoming more and more congested.  In conjunction with the removal of the followers came a plan to eliminate the centre bounce, instead replacing it with a “kick-off”, a feature of the original rules of the game, but abandoned in the early 1890’s.

Under the Association proposal, the captain winning the toss had first option of choosing which end to kick to, or alternatively relinquishing that right and instead opting to have his centreman commence play by kicking off from a line drawn 20 yards on the defensive side of the centre.  The right to kick-off then alternated between the two teams after breaks and during play was taken by the team having a goal kicked against it.

As it turned out, only six clubs voted in favour of team reductions and six opposed it.

With this motion thus lapsing, "the kick-off from the centre" was considered pointless and was not considered by the meeting.

The introduction of the throw-pass was passed 14 to 10 - it is not quite clear whether a rule change was made, but with the throw-pass now an option, players were to be penalized if they simply dropped the ball when held, this being legal up to this time - although the cry “… he dropped it!” has been heard in the crowd for many decades, there has never been such as a rule - traditionally it has been “must be kicked or hand-balled”; the A.N.F.C. adopted a similar rule the seasons afte the Association, but “kicked or punched” rather than “kicked or thrown”.

The rejection of the move to reduce the number of players also impacted the re-introduction of the boundary throw-in.  

Originally, the field umpire was to have the power to order away all players other than the nearest "set position" player and the rover of either side, leaving just four players to contest the throw-in, but after the rule was passed, one observant delegate noted that this power to restrict the number of players competing for the ball had been included on the assumption the two followers had been eliminated.  The phrase empowering the umpire to order players away from the contest was then removed from the regulation, and the "galloping giants" subsequently granted a new lease on life.

Following a particularly violent 1937 season, there were calls for the field umpire to be given the power to order players from the field for a nominated “cooling off” period - it remains uncertain whether this was discussed at the February meeting, but several measures were put in place to help eliminate the “rough stuff”

The original proposal was that if a player was interfered with after being awarded a mark of free kick, the opposition would be penalized with the kick being taken up-field; the February meeting extended this to allow the nearest team-mate to take the kick if the original player was incapacitated in the incident, and also included a "down-the-field" free if the interference followed disposal of the ball in general play

Nothing was ever documented on another proposal awarding of three points for a "poster" (obviously not introduced as the concept still bobs up today); nor was the original suggestion of an “order-off” by the  Independent Tribunal Chairman before the overhaul of rules was mooted.

The following night saw an angry meeting of the V.F.A. Seconds delegates with complaints that they had never been consulted over the new rules and that they had been in a "Catch 22" situation - as they were affiliated with the Association, "they would have to play under V.F.A. rules", but with another clause stating they were to play under A.N.F.C. rules.

There was some discussion that they would break their alliance with the V.F.A., but a cooler head pointed out that Association clubs effectively controlled the grounds on which they played and a breakaway would almost certainly leave them in a worse position than if they broke from the A.N.F.C. They adopted the new Association rules at their next meeting, as did the Association Sub-Districts suburban competition.

There were hopes up until a couple of weeks prior to the season that a compromise between the League and Association could still be reached, but it was obvious by now that Association clubs had approached many League men - Yarraville, who were said to be the most avid supporter of breaking the agreement, were believed to have issued 70 training invitations to League players, and several other League stars were said to contemplating moves.

Any hopes of a reconciliation  clear were dashed when Essendon's Ted Freyer lodged an application to play with Port Melbourne without a clearance on 7 April (Freyer had in fact joined the ‘Dons from Port in 1929 and appeared in 124 League games and his 372 goals included the club’s leading tallies in five seasons - virtually to a man, commentators suggested his ten-year career entitled him to the chance to better himself at 28 years of age).

The V.F.A. Permit Committee deferred his application for a week "as a matter of courtesy" to give Essendon further time to consider his situation.  Nothing resulted and a week later, Freyer became the first League player to be granted a permit without a clearance. The same Thursday evening meeting also extended the same courtesy to South Melbourne by deferring Laurie Nash's application to join Camberwell to a special meeting on the Saturday morning, the day of the opening round.

During the 1938 and 1939 seasons, many Association clubs volunteered to play exhibition matches in country centres before both local administrators interested in perhaps introducing the code and week-to-week spectators fascinated by a different game which in those days they could only read about in newspapers short of a day trip to Melbourne.

Late in the 1939 season, the Sporting Globe noted the rapid spread of the new rules, by then adopted by the Catholic Schools and the Public Schools Associations, as well as many country competitions - Bendigo, Bairnsdale and Bruthen, Dandenong and District, Hume Highway, Phillip Island, Sale and District. Maryborough, Nyah West and Upper Goulburn leagues or associations.

It had also been wholeheartedly taken up by the North Western Football Association in Tasmania which jumped from five to nine teams with clubs eager to play under the new rules (to the extent that another unnamed competition ceased to exist).  The Globe also reported many new enquiries from the country for rule books including requests from the Goulburn Valley Association, Border Districts, Mitiamo, the Tatura and Kaniva districts, Daylesford. Wonthapgi, Ouyen and Waitdiie and Mananagatang.

Delegates from South Australia had visited Melbourne in July to observe the new rules and were said to be impressed with the way the throw-pass eliminated to packs previously formed with the players simply dropping the ball when tackled, as well as the boundary throw-in.

It was said that the rules would be trialled in post-season matches between the S.A.N.F.L. and Western Australia and the Broken Hill Association, but it appears the plans were abandoned when both Victorian and Western Australia declared they would opposed the introduction of throw-pass if it was brought before the upcoming meeting of the A.N.F.C.

South Australia did, however, legislate to remove the "flick pass" which had remained legal locally for three or four seasons after effectively being banned under A.N.F.C. rules at a conference in Hobart in August, 1924 which determined the ball had to be held in one hand and clearly punched with a clenched fist.. Its acceptance in Adelaide had long annoyed the Victorian Football League as their players used it adeptly in interstate matches without penalty - as one Melbourne club delegate noted when the throw-pass was being discussed “it won’t matter to the South Australians, they throw the ball anyway”!

The A.N.F.C. annual conference, sans the Victorian Football Association was held in Brisbane in November, and with the exception of the throw-pass, the new Association rules were unilaterally accepted.

The holding the ball rule was altered to eliminate the provision for a player to drop the ball when tackled, meaning that a player was forced to either kick or hand-pass the ball when tackled to avoid conceding a free kick.  The V.F.L. initially opposed the change, and although later agreeing to its introduction, did a further about-face and tried twice to have it repealed before the 1939 season where it became the most controversial of “the Melbourne Rules”. (And probably remains so today).

The measures to protect players after a mark, free kick or disposing of the ball were passed without much discussion; although the provision for the nearest teammate to take the free kick if a man was incapacitated through the interference raised issues as to some players over-exaggerating injuries to allow a better kick in his place - perhaps with some justification. The rule only applied when a free kick was awarded, not if the injury was incurred in general play - if you broke a leg taking the mark, but didn’t actually cop one across the chops, bad luck!

Instead of a free kick being awarded against the last player to touch the ball, as had been the case since 1925, the boundary throw-in was reintroduced except in cases where the field umpire considered it put out deliberately.  

The previous free-kick rule meant that almost all of the play was directed up the centre of the ground via the goal-to-goal line, a considerable advantage to full-forwards, but to the detriment of wingmen and flankers.  The field umpire was instructed to bounce the ball within five yards of the boundary if in doubt as to which team last touched the ball.

The introduction after being agreed to in 1924 was controversial - the Victorian delegate at the 1924 conference, Mr. E. W. Copeland (Collingwood) was instructed to vote against the change as the League considered the penalty too severe, but actually voted for it, later stating both his club and he personally favoured it, and that he had been made aware that the states other than Western Australia would support it and it would pass anyway.

Officials, coaches and player’s opinions were divided on the change. The manager of the Victorian team at the Hobart carnival claimed he had spoken to every player in his team and they were all opposed to the change, and other club delegates were incensed both by Copeland’s unilateral action and the fact that the minor states of Queensland and New South Wales were seen to be dictating how the game should be played.

The major reason for the change was to eliminate shepherding and jostling in ruck contests - the major objection to the free kick other that it sharply diminished the role of ruckmen was that opposition players would make no effort to keep the ball in play if they saw it likely to go out of bounds - Fitzroy’s “Goldie” Collins, a renowned “shepherder”, suggested, probably with tongue-in-cheek, that “they may as well reduce teams to twelve players”!

Sadly, nobody asked the boundary umpires,  whose role was reduced to marking the spot where the ball crossed the boundary line and then retrieving the ball!