Austus: the wartime football that blended Australian and American gridiron rules
It sounds like a hypothetical question: what would Australian rules football look like if it were combined with American football?
But it turns out we already know the answer: Austus’, a hybrid code which briefly flourished on these shores during World War II.
The game was played between Australian footballers and US soldiers, and the first match occurred almost 75 years ago, in July 1943.
Grainy footage uploaded to YouTube shows a sport that is familiar yet foreign.
“It is Australian rules football with the addition of gridiron-throwing and played with an American ball,” a newspaper article from the time explained.
Players ruck and run, kick and mark, but they also elegantly hurl the ball long distances.
“It’s a fast-moving game where the Americans are throwing the ball around at a fairly quick speed,” said RMIT researcher Peter Burke, after watching the footage.
United States servicemen in Australia playing what is believed to be Austus. (State Library of Victoria)
Mr Burke, who investigated Austus as part of his PhD, still remembers the moment he discovered the short-lived sport by “stumbling across an old American encyclopaedia of sports history”.
But he said it would be wrong to regard Austus as a mere curio, because its historical context is much more interesting than that.
It evolved in a heated wartime atmosphere, at a time when Australian rules football was changing and when the Australian nation was strengthening ties with the US.
‘Oversexed, overpaid and over here’
Austus was a game of war. There was no reason for it to have emerged other than the fact that, during 1942 and 1943, Australia was flooded with US soldiers.
The Americans had arrived as part of the war in the Pacific.
Many would later see combat in brutal battles against the Japanese.
But despite being allies, there were tensions between the Australian and US militaries, and there were major brawls between servicemen in Melbourne and Brisbane.
“‘Oversexed, overpaid and over here’ was the catchphrase which reflected the public dislike of these brash Americans,” said associate professor Rob Hess, a sport historian at Victoria University.
Footballer and journalist Ern Cowley during his playing days for Carlton in 1918-19. (State Library of Victoria)
There was a need to encourage Americans and Australians to come together, and the sporting field was a good place to start.
Victorian Ern Cowley, who had played for Carlton in the VFL but was also a journalist with the Sporting Globe, is credited with inventing Austus.
“Ern was one of the key people, along with some other prominent people in football circles at the time, such as a guy called Hec de Lacy, who was another sports journalist,” Mr Burke said.
“When they realised it wouldn’t be practical to teach them how to play Australian football, Cowley came up with the idea of creating a hybrid sort of game.”
Another key figure was Bill Jost, an American serviceman and gridiron player who broke a world record by throwing a football more than 76 yards at a sporting carnival in Geelong.
It was at an earlier carnival that Jost bragged that the Americans were superior footballers than the Australians.
“Permit us to throw the ball and we’ll beat you at your own game,” he said. The challenge inspired Cowley to write down new rules, and Austus was born.
‘Soccer, basketball, and aerial bombardment’
Despite the fact that Austus resembled Australian rules much more than gridiron, the Americans were true to their word, beating an Australian side in the first match.
Five scratch matches were played during the war — the US won three, but lost against two strong sides containing VFL players, including star forward Lindsay White.
The games were partly intended to raise funds for the war effort.
Throwing wasn’t the only rule change. There were other concessions to make the game easier for Americans, but not too easy.
While throws were treated similarly to kicks (and could be marked and scored from), there was a 20-yard line around the goals inside which goals had to be kicked.
Throwing tended to be more accurate than kicking for goal, and the scores reflect this.
“They’ve introduced the forward pass to Australian football, and the result is a cyclonic, wide-open, high-scoring combination of soccer, basketball, and aerial bombardment,” wrote an enthusiastic correspondent with the US Marines.
After initial scepticism, the Americans warmed to the game, and there were hopes it would catch on. But despite efforts to keep Austus alive, it disappeared after the war.
“An effort to bring a team from Australia to demonstrate in New York a hybrid game called Austus … broke down largely because it was impossible to find American backers,” Adelaide newspaper The News reported in 1946.
Aussie rules eyes international market
Many fans of Australian rules would argue it is the best game ever devised because it arguably tests more skills than any other code of football.
You pass the ball with hand or foot — both left and right. You have to be quick. You have to be strong. You have to sprint and tackle.
Also, you have to think and read the play on the spur of the moment, and there are many who excel at the basic skills without having mastered this crucial cerebral element.
But, despite its strengths, Aussie rules has always suffered from status anxiety. “That’s always been the Achilles heel of Aussie rules. It’s a very localised code,” Rob Hess said.
The inevitable question its defenders face is this: if it’s so good, why are we the only ones that play? Why haven’t other countries (and, for that matter, the rugby states) seen the light and adopted it for themselves?
“There is a line between AFLX and its search for an international audience, and hybrid games like Austus,” Hess said.
Rob Hess believes AFLX is like Austus in its attempt to broaden Australian football’s appeal. (AAP: Joe Castro)
Austus, Mr Hess explained, is not the only instance of Australian football authorities trying to create a wider audience for the game.
For example, an attempt was made to merge Australian rules with rugby league into a ‘Universal Football Code’ in 1933.
In 1908, after a gridiron exhibition game was played at the MCG by US naval officers, authorities wrote to US president Theodore Roosevelt urging him to help spread Australian football.
“[They] said ‘here are the rules, you might like to think about adopting this game’,” Mr Hess said.
Austus itself was devised during a deep schism in Australian rules football — the throw-pass era, when the VFA legalised two-handed throwing in an effort to speed up the game.
“I would like to see it played again, but not at the expense of other aspects of the code,” Hess said of Austus.
In an era in which elite level Aussie rules State of Origin matches have disappeared, a revival seems highly unlikely.
Instead, the game survives only in the archives, with a few scattered documents and some old footage the only proof it ever existed at all.