A Guide to Australia's Game
If you are a cricketer, playing through the Australian Summer in 1858, what do you do in Winter to keep your fitness levels up? Well, you and your cricketing mates invent a game called Australian Rules Football of course.
That’s essentially what happened when Tom Wills and some friends took a few elements of the rugby-like game they had learned in English Public Schools and tweaked some things, deleted a few rules and added a few more, and came up with a new game native to Australia. The new game combined endurance, agility, and hand and foot coordination. Some games went on so long without a winner being declared that all players came back the next day to begin again until a decision was reached.
Codified in 1859 with written rules, the game still exists to this day and is played all across Australia, and is making small but positive inroads into other countries through television coverage or niche competitions. The rules have evolved over the years to a game with great physical presence and tactical understanding to give a thrilling game with lots of action. It is a full contact sport, played without protection or padding, though some forms of contact are now illegal as deemed dangerous, such as contact to the head.
The game shows some similarity to the Gaelic Football code played in Ireland, and ‘Marn-Grook’, a ball game featuring kicking and catching, played by some Australian Indigenous groups. Discussions regularly indicate that Tom Wills may have been exposed to, and influenced by these games through to young adulthood, though no evidence exists and neither theory can be proven.
Now played by over 1.25 million players across Australia, ‘Aussie Rules’ has become the pre-eminent football code in the nation. Played through Junior, Open and Masters levels and with both male and female competitions, the game not only boasts large player numbers, but also has the highest rate of spectator attendance of all sports in the country.
Competition with Rugby League, Rugby Union and Soccer for players and spectators is constant, especially at the grassroots levels with underage and regional competitions. Geographically, Aussie Rules dominates the southern regions of Australia, and is growing into the northern centres where the rugby codes have traditionally held sway.
The Australian Football League (AFL) is the highest level of the sport, and is a professional league with 18 teams from across the country. Teams range in history and tradition from the Melbourne and Geelong Football Clubs, formally established in 1858 and 1859 respectively, through to the Gold Coast Suns and the Greater Western Sydney Giants, who joined the league in 2011 and 2012. Geelong and Melbourne are two of the first teams ever established, and have been mainstays of the top tiers of competition ever since. Gold Coast and GWS, are the newcomers to the competition and are growing the Aussie Rules code in Rugby League heartland regions.
The competition is currently a single division of 18 teams, who play 22 home and away season games throughout the year. Teams that make up the top eight ladder positions at the end of the home and away season, qualify for finals. The top eight teams then play-off in a four-round finals series culminating in the Grand Final. Traditionally the Grand Final is played on a Saturday afternoon at the MCG to decide on a Premiership winner for the year. Commonly this is the last Saturday in September or occasionally the first in October.
The playing surface is grass and ovoid in shape, with dimensions that vary between 135 – 185 metres long, and 110 – 155 metres wide. Grounds are often dual use, especially for cricket which general occurs in Summer when Footy isn’t being played.
The ground is marked by an outer boundary, a centre circle (10m), a centre square (50m) and a goal square (6.4m x 9m) at either end. The centre circle dictates positioning of the ruckmen at a centre bounce. The centre square limits the number of players at a centre bounce to 4 per team. The goal square denotes the space from which the ball must be kicked when returning to play after a minor score.
On the goal line at either end of the ground are 2 tall goal posts, flanked by 2 slightly shorter behind posts. The goal posts are at the point of intersections of the boundary line and the goal square lines. The behind posts are 6.4m outside the goal posts.
Also on the ground are two 50 metre arcs from wing to wing. These are purely to indicate distance, and are 50m from the goal line.
AFL Match Duration
How longs does an AFL Game last?
In the early years, it wasn’t unheard of for a game of football to last 2 days before a winner was declared. Thankfully, the modern game consists of 4 quarters, each of 20 minutes active play.
The time clock is stopped after a score until play is restarted, when a ball goes out of bounds and needs to be thrown in, or when play stagnates the umpire can call time off in order to restart play with a ball-up. Umpires can call time off at their discretion in order to manage other on-field incidents such as injuries.
These time-off periods regularly see the quarters last over 30 minutes from start to finish.
Players in an AFL Team
What are the different player positions in AFL?
A team consists of 22 players. Only 18 players from each team are permitted on the ground at any one time, with 4 interchange players ‘on the bench’. Players are picked to play specific positions on the field based on their size, skill, speed and agility, but there are no restrictions on where a player may move on the field, except at centre bounces where numbers are restricted to 4 per side inside the square, and at kicks awarded after a mark or free-kick where opposition players must not encroach within 10 metres of the player until they play-on.
In the fast-paced modern game, the 18 positions on the field are less relevant than they once were. In simplistic terms, the players are now often grouped into either forwards, midfielders, rucks, or backs. Forwards are attacking players, who are most likely to score. Backs are defenders, trying to prevent the opposition from scoring. Rucks are the tall men, who contest the ruck contest in the air at centre bounces, boundary throw-ins or ball-ups around the ground. Midfielders are usually the fast, little guys who are good at winning the ball, and move the ball well by hand or foot, providing the link from the backline to the forward line.
The 4 interchange players can substitute for any player on the field at any time, with players moved on and off the field though the game for rest or injury assessment. A limit of 90 interchanges per team are allowed throughout the game.
Currently there are 3 central umpires, 4 boundary umpires and 2 goal umpires on-field for each AFL game.
Central umpires (or field umpires) move around the ground with the play, adjudicating the contest, awarding marks and free kicks for rule violations, balling-up to restart play after a stoppage, or executing a centre bounce to start play at the beginning of each quarter or after a goal is scored. They are the only umpire who can call time on or off.
Boundary umpires judge when the ball has left the field of play by crossing the boundary line in its entirety. They are responsible for the boundary line throw-in to restart play once the ball is out of bounds.
Goal umpires are responsible for adjudications relating to the goal line, goal posts and scoring. They judge if a shot for goal has crossed the line without being touched, and if the shot has gone between the goal (or behind) posts without hitting the post in order to register a score. Shots at goal that hit the goal post are considered behinds, and shots that hit the behind posts are considered out-of-bounds on the full. The goal umpires signal scores by hand and via flags (one for a behind, 2 for a goal) to ensure that all players, officials, and spectators can see what score registered.
In addition to these on-field umpires, there is a video replay adjudicator to assist the goal umpires with close scoring decisions, interchange stewards to monitor the number of players on-field at any one time, and an emergency umpire in case an umpire is injured and can’t continue. The emergency umpire is able to enter the field of play to assist breaking up fights or behind-the-play scuffles.
The objective is to score more total points that your opposition by propelling the ball between the goal posts (or behind posts) by foot. Score yourself, and stop the opposition form scoring - pretty much like every other team sport going around. You can move the ball by hand or foot around the ground to achieve this.
Scores are either a goal which equals 6 points, or a behind, which equals 1 point. Goals are scored by kicking the ball through the 2 goal posts at your scoring end. The ball must not be touched in any way by another player, and though it may touch the ground, it must not touch the post. If a ball goes through the goal posts, after touching any player on the ground, or is propelled through by hand rather than foot, a behind is awarded. If the ball hits the goal post, or goes between the goal post and behind post, then a behind is awarded. If the ball hits the behind post, then the ball is out-of-bounds, and is throw-in if it was touched or hit the ground first, or a free kick awarded to the defensive team if it hits the behind post on the full.
The score-line in an Aussie Rules games is written as Melbourne 7.5 (47) def Collingwood 3.9 (27). This means Melbourne scored 7 goals and 5 behinds for a total of 47 points and defeated Collingwood who scored 3 goals and 9 points for a total of 27 points. The score-line is read out loud as ‘Melbourne seven-five-forty-five defeated Collingwood three-nine-twenty-seven’.
Kicking the ball is generally is done by dropping the ball onto your boot and swinging your foot through a downward arc to propel it, though drop-kicks or soccer-style kicks are also allowed. There are many types of kicks used throughout a game, depending on the length and accuracy required, angle of the kick in relation to goal and the wind direction. Popular options are the drop-punt, torpedo (aka barrel, spiral, screw-punt), banana/check-side, snap, dribble and the recently in vogue hook-kick.
Handballs (or handpasses) are a legal form of ball distribution using the hands. The ball is held in the palm of one hand and propelled by hitting it with the clenched fist of the other hand. Using an open palm to propel the ball is not an allowed form of handpass. Throwing, scooping or dropping the ball are not legal disposals. A ball may be tapped on, but the action must be a tap without taking possession, and cannot be a scoop where the ball is briefly palmed before being directed.
Marks are taken when a ball that has been kicked into the air, is caught on the full by a player. The ball may not touch the ground or another player from either team and must travel at least 15 metres in order to be paid as a mark. Once a mark is taken, the player with the ball may take a kick without threat of tackle or interference form the opposition. The position on the field that the catch was taken is referred to as ‘the mark’.
Full body tackles are allowed in Aussie Rules and you may tackle the opponent with the ball, between his shoulders and knees so long as he has possession of the ball. Tackles that go above the shoulders are penalised with a free-kick to the tackled player in order to protect the head, and tackles below the knees are considered trips, and a free-kick is likewise awarded. A push in the back is not considered a legal tackle and is also penalised with a free-kick.
Penalties in AFL
Free-kicks are awarded by Centre Umpires when a player contravenes a rule. These can be things such as incorrect disposal (ie. a throw), head-high tackle, a push in the back of a player with the ball, an illegal hold, a ball going out-of-bounds on the full from a kick, or even abusive language towards an umpire. Players must dispose of the ball quickly when tackled, or risk being ruled as holding the ball, or illegally disposing of the ball, and the tackler being rewarded with a free-kick. A call from the crowd of “BALL!” is common when spectators believe that the player with the ball has contravened the ‘holding the ball’ rule when tackled.
Many rules have significant grey-areas, and are open to the interpretation of the umpires, often leading to the ire of the players and the crowd.
If a player does not follow the instructions of the umpires, and ignores the free kick ruling, deliberately delays turning over the ball to hold up play, or verbally lashes out at the umpire, a 50 metres penalty can be awarded and the free-kick advanced 50 metres closer towards the goal of the player who was awarded the free kick.
Despite legions of passionate spectators and a full contact sport which often leads to on-field fracas, spectators are exceedingly well behaved. There is no division of supporters in the stadiums as is commonly seen in other sporting codes, and fights and disruptions rarely occur. In fact, the banter between supporters is usually well-meaning, and in my own experience, a very funny part of the entire experience.
Supporters may choose to become a member of their preferred club, purchasing memberships which entitle them to various packages, usually including entry and seating at games. Membership funds are a vital part of the clubs’ financial income each year, so keeping and increasing members is a large part of the clubs off-field operations. Of course, tickets may be purchased on an as-needed basis for non-members