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Writer Erin Walton explains the rules and rituals behind Australia’s unique brand of football.
Text: Erin Walton
Country: Australia

on-Australians watching Australian football tend to have a lot of questions. What’s with the oval field? Is it just me or are there a lot of players? What’s with the enormous scores? Isn’t it just a hybrid of soccer and rugby?

Australian football, also known as Aussie Rules, AFL or footy, can seem strange, but it’s a technically sophisticated sport with increasing women’s participation, supported by demographically diverse, food-loving fans.

A CRASH COURSE IN AFL

The first typical assumption is that AFL is a blend of other footballs. Wrong, says long-time Western Bulldogs fan, Geoff Thompson. “Any newbie needs to accept that AFL is not a version of either soccer or rugby, nor a modification of either of them. It’s a genuinely distinctive game.”

To play it, you need:

· An oval field (approximately 150 x 100 metres)
· An oval ball (similar in size though slightly less pointy than a rugby ball)
· 44 players (22 apiece, 18 per team playing at all times)
· Eight goal posts (four at each side)
· Three field umpires (referees)
· Two goal umpires
· Three boundary umpires (like soccer’s linesmen/women)

Aussie Rules: How it works

Aussie Rules is played on an oval field with four goal posts at each end: two taller central posts and two shorter outer posts. Eighteen players on each side try to score points by kicking the ball through the goal posts. When the ball is kicked through the central posts, you score a ‘goal’ worth six points. When the ball passes through a central and outer post, it’s called a ‘behind’ and is worth one point. If the ball is hit or forced across the line—rather than kicked—one point is awarded. One point is also awarded if you hit the post.

The opposing team’s job is to prevent you from scoring. If an opposing player touches the ball as it passes through the central two posts, you are awarded one point rather than six. Touching the ball as it passes through the outer sets of posts doesn’t affect the score: You are still awarded one point.

The score is written ‘goal.behind.total’: For example, 9.7.61 means 9 x 6 + 7 = 61. There were 9 goals of six points each plus seven behinds of 1 point each equalling 61 points.

Besides kicking the ball, players can ‘handball’ it, or punch with a closed fist. Throwing is not permitted. Tackling is allowed, although only between the shoulders and knees. This means that players are not allowed to tackle around the neck or ankles, as in rugby, nor push their opponents in the back.

Other rules include:

· When kicking, players may kick the ball off the ground; however, they usually drop the ball onto their foot and kick it.
· Players with the ball can run for up to 16 yards—almost 15 metres—at which point they must kick, handball or bounce it.
· When a player is tackled, they must kick or handball the ball. If they don’t, it’s a free kick to their tackler.
· After the ball is kicked, other players will try to catch or ‘mark’ it. They perform very high jumps to do this, even using their opponents as springboards!
· A player who marks the ball may play on, but they also have the right to wait for up to 30 safe, tackle-free seconds to dispose of it from that same spot.
· Because there is no offside rule, team strategies are more offensive than defensive.
· There are four 20-minute quarters (that may extend to 28 to allow for injuries and free kicks).

HOME-GROWN PASTIME

Worldwide, soccer is the people’s sport, but AFL has gained and retained a grip in Australia. It’s the country’s most popular sport and ranks fourth in domestic-league attendance worldwide.

A large part of the attraction lies in its speed and physicality, says Brisbane Lions supporter, David. “The game is usually very fast as the ball is moved quickly from one end of the ground to the other. Players leap high into the air to take marks and this can be quite spectacular.” Geoff agrees, noting that alongside speed and frequent scoring, AFL players are known for their sophisticated combination of strength and the hand/foot skills.

AFL players seem to be a combination of other sports’ top athletes: basketballers with footballer skills and stamina and the strength of rugby players. Gary Wallis of the Gold Coast Suns sees it from the eye of a former player. “I played at a top level for a reasonable time so I guess I appreciate the skills and athleticism required. Players run around 16 kilometres a game. It’s a fierce battle—very physical but very skilful, beautiful to watch when played at the top level.”

With 18 team squads and eight women’s teams in the 2017 season, Aussie Rules is popular nationwide but huge in Melbourne where almost everyone considers themselves a fan. Loyalty is created for different reasons. “When I first started following, AFL was very local, and people supported the team from their suburb, so there was a very personal ownership,” remembers Gary. This is the case for David who has supported his local team, the Brisbane Lions, since they joined the competition three decades ago. Geoff had “little choice” in whom he supported: “I was born into a family of three older brothers who barracked for the Bulldogs, and went to a school where loyalty was almost universal.”

On the other hand, Gary’s decision to join the young Gold Coast Suns in Queensland was in part to help spread AFL to a new population base. “I liked the idea of being part of history as one of their original members,” he says. “They’re only seven years old—compare that to Melbourne and Geelong Football Clubs, which are 158!”

Changes to the game

Today, alongside the addition of clubs in regions not traditionally associated with football like the Gold Coast Suns, the League is working to change the sexism sometimes seen in players and fans. Female participation both in the stands and on the field has been growing, including the first appearance of a female field umpire adjudicating a senior match, as well as the enormous popularity of the recently launched AFLW Women’s League.

Friends, family and food

The Aussie Rules season generally runs from late March to late September, whittling 18 teams down to the final two who compete in the Grand Final. The season gives fans ample time to gather, as supporters tend to watch their team with friends and family. Belonging to a club and watching the sport plays an important role in bringing people together. “The game reaches out to all levels of society and brings communities together,” Gary says. “A football club genuinely cares for its member often times better than other groups which are set up to care, such as church groups.”

When asked about their favourite AFL-watching environment, the men were quick to sing the stadium’s praises. Being in a crowd of thousands is very special, notes David. “You can watch matches on TV all the time, but nothing is better than actually being at a game surrounded by thousands of excited people and seeing what happens at close-range, as well as the atmosphere of a game attended by up to 90,000+ people with a great deal of noise.” Gary agrees: “Generally the roar of a big crowd really gets the adrenalin flowing and makes for a better experience for most people.”

Whether watching a game at home or live, friends and food are central to the experience. However, its days as a simple meat pie and beer game have started to fade, fans say. “Since the games go for approximately 2.5 hours, people often bring their own tea and coffee, sandwiches, cakes and nibbles,” explains Geoff. “Of course, there is food—especially pies and hamburgers—on sale at the grounds. Nowadays, there are even classy coffee bars at the stadiums. Most of the stadiums will also have restaurants and corporate boxes where, if you have the money and inclination, you can be served a three-course meal whilst watching the game.”

Far from being soccer’s little brother or rugby’s old college roommate; quick, skilful, Australian Football is a sports giant of its own.

FACT BOX

● AFL began in the 1850s.

● The teams play 22 season matches. The top eight pass on to the finals, and the best two to the Grand Final, held in the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

● Irish Gaelic Football is the only other sport that resembles it. There are even regular international competitions between Australia and Ireland using a hybrid set of rules.

● There are theories that AFL was originally inspired by Indigenous ballgames.

● Originally, there was no time limit on games.

● Aussie Rules is now played in more than 80 countries, including Denmark, the U.S., Canada and South Africa.

● Around 9% of players are Indigenous and 14% are from culturally diverse backgrounds.

Collingwood hold the record for most Grand Final appearances at 43 (15 wins). They are also the only team to win four consecutive Grand Finals (in 1927, 1928, 1929 and 1930).

Carlton and Essendon tie for most Grand Finals won, with 16 each.




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Aussie Rules puts best footy forward


Australian football is very different from regular football (soccer) or rugby. You play it on an oval field, it has a lot of players, and the scores are very high. Australian football is also known as Aussie Rules, AFL, or footy.

Many people believe AFL is a blend of other footballs. But it is actually a genuinely distinctive game.

You play AFL on an oval field with four goal posts at each end: two taller central posts and two shorter outer posts. Eighteen players on each side try to score points by kicking the ball through the goal posts. If you kick the ball through the central posts you score a six point goal. If you kick the ball through a central and an outer post, it is worth one point and is called a 'behind'. If you hit or force the ball across the line you get one point. If you hit the post you also get one point.

The opposing team tries to stop you from scoring. If an opposing player touches the ball as you score, then you only get one point, even if it goes through the central posts.

There are many other rules in AFL. For example, players can punch the ball with a closed fist, they can run with the ball for up to 16 yards, and they can also tackle a player, but only between the shoulders and knees.

AFL is more popular in Australia than soccer and is also becoming popular in other countries. It is also popular with women, who now have their own league: AFLW.

 

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Aussie Rules puts best footy forward

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Grammar in Use

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Advanced: Australian Football Slang

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Aussie Footy

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