Australian football at the 1956 Summer Olympics
Australian football was one of two demonstration sports at the 1956 Summer Olympics held in Melbourne. The rules stated that the hosts must organise both a native game and a sport foreign to the organising country as "demonstration sports". Australian football was chosen as the "native" sport, while baseball was chosen as the "foreign" sport.
|1956 Summer Olympics|
|Date||7 December 1956, 4:10 pm|
Melbourne was selected as the host city for the Games of the XVI Olympiad on 28 April 1949. No less than seven months later, the first proposal for Australian football to feature in the Games was suggested by Jack McCann of the Australian Amateur Football Council (AAFC). Despite the sport's origins being based in Melbourne and its popularity still heavily confined to the southern states of Australia, it was described as the country's "national code", as such warranting the privilege of being shown on the world stage. The AAFC had an affiliation with the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) and this would prove vital as discussions progressed.
By 1952, Australian National Football Council (ANFC) secretary Bruce Andrew was spruiking the potential of Australian football at the Games, opting to work closely with the AAFC to ensure the Olympics' amateur status was maintained and that all competitors would not be playing football for money at the time of the tournament. Andrew acknowledged the pitfalls of playing the match in the off-season during December, but reinforced that all discussions had been "only of a preliminary nature" and that details would be fleshed out in the coming months and years.
Nearly two years had passed and the AOC was still yet to decide on what demonstration sports would feature at the Games. An article published in Tasmania's The Advocate in January 1954 suggested that, alongside Australian football, both surf lifesaving and boomerang throwing were being considered by the committee. On 16 July 1954, more than five years following the announcement of Melbourne as host city, Australian football was chosen as the native demonstration sport for the 1956 Summer Olympics. The choice of foreign sport remained undecided until baseball was chosen later in the week.
Shortly after the confirmation of Australian football as the native sport, officials, journalists, and the public began to muse on what format such an exhibition match would take. While suggestions varied, one constant was that all players must be of an amateur status in keeping with the Olympic spirit and ideals. Thus, this ruled out the top echelon of players in the Victorian Football League (VFL), which was a semi-professional league and continuing to grow in stature and wealth. The Sporting Globe's Ben Kerville was the first to propose a match-up between the VFL's best remaining amateur players and a "selected All-Australian" team comprising the best amateur footballers from around the country. Burdened by the fact that the League would be unable to showcase its brightest talents to a global audience, the VFL conspired to present an exhibition match between its own professional players that would run concurrently with the Games, although not a part of the official programme.
Format suggestions were still being put forward as late as 1956; The Argus' sports editor Percy Taylor revealing in January that an 'Australia vs. the rest' type match-up was a possibility. However, such a clash would have been unfathomably one-sided, with the popularity of Australian football outside of its home country having waned into insignificance following the conclusion of World War II, which, in turn, saw a large decrease in the number of expat competitions overseas. By March, the would-be format – a VFL/VFA combined amateur team invited to take on a selected side from the Victorian Amateur Football Association – had been proposed, and in September, subsequently confirmed. Teams would be "urged to play in a strictly competitive spirit", but also to avoid "negative tactics".
Extended squads for both sides would train once a week, and from each squad a team of twenty (with three emergencies) would be picked for the exhibition match. Regular Australian football rules still applied to the exhibition match, with eighteen players on the field for each side at any one time, and two 'reserves' able to replace any player (who then cannot return to the field following their substitution).
The VAFA, growing frustrated by the common theme of having its best amateur players 'poached' by the VFL and VFA to play for money, saw the opportunity to upstage its professional counterparts on an elevated public platform. The relationship between the VAFA and the professional leagues was hostile at best and a win would return a great sense of pride to the amateur association.
The squad selected by the VAFA was star-studded; nearly all of those selected had participated in various association grand finals over the years. The biggest name and captain of the amateur squad was Collegians ruckman Geoff Hibbins, who had previously played 33 League games for St Kilda before returning to Wesley where he won the 1956 Australian Amateur Football Association medal. Murray Mitchell of Old Melburnians was another star selection, having captain-coached his side to premiership success one year prior.
The overall cohesion of the squad was evident given their familiarity with each other, born from all playing in the same competition under the same rules. On the contrary, the differences in play style between the VFL and VFA had the potential to create a more jarring opposition. The bulk of the VAFA side had also played together in representative amateur interstate matches over the last couple of seasons.
VFL/VFA Combined TeamEdit
Headlining the VFL/VFA combined squad was Melbourne 150-game veteran Denis Cordner, a 3-time premiership player and former captain of the club. Fresh from the 1956 VFL Grand Final just a month earlier, where he retired at the conclusion of the match after his Demons smashed Collingwood, Cordner was the logical choice to lead the combined team. One of the League's most formidable ruckmen at his peak, finishing runner-up in the club best-and-fairest award in his penultimate season, Cordner would be a valuable asset to the combined team through both skill and leadership.
The VFL portion of the squad, although making up the majority of the final team, was largely youthful and inexperienced. Only Tigers pair Brian Davie and Frank Dunin had more than 30 League games to their name at that point, with eight of the squad members only having made their debut in that year's season. The Magpies had the honour of most squad representatives, with five.
The VFA representatives in the squad contained no Williamstown players, despite the club having won the last three Association premierships. Unlike the VFL squad inclusions, no VFA club boasted more than two players from their side in the overall group of 33. The headline act was arguably Box Hill forward Dave Plunkett, who in his first season of Association football had kicked more than 25 goals to help his side to a maiden finals appearance.
Coincidentally, many of the combined squad members were former VAFA players themselves who had maintained an amateur status upon their inclusion in the professional leagues.
|Collingwood (VFL)||Ray Gabelich, Brian Gray, Bill Serong, Brian Turner, Ken Turner|
|Footscray (VFL)||John Westacott|
|Hawthorn (VFL)||Brendan Edwards|
|Melbourne (VFL)||Dick Atkinson, Brian Collopy, Denis Cordner|
|North Melbourne (VFL)||Laurie Dwyer, Des Tobin|
|Richmond (VFL)||Ray Allsopp, Brian Davie, Frank Dunin, Vic Naismith[a]|
|South Melbourne (VFL)||Neil McNeill|
|St Kilda (VFL)||Bryan King, Brian Muir, Brian Walsh|
|Box Hill (VFA)||T. Leach, Dave Plunkett|
|Camberwell (VFA)||Ian Clarke|
|Coburg (VFA)||Ron Dangaard, Jack Sassella|
|Moorabbin (VFA)||Norman Burgess|
|Northcote (VFA)||Thomas Hussey, Keith Woolnough|
|Oakleigh (VFA)||Keith Anderson, Don Kitto|
|Prahran (VFA)||Barry Gaze, Lindsay Gaze|
|Sandringham (VFA)||Keith Marshall, Ross Shrives, Des Quinn[a]|
The initial extended training squads were cut to 25 players each in mid-November, from which the final teams of twenty for the VAFA and VFL/VFA combined squad were selected on 2 December and 4 December respectively. The VAFA side was to wear a white guernsey with green trim emblazoned with the Olympic rings, while the VFL/VFA side would wear an inverse design.
|Victorian Amateur Football Association|
|B:||6 R. Collins (Melbourne High School Old Boys)||19 Laurie Wakeling (Old Paradians)||1 Geoff Hibbins (Collegians) (captain)|
|HB:||20 Lloyd Williams (Ivanhoe)||5 Tony Capes (University Blacks)||16 Phil Rochow (Coburg Amateurs)|
|C:||7 Cyril Empey (Commonwealth Bank)||14 Ian Merrick (Coburg Amateurs)||17 Bryce Thomas (Old Melburnians)|
|HF:||2 Murray Mitchell (Old Melburnians) (vice-captain)||10 Jim Hannan (Old Melburnians)||8 G. J. Gill (University Blacks)|
|F:||15 R. F. Pettigrove (Coburg Amateurs)||3 Duncan Anderson (Old Melburnians)||4 Dick Fenton-Smith (Ormond)|
|Foll:||11 Peter Harkness (Old Scotch Collegians)||13 John Hayes (University Blues)||12 M. B. Keogh (University Blues)|
|Res:||9 L. Grant (Power House)||18 Dick Tindale (Old Scotch Collegians)|
- Peter Craw (Old Scotch Collegians)
- D. Douglas (State Savings Bank)
- John Byrne (Ormond)
- E. J. Hill (Old Paradians)
- S. P. Hawthorne (Old Scotch Collegians)
- Alf Perrin
VFL/VFA Combined TeamEdit
The combined team was made up of 14 League players and 6 Association players.
|Victorian Football League / Victorian Football Association Combined Team|
|B:||8 Ray Gabelich (Collingwood)||13 Vic Naismith (Richmond)||19 Brian Walsh (St Kilda)|
|HB:||18 Jack Sassella (Coburg)||20 John Westacott (Footscray)||4 Brian Collopy (Melbourne)|
|C:||6 Laurie Dwyer (North Melbourne)||9 Barry Gaze (Prahran)||7 Brendan Edwards (Hawthorn)|
|HF:||17 Ken Turner (Collingwood)||11 Neil McNeill (South Melbourne)||10 Brian Gray (Collingwood)|
|F:||5 Frank Dunin (Richmond)||14 Dave Plunkett (Box Hill)||16 Des Tobin (North Melbourne)|
|Foll:||1 Denis Cordner (Melbourne) (captain)||2 Keith Woolnough (Northcote) (vice-captain)||3 Ray Allsopp (Richmond)|
|Res:||12 Keith Marshall (Sandringham)||15 Thomas Hussey (Northcote)|
Respected VAFA adjudicator Les Wenker was given the honour of field umpire; Sam Birtles his reserve. Boundary umpires were Bill Quinn, who had officiated in four VFL Grand Finals in his career to date, accompanied by the VAFA's Jack Wilson. In goal were Bob Coldrey and Ossie Meehan, also both of the VAFA.
Although public perception suggested that the VFL/VFA combined team be favourites to win the match on account of the higher standard of competition its players take part in, the VAFA was quietly confident; the media seemed to side with the amateurs, too. All eyes were on the VAFA's Duncan Anderson, the 24-year-old from Old Melburnians who was described as once being the "top amateur goal-kicker in Australia". Despite having not played competitive football in two years, Anderson's performances at training – and in a "special" practice match on 2 December, which the VAFA won – led football journalists to believe that he would be one of the keys to the match, and that his influence may contribute to a "shock" victory for the VAFA over the combined team.
The single demonstration match was played on the Melbourne Cricket Ground, known throughout the Olympics as the "Main Stadium". It started at 4:10 pm on Friday, 7 December 1956, immediately after the bronze medal soccer match between Bulgaria and India had concluded. Players had to deal with the various hazards on the ground left over from previous events, chiefly the Olympic flagpole. The 50-foot structure was to be left standing until the conclusion of the closing ceremony as part of Games protocol, despite the fact that it sat awkwardly in the forward pocket, well in from the boundary line. The plinth installed for the inside lane of the running track also posed problems for the footballers, who were at risk of tripping if they did not identify the sharp rise in height of the surface. The size of the playing area itself was reduced dramatically (down to 170 x 145 yards) due to the cinder track around the inside of the stadium, while the sandpits used for the long jump and triple jump events had only recently been covered, making for unsteady ground.
The VAFA got the jump in the first quarter, kicking six goals to one, and this early dominance proved pivotal to the final result. While their opponents fought back in the second term, it was the lapses of the combined team that meant they were never truly in with a chance after going behind early – a goalless third term essentially dashing any hopes of a comeback. Leading the way on the scoreboard for the VAFA were Fenton-Smith and Pettigrove, each with four goals, while the highly favoured Anderson finished with three majors. Dunin was the only multiple goalkicker for the combined team, also finishing with three. Hibbins, captain, took best afield honours for the victors. Contrarily, Cordner, skipper of the combined team, had his impact quelled by the "marking ability and persistency" of his opponents.
While the official Olympic Report of 1956 praised the quality of the match, describing it as being played "in the true amateur spirit, with an abundance of vigour and speed, plenty of good kicking and high marking", the media was less favourable. The Argus' Percy Taylor suggested the crowd would not likely have been impressed by the game, which he said "lacked the fire that makes our game", mostly in part due to it being an out-of-season exhibition match with nothing on the line except pride. Meanwhile, a staff reporter at The Age commented on how the spectators seemed more interested in the butcher hats and coats of the goal umpires than the quirks of the sport itself.
Crowd estimates varied between 15,000 and 30,000 spectators. Throughout the entire game, at which the Duke of Edinburgh was an interested spectator, a running commentary attempted to explain the umpires' decisions to the audience, and those who were not used to the game found it extremely useful. VAFA secretary and match organiser Jack Fullerton sat alongside the Duke, explaining the intricacies of the game to him throughout.
|1956 Summer Olympics Australian football demonstration match|
|7 December 1956 (4:10 pm)||Victorian Amateur Football Association||def.||Victorian FL & Victorian FA Combined Team||MCG (crowd: 30,000)|
|Umpires: Les Wenker|
|4: Fenton-Smith, Pettigrove
1: Turner, Woolnough, Plunkett, Tobin, Allsopp
|Hibbins, Fenton-Smith, Anderson, Thomas, Pettigrove, Harkness||Best||Edwards, Allsopp, Westacott, Woolnough, Collopy, Sassella, Dunin, Dwyer|
The VAFA's victory over its highly fancied opponents gave them a bargaining chip when dealing with both the VFL and the VFA in future agreements. The winning twenty were recognised for their achievement with the presentation of a congratulatory letter from Wilfrid Kent Hughes, chairman of the Games organising committee. The following year, the VAFA were granted the use of the Olympic Park No. 2 ground as their headquarters, which proved profitable for the association.
Of the winning amateur team, four players would be picked up by VFL clubs in subsequent seasons. Dick Fenton-Smith was selected by Melbourne for the 1957 season, and in his three years in the league, he played off in three Grand Finals for a return of two premierships. Most fruitful was his debut league season, when the six-foot-five ruckman booted 18 goals from 18 matches on the way to a premiership. Also making their league debuts in 1957 were Lloyd Williams, who played two games for Collingwood, and Phil Rochow, who played a solitary match for Fitzroy. A year later, John Hayes would make his senior debut for St Kilda, finishing with a tally of seven games.
The combined team featured a number of VFL players who would go on to achieve greater success in their league careers. The Magpies quartet of Brian Gray, Ken Turner, Ray Gabelich and Bill Serong were all members of Collingwood's 1958 VFL premiership team, with both Gabelich and Serong going on to win club best-and-fairest awards in future seasons (the latter with North Melbourne). The Shinboners had also unearthed a gem in Laurie Dwyer, wingman for the combined team in the demonstration match, as he went on to become a two-time Syd Barker Medallist for North, while also finishing runner-up in the Brownlow Medal in both his best-and-fairest winning seasons. Brendan Edwards followed up a best-and-fairest win for Hawthorn in 1960 with a starring performance in the Hawks' maiden VFL premiership win of 1961. Coach of the combined team, dual Collingwood premiership player and secretary of the ANFC Bruce Andrew, would be an inaugural inductee into the Australian Football Hall of Fame in 1996, just months before his death.
Of the Association representatives, Keith Woolnough, who had experienced a decade-long career with Northcote up to the end of 1956, capped off his career with a surprise victory in the 1958 J. J. Liston Trophy before immediately retiring from the Dragons after 185 senior games. Box Hill's Dave Plunkett was named at centre half-forward in the club's "Greatest Ever Team", announced in 2000, after a career spanning 115 games and 91 goals.
Foreshadowing a move to commercialise and promote the sport, Alf Potter and Gordon Bennett of HSV-7 commissioned a 'trial run' of filming the demonstration match for television purposes. While it wasn't broadcast on free-to-air TV, remnants of the video remain and can be viewed on the AOC's website. The low-angle action shots and fast jump cuts proved appealing and by the 1957 season, the three major television networks at the time – Seven, Nine and the ABC – were all broadcasting the final quarter of a live VFL match into viewers' homes each week.
- Was added to the squad following the initial announcement.
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