Image thanks to the Herald Sun
Australian Rules Football (AFL) is by far Australia’s biggest sport, with over 1 million people becoming members of their favourite clubs, as well as millions more watching from the sidelines. But for an outsider, this fast-paced, high-intensity sport can be hard to follow. Why would I kick the ball instead of punch (handball) it? Why is he just standing there without anyone tackling him? What’s the deal with those posts? Well today we’re here to help you understand the basics of the game and give you a head start when it comes to watching the footy.
Quick Note: If you’re on your way to a game, (or you’re already at one) we’ve got a cheat sheet at the bottom of this article for some quick facts to get you started.
Image thanks to the Daylesford Bulldogs
Much like the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB, the AFL is just the men's professional level of the sport, as well as the most popular. While they all pretty much follow the same rules, there’s a large variety of leagues all across Australia, such as AFL Women’s, VFL (Victoria), QAFL (Queensland), WAFL (Western Australia), and many more.
A game of AFL consists of two teams of 22 players - each team having 18 players on the field with the additional 4 players having the ability to rotate in as subs during the game. (Currently there’s a cap of 90 substitutions per game).
The objective of the game is to work with your team by passing, running and kicking to transport the ball to the opposition’s end of the field before kicking the ball through the goalposts for either 6 points or 1 point (we’ll get to the points later). The winner is the team with the most points at the end of the game.
Games are divided into four quarters of 20 minutes, with teams swapping ends after each quarter. However, quarters tend to be closer to 30 minutes as extra time is added for any in-play stoppages (free kicks, bounces, fouls, etc). Each game starts with the first bounce (called a ruck). This is when the umpire bounces the ball in the centre square. The ruckman from each team contests the ball after the bounce and then play begins. The game returns to the centre for a bounce after a goal has been scored.
In order to score players have to get the goal through the goalposts. Depending on the situation the goal will either score the team 6 points or 1 point.
A Goal is when the ball travels through the middle posts. It scores 6 points.
A behind is when the ball travels through either of the outside posts. It scores 1 point.
If the ball is touched by the opposing team before travelling through any of the posts it scores 1 point.
If it hits one of the middle posts it scores 1 point.
AFL has been around for some time, and as such it has a lot of rules (like 37 pages of rules), which like soccer are called laws. Most of these laws are incredibly niche and circumstantial, but here’s what you need to know to follow the game.
In football there’s 3 ways to move the ball: kicking, running and handballing. You are not allowed to throw or directly hand the ball to another player - this results in a free kick. A handball is when the player passes the ball to their teammates by holding the ball in one hand and hitting it with the clenched fist of their other hand.
A player can’t just get the ball and run like their life depended on it. Instead, a player running with the ball must bounce or touch the ball on the ground every 15 metres.
A mark is awarded when a player catches a kick on the full that has travelled at least 15 metres. When a mark is awarded the player is given a 10 metre protective area. They can either kick or pass the ball - or instead give up the protective area and opt to play on, by either running forward with the ball or the umpire calling ‘play on’.
Players are allowed to tackle other players just as long as the player being tackled is holding the ball, and the tackle is below the shoulders and above the knees. Players are not allowed to push in the back.
Holding the Ball
If a player has been tackled and does not immediately get rid of the ball then they are classed as holding the ball and the opposition gets a free kick. This is generally when people shout the word ‘BALL!’
50 Metre Penalty
A 50 metre penalty is awarded when a player encroaches on a mark, unreasonably holds onto another player or uses undue force, doesn’t return the ball after a penalty, wastes time or abuses an umpire.
Out On The Full
This one is pretty easy. If it goes over the boundary, the opposition gets a free kick.
While AFL fields can range from 135m to 185m long and 110m to 155m wide the general AFL field size is 165m x 135m. With such a big field (easily one of the biggest sports fields) players have to be incredibly fit and are generally considered to be some of the fittest athletes in all team sports.
What Each Player Does
There’s a lot of players on the field at once and each one has a different role to play in leading their team to victory. Let’s see what each of them do.
Fullbacks (or Defenders):
The Full-Back itself is responsible for stopping the full-forward from scoring or marking the ball.
The Back Pocket is generally there because they’re great at stopping the forwards from marking or making plays.
The Half-Back Flank does much of what the back pocket does, but with more of a focus on getting the ball out of their team’s defence and up the field.
The Centre Half-Forward’s aim is to stop the Centre-Half Forward from scoring or making a mark.
The wings are incredibly quick players that hang around either side of the field. They’re responsible for moving the ball forward and scoring goals.
The rover is generally the smallest player on the team and takes the ball from the ruckman or ruck-rover at stoppages. Rovers require some high stamina as they follow the ball all over the ground.
Ruck-Rovers are responsible for being able to receive the ball after the bounce, as well as following the ball around the field.
The Centre has to be very quick and is responsible to pass the ball and get it up the field.
Ruck (or Ruckman)
It’s the Ruckman’s job to win hit-outs (hitting the ball to a teammate after the bounce). They also follow the ball like the Rover and Ruck-Rover.
The Full-Forward stays close to the posts and tries to kick goals.
The Forward Pocket’s role is to be sneaky and agile, avoiding defenders and scoring difficult goals.
The Half-Forward Flanks move the ball into the forward area along the sides of the field to either pass off or score a goal.
This is often considered the most difficult position to play. Centre Half-Forwards have to be good at marking and kicking goals from a long distance. They’re like the goal sniper of the team.
The Final Siren
AFL is a pretty in-depth game, and while there’s a lot here it’s still only scratching the surface. If you’re keen to dig deep into the AFL rules, you can find the book here. If you get the chance, the best way to see this amazing fast-paced game is to see it live with a big crowd. If you don’t have the chance to do that in Australia head to your local pub or sports bar for the best atmosphere, otherwise there’s plenty of great expat bars around the world full of Aussies trying to get their AFL fix.
If you’re just about to head to the game (or you’re already there) and you need to know what’s going on quickly, here’s all the facts without the explanations.
22 per team, 18 on field, 4 for substitutions.
4, 20 minute quarters with time added for stoppages.
If it goes through the middle posts - 6 points
If it goes through the outside posts - 1 point
If the opposition touches it before it goes through any posts - 1 point
If it hits the middle posts - 1 point
You cannot throw the ball. To transport the ball you can kick, handball (hitting the ball with one hand) or run with the ball. If you run with the ball you must bounce or touch the ground every 15 metres.
If a player catches a kick it’s called a mark. If they catch this they get a buffer zone to kick or handball from or they can play on.
You can only tackle players holding the ball between the shoulders and knees. No pushing the back.
Players can’t hold the ball after a tackle.
These things result in a 50 metre penalty:
A player encroaches on a mark
A player unreasonably holds onto another player
A player uses undue force
A player doesn’t return the ball after a penalty
A player wastes time or abuses an umpire
If the ball goes out of bounds, it’s a free kick.