Total Novice’s Guide to Australian Rules Football

I will start with the cheap grab for the attention of my straight female and gay male audience:

I will continue with the cheap grab for the attention of the straight males and lesbians:

(She’s married to a footballer, so the picture is relevant)

Finally, I will start with a short video encapsulating modern Australian Rules Football (or “AFL” as it is usually called now after the main league, imaginatively titled the Australian Football League).

AFL is a game played by two teams with an oval ball (like rugby and American football) on a field with a goal at either end (like rugby and American football). It is generally believed to have arisen out of Gaelic Football (like an Irish cross between rugby and soccer) and the Aboriginal game Marn Grook. The earliest games were played on fields a mile long and teams of hundreds, as a way to keep fit in winter, but these days the field is normal stadium-sized and the teams are 18 a side (plus 3 on the interchange bench, who can substitute on and off for other players as often as they like).

Teams score by kicking the ball through the two central posts of the goal (6 points), or by kicking the ball between a central post and a side post (1 point) or putting the ball through the goals by a means other than kicking (1 point).

Unlike most modern sports, AFL has no rules limiting where people can run or move the ball within the field of play. No offside, no rule against forward passes or backpasses, no icing, no time limit on standing in the paint, nothing. This can lead to extremely free-flowing high-scoring games or to highly defensive games where teams emphasise retaining possession over advancing the ball.

Players may run with the ball, kick the ball or “handball” the ball. A handball is holding the ball in one hand and punching it away with the other. You’ll have seen a few of them in the video at the top of the article.

AFL is a contact sport and tackling is the main way to stop someone. A player who is tackled and can’t get rid of the ball, having had “prior opportunity” to get rid of the ball (you can just put the ball in someone’s hands and pin it to them!) gives away a free kick. It is this free kick, imaginatively titled “holding the ball”, which leads to AFL crowds yelling “BAAAAAAALLLLLLLL” for every tackle, no matter how good.

The signature skill of AFL is the “mark”. A “mark” is a clean catch of the ball from a kick travelling over 10 meters, and the player who does it gets a free kick. A mark within range of goal is one of the few moments an AFL game will stop, as everyone waits for the guy who took the mark to catch his breath and line up the free shot. A pack attempting to mark the ball will inevitably form under any high ball, leading to amazing acrobatics and also moments of indomitable courage.

Don’t hit people and don’t tackle players who don’t have the ball. Any other rule, your guess is probably as good as the umpire’s anyway.

AFL is currently on ESPN3 three times a week in the USA, and I understand on TSN in Canada once a week. Check your local guides etc etc. If one of the games involves the Gold Coast Suns, be warned—they are a new team this year, full of rookie players, and they are being mercilessly flogged by everyone who plays them. Not the best example of the game, sadly.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *