In Australia two games of football are played, Rugby League and Australian Rules. Rugby League, a game resembling football in the United States, is played in Queensland and New South Wales. Australian Rules, a game resembling practically nothing on earth, fills the winter nights and Saturday afternoons in Victoria, South Australia and the west. Adherents of Australian Rules take as the first article of their faith that Rugby League is a mere vulgar squabble in the mud. Rugby League men have nothing but scorn for what they regard as an effete game of position, a game lacking the fine battle of the scrum and the fierce joy of the tackle, and between the regions there is a Mason-Dixon line of opinion. This state of affairs is a continuing fact of national life. The football season passes in a fury of splendid debate, the sportswriters officiate as high priests of the two opposing factions, and in peacetime everyone is happy. But in war the situation was taken abroad, where it was resolved, in the only recorded instance, on the stony slopes of Mt. Torbal in Syria.
Early in World War II it was the custom to recruit the Australian infantry battalions state by state so that one unit would be composed entirely of South Australians, another of New South Welshmen and so on. But as replacements began to come forward the system was found to be unworkable, and by the spring of 1942 each battalion contained men from all over the country so that its state identity, and consequently the purity of its football faith, was lost.
After the siege of Tobruk the Ninth Australian Division, of which I was one sixteen-thousandth part, was taken out of the line and transported to Syria to embark on a program of rigorous training in preparation for the next round against Rommel. At about the same time, we acquired a new commander, a free-striding colonel with a fine presence on parade, who turned out, like myself, to be an Australian Rules man born and bred. The Rugby League men in the officers' mess looked glum at the news but took it stoically as a cross to be born, one of the normal hazards of war.
At his first parade the colonel made an announcement. He was going to make us the toughest battalion in Australia's Ninth, he said. We were going to route-march Syria, with full packs. We were going to wake to physical training and train at the double. When we went back into the line we were going to be iron men.
The troops listened and took the words in. Somehow they seemed to have heard it all before. But the new colonel meant what he said. We did force marches all over Syria. When we were in camp there was an hour's physical training at dawn and more after the break at midday, with five-mile runs and tactical exercises on the assault course in between. The troops were kept working seven days a week, until after a few months they were as rock-hard as the ground they slept on.
But they were all getting bored. Shadowy figures could be seen slipping away to the villages after dark in search of arrack and maidens. The troops were in such condition that they had more energy than they could use up, and inevitably the time came when the subject of football was brought up in the mess.
"Football," said the colonel, "splendid idea. What this battalion needs is football." Thirty-three officers brightened at the word, until the colonel went on, "Commanders will raise Australian Rules teams by companies. They can play three afternoons a week."
Someone said, "Australian Rules?"
"Naturally," said the colonel, "as long as I'm in command of this battalion."
A Rugby League man sensed that the moment called for diplomacy, but he was not quite up to the occasion. "What happens," he said, "to the chaps who actually play football Rugby League?" A murmur of captains and majors told him he had moral support. The colonel beetled. "Rugby League?" he said. "This is officially a South Australian battalion. It will play the South Australian game, the only game, let me say, that is worthy of the name."