As the experimental, radical and somewhat questionable AFL-X makes its debut this week, it’s not the first time footy has tried to stage a radical tournament, rules or format of the game or it’s fixturing.
The game has a long and interesting history when it tries to do something different. Some of the rules we see in the game played today were first tried in pre-season competitions and were seen as radical at the time.
The Ladbrokes blog has gone deep into the footy archives to bring you footy’s radical experiments from years gone by…
(1) The Lightning Premiership
At the start of the 1996 AFL Centenary year, the league thought it would be fitting to revive an old competition format from the 1940s/50s by holding a Lightning Premiership tournament.
The 1996 Lightning Premiership was held at the start of the 96 pre-season on a blustery, rainy and cold February weekend at Waverley Park of all places.
Over one weekend the then 16 AFL clubs played in a knockout competition consisting of mini matches featuring two 17 minute halves plus time on with a five-minute halftime break. Radical rule changes were implemented (some of which have been implemented in today’s game) such as three points for a rushed behind and for hitting the goal post, free kicks being awarded to the player who last touched the ball before going out of bounds, four goal umpires at each end, no draws, four boundary umpires (which is used now) and players being able to kick the ball back into play without waiting for the goal umpire to signal the flags (another rule that’s used in today’s version of football). The Lightning Premiership also had umpires throwing the ball up instead of bouncing it outside the centre circle. Radical stuff!
Essendon and the Brisbane Bears were able to make it to the Grand Final of the Lightning Premiership with the Bombers taking home the honours. The tournament was given a Luke-warm reception by the clubs, players and fans and was scrapped after one year.
(2) The Original Night Series 1956-1971
Did your club miss out on making the finals? Never fear! There was always the night series. In the late 1950’s the then VFL staged a tournament at South Melbourne’s Lake Oval (the only venue with lights) during September where the clubs who didn’t make the finals that season participated in the night series. The colour of the footy was white, the tournament was used to experiment with rules of the game that we know today such as out of bounds on the full and the centre square. The tournament ran from 1956 – 1971 with Footscray holding the record for most Night Series won – four (1963, 64, 67 & 70)
(3) Night Series Mark II 1976 – 1987
Before the VFL became the AFL, the national governing body for Australian Rules football was called the NFL (National Football League, not to be confused with American Football). The NFL had established its own night series involving clubs from the VFL, SANFL and WAFL to participate in night matches played at Adelaide’s Norwood Oval and the competition proved to be a hit on television at the time. The VFL decided to withdraw from the NFL’s night series in 1976 and create its own with lights installed at Waverley installed especially for the occasion.
At the same time as Cricket was divided with World Series and the establishment two rival football night series were running between the VFL and NFL from 1977-79, the NFL even brought in clubs from the rival VFA to take part. Eventually, the VFL’s night series took over with clubs from the VFL, SANFL, WAFL and state sides from Tasmania, Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT would compete against each other with most games being played during the seasons on Tuesday nights at Waverley Park.
While the tournament involved clubs from all the major state leagues taking part, all Grand Finals involved VFL clubs with Hawthorn holding the record for most night premierships won (4 – 1976, 77, 85 & 86). By 1987 when the West Coast Eagles and Brisbane Bears joined the VFL, the state league teams were scrapped but the tournament was still held in conjunction with the main season. It would be pre-season only from 1988. A similar tournament involving the best of state league clubs playing against each other – The Foxtel Cup ran from 2011 – 2014 with time and availability of clubs being a factor in its demise.
(4) The Pre-Season Panasonic/Fosters/Ansett/Wizard/NAB Cup 1988 – 2013
A spin-off from the night series, the tournament moved to pre-season only in 1988. Up until 1999, it was a simple knock out tournament with most matches played at night or at regional grounds and all broadcast on TV. The night grand final was a big event and was always staged at Waverley (with the exception of 1997 where it was held at the MCG to coincide with the Grand Prix weekend in Melbourne). Massive fireworks displays would be a staple of pre-match entertainment and a medal named in honour of AFL games record holder Michael Tuck was given to the player judged best on the ground.
The 1993 Fosters Cup Grand Final saw a lockout at Waverley when Essendon took on a then success-starved Richmond and won and in 1996 Saints fans invaded the ground at Waverley under the impression that their 30-year premiership drought was over. It also saw various experimental rules and all clubs (except for Essendon) wore special jumpers at one stage for the tournament, with Hawthorn’s jockey silks jumper of 1995 becoming infamous.
From 2000-2002 the AFL experimented with a round-robin format for the pre-season cup with all sixteen teams being broken up into groups of four with the top team advancing to the semi-final stage. The competition reverted to the knock out stage in 2003 – 2010.
Radical changes such as nine-point supergoals for goals kicked outside the 50-meter line were introduced for the 2003 Wizard Cup and are still in use for pre-season tournaments today.
During the 2000’s fans and clubs started to lose interest in the pre-season cup. Struggling clubs like Carlton would go on to win the Wizard Cup in 2005 and 2007 to finish Wooden Spooners in 05 and second last in 07. Michael Tuck even got the name of his own medal wrong when presenting it to Brendan Fevola after the 2005 Wizard Cup Grand Final calling it the Norm Smith Medal.
To try and regain interest in the competition, from 2011-12 the AFL reverted to a Lighting Premiership format of teams playing mini-matches, two full length matches with the teams both top and second on the NAB Cup ladder progressing to the Grand Final. GWS, who were to play in the 2011 NEAFL competition participated in the NAB Cup mini-matches that year to even out the numbers as the AFL was a 17 team competition in 2011.
The final NAB Cup would be won by Brisbane in 2013 defeating Carlton by 50 points. Daniel Rich would be the last player to win the Michael Tuck medal. The Lions would go on to finish 12th that season with Carlton making the finals due to Essendon being expelled over the drugs saga.
The AFL’s now has a series of practice matches with no prize awarded prior to the proper season itself. The pre-season calendar is now dominated by the AFLW where it could be argued that footy season now starts in February.
(5) Footy Played Overseas
While it may be an indigenous game native to Australia, Aussie Rules Footy has been playing exhibition matches overseas on and off since 1916 when Australian servicemen played a game at the Oval in London during World War 1 in aid of the British and French red cross.
Throughout the year’s games have been played in Hawaii, San Francisco, London, Singapore, Athens, Vancouver, Miami, Toronto, Portland, Auckland, Cape Town, Los Angeles and Abu Dhabi have hosted exhibition games. Various clubs have participated in exhibition games played overseas.
Matches for premiership point have also been played in Wellington and of course, China when Port Adelaide and the Gold Coast made it out as though they discovered the region when a game for premiership points was played in Shanghai last year.
However, the most memorable if not infamous game played overseas was the game between North Melbourne and Carlton at the Oval, London in 1987. Dubbed the “Battle of Britain” a young Alistair Clarkson playing for North broke Carlton’s Ian Aitkens jaw in the first quarter. Under instructions by then Blues coach Robert Walls, Clarkson would be hunted down by the likes of Carlton’s David Rhys-Jones, Jim Buckley and Wayne Johnson for the rest of the game. It was a fiery clash with seven reports and an out of season tribunal hearing giving out many suspensions. It confused the locals and delighted London’s massive ex-pat population.
(6) New Year’s Eve 1999
Collingwood, Carlton and the AFL thought they were on a winner by staging a game at the MCG on New Year’s Eve 1999. What better way to see out the 20th century and the millennium then having two of football’s biggest rivals play each other in front of a sold old MCG crowd? It wasn’t to be, only 16,678 showed up to the game while most of Melbourne opted to do other things that night.
The game itself was remembered for a young Brendan Fevola kicking 12 goals for the Blues as they went on to beat Collingwood by 88 points. When reflecting on the match, Fevola boasted his pre match dinner was two McChicken burgers from Macca’s and a bourbon and coke.
(7) State of Origin 1977 – 1999
It may be the biggest thing in Rugby League but the state of origin concept was actually thought of by Australian Rules football, with Western Australia coming up with the idea in 1977. Sick and tired of having the player born and bred in WA playing for The VFL in rep games, the State of Origin concept was born with WA thrashing Victoria in the first game under the Origin concept.
State of Origin in Aussie Rules, peaked from the late 70’s to early 90’s and unlike Rugby League, every state had a team at one point or another with Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia being the dominant sides.
Some even regard the State of Origin matches of the 1980’s as Australian Football played at its absolute peak.
As the VFL turned into the AFL, State of Origin struggled. Crowds dropped, clubs didn’t want their players to participate over injury concerns and debate raged over its merits. The last game was played in 1999 when Victoria beat South Australia in which just under 27,000 people showed up to the MCG.
The only thing as close to Aussie Rules at a representative level these days is the International Rules series, which is an expriement within itself.
(8) Not Playing on Saturday Arvos In the Regular Season
The prospect of VFL games not being played except for 2pm on a Saturday was a heated issue once upon a time. For years the VFL had wanted to schedule matches on a Sunday afternoon but were banned from doing so as the Victorian Government had said it was the day for the other football competition the VFA. In 1982 when South Melbourne moved to Sydney, the Swans would play their home games on Sundays with matches being broadcast back into Melbourne. Once the Brisbane Bears and West Coast Eagles joined the VFL in 1987 as part of its national expansion, Sunday football became a regular feature of the fixture. The VFA (now ironically called the VFL) struggled for crowds and a fan base ever since.
Other time slots such as Friday night footy was pioneered by North Melbourne in 1985 when the MCG got lights. Footy has tried slots such as Sunday night, Monday night, Thursday nights, Saturday/Sunday Twilight’s and of course footy being played public holidays during the season. However, it was only last season when the AFL finally played on Good Friday with the Western Bulldogs beating North Melbourne at Etihad Stadium.