At this very moment in time, a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous men are running around on some grass, kicking a cow-hide ball to each other. As the 2017 Australian Rules Grand Final unfolds, we went on the hunt to find out where it all began. We discovered evidence suggesting that it all started with the Indigenous sport of marngrook, meaning ‘game ball’, which was played by the Gunditjmara people in south-western Victoria. Like Aussie Rules, marngrook was a contact sport between two teams representing different animal totems, fighting for possession of a ball. Sound familiar? Marngrook also had the rule that if you catch the ball, you get a kick and incredibly, the Djab Warrung word for 'catch' is mumarkke which they'd shorten to mark. Also like Aussie Rules, marngrook is a free-flowing game without an offside rule. Only – if you think AFL is for tough nuts, it's not a patch on marngrook. The Gunditjmara played for up to two days straight, 50 players to a side and just one person was named the winner at the end of it. That'd be the one who either kicked the furthest, jumped the highest or had the ball for the longest.
Other reasons that marngrook could well have been the original AFL include the fact that the 'inventor' of Aussie Rules grew up in the same area as the marngrook game was played. Tom Wills spent his childhood in Victoria’s west in the 1840s. When he returned from a stint in England he was inspired by the rugby he'd seen over there, and ostensibly invented Aussie Rules as a game to help keep cricketers fit during their off-season. Monash University historian Professor Jenny Hocking recently uncovered a potential link between marngrook and Wills, via a transcript of an interview with Mukjarrawaint man Johnny Connolly, who worked in the region where Mills grew up. Connolly described playing marngrook in the 1830s and '40s, suggesting a possibility that Wills was exposed to marngrook well before inventing Aussie Rules.
Some argue that it's a tenuous link, but the similarities between the two games are striking all the same. For a fascinating read on this, check out the Meanjin article, Marngrook, Tom Wills and the Continuing Denial of Indigenous History by Jenny Hocking and Nell Reidy. And contemplate if you will, how Aussie Rules might have evolved... two days of non-stop Grand Final barbeques, followed by the bidding war of the century for the individual winner at the end of it all.