It's very hard to explain how a game of Aussie Rules works to someone who has never experienced one.
Unlike most games the play is very dynamic, with an emphasis on keeping the ball moving. It is
often referred to as 'organised chaos' and the name is also used to refer to everyday situations in which
there is no apparent order. This
writeup will attempt to explain the complexities of the code and give some idea as to what a game
might look like.
The structure of the game
First things first. The teams each consist of 18 players. Having a total of 36 players in one game
naturally leads to a lot of
confusion for first time viewers, especially as there are no rules about which parts of the ground
players may stand in and there is no offside rule. The ground itself is an oval and at each there are
four goalposts (see below). The ball is an oval shape and is slightly smaller than a rugby ball, slightly bigger
than an American Football.
During a game, coaches sit in corporate-style
boxes up in the stadium so that they have a good view of the ground and all the action. The game consists
of four quarters, each of which usually ends up being about 25-30 minutes depending on how much time is wasted
by stoppages and interruptions. After the first two quarters there is an extended break, and between the first
and second and the third and fourth there is a short break. In each of these the coach will come down from
the box and discuss tactics and positional moves with the team, as well as trying to motivate them or
chastise poor play. During a game a coach may make unlimited substitutions but there are no
time outs; play does not stop during a quarter except for serious injuries.
The players and the violence
Players do not wear body armour or any protection
other than a mouthguard to stop their teeth getting knocked out. They wear long-sleeved or
sleeveless jumpers, shorts and football boots similar to those worn in soccer (no shin guards though).
This lack of protection has lead to the claim that footy players are tough, and indeed they are. The
game is a full contact sport - imagine if you will being unexpectedly hit in the middle of your back by
the angled shoulder of a large and muscular man running at top speed and you will have some idea of how much
guys take. It is quite common for players to be knocked unconscious, dislocate fingers, sprain knees and
wrists, and bleed from injuries to their faces, legs and arms. In addition to taking this
kind of beating they also play for up to two hours in a single game, meaning that they generally have amazing
cardio-vascular fitness. This results in a unique physique - Australian footballers are generally deceptively
slim but very muscular at the same time. In my time watching the game I have seen broken legs, a broken upper-arm,
broken noses, a man receive an injection of painkillers directly into his skull, a man receive stitches directly
into his skull, and worst of all a ruptured testicle (not something you want) as well as countless
concussions including some that were delayed, where players got up after a hit and continued playing only
to unexpectedly lose their balance, vomit, fall over and similar.Probably the worst injury that happens is
the damaging of a player's knee. This often leads to 12-month rehabilitation times and has
ruined many a promising player's career. Nothing is more sickening than seeing a talented young player
get stretchered off with a damaged knee and thinking "that could be the end of his whole career."
At the start of a quarter or after a goal is scored play commences in the centre of the ground
when the umpire bounces the ball on the ground in the middle of the centre square.
Each team has a ruck who has the job of jumping up and trying to knock the ball to one of his
teammates. Once play is started in this manner the two sides battle to gain possession of the ball.
Possession can be gained by picking the ball up off the ground, catching a kick or handball from
a player of either team, tackling an opponent who has had a significant opportunity to dispose of the
ball and failed to do so, or by being awarded a free kick for a rule infringement.
Possession does not give the team or player any particular rights under the rules, unless
a free kick has been awarded or the ball has been caught on the full from a kick (this is
called a mark, and does not distinguish between teams in the sense that you can mark the kick
of an opposing player). In these situations an opponent stands on the spot where the free kick or
mark was awarded and the player in possession must kick over them in the attacking direction.
If a player acts swiftly they can choose to resume normal running play instead and kick or
handball in any direction; otherwise normal play begins when the player kicks over the 'man on the
If you managed to understand that last paragraph you might be able to see that kicking the ball
directly to players on your team is a good way to retain possession and move in range of the goals.
The difficulty is that other players will be competing to try to prevent marking of the ball or to
mark it themselves. This contest to catch the ball has lead to some of the most memorable moments
in the history of the game. Often when scores are tied or very close a critical mark will be taken
in range of the goal and result in frenzied celebrations.
Scoring occurs when the ball is kicked between any of the four goalposts. If you are standing on the ground
facing the goals thus:
| | | |
| | | |
| B | A | B |
A B C D
Then kicking the ball through B is worth one point
(called a 'behind
') and kicking the ball through slot
A is worth six points (a goal
). If a behind
is scored then a player from the defending team is given possession
standing in slot A and must kick the ball back into play from there. If this player kicks the ball and it goes
out of bounds without being touched then the attacking team gets a free kick
from wherever the ball crossed
the line. If the player 'kicking in' takes too long to kick
then the umpire
will bounce the ball right in
front of the goal
s. If, during the course of play, the ball passes through the goals but is not kicked then
a 'rushed behind' is scored, again worth one point. If the ball is kicked into post B or C then one point is
scored; if it is kicked (on the full) into A or D then it is classified as 'out on the full' (see next paragraph).
If the ball passes over the boundary line (the edge of the ground) then it is thrown back in by a boundary
umpire after a pause in play. There are two exceptions - if the ball is kicked over the line on the full, then
a free kick is awarded to the other team. If a player deliberately takes the ball over the line to cause a break in
play then a free kick is also awarded.
Tackling is another important component of the game. When a player doesn't have the ball, then
only minor contact is generally acceptable. When they have the ball they may be brought to ground
or otherwised stopped by a tackle between the shoulder and the waist.
They may also be hit with the body, similar to a body check in
ice hockey; when performed correctly this is called a 'hip and shoulder' because of the way that the
attacker hits the victim. When contesting a mark the body may also be used to muscle for position. At
certain points in the game a player may find themselves in possesion of a live ball and standing full upright but
with no balance or momentum. At this point the player is vulnerable to the notorious 'shirtfront,' in which
the victim is slammed in the chest by an airborne opponent and almost always winded or injured. There is often
talk of removing this element of the game altogether as it is rather dangerous.
Players can typically kick the ball 40-50 metres with a big kick. Some very talented players can kick torpedo
punts, in which the ball is kicked at an angle so that it spins and travels further; the longest of these can
approach 80 metres in range, although they lack accuracy. As a result of the kicking range, there is a line on the
ground to indicate 50 metres distance from the centre of the goals. This serves a largely psychological
purpose, in that 'forwards' typically lurk behind this line and 'midfielders' attempt to deliver the ball to them,
although this is not enforced by any zoning rule. The ideal range to kick for goal is between 15-35 metres and from
a minimal angle. Many freak goals occur in which players kick from 50-60 metres off a few steps and on acute
angles and still score goals.
Handballs are used to transfer the ball from player to player. They are more accurate and controllable than kicks, but to not travel as far. A correct handball involves holding the ball in the palm of one hand and making a fist with the other hand, and then hitting the ball with the fist to propel it in the desired direction (try it now with a pair of socks to get the idea).
So, to summarise - we have two packs of players running around chasing a ball. When one team gets the ball, they do their damndest to get it through the middle of their goals by foot, moving it amongst themselves by foot or by hand. The other team does their damndest to get the ball for themselves, and this usually involves a lot of hitting other people with their bodies and jumping in the air to catch the ball.
The score in a game of football varies. The highest ever score was 37 goals, 17 behinds to total 239
points (scored by my team, Geelong :). On the other hand, teams have sometimes gone goalless for at least half a match
too. Typically the scores hover around the 100 point mark in a good match, but weather can often affect this. Scores are usually presented in the format 'goals.behinds total', eg. 10.12 72.
Games are generally very interesting because of the high level of scoring - unlike soccer where 4-0 at half time
means a game is over, Australian Rules features many comeback victories and unlikely fairy tale endings.
Momentum is critical, and if a team loses it then fortunes can change very quickly.