Aussie rules footy! The greatest sport ever invented! Is it the same as rugby? Why aren’t they wearing helmets? Did that team just earn a point for missing the goals?
Righto, let’s give it a crack.
In Australian rules football, two teams of 18 active players compete to score points by kicking an oval-shaped ball through a set of goalposts located at either end of a large oval. Players can pass the ball to teammates by either kicking it or punching it off their palm, but not by throwing it. A player that catches the ball kicked by another player earns the right to make their next move without interference, but otherwise play is mostly continuous. Players can tackle the opposition to stop their progress and to try to win the ball. Play moves forward, backward, and around all 360 degrees of the field. Kicking the ball through the goal earns six points, while other types of scores are worth one point. At the end of the game, the team with the most points wins!
Let’s Play Footy
The game starts with the center bounce: An umpire bounces the ball up in the air in the center of the ground, and one big guy from each team (the ruckmen) contest the drop of the ball and tap it to their teammates’ advantage. A football is oval-shaped, and the umpire slams it forcefully flat-part-first into the ground so the ball bounces straight upwards. In a similar vein, when the ball tumbles out of bounds (when the entire ball crosses the boundary plane, and regardless of whether a ballhandler is standing in out or out of bounds), it is thrown back in to play by a boundary umpire, who stands facing the crowd, bends at the knees, and throws the ball directly over his or her head like the throwing of a bouquet at a wedding.
Matches last for four quarters of 20 minutes each, with no timeouts, and a siren sounds to signify the end of each period. Teams kick to the opposite end in each new quarter. The clock only runs during play, and quarters usually end up around 30 minutes in real time. However, one of the quirks of the game is that the time is kept by officials way up in the grandstand, and the players out on the field don’t have an official countdown clock to consult during play. There is a countdown clock on the TV feed, but while there is an upward-counting timer on each ground’s scoreboard, players are largely left to their own devices to manage the late stages of the game.
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Each team has 18 players on the field, plus four on the interchange bench. Players sub on the fly through marked areas on the field near their bench in a manner similar to in hockey or lacrosse. The traditional positions are as follows:
Throughout most of the 20th century, teams more or less lined up with players in those positions, and players more or less roamed around their designated areas. (There is no offside, or mandated or prohibited formations, except that only four players from each team can start in the center square at the center bounce). That gradually started to change as the game evolved, and since the turn of the century, “flooding” and zone defenses have become more popular, to the point where the traditional positions don’t match the way the game is played, and games from even 20 years ago are completely different to the ones we see today.
Kicks Marks Handballs
Footy players can dispose of the ball in one of two ways: by a kick or a handball.
There are three main species of kick. The drop punt is the most common. Holding the ball laces out, with the ball pointing straight up and down, a player drops the ball with the dominant hand on to their dominant foot, striking the point of the ball with the flat part of the foot, causing it to spin backwards through the air. The drop punt is the most accurate kick and the easiest for a teammate to catch, so it’s by far the most commonly used kick in the game.
The banana (or the ‘snap’) is a kick across the body so that the ball travels sideways, curling through the air. The player holds the ball flat, with the ends pointing side-to-side, and drops it on the boot, swinging the foot across the body so the inside of the foot strikes half of the ball, sending it helicopter-spinning through the air. Snap kicks are utilised mainly for shots on goal on the run, to try to bend the ball through the air. (A cousin of the banana is the checkside kick, a more difficult variation struck with the outside of the foot, sending it travelling and spinning in the opposite direction to a banana.)
The torpedo (or the “spiral” or “barrel”) is a high-risk, high-reward variation. Holding the ball flat, laces up, pointing diagonally 45 degrees across the body, the player drops the ball so as to strike the flat part of the ball with the flat part of the boot. If the player “gets onto it”, a torpedo spirals through the air and travels much further than any other type of kick. The torpedo is only used sparingly in the modern game, because a more common outcome is to miss the sweet spot and to shank the kick off the side of the boot. It’s a rarity, a bit of a throwback to the footy of old, and it’s a huge crowd-pleaser:
While different players can kick the ball further than others depending on their size and strength, all Australian Football League (AFL) players could kick a goal from 50 meters, and some could pop one through from 70 meters or even more.
The other method to get rid of the ball is a handball (or “handpass”). Sit the flat of the ball on your upturned palm, make a fist with your other hand, and punch through the point of the ball with the side of your fist (where the thumb curls around the index finger, not with your knuckles). The handball was almost never used in the early years of the game, but was popularised during the 1950s and 60s by ruckman Graham “Polly” Farmer, was used as a gamebreaking tactic in the famous 1970 VFL Grand Final (the biggest Grand Final comeback in history), and is now utilized more frequently than kicks in the modern game.
Together, kicks and handballs are “possessions,” or “disposals,” so a player who had 10 kicks and 5 handballs in a game had 15 total possessions. Different players have different roles, but a midfielder gathering 30 possessions has usually had a good day out (so long as he or she used the ball well), while a key forward will expect to see the ball fewer times, perhaps getting around 15 touches per game.
The third main stat in Aussie rules footy is a mark, which is where a player catches the ball after it being kicked by a player (not necessarily a teammate) at least 15 meters away, without the ball touching the ground or being touched by any other player. Thankfully, there is no Australian equivalent of the idiotic complexity surrounding the definition of a catch in the NFL—the idiocy is reserved for other rules of the game—and so long as a player controls the ball, that’s good enough to constitute a mark.
Many marks are straightforward, such as when a player is all alone and receives the ball uncontested. However, contested, high-flying pack marks are one of the main draws to the game, aided by the fact that players are allowed to jump on each other’s shoulders in attempting to take a grab, a feat with a rich history in Aussie rules football. Here is a compilation of some of the best “speccies” from over the years!
In marking the ball, a player earns the right to make their next move (a kick or handpass) without interference from the opposition. That is, after the umpire blows the whistle to signify a mark, the player can’t be tackled, and one opposition player can stand “on the mark” at the point where the player marked the ball, while the marker may back up a few meters to give him/herself room, and kick or handball to keep the game going. If the player who marked the ball chooses to take a shot on goal, he or she has 30 seconds from the time of marking the ball to take the kick. If the mark is taken in the general run of play, they get about five or six seconds before being told to move the ball on. (In either case, the player can choose to play on immediately, or before the time is up.) If the player goes over the applicable time limit, or moves off the line where they were to take their kick, the umpire calls “play on” and the player is liable to be tackled as per usual.
At each end of the oval—the size of which differs from ground to ground but measures roughly 150m–175m long and 125m–135m wide—sits a row of four posts. Two large posts (the goalposts) are situated in the middle of the four, 6.4 meters apart, with one smaller post (the point or behind posts) a further 6.4 meters away on each end.
Kick the ball across the plane between the two goal posts without it being touched, and you’ve kicked a goal, worth six points! The goal umpire signals this feat by striding to the midpoint between the goalposts, pausing dramatically for effect, and pointing two finger guns straight forward.
Spectacular goals are another of the main attractions to the game, and the AFL officially crowns a Goal of the Year each year.
If the ball crosses the plane between any two posts in any other manner—kicking the ball through the plane between a goal post and a point post, the ball hitting the goalpost, the ball crossing the goal plane after having been touched by any player’s hand or body, or the ball crossing any plane at the behest of the defending team—and that’s a behind, or “point,” worth one point. The goal umpire signals this by standing directly next to one goalpost, pausing dramatically for effect, and pointing one finger gun straight forward. So, Aussie rules footy is one of the only sports where you can earn points by not kicking it through the goal!
These are the only two scoring options. If Team A has kicked 10 goals and three behinds, its score is written as 10.3 (63). This can be verbally stated in a few ways, but “ten goals three, sixty-three” will do fine, as would simply “sixty-three.” (For context, across the AFL in 2016 teams averaged 88 points per game.)
The team with the total highest score—not necessarily the most goals—wins, so it’s possible for our Team A to be defeated by Team B scoring, say, 9.10 (64). The 1968 Grand Final remains the only decider in AFL/VFL history where the winning team scored fewer goals than the losing team: the Carlton Blues 7.14 (56) defeated the Essendon Bombers 8.5 (53).
Running And tackling
Players may tackle an opposition ballhandler to stop them from doing good footy things. A few things here separate Aussie rules from American football. A “push in the back” gives away a free kick, so when tackling from behind (or as a player is falling down), the tackler cannot force the ballhandler forward or down. Tackling with the head, or targeting above the shoulder or below the knees (including tripping), are also not allowed. The play does not stop just because the ballhandler hits the deck, unlike in American football. The best tackles will pin the ballhandler’s arms, making it impossible for him or her to dispose of the ball, and bring the opponent to the ground.
Similarly, players may shepherd the opposition to clear a path for a teammate. However, tackling a player without the ball is not allowed, so shepherding is restricted to hip-and-shoulder bumping and boxing out-type maneuvering, and it’s only permitted if the players are within five meters of the ball. (With the emphasis on protecting players’ heads in the modern game, the bump has almost died out, but watch here for some of the greatest hits of years gone by.)
Players don’t wear any protective gear, save for an optional mouthguard. (Players returning from concussions or with similar conditions can wear soft-padded helmets; these are a rarity.)
A player can only run for 15 meters with the ball before being required to bounce it or touch it on the ground, the latter being the preferred option in wet weather. (The umpire has to make an estimate of the distance travelled as the play unfolds, a difficult task, sometimes leading to plays like this.) A player with some open space getting in a few bounces makes for some exciting footy:
Footy’s myriad gameplans and tactics are not easily summarized, but overall it’s a fast-moving sport that favors the fast and strong. Teams generally try to advance the ball downfield by isolating free players to kick the ball to, and to handball quickly to teammates running past in order to speed up their attack. Players chip the ball around sideways and backward if they can’t find a suitable target (or are trying to bleed time off the clock), generally looking for other options before bombing the ball long to a contest. Forwards run routes known as “leads” from the goalfront toward the center of the ground to provide a target to kick to when their midfielders are bringing the ball forward. Defensively, teams might employ a “tagger” to shadow the opposition’s best midfielder, try to put a body on an opponent immediately as they collect the ball, and play a mix of zone and man around the ground.
Players and teams may either earn, or give away, a free kick. If a player is awarded a free kick, it’s as if he or she has just taken a mark—they have the right to use the ball without interference from the opposition.
The main free kicks which may be awarded are as follows. Note that the AFL has repeatedly changed many of the main rules or their interpretation since about the mid-2000s—every single year, and often more than once during the season—causing massive confusion among fans, players, and umpires, so take this as the best guess as to what the rules will be this weekend.
- High contact or a High tackle rules protects players’ heads—any contact above the shoulder, and it’s a free kick. These rules have been around forever, but have become a major priority for the AFL in the past decade or so.
- Holding the ball is awarded when a player, who has had prior opportunity to dispose of the football, is tackled and does not get rid of the ball legally, or does not genuinely attempt to dispose of the ball after being tackled. On the one hand, this is the best free kick, because it often comes about after a spectacular chasedown from behind or after a bone-crushing tackle, and the umpire usually waits a few dramatic seconds after the tackle to allow the player the opportunity to dispose of the ball before blowing the whistle and performing the very theatrical holding-the-ball signal, which looks like a peacock spreading its wings. (As a fan, you yell “ball!” at the TV when the opposition is tackled with the pill.) On the other hand, rule changes have rendered the phrase “prior opportunity” essentially meaningless, and now nearly any player tackled with the ball is liable to be penalized, leading to the absurd outcome of players avoiding the ball in traffic for fear of being trapped with it.
- Holding the man is where a player is tackled without having possession of the ball; hands in the back and chopping the arms free kicks prevent undue interference in marking contests; and a push in the back when tackling is not allowed.
- Incorrect disposal penalizes players disposing of the ball other than a kick or handball—essentially, dropping the ball; throwing the ball is also penalized.
- Out of bounds on the full penalties are paid when a player kicks the ball out of the boundary of play on the full—including by hitting the behind post, and the deliberate out of bounds rule prohibits intentionally sending the ball out of bounds.
There’s no penalty box, or yellow or red cards. Players can be suspended by the AFL Tribunal for a number of indiscretions, most commonly for striking, or head-high hits.
Rather than going back and taking a free kick from the spot of the indiscretion, the team that is awarded the freebie may immediately elect to play on, and the umpire may pay advantage, if that appears to be desirable.
An umpire can award a 50-meter penalty for either egregious offences (a late hit, cheap shot, or abusing the umpire), or for the eye-clawingly ticky-tack offence of taking more than a split second to return the ball to the opposition after giving away a free kick. A 50-meter penalty (when you think one should be awarded to your team, you yell “fiftyyyyyyy!” at the TV) is a hugely severe punishment, given that it’s about a third of the field, and field position is always at a premium.
The Global Context
Aussie rules footy is essentially an Australia-only sport, although there are amateur competitions in countries all over the world. The sport was famously invented in the 1850s in order to keep cricketers fit during the off-season. It’s therefore a winter sport, played from about April until September each year.
The genesis of the current footy landscape, and the Australian Football League (the sport’s governing body and the name of the professional competition) is quite interesting and explains quite a lot.
The first clubs were formed in Melbourne and country Victoria, and the game grew in popularity and rules were hammered out. The Victorian Football League held its first season in 1897, with just eight teams. The game spread, and leagues formed in Western Australia and South Australia, and those three competitions formed the backbone of the game in Australia throughout most of the 20th century.
Despite footy’s huge popularity—the 1970 VFL Grand Final drew a crowd of 121,696, still a record—players had day jobs until about the 1990s. Until the professional era, players by and large played in their home state, so if you were born and raised in Adelaide, you played in the SANFL. The VFL was undoubtedly the strongest league, and so interstate players often made the switch to Victoria for a few years mid-career to compete against the best, but it’s not the case that WAFL or SANFL players were simply D-Leaguers who couldn’t crack it in the big time. In fact, two of the 21 players picked in the AFL/VFL Team of the Century in 1996 were interstaters who played in the VFL for several seasons and then left.
As the money and popularity of the game grew, the VFL authorities eyed the expansion beyond Melbourne to a national competition, with the South Melbourne Swans moving to Sydney in 1982. The VFL added two teams in 1987: The West Coast Eagles, a new club composed of the best players in the West Australian competition, and the Brisbane Bears, likewise from Queensland. The VFL rebranded itself as the Australian Football League in 1990, and has since added two teams from South Australia, and one more from Western Australia, Sydney, and Queensland, making it a truly national competition. (These days, the WAFL, SANFL, and VFL each continue to exist as second-tier reserves competitions.)
Therefore—and this is the key point—the AFL wasn’t built from scratch, but simply added new teams from around the country to an existing one-state league. And that is how you come to have a national sporting competition, bringing in billions of dollars per year, with nine teams in one city—some representing suburbs right across the road from each other, with one more just three hours down the road—and only nine teams in the rest of the nation.
Another issue with this origin story is that official statistics and records of the AFL incorporate achievements from the old VFL, but ignore the WAFL and SANFL. The awards section on the AFL’s website refers to VFL history but doesn’t include the leading goalkickers and best-and-fairests from WA and SA, and teams refer to the AFL/VFL record for most goals in a game—18 by Melbourne’s Fred Fanning in 1947—while ignoring the 23 kicked by Bernie Naylor in the WAFL or the same number by Ken Farmer and Anthony Daly in the SANFL. This would be understandable if historically the two leagues were just reserves units, farm systems for players not yet good enough to play in the VFL, but this simply wasn’t the case: players played in their home state because it was their home state, not because they were second-stringers, and the popularity of the game in all three competitions and in the rest of the country led to the game as we know it today.
Unlike in many professional sports leagues around the world, where teams are franchises, owned by people with a profit motive, AFL teams are clubs—community-owned, made up of and answerable to members—fans of the team who pay an annual fee for membership rights usually including season tickets—not profit-making entities.
The AFL operates under a salary cap system, with the cap currently set at a little over $10 million per team. Midseason trades are not allowed, and in general players move around a lot less than in American and European sports leagues. There is no promotion or relegation.
The inaugural AFL Women’s competition, the first-ever professional women’s Aussie rules league, was held in 2017, consisting of eight teams, each being sister entities of existing AFL mens’ teams. Twenty-five thousand people came out to see the first-ever AFLW match, and it’s expected to grow in popularity each year, with the league planning to expand to 10 teams in 2019.
The 18 AFL teams contest 22 games in the ‘home-and-away’ season (the regular season), spread over 23 weeks. There are no divisions or conferences, and all teams play every other team at least once each per season, and play five opponents twice. (Some teams play each other twice every year—hometown rivalries, for example—and otherwise rotate through their double matchups.)
In AFL, the standings are referred to as “the ladder,” with teams ranked according to their points earned (four points for a win, two for a draw, none for a loss), and then by percentage (points scored divided by points conceded).
Teams play one match per week, with the typical weekend slate seeing one game on a Friday night, five throughout Saturday, and three on Sunday. There are a couple of Monday and Thursday night games sprinkled throughout the year.
At the end of the home-and-away season, the top eight teams enter the finals series, which lasts for four weekends in September. There is a distinct advantage in finishing in the top four: those teams play each other for the right for a bye through to the second-last week of the season, with all other finals matches loser-goes-home.
Each year, the grand final is played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, traditionally on the last Saturday in September. This arrangement is contractually locked in until at least 2037, and the AFL will need to come up with a new plan by that stage. The ‘G is the best stadium in football, holding 100,000 people, and it would be unacceptable to play in a 40,000-seat shoebox, but there has only been one year featuring two Melbourne teams in the Grand Final since 2001, creating a potentially unearned home ground advantage for a Melbourne team that makes the decider. (For example, in 2015, the Perth-based West Coast Eagles had to travel to the MCG and were smashed in the GF by the Melbourne-based Hawthorn Hawks, despite having finished higher on the ladder and having beaten the Hawks in the first week of the finals.)
The best and fairest player in each season is awarded the Brownlow Medal. After each home-and-away game, the three field umpires in each match cast their votes for the three players that they consider to be best on ground for that match, with the BOG receiving three votes, the next best receiving two votes, and the bronze medallist receiving one. These votes are kept secret all season until they are dramatically read out round-by-round at a black tie function on the Monday night before the Grand Final, in one of the best nights of the sports year.
In addition, the players themselves vote at the end of the season for their MVP, an award which is gaining more prestige and recognition each year, and is often seen as an alternative to the Brownlow. There’s also an award for the player who kicks the most goals each season, and for the best on ground in the Grand Final, amongst others.
Here are a few quirks of Australian rules football which you may enjoy.
100th Goal Celebration
Watch this video before reading the description below, if you can.
Yep, the best and greatest tradition in Aussie rules footy is the crowd running onto the field after a player kicks his 100th goal of the season. That video is of Hawthorn’s Lance Franklin bringing up his ton in 2008, the 57th such occurrence in AFL/VFL history. (Fans also swarm the field for a player’s 1,000th career goal, a benchmark only five men have reached, and if a player breaks the all-time goalkicking record). Sadly, Franklin in 2008 is presently the last player to reach a 100-goal season, as the game has evolved and there are fewer large individual hauls each week.
(The separate tradition of fans being allowed to play kick-to-kick on the field after the game has been revived in recent years, and we’re now all free to jump the fence after the final siren and live out our dreams on the field on designated game days.)
Ah, yes. After a victory, the winning team’s players link arms in the clubrooms and belt out the club song, in one of the more enjoyable traditions of the game. Each team has its own song, but the Richmond Tigers have the best one:
Kicks After The Final Siren
The way footy timing operates, if a player marks the ball (or is awarded a free kick) shortly before the siren to end any quarter, and the siren counts down to zero as he or she is preparing to take the shot on goal, the player can take that kick after the siren, with no time left on the clock. Taking a kick for goal after the final siren has sounded to win the game is what every kid practices in their backyard growing up, the footy equivalent of a buzzer-beater:
Grand Final Replay
Three times in history, the scores in the AFL or VFL Grand Final have been tied at the end of the game. So, what’s the best resolution? Extra time? Some sort of penalty shootout? Arm-wrestling contest between the two captains?
Nope. For more than one hundred years, the rule was that the two teams would come back and play the entire game again the next week. A Grand Final replay! This happened in 1948, in 1977, and again in 2010, in one of the best Grand Finals ever.
In my opinion, this was a great rule, because who doesn’t love an extra Grand Final? Nevertheless, after the 2010 replay, an amendment to the rule was inevitable, as the pure logistic nightmare of it all—imagine if the Patriots and Falcons were required to come back the next week and replay this year’s Super Bowl, which was tied at the end of regulation—meant that a replay was no longer a tenable option. The next drawn Grand Final will be resolved by five minutes extra time in each direction, with a golden score ending the game if it’s still tied.
I hope you enjoyed this tour through Australian rules football, the greatest sport on Earth. If you find yourself watching a game, just remember the cardinal rule for understanding any two-team ball sport: one team is going to the left of screen, and the other team is going to the right of screen. Keep that in mind, and you’re halfway to understanding pretty much anything that happens.
Now, you’ve gotta show me all the guts and all of the determination you’ve got in your body. You’ve got to inspire me with this last quarter win! You’ve been in front all day and you’ve gotta stay there. Are you gonna sit there and let them take it away from you?
Ben is a Deadspin reader who likes footy.