AUSTUS – the curious amalgamation of Australian and American football

One of the earlier posts in my blog was about some of the lesser-known sports that exist in the world. Along with lesser known sports, there are those sports which are an amalgamation of two or more sports. One current example is “International Rules Football”, which is a hybrid of Gaelic Football and Australian Rules football. This isn’t the first time that Australian Rules football has been merged with another form of football – read on for the interesting game of “AUSTUS”.

The origin of AUSTUS was due to World War 2. American servicemen arrived in Australia shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbour.  Looking for some common ground with Australian soldiers and the population in general, the Americans decided to reach out to the locals with a series of football exhibitions to help support local war charities. Australians, though, didn’t like American football very much — too much time in between plays, too many strange rules and formations, etc. The best part of American football according to Australian eyes were the forward passes, but they just didn’t happen enough to keep the locals interested.

The Australian soldiers saw that as an opportunity to introduce their local form of football – Australian Rules football – to the visitors, and the Americans suddenly understood why the Aussies seemed so bored by American football. Australian football had much more freedom of movement and nonstop action than their game. They decided to try competing with their Australian hosts at Australian football. As to be expected, the Americans were beaten badly.  What was to be done?

Ern Cowley, a journalist with the Sporting Globe newspaper, came up with an interesting idea – why not amalgamate the two different codes of football?

One of the central tenets of Australian football is the mark. Any player who catches a kick that’s 15 yards or longer can “mark the ball” and take a free kick from behind the spot of the catch. Cowley, who knew that the Americans were much better at passing the ball than kicking it, created a game based on Australian Rules that allowed players to mark the ball after catching a forward pass.

The hybrid game was called AUSTUS, taking the first letters of both Australia and United States. Matches started to be played in 1943. The Australians continued to kick, but the Americans proved highly accurate with the pass, which wowed the spectators and made for very close and very exciting matches. Austus matches allowed both countries’ servicemen raise large sums of money for various war charities and helped bring the two countries a little closer together.

There was hope that Austus matches would continue after the war, but alas, that was not to be. Once American forces returned home, they resumed playing American football, and the Australians went back to playing Aussie Rules. Austus faded into a remote corner of history and was forgotten. Cowley however, was awarded the Helms Athletic Foundation Medal in New York in July 1944 for his work on creating the rules of AUSTUS.

The booklet below gives an overview of the positions and rules of AUSTUS, along with the results of five games played during 1943. The player on the front cover, Private William Jost, established an international record for passing with a throw of 76 yards,1 foot, 6 inches at Geelong on August 25, 1943.

I would like to thank sport historian Charles Davis of Melbourne with providing me with a copy of this booklet.



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