The Aussie Rules Circus comes to Brisbane… again

Who would have thought that Brisbane would ever host an AFL Grand Final? It turns out though, that if you look back through history, this is not the first time that the rugby league heartland has become the epicentre of Aussie Rules. In fact, it is not even the first Aussie Rules grand final to be played at the Gabba. So, before the mighty Lions win the Premiership, let us have a look at the last time the whole footballing world descended upon Brisbane and examine some the similarities between then and now. We’ll begin in 1950, when a young full-forward from Essendon named John Coleman, then in the middle of his most prolific season, arrived in Queensland to play in the Australian National Football Council (ANFC) carnival.

The carnival was a triennial event that comprised of representative sides from Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, New South Wales, Queensland, Canberra, Australian Amateurs and two Victorian teams; a team of Victorian Football League (VFL) players and a team of Victorian Football Association (VFA) players. The competition was split into two divisions with the stronger states playing against each other with weaker states (i.e. rugby league loving states) playing off against one another to avoid completely one-sided matches.

It was decided in 1947 by the ANFC that the next carnival would be hosted in Brisbane in an ambitious attempt to boost the exposure of Aussie Rules in Queensland. It was a risky endeavour, as the carnival cost £30 000 to put on and gate receipts were a major revenue raiser for the ANFC. There was also the question of whether Queenslanders would embrace the game. It was known that there was little chance of making a profit by hosting the carnival in Brisbane but the ANFC decided that expanding the game’s audience was worth the potential financial loss. There is a parallel here with the AFL’s contemporary strategy of expanding the game in places like the Gold Coast and Western Sydney. There’s little chance of making profit but the growth of the game in traditionally rugby league-oriented strongholds is seen as a long-term investment for the future.

With such a big event coming to Queensland, the government was understandably very supportive of the Council’s decision to hold the carnival in Brisbane. Queensland Premier Ned Hanlon said he was ‘delighted’ to have the event in his capital city and offered to take officials and VIPs on a boat trip to islands off Brisbane so they could enjoy everything Queensland had to offer. Just like in 2020 with the Queensland Government offering to host the majority of AFL games to keep the season alive, it made good economic sense to roll out the red carpet for the biggest sport in Australia. When teams, coaching staff and supporters started to arrive in July 1950, Queensland got a shock at just how big an industry Aussie Rules was.

‘Pressmen invade Brisbane’ read a headline in the Hobart Mercury, with the paper claiming that the newspaper reporters sent to cover the carnival made up the ‘largest number ever to be assigned’ along with photographers and ABC radio commentators. Tellingly, the paper also noted that Queensland was shocked that there were more reporters sent to cover the Aussie Rules than had recently been sent to Brisbane to cover the Australian-England rugby league test match. With 344 team members and officials traveling on ten planes to Brisbane, this influx was described as ‘Australia’s biggest mass air lift of footballers’. To also help popularise Aussie Rules in Queensland, special displays, fireworks and band performances would be conducted before matches. The national code circus had come to town.

In an attempt to innovate, it was announced that five of the sixteen games would be played under lights, with all games taking place at the RNA showgrounds. Evening games would give locals a chance to attend games if they had to work during the day. In recent years there has been a lot of commentary about the AFL moving the time of grand final from the afternoon to evening and it is interesting to note that with the grand final to be played away from Melbourne this year, the AFL has scheduled the game for the evening at the Gabba. Even 70 years ago, evening matches were seen as a better opportunity to maximise audience reach than day games. Tradition versus business.

After years of planning, the carnival commenced on July 19, 1950. The nation’s eyes were on Brisbane, and what happened? It pelted with rain. On the first day it was noted in the Grafton Daily Examiner that games were played ‘under the worst possible conditions, the ground was sodden with great pools of water on surface’. With ten more days to go the oval was ruined on the first day. Not exactly the best conditions to show off the beauty of Aussie Rules to the locals.

The 1950 Queensland Australian Rules team. Image Courtesy of the State Library of Queensland.

The weather continued to spoil the festivities with players contending with ‘inches of deep slush and mud’, with one southern newspaper describing the conditions as ‘water-polo’ like. Thankfully, the lighting and night games were a great success with both spectators and players happy with the crisp visibility. The 1950 event was the 11th carnival to be hosted since 1908 and, although the venue was new and innovative, with crowd-pleasing elements like night games and fireworks, one thing did not change – the Big V continued to dominate.

Of the previous ten carnivals, Victoria had won eight and had retained the title continuously since 1924 (South Australia won in 1911 and Western Australia in 1921 when the carnival was hosted in Perth). The 1950 event was no different and the Victorian Football League side dominated and easily won every game they played in Brisbane. For those lucky enough to attend the matches, they were able witness the finest footballers from all across the nation, and there were none finer than the VFL’s spearhead full-forward, John Coleman.

John Coleman taking a ‘specky’ against North Melbourne in 1953. Fairfax photo archives.

John Coleman is one of Australian Rules Football’s greatest goal scorers (the player who kicks the most goals in the AFL season is awarded the Coleman medal, named after the Essendon great). Coleman had an amazing career, but it ended all too soon due to a serious knee injury in 1954. In his six seasons of playing he scored 537 goals in only 98 games. The 1950 season was Colemen’s most prolific, with 120 goals kicked. And right in the middle of this season Coleman was selected in the VFL side to play in Brisbane. Coleman helped his side to easy victories, scoring numerous goals and taking some incredible diving marks in the horrible conditions. But even the presence of the best players and all the fanfare could not mask the reality that the poorly attended Brisbane carnival had been an unmitigated disaster.

The ANFC’s northern experiment was a big failure and the Victorian media was not shy in calling out the National body’s foolhardy and wasteful venture. The Labor Call did not hold back:

“the moguls of the ANFC have plenty of food for thought. They must recognise that thousands of pounds have been thrown down the drains of the Brisbane mud heap. Victorians have been bled long enough for money to finance useless propaganda. After all, who paid for the carnival loss? Victorian patrons… It’s all very well for the top men of the ANFC to make such wonderful statements like, ‘But for the weather we would have converted thousands of rugby followers.’ The fact is they didn’t… Rather than try to oust other codes the ANFC should strengthen the game in Victoria… The only alternative is to play future carnivals, if any, in southern states where returns are likely to finance the outlay.”  Labor Call, 3/8/1950 p1.

In the past decade there has been much commentary about the AFL’s expansion and its costliness while big clubs like Collingwood, West Coast and Richmond prop up smaller clubs in the competition. Some of the arguments against AFL expansion in recent times are eerily similar to those expressed 70 years ago after the Brisbane carnival.

Apart from the occasional VFL exhibition match, the carnival was the end for Brisbane being the centre of Aussie Rules attention for many decades until one day in October 1982 when the VFL Grand Final was played at the Gabba (well, a Grand Final replay that is).

As part of the Commonwealth Games hosted in Brisbane that year, the two 1982 VFL Grand Finalists, Carlton and Richmond, were invited to replay the grand final at the Gabba as an exhibition match to showcase the sport. The 1982 VFL final at the MCG has gone down in history not only because the Blues beat the Tigers but because a female streaker ran onto the field during the game wearing only her Carlton scarf and tried to give Blues player Bruce Doull a hug. Perhaps this explains why the replay at the Gabba 11 days later received a healthy 15 000 spectators.    

Helen D’Amico is escorted off the MCG are running naked onto the field at the 1982 VFL Grand Final. Image Courtesy of the State Library of Victoria. Photographer Rennie Ellis.

Richmond beat the Blues at the Gabba with an international TV audience estimated in the millions, many who were no doubt left perplexed by this marvellously unique Australian sport.

The 1980s was a new beginning for Aussie Rules in Queensland with the granting of a VFL team license to Christopher Skase for a team based on the Gold Coast bafflingly called the Brisbane Bears who had a koala as an emblem in 1987. But that’s a story for another blog.

The first Brisbane Bears emblem. Truly bizarre, originally the team neither played in Brisbane nor is the koala a bear, but I loved them all the same. The team would eventually merge with the Fitzroy Lions in 1996 becoming the Brisbane Lions.
Image Rob Shiels.

After a very rocky start Australian Rules Football has prospered in Queensland and is now more popular than ever before. Still a fanatical rugby league state in 2020, the people of Queensland find themselves this finals series with no Broncos or Cowboys to support. Those Brisbane Lions are starting to look pretty good though, into a Preliminary Final and the chance for a once in lifetime appearance at a home Grand Final at the Gabba. So come on Queensland, let’s get behind the Lions and let’s show those southerners we can put on a show… Let’s just hope it doesn’t rain. 

Rob Shiels
Brisbane Lions tragic / Collection Manager, The Workshops Rail Museum