6. Way Off the Mark?: Ball games of pre-European Oceania
Although to the outsider the idea that the Maori should get any money may stink of opportunism, that would be because we struggle to understand just how strongly they feel about retribution for the holocaust of their people and culture for so many years.
Ball games were also observed among Aboriginal Australians. The name ‘marngrook’ was used by the Gunditjmara people, although similar games were observed among natives throughout the continent, and also in the islands of the South Pacific. The idea varied from kicking the ball (made from anything from opossum hide to coconuts) high in the air and battling to catch it, teams vying to maintain possession, players trying to keep the ball airbourne using only their feet, rather like Japanese kemari, or kicking the ball at some kind of target or over a boundary line.
It is now a popular theory that these games were the inspiration for Australian rules football, and especially the art of high-marking (leaping to catch the ball in the air and claim a free kick), and that even though he was educated at Rugby School in England, it was his contact with native people that really led Tom Wills to encourage the development of Australia’s unique form of football.
Being able to catch a ball in the air was clearly a highly admired skill among some Aboriginal tribes, but ‘marking’ of the ball was already a common element of the kind of football the founders of Australian football had already played back in Britain. Much as an Aboriginal contribution is a romantic image, if there was ever one at all, it could only have been a very minor part of the process. There is a danger here that the history books are being rewritten to tell a new version of events not because the evidence supports it, but simply because it sounds more politically correct.
There is a similar controversy in New Zealand, where some claim that the form of football made popular by the pupils at Rugby School was not their own invention, but was actually ‘stolen’ from Maori culture. It is said that traditional games known today by the blanket term ki-o-rahi involved ball-handling and passing skills the likes of which white people had never seen before, and inspired Rugby headmaster Thomas Arnold to create a more sophisticated game.
However, it is unlikely that Arnold had any direct involvement with football at all, either played by Maori or his pupils, and although supporters of the claim argue that the truth was concealed, there is little or no convincing evidence that the Maori made any major contribution to the rules of rugby. Although there is no denying that they were impressive and revolutionary players, which may have had something to do with their own traditional ball sports, it seems rather too big a step to go from that to claiming compensation from the IRU for the theft of an element of Maori culture.
Unfortunately, next to nothing is really known about ki-o-rahi, and what it actually entailed. Rather than genuine facts, most of what is written about it today seems to be based on a more recently created pseudo-history. Perhaps rather than arguing for their questionable role in the origins of European sports, it would be better to celebrate the indigenous games in their own right.
Click here to read the full chapter on traditional Australasian ball sports in Mike Roberts’ The Same Old Game.