As you’re (hopefully) aware by now, AFL is about as Aussie as a sport can get. What you mightn’t know, however, is that the contemporary version was heavily influenced by the Koori game Marngrook.
The word ‘Marngrook’ comes from the language of the Gunditjmara people, and translates to ‘game ball’. Historically, Marngrook is played between two teams – 50-100 men and women per side – and a possum skin ball. The rules are pretty simple: each team competes to catch the ball after it’s kicked high in the air. One aim is for players to jump the highest and take the best mark, and the one that does can have a free-kick.
Marngrook scrimmages could last up to two days, and teams would travel from different areas to play against neighbouring communities.
Now, if you’re wondering how Marngrook evolved into the game as you know it today, it all started with a fellow named Tom Wills. Tom was the only European child living around Djab Wurrung Country, near Gariwerd (the Grampians), where his family had a large property. According to historical records, Marngrook was likely played by Tom and the local Djab Wurrung kids.
In 1858, Tom grew up to write a famous letter in a Melbourne newspaper, calling for a ‘football club’ to help keep cricketers fit during the winter. What happened were a series of informal games, and eventually the first official match between Melbourne Grammar School and Scotch College in August 1858, which Tom Wills umpired. That game led to the formation of Melbourne’s first footy clubs, and Tom was influential in drafting the rules of the new game.
While Tom Wills never specifically referenced Marngrook as his inspiration, a 2019 statement by the AFL’s general manager of social policy and inclusion Tanya Hosch (also an Australian of the Year for 2021 from South Australia), acknowledges the roots of the traditional game in AFL’s DNA.
“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.”
If you’re keen to get involved in a game of Marngrook on Australia Day, it’s a pretty simple plan of attack. Grab two even teams of 6-12 players and stand 15-20 meters apart. The ball is dropped and kicked high into the air using the instep of the foot, then the other players attempt to catch and secure the ball. The player who takes possession kicks it in the air and you go again. Players aren’t allowed to dive on the ball on the ground to secure it, only jumping in the air to mark it. We’ll leave it to you to decide if Speckys are legal.
Add a little healthy competition by keeping score and you’ve got a great Australia Day game going.
Want to do more this Australia Day?