Aussie rules or rugby? That’s the question for many young Australians looking for a favorite sport to watch or play in the winter months. There’s no doubt that Australia is a sports-crazy country, but the dichotomy between rugby league/rugby union and Aussie rules football has been apparent since both sports were introduced during the British colonial days.
This phenomenon has resulted in the so-called “Barassi Line,” as shown below (rugby is in green; Aussie rules is in yellow).
Both sides represent roughly half of Australia’s population. Brisbane, Sydney, and Canberra (the nation’s capital) are on the green side, while Melbourne, Hobart, Darwin, Adelaide, and Perth are on the yellow side. The media coverage of winter sports is heavily skewed towards rugby league/rugby union on the right side of the line, and towards footy on the opposite side.
Australia is one of the few countries in which rugby league is more popular than rugby union, and the sport has also been a pastime for many recent immigrants to Australia from countries such as New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji. Aussie rules has diversified to include many international players as well, but has long been viewed as a sport by Aussies, for Aussies, so to speak.
The line is named for Ron Barassi Jr., a former Aussie rules player and coach who was inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame in 1996. Now 80 years old, Barassi is considered a giant figure in developing the game of footy into a national phenomenon in Australia.
A third generation Italian-Australian, Barassi was raised in Melbourne and spent his teenage years in the shadow of his father, Ron Sr., a star player for the VFL’s Melbourne Demons who later fought in WWII.
Sadly, Ron Sr. was killed in action during Australia’s campaign in North Africa in 1940. Immediately, his former teammates at the Demons pledged to support the entire Barassi family. As a teenager, Ron Jr. was taken in by Melbourne’s coach, Norm Smith, after the rest of the Barassi family moved to Tasmania. Smith, a footy legend in his own right, played a crucial role in the younger Barassi’s development, both as a footballer and as a person.
After his playing days were over, Barassi became a coach, most notably for the Carlton Blues (1965-1971) and the North Melbourne Kangaroos (1973-1980). He retired from the game in 1995 after winning four VFL premierships as a coach and six as a player.
Barassi’s line was a theory that he had developed while he was coaching at North Melbourne in the 70s. He envisioned a country that featured professional footy teams from rugby-dominated areas of Australia – meaning that traditional rugby strongholds like Queensland and New South Wales would have up to two footy clubs apiece in a national competition.
At the time, Barassi’s predictions were not taken seriously. Despite his huge popularity in the sport of footy, many experts found his opinions to be ludicrous. Both rugby league and rugby union had long towered over Aussie rules as competitive enterprises in Brisbane, Sydney, and Canberra. No professional footy clubs existed on the rugby side of the line, or vice-versa. It wasn’t seen as plausible – culturally or economically – to bring Aussie rules to other states besides the traditional ones.
One of the major reasons that footy and rugby were located in the regions that they were was due to the massive size of the country itself. In the 19th century, when Australia was introduced to both sports, the majority of the competitions sprang up as inter-neighborhood and inter-city focused. The massive distances involved made interstate competitions rare, if not impossible.
Even after WWII, when air travel was much more common, traveling to different states to play footy or rugby wasn’t a very popular thing to do. If you were a Melbourne-based footy club, for example, why would you fly all the way to Sydney to play footy when there were plenty of other clubs to play in Melbourne? And even if you could get the money to fly to a different state or city, why would you spend it playing nobody important and in front of apathetic crowds? It didn’t make sense.
At the professional level, the VFL administration felt the same way. There wasn’t enough money to expand teams to other parts of the country, and there wasn’t enough interest to keep an expansion club in a rugby-heavy city for very long.
In 1982, everything changed. The financially-strapped South Melbourne Football Club moved to New South Wales and became the Sydney Swans, shocking many observers. Sensing that his theory was coming true, Barassi became a huge supporter for the relocated club, even though it didn’t catch on with most Sydneysiders until later. Four years afterwards, in 1986, the VFL developed an expansion franchise in Queensland, the Brisbane Bears.
Both the Bears and the Swans struggled mightily in their first decade in the VFL (soon to be renamed the AFL). Some experts predicted that one or both clubs would fold, move back to Melbourne, or even combine into one interstate team representing both Queensland and New South Wales.
In the end, something did happen, but not in the manner that many assumed. The Bears folded in 1996 and merged with the Melbourne-based Fitzroy Football Club, becoming the Brisbane Lions. The Lions enjoyed quite a bit of success in the coming years, culminating in a sensational trio of AFL premierships in 2001, 2002, and 2003. Meanwhile, the Swans began winning and drawing more interest in Sydney, earning their first Grand Final berth in 1996 and an AFL premiership of their own in 2005.
Barassi’s prediction – two AFL teams in Queensland and two in New South Wales – finally came true in 2012, when the Gold Coast Suns and the Greater Western Sydney Giants also joined the AFL competition. Here is the current competition (bold indicates a team from the opposite side of the line):
AUSTRALIAN FOOTBALL LEAGUE
- Adelaide Crows
- Brisbane Lions
- Carlton Blues
- Collingwood Magpies
- Essendon Bombers
- Fremantle Dockers
- Geelong Cats
- Gold Coast Suns
- Greater Western Sydney Giants
- Hawthorn Hawks
- Melbourne Demons
- North Melbourne Kangaroos
- Port Adelaide Power
- Richmond Tigers
- St Kilda Saints
- Sydney Swans
- West Coast Eagles
- Western Bulldogs
In rugby league, the push for different clubs in footy-dominated states hasn’t been as consistent. The Australian Rugby League (ARL) featured both the Western Reds (located in Perth) as well as the Adelaide Rams for several seasons. However, there were significant corporate sponsorship conflicts between the ARL and the Super League in the 1990s; this period is colloquially known as the “Super League war” and ended with the ARL folding in 1996.
In 1997, the National Rugby League (NRL) was created as a compromise. It currently features 16 teams – three from Queensland, two from regional New South Wales, eight from metropolitan Sydney, one from Canberra, and one from New Zealand. There is only one NRL team based on the opposite side of the Barassi Line, the Melbourne Storm, but they have enjoyed frequent success – including two premierships in 1999 and 2012 – as well as four runner-up finishes. Here is the current NRL competition (bold indicates a team from the opposite side of the line):
NATIONAL RUGBY LEAGUE
- Brisbane Broncos
- Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs
- Canberra Raiders
- Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks
- Gold Coast Titans
- Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
- Melbourne Storm
- Newcastle Knights
- New Zealand Warriors
- North Queensland Cowboys
- Parramatta Eels
- Penrith Panthers
- South Sydney Rabbitohs
- St George Illawarra Dragons
- Sydney Roosters
- Wests Tigers
Rugby union first became fully professional in Australia in 1996, featuring teams from Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand in what was originally called the Super 12 competition (now Super Rugby).
Once again, all of the original Aussie teams were based on the rugby side of the Barassi line. But in 2006, the Western Force were added as a new team based in Perth, and in 2011, the Melbourne Rebels also joined the fray. The Rebels have the distinction of being the first privately-owned rugby union team in Australia.
Here is the current Super Rugby competition and which cities/countries they represent (bold indicates a team from the opposite side of the line):
- Blues (Auckland, New Zealand)
- Brumbies (Canberra, Australia)
- Bulls (Pretoria, South Africa)
- Cheetahs (Bloemfontein, South Africa)
- Chiefs (Hamilton, New Zealand)
- Crusaders (Christchurch, New Zealand)
- Force (Perth, Australia)
- Highlanders (Dunedin, New Zealand)
- Hurricanes (Wellington, New Zealand)
- Jaguares (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
- Kings (Port Elizabeth, South Africa)
- Lions (Johannesburg, South Africa)
- Rebels (Melbourne, Australia)
- Reds (Brisbane, Australia)
- Sharks (Durban, South Africa)
- Stormers (Cape Town, South Africa)
- Sunwolves (Tokyo, Japan)
- Waratahs (Sydney, Australia)