We are currently in the process of creating a complete historical fixture detailing over 800 games of interstate football, from its beginnings in 1879 (when it was inter-colonial) through to the present day.
In the essay below, John Devaney explores the central place of interstate footy in the history and development of the Australian Game.
Until fairly recently elite level Australian football meant interstate football. Moreover, it was primarily, indeed almost exclusively, in the interstate arena that football could in any serious way be argued to be a genuinely national sport. Since the transmutation of the VFL into the AFL, however, the overwhelming majority of Australia's elite footballers have participated in a single, national (or near-national) club competition, and the importance of senior interstate footy has diminished. Nevertheless, its overall significance in terms of the sport's development - and, indeed, arguably its very survival - cannot be over-stressed."
Prior to the 1960s the vast majority of the game's elite players saw out most if not all of their careers in their home states or territories. By the time of the inception of state of origin football in 1977, however, the trend for the very best footballers, from all parts of Australia, to gravitate towards Victoria, and in particular the VFL, was becoming irresistible. Interstate matches between state league selections were no longer remotely representative of the quality of each state's footballers. This is exemplified by the fact that, prior to the arrival of the state of origin concept, the VFL had not lost an interstate contest for 12 seasons. However, the fact that such success was not uniquely attributable to the quality of footballers being produced within the boundaries of the state of Victoria must be readily conceded when you consider that the list of prominent 'Victorians' during that era included names like Hudson, Hart, Stewart (from Tasmania), Farmer, John, Marshall and the Richardsons (from Western Australia), Jesaulenko (from the ACT), and Blight (from South Australia).
The swing in the balance of power, once the state of origin concept was implemented, was immediate. In the very first state of origin contest Western Australia thrashed the Vics by 94 points, a victory of unprecedented magnitude. The Victorian response, perhaps predictably, was to dilute the state of origin rules in such a way as, effectively, to load the dice in Victoria's favour. Essentially, this meant restricting the number of VFL-based players available to Victoria's opponents, whilst allowing the Victorian selectors access to any VFL-based players whatsoever who did not qualify for the opposition. Nevertheless, there could be little doubt that the playing field had been levelled somewhat: in the 12 seasons following the introduction of the state of origin concept Victoria's record in such matches against Western Australia was 9 wins from 15 starts, and against South Australia 5 wins from 9.
Perhaps more significantly, some of the state of origin contests which took place during the 1980s constituted arguably the finest expositions of the game ever seen. The question was though whether it really mattered; what mattered - and continues to matter - most to the overwhelming majority of Australian football aficionados was - and is – the performances of their favourite clubs. VFL football may have been a good deal less pretty to watch than state of origin, but the average punter would settle for 'club success' over 'pretty' every time.
It is arguably the same in most other sports. In soccer, the typical Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid or Juventus supporter is warmly ambivalent at best to the performances of England, Germany, Spain or Italy, but the success or failure of their favoured clubs is a critical index of self esteem and emotional contentment. A similar situation holds with fans of North American sports such as ice hockey, baseball, basketball and gridiron. What gridiron fan ever lost any sleep over the result of the annual AFC-NFC All Star game?
The emergence of the AFL as a near-national competition has, sadly it seems - at least to this author - rendered interstate representative football at the elite level an irrelevance. Where it does still have a place though is in the many tiers which undergird the AFL: state leagues, country competitions, under-age football, and so on. For footballers striving to attain elite standard, or even for those simply wishing to maximise their achievements at one of the many levels beneath the AFL, interstate representative football remains, and is likely to remain, a critical benchmark. This alone would be sufficient reason to acclaim it. However, the fact that for well over a century interstate football constituted the only truly national stage available to Australia's best footballers means that its importance in an historical sense, in terms of the sport's development and indeed survival, is probably unrivalled.