Australian Rules Football Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Australian Rules Football

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Australian Rules Football1 is a potent combination of soccer and Gaelic football, which, for the uninitiated, appears utterly and absolutely violent. Indeed, it is sometimes seen as a sport without rules. This is, of course, untrue. In Australia, crowds of over 50,000 are not uncommon, and this fast-paced, high-scoring sport is full of rivalries and history. Teams play for glory in September, which is when the finals are held, with the highlight being the Premiership Flag on Grand Final day.

A Brief History

The game emerged in the late 1800s as a sport for cricketers in Melbourne, Victoria to play during the long winters off season; it quickly grew into a sport played and watched by Australians in the country. The sport become structured with the formation of the Victorian Football League (VFL) in 1896. As the game evolved, this structure became the Australian Football League, or AFL. The AFL has 16 teams, most of which are based in Victoria. The 'home' of Aussie Rules Football is the Melbourne Cricket Ground, reflecting the game's heritage.

The Teams

  • Adelaide Crows
  • Brisbane Lions
  • Collingwood Magpies
  • Carlton Blues
  • Essendon Bombers
  • Fremantle Dockers
  • Geelong Cats
  • Hawthorn Hawks
  • Melbourne Demons
  • North (Melbourne) Kangaroos
  • Port Adelaide Power
  • Richmond Tigers
  • St Kilda Saints
  • Sydney Swans
  • West Coast Eagles
  • Western (Footscray) Bulldogs

Collingwood, Carlton, Essendon and Richmond are usually the big powerhouses in the league, with the most Premiership Flags going equally to Carlton and Essendon.

The Rules

The rules of the game manage to be simple and a little complex at the same time - this could account for the game's limited appeal outside Australia. But essentially, the idea is to get a higher score than the other team by using tackles, kicking, and handballs2.


Four Quarters, each lasting 20 minutes, plus an allowance for stoppages.


Each team consists of 18 players, with an extra four players on the interchange bench. These interchange players can come on and off at any stage through the match.

The Ball

The ball is shaped much like a rugby ball but smaller and more rounded.

The Pitch

Aussie Rules is played on an oval, roughly the size of a cricket pitch3, reflecting the game's cricketing ancestry. At both ends of the oval there are four goal posts, two large ones in the middle with two smaller ones on either side. In the centre of the ground there is a circle of three metres diameter, with a large square - 45m each side - around it. There is also a goal square nine metres in length from the goal posts, 6.4m wide.


Aussie Rules uses a lot of umpires. For any AFL match there must be seven umpires, including three field umpires who have full control of the game. Major responsibilities of the field umpires are to start play, award marks and free kicks, and generally enforce the rules of the game. In carrying out their responsibilities, the field umpires each control roughly one third of the ground. The umpire in the third where the ball is currently being disputed is deemed Umpire in Charge, however either of the other field umpires may bring attention to infringements of the rules that occur 'behind the play'. The two boundary umpires judge when the ball is out of the playing area, and also return the ball to the centre of the ground after a goal has been scored. The boundary umpires patrol one side of the ground each. The two goal umpires judge, signal, and record all scores in a match.


If a ball is kicked between the two middle posts, a goal has been scored and six points are awarded. The relevant goal umpire - normally dressed in what appears to be a lab coat - will first signal this by pointing with both hands towards the other end of the field, and then brandishing two signalling flags4. If a ball is kicked between the outer two posts then it is a 'behind' and worth a single point. If the ball is touched by a body part other than the foot before it goes between any of the goal posts, it is called a 'rushed behind', but still only worth one point. The goal umpire will signal behinds or rushed behinds by pointing with one hand and waving only one flag around. So, an example score of three goals and two behinds would total 20 points. This is written as 3.2.20.


The game starts with the ball being bounced in the centre circle by a field umpire, and a player from each team jumping up to bring the ball back down with the intent of giving it to their team mates. Gameplay (and match time) is stopped only on the following conditions:

  • The ball cannot be 'played on'.
  • A goal has been scored, in which case the ball is bounced in the centre again, as at the start of a match.
  • The ball goes 'out of bounds' - ie, off the pitch.
  • There is an injury to one, or more, of the players.
  • At the end of each quarter.

If a player scores a behind, the other team will kick the ball from the goal square and continue play. If the ball goes out of bounds an umpire throws the ball back into play. Players may obstruct opposing players off the ball - called 'sheparding', but under no circumstances are allowed push or tackle a player who does not have possession of the ball.

Free Kicks

Free kicks are awarded against players who:

  • Deliberately hold the ball during a tackle5
  • Push opponents in the back
  • Play unfairly off the ball
  • Charging and head high tackles
  • Behinds or rushed behinds
  • The ball being kicked out of bounds
  • Throwing the ball (but not hand balling it)
  • Deliberately pushing the ball out on the foul


There seems to be a bit of confusion in the wider world as to why all the mayhem will stop just because someone has caught the ball. It's simple, really: if a ball is kicked more than 15 metres and someone catches 'on the full6', it is called a mark and the player who caught it, is awarded a free kick. Marks can be taken in any manner as long as it does not interfere with another player and if a player gets the opportunity they can jump on the backs of others. That's cleared that up.


There's a lot of whistling in Aussie Rules. Whistles are blown whenever a free kick is awarded, whether it be for an infringement of the rules or for a mark. Whistles are also blown when a ball is out of bounds either on the full or not and they are also blown when an umpire wants to bounce the ball again.

The 50-metre Penalty

This is awarded against a player who has shown absolutely no regard for the rules7, at an umpire's discretion.


Aussie Rules commentators are something of a law unto themselves. Their ramblings are rather more animated than the average sports reporter, with 'long bombs into the left pocket', and players scoring 'a screamer of a mark'. Most listeners - even Australian ones - have little if any idea what is being described, using the score and the noise of the crowd as a more accurate measure of what is actually happening. Commentators are not particularly loved, and are often guilty of bias. But no one's listening anyway.

Aussie Rules Culture

To properly watch an Aussie Rules game, you'll need have a hot pie, a beer or two, wear your footy scarf (and preferably matching jumper), buy a footy Record (a magazine sold before every match to give you team details, and if you are bored enough, an opportunity fill out the score sheet) and yell out as many disparaging comments to umpires and players as you can. Some suggestions for the novice are:

  • The timeless 'Why don't you go play for the Magoo's you f***ing clown!'
  • The descriptive 'Kick it straight up the guts!'
  • The inquisitive 'Aw, how f***ing big is it umpire?'
  • The helpful 'Soft call umpire!'

There's something for everyone in the realm of hurling abuse at players and match officials, and creativity is encouraged.

Sit with other supporters and jump for joy, cringe with embarrassment or bite your nails because the tension is killing you. Or you could join a footy club and receive a membership entitling you to a seat at the Grand Final if your team gets there and discounted admission to team games if they don't. Also, try hanging your team scarf out the car window after a win.

Of course, there is also the rivalry. There are many rivalries, and the biggest of all is that of Carlton and Collingwood. Both teams hate each other. The supporters hate each other, too. A popular view is that this is because Collingwood have never been any good against Carlton and it's just a matter of jealousy. Probably not a popular view in Collingwood, however.

Sample Memorable Moment

1970 Grand Final, Carlton vs Collingwood. Crowd: 121,696, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground8. Carlton were losing by 44 points after two Quarters, but staged an unlikely came back during the second half of the match to win by ten points, with a final score of Carlton 17.9 (111) Collingwood 14.17 (101). Also, Aussie Rules legend Alex Jesaulenko was awarded (and still holds) the Mark of the Century, after literally running up the back of a luckless Collingwood player to grab the ball in mid flight.

Comparative Sporting Etiquette

It's not just Aussie Rules where you can scream and shout to your hearts' content at people who can't hear you and wouldn't care if they could. The Guide offers spleen venting or appropriate spectating advice for fans of other sports, too:

1Hereafter referred to as 'Aussie Rules' and 'Footy'.2Where a ball is passed by punching it out of the hand with a clenched fist.3Between 135 and 185 metres in length and 110 and 155 metres in width.4 This has no obvious purpose, but looks good.5The general emphasis of Aussie Rules is on a flowing game.6Without bouncing.7The equivalent of a 'professional' foul in football. Soccer, that is.8Still the biggest crowd ever at an AFL Grand Final.

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