Australian rules football

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Australian Rules redirects here. For the movie, see Australian Rules (film).
Australian Football at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Australian Football at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Australian football, which is also often known as Australian rules football, or informally as "Aussie Rules" or "footy", is a game played between two teams of 22 players (including interchange players) on cricket ovals, or similar-sized arenas. These playing areas, which can be up to 185 metres (200 yards)long (there is no set length), are much larger than those used by other codes of football. The game is also distinguished from other games by the fast, relatively free movement of the ball (partly due to the absence of an offside rule), and the awarding of a free kick for any clean catch — known as a mark — of a ball which has been kicked more than 15 metres. Spectacular high marks (called "speccies" in the eastern states, or a "cappa" in WA) are regarded as one of the game's main attributes as a spectator sport. Australian football is a full body contact sport, but it has a low injury rate from competitive contact compared to rugby football or American football, and it can be played with minimal padding. Although it is a winter sport, professional pre-season competitions usually begin in late February; the football season proper is from March to August, with finals being held in September.

Australian football, which originated in Melbourne, is the most popular spectator sport in Australia. It is the most popular sport in the Northern Territory (NT), South Australia (SA), Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia (WA). In New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland, rugby league is the predominant winter sport. In the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) rugby union is arguably more popular. However, ongoing net migration from Victoria and SA to Queensland and northern NSW, the winning of AFL premierships by teams in those areas, and the consequent growth of amateur football, means that the demographics of Australian football are changing. In recent years, there has been a boom in Australian football in Brisbane, and this appears to be closely linked to the success of the Brisbane Lions, who won three premierships in a row (2001-2003), and were runners-up in 2004. In Sydney alone, the Sydney Swans' 2005 premiership win was watched by an average television audience of one million. In both the ACT and south-western NSW, Australian football has rivalled the two varieties of rugby in popularity over many decades. Australian football is now played in more than 20 countries around the world.

Cricket is the most common summer spectator sport in Australia, and is usually played on the same grounds as Australian football. In the past, many elite-level footballers played representative cricket, but the increasingly professional nature of the game made this impossible by the 1980s. Many amateur and school-level players still play both.

The most powerful organisation and competition within the game is the elite, professional Australian Football League (AFL). There are also seven state (and/or territory)-based organisations: AFL NSW/ACT, Football Tasmania, the Northern Territory Football League, the South Australian National Football League (SANFL), the Queensland Australian Football League, the Victorian Football League (VFL), and the Western Australian Football League (WAFL). Most of these hold annual semi-professional club competitions, while the others oversee more than one league. Local semi-professional or amateur organisations and competitions are also affiliated to these state leagues.

Unlike most soccer competitions, there are no separate "league" and "cup" trophies (although there is a pre-season Wizard Cup tournament). The teams that occupy the highest positions (usually four in most amateur leagues, but eight in the AFL) play off in a "semi-knockout" finals series (in the AFL, the top four sides get a second chance if they lose their first final), with the two successful teams meeting to contest the premiership. This is decided by one game, the Grand Final.


Rules of the game

The equipment needed to play the game is minimal. As in other kinds of football, players wear boots with stops (known as studs in some regions) in the soles, shorts, and a thick, strong shirt or jumper known as a guernsey.

Eighteen players are permitted to take the field for each team, with an additional four players on an interchange bench (although this number often varies in exhibition and practice matches).

AFL football
AFL football

The game is played with an ellipsoid ball which may be caught, kicked or passed to another player by punching, but may not be thrown or handed between players. There is no offside rule and a player may run as far as he likes with the ball, provided he either bounces or touches the ball to the ground every fifteen metres. A player who cleanly catches a kicked ball that has travelled more than 15 metres without anyone else touching it — called a mark — is entitled to an unimpeded kick of the ball, to advance his team towards their goalposts.

Four posts are erected at either end of the oval and markings are placed on the ground as shown in the diagram below. They are aligned in a straight line 6.4 metres apart from each other (in contrast to the illustrations below which are incorrect). The aim for each team is to kick the ball between the two inner posts of one set, for a goal, worth six points. If the ball travels between one outer and one inner post (which includes striking an inner post), it scores a behind, worth just one point. If the ball travels outside the posts, or strikes the outer-most post, it is deemed out of bounds and is either thrown in or awarded to the opposing side as a free kick, depending on whether it bounced before going out of bounds.

There are no set positions in the rules of the game, but traditionally the field was divided into three major sections: the forward line, back line, and midfield. The forward and back lines were comprised of six players, arranged into two lines of three players each. The midfield generally consists of the designated ruckman (i.e. player who contests the ruck) and players who either stay in the centre area of the ground (between the two 50 metre arcs) or follow the ball and are not confined to a particular area.

The modern game, however, has largely discarded positional play in favour of a free flowing running game and attempting to have loose men in various positions on the ground. The rise in popularity of the hand-pass since the 1970s has greatly influenced this style of play, with players more willing to follow the ball and move it quickly amongst themselves rather than kicking long to a one-on-one marking contest. In the late 1990s a tactic known as flooding was devised and also shifted focus away from set positions. When a team "plays a flood", they direct two or more of their midfield or forward line players into their defence, thus out-numbering their opponent and making it difficult for any opposing forward to take an uncontested mark. Most football sides are named (and demonstrated) in the traditional set positions, but it is in fact uncommon for players to stay within the traditional areas of their position. Below is a diagram illustrating the traditional positions of Australian Football.

The markings on an Australian Football ground. Note that the actual dimensions of the playfield are not fixed, but can vary between 135 and 185 metres in length and 110 and 155 metres in width.
The markings on an Australian Football ground. Note that the actual dimensions of the playfield are not fixed, but can vary between 135 and 185 metres in length and 110 and 155 metres in width.
The traditional playing positions.
The traditional playing positions.

The game is controlled by a number of field umpires (at elite level, three), two boundary umpires whose main job is to conduct throw-ins when the ball leaves the field of play and two goal umpires who judge whether the ball is kicked between the goal posts without being touched by another player or the goal posts (thus scoring a goal), between a goal and point post (thus a point) or outside the goals entirely (thus becoming the boundary umpire's responsibility). The goal umpires wear distinctive uniforms (such as white, and recently brightly coloured, coats) and are equipped with two flags. After a goal is scored and indicated to the players via hand signals, the goal umpire waves the two flags such that the other goal umpire sees and records the goal. One flag is waved for a point.

'Australian Football'at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Alastair Lynch, (Brisbane Lions, seen here in maroon and blue guernseys), is attempting to take a mark, with his Collingwood (black and white guernsey) opponent trying to stop him. (Note: This photograph was taken during a match played as part of the AFL's annual "Heritage Round", a week in which teams wear guernseys used by their club in previous generations.)
'Australian Football'at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Alastair Lynch, (Brisbane Lions, seen here in maroon and blue guernseys), is attempting to take a mark, with his Collingwood (black and white guernsey) opponent trying to stop him. (Note: This photograph was taken during a match played as part of the AFL's annual "Heritage Round", a week in which teams wear guernseys used by their club in previous generations.)

The game is a fast-paced combination of speed, athleticism, skill and physical toughness. Players are allowed to tackle the player with the ball and impede opposition players from tackling their teammates (known as shepherding), but not to deliberately strike an opponent (though pushing the margins of these rules is often a substantial part of the game). Like most team sports, tactics are based around trying to get the ball, then — through a combination of running with the ball, hand-passing and kicking — deliver it to a player who is within range of goal. Because taking a mark entitles the player to a free kick, a common tactic is to attempt to kick the ball on the full (without bouncing) to a teammate who is within kicking range of goal. In this situation, packs of players often form around the goal square, and the opportunity arises for spectacular high marks (or "speccies"), in which players launch themselves off opponents' backs to mark the ball, high in the air. This particular skill is highly regarded as a spectacle, and an annual "Mark of the Year" is awarded at the end of a season.

Holding the ball

One of the things that causes the most confusion for people that are not familiar with the game are the Holding the Ball, Dropping the Ball, and Throwing rules. Confusion arises because a player being tackled is not allowed to hold onto the ball, but is not allowed to throw it either.

These rules are easily summarised:

  • Players must always dispose of the ball cleanly. A disposal is either a kick or a handpass. Failure to do so results in a penalty to the opposing team, which is awarded a free kick. This is usually called either dropping or throwing.
    • A handpass, also called a handball, is performed by punching the ball from one hand with the other fist.
  • When a player is in possession of the ball, and moving, the ball must be bounced, or touched to the ground, at least once every 15 metres. Failure to do so results in a penalty to the opposing team, who is awarded a free kick. This is occasionally called travelling but is most often referred to as "running too far", and is signalled by the umpire in the same way as travelling is signalled in basketball. It is not referred to as holding the ball as had been previously recorded here.

If the ball carrying player decides to run with the ball or to evade a tackling opponent, he would be deemed to have a prior opportunity of being able to dispose of the ball legally.

  • When a player is in possession of the ball, and is tackled correctly (ie., above the knees and below the shoulders), they must immediately dispose of the ball by kicking or handpassing. Failure to do so, when a prior opportunity to dispose of it existed, results in a penalty to the tackling team, who is awarded a free kick. This is also called holding the ball. Exceptions to this rule include:
    • Being bumped, that is, hit side-on by another player or tackled in such a manner that causes the ball to be knocked free or come loose from a player's possession.
    • Being tackled with the ball despite gaining possession of it but had no chance of disposing it (no prior opportunity). A ball-up would result to restart play.

If the ball carrier, who had prior opportunity for properly disposing the ball, was swung off balance while attempting to dispose the ball but not making contact, a holding the ball decision would be awarded against the ball carrier on the basis of the ball not being legally disposed of.

In a recent effort to reduce the amount of unnecessary stoppages, the interpretation of the prior opportunity have widened to include players who:

  • Grabs hold of the ball during a ball-up or throw-in situation instead of knocking it away.
  • Dives onto the ball in dispute.
  • While in a prostrated position, pulls the disputed ball in underneath him.

In these instances if the player is then tackled and could not dispose of the ball legally, a holding the ball penalty would be paid against him.


Like many other codes of football, the way to score points is to score goals. In Australian Football, there are two types of scores: a goal, or a behind. There are four goal posts at each end of the ground. The area between the middle (and taller) posts is the goal: kicking the ball between these posts constitutes six points. Kicking the ball through the gaps in between the two shorter posts is a behind, which constitutes a single point. A ball that passes through the taller posts in any manner other than a kick (ie., handpassed or run through) is a behind. A ball that is touched by any player after it is kicked and before it passes through the taller posts is a behind. A ball that is kicked over the line by a defending player is a behind. A kicked ball that strikes one of the inner posts (whether it goes through or not) is a behind.

Therefore, when an AFL or any other Australian Football result will usually appear like this:

Brisbane Lions 17.10 (112) def. Sydney Swans 13.17 (95)

The first number is the number of goals (six points) scored, the second number is the number of behinds (one point) scored, and the third number in the brackets is the total score.

Length of the Game

The length of a game of Australian Football can vary from league to league, but is generally around 15 to 25 minutes per quarter. In the AFL, each quarter runs for 20 minutes plus time on. The term "time on" describes the additional time added to the standard 20 minute period for such stoppages as injuries, goals being kicked, when the umpire is setting the angle of a free kick at goal, etc. It can be likened to injury time in soccer, except that in Australian Football, an off-field independent official keeps the official time and then sounds the siren at the start and end of each quarter. The other peculiarity (compared to most other football codes) is that the onfield umpires signal to the "time-keeper" when time is to be added on (or conversely, to stop the clock, since that is effectively what happens when the umpire signals time on). The average AFL quarter will thus run from between 27 to 33 minutes, depending on the amount of time added on.

Origins of the game

Tom Wills began to devise Australian Football'— or (first 'Melbourne Rules' and then Victorian Rules as it was originally known — in Melbourne, in 1858. (H.C.A. Harrison, Wills's cousin, was also named much later as an official "father of the game", but his role does not now seem to have been significant at this very early stage.) A letter by Wills was published in Bell's Life in Victoria & Sporting Chronicle on July 10, 1858,[1] calling for a "foot-ball club" with a "code of laws" to keep cricketers fit during winter. An experimental match, played by Wills and others at the Richmond Paddock (later known as Yarra Park, next to the MCG) on July 31, 1858, was probably the first game of Australian Football. However, few details of the match have survived.

On August 7, 1858, two significant events in the development of the game occurred: the Melbourne Football Club was founded, one of the world's first football clubs in any code, and a famous match between Melbourne Grammar School and Scotch College began, umpired by Wills. A second day of play took place on August 21, and a third and final day on September 4. The two schools have competed annually ever since. However, the rules used by the two teams in 1858 could not have had much in common with the eventual form of Australian Football, since Wills had not yet begun to write them..

A game at the Richmond Paddock in the 1860s. A pavilion at the MCG is on the left in the background. (A wood engraving made by Robert Bruce on July 27, 1866.)
A game at the Richmond Paddock in the 1860s. A pavilion at the MCG is on the left in the background. (A wood engraving made by Robert Bruce on July 27, 1866.)

The Melbourne Football Club rules of 1859 are the oldest surviving set of laws for Australian Football. They were drawn up at the Parade Hotel, East Melbourne on May 17, by Wills, W. J. Hammersley, J. B. Thompson and Thomas Smith (some sources include H. C. A. Harrison). The 1859 rules did not include some elements which soon became important to the game, such as the requirement to bounce the ball while running, and Melbourne's game was not immediately adopted by neighbouring clubs. Before each match, the rules had to be agreed by the two teams involved. By 1866, however, several other clubs had agreed to play by an updated version of Melbourne's rules.

It is often said that the founders were partly inspired by the ball games of the local Aboriginal people in western Victoria. Aborigines did play a sport called Marn Grook, which used a ball made out of possum hide, and included play resembling the high marking ("speccie") in Australian Football. There is considerable debate over the connection between the two. Wills did have a deep knowledge of Aboriginal culture, and Harrison had grown up in an area near present day Moyston, Victoria where he may have seen Marn Grook.

Wills had been educated at Rugby School in England and had also, like W. J. Hammersley and J. B. Thompson, been to the University of Cambridge. The Cambridge Rules, drawn up in 1843, included some elements which are important in Australian Football, such as the mark. Thomas Smith was Irish and had attended Trinity College, Dublin, where the Rugby School rules were popular at a very early stage. These men would have been familiar with other public school and university "football" games. They may also have been inspired by traditional games, played among the thousands of immigrants who poured into Victoria from the UK, Ireland and many other countries during the gold rushes of the 1850s.

Similarities to Gaelic football

While it is clear even to casual observers that Australian Football is similar to Gaelic football, the exact relationship is unclear, as the Irish game was not codified by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) until 1887. The historian B. W. O'Dwyer points out that Australian Football has always been differentiated from rugby football by having no limitation on ball or player movement (in the absence of an offside rule), the need to bounce the ball (or toe-kick it, known as a solo in Gaelic football) while running, punching the ball (hand-passing) rather than throwing it, and other traditions. As O'Dwyer says:

These are all elements of Irish football. There were several variations of Irish football in existence, normally without the benefit of rulebooks, but the central tradition in Ireland was in the direction of the relatively new game [i.e. rugby]...adapted and shaped within the perimeters of the ancient Irish game of hurling... [These rules] later became embedded in Gaelic football. Their presence in Victorian football may be accounted for in terms of a formative influence being exerted by men familiar with and no doubt playing the Irish game. It is not that they were introduced into the game from that motive [i.e. emulating Irish games]; it was rather a case of particular needs being met... [B. W. O'Dwyer, March 1989, "The Shaping of Victorian Rules Football", Victorian Historical Journal, v.60, no.1.]

After 1887, the two games developed in isolation from each other. However, since 1967, there have been many matches between Australian Football and Gaelic football teams, under various sets of hybrid, compromise rules. In 1984, the first official representative matches of International Rules football were played, and these are now played annually each October.

The clubs and competitions

The modern day Australian Football League (AFL) has many teams dating back to the beginnings of the game: apart from the Melbourne Football Club, other early clubs still in existence include: Geelong (1860), Carlton (1864), North Melbourne (aka Hotham, now Kangaroos) (1869), Port Adelaide (1870), Essendon and St Kilda (1873), South Melbourne (now Sydney Swans) (1874) and Footscray (now the Western Bulldogs) (1877).

In 1877, the Victorian Football Association (VFA), the game's first league, was formed by 14 clubs: Albert Park, Ballarat, Barwon, Beechworth, Carlton, Castlemaine, East Melbourne, Essendon, Geelong, Hotham (later North Melbourne), Inglewood, Melbourne, Rochester and St Kilda. Six of these clubs were from the Victorian country. At the time, Essendon was regarded as a semi-junior club rather than a full member, and was allowed concessions such as fielding teams of 25 players, instead of the standard 20.

Gradually the game spread from Victoria into other Australian colonies, especially South Australia (SA), Tasmania and Western Australia (WA). The first intercolonial match, between Victoria and SA, was held in 1879. The precursors of the South Australian National Football League (SANFL) and the Western Australian Football League (WAFL) were strong, separate competitions by the 1890s. Meanwhile, a rift in the VFA led to the formation of the Victorian Football League (VFL), which commenced play in 1897 as an eight-team breakaway of the stronger clubs in the VFA competition: Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy, Geelong, Melbourne, St Kilda and South Melbourne.

Another five VFA clubs joined the VFL later: Richmond and University joined the VFL in 1908, although University withdrew in 1915. Footscray, Hawthorn and North Melbourne joined in 1925, by which time VFL had become the most prominent league in the game.

For much of the 20th century the SANFL and the WAFL were considered peers of the VFL. Although the VFL was generally accepted as the strongest league, clubs from all three leagues frequently played each other on an even footing in challenge matches and occasional nationwide club competitions.

Interstate football

Main article: Interstate matches in Australian rules football

For most of the 20th century, the absence of a national club competition — and the inability of players to compete internationally — meant that matches between state representative teams were regarded with great importance. Because VFL clubs increasingly recruited the best players in other states, Victoria dominated these games. However, State of Origin rules were introduced in 1977, and in the first such game, at Subiaco Oval in Perth, Western Australia defeated Victoria, 23.13 (151) to 8.9 (57), a huge reversal of the results in most previous games. Western Australia and South Australia began to win many of their games against Victoria. However, during the 1990s, following the emergence of the Australian Football League, state of origin games declined in importance, relative to Origin games in the rival code of rugby league, especially after an increasing number of withdrawals by AFL players, who were under increasing pressure from clubs concerned by the risk of injuries. Australian Football State of Origin matches ceased in 1999. The second-tier state and territorial leagues still contest interstate matches.

Towards a national club competition

In 1982, in a move which heralded big changes within the sport, one of the original VFL clubs, South Melbourne Football Club, relocated to the Rugby League stronghold of Sydney and became known as the Sydney Swans. In the late 1980s, strong interstate interest in the VFL led to a more national competition; two more non-Victorian clubs, the West Coast Eagles and the Brisbane Bears began playing in 1987. The league changed its name to the Australian Football League (AFL) following the 1989 season. In 1991, it gained its first South Australian team, Adelaide. West Coast's local derby rival Fremantle was admitted in 1995. Fitzroy merged with Brisbane after 1996 due to financial difficulties to form the Brisbane Lions and the proud old SANFL club, Port Adelaide joined in 1997, immediately becoming fierce local rivals to Adelaide. The AFL, currently with 16 member clubs, is the sport's elite competition.

All of the clubs which have competed in the VFL or AFL still exist in one form or another. For example, the Fitzroy Football Club still exists in the Victorian Amateur Football Association as the Fitzroy Reds, who wear Fitzroy Lions guernseys and play their home games at the Brunswick Street Oval.

With the introduction of the AFL, the SANFL, WAFL and other state leagues rapidly declined to a secondary status. Apart from these there are many semi-professional and amateur leagues around Australia, where they play a very important role in the community, and particularly so in rural areas.

The VFA, still in existence a century after the original schism, merged with the former VFL reserves competition in 1998. The new entity adopted the VFL name.

Traditions of the Game

At the elite level, the game still retains some links to its suburban roots. AFL players run on to the field through a crepe paper banner depicting some message (for instance, congratulating players on a milestone number of games) constructed by volunteer supporter groups.

Games begin by Tossing a coin, for the winning captain to select the end of the field of their goal for the first quarter. Unlike other forms of football, Australian Football begins similarly to basketball. After the first siren, the umpire bounces the ball on the ground, and the two ruckmen (typically the tallest on the ground), battle for the ball in the air on its way back down.

All AFL clubs also have a club song, most of which were composed during the early 20th century, or mimic the musical styles of that era. At least two teams use club songs set to the tunes of well-known American marches:

The goal umpire signals with 2 hands at elbow height. Some traditions change, however, and the goal umpire no longer wears a white coat and broad brimmed hat.

Australian Football internationally

While Australian Football is a major spectator sport only in Australia (except for occasional exhibition games staged in other countries), since the late 1980s amateur competition has grown in countries such as New Zealand, Ireland, United Kingdom, Denmark, the USA, Canada, Germany, Japan, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Samoa, China and South Africa, initially established by Australian expatriates but collecting growing numbers of native players. The largest such competition is the Ontario Australian Football League, with 12 teams scheduled to compete in 2006. Separate from their local competitions, North American fans have formed an organization, AFANA, specifically to work for improved media coverage of Australian Football and its U.S. branch, US Footy.

A series of hybrid International Rules matches between Australia's best and a representative Gaelic football team from Ireland are staged annually. The rules are a compromise between the two codes, using a round ball and a rectangular field but allowing the fierce tackling of the Australian code. The series have remained evenly matched with the Irish using speed and athleticism, and the Australians strength and power - both inherent skills in their respective codes. This contrast of skills has created exciting contests that are a hit with spectators.

Australia has recruited several Irish Gaelic footballers to play Aussie Rules, most notably Brownlow medallist Jim Stynes, Sean Wight, and more recently Tadhg Kennelly, Setanta Ó hAilpín and Aisake Ó hAilpín.

The International Australian Football Council (IAFC) was formed in 1995 to promote and develop Australian football internationally. The inaugural Australian Football International Cup was held in Melbourne in 2002. It was contested by 11 teams made up exclusively of non-Australians: Ireland won the cup, defeating Papua New Guinea in the final. The second Australian Football International Cup was held in Melbourne in 2005, under the direction of the AFL with New Zealand defeating Papua New Guinea in the final. The next event is planned for either Melbourne or Perth in 2008.

When internal divisions spelled the end of the IAFC, a new organization was set up - called Aussie Rules International - by former IAFC member Brian Clarke in London. This successor to the IAFC promotes itself as an international organization for developing (not governing, which is claimed by the AFL) international Australian Football.

Australian Football Hall of Fame

For the centenary of the VFL/AFL in 1996, a Hall of Fame was established. That year 136 identities were inducted, including 100 players, 10 coaches, 10 umpires, 10 administrators and 6 media representatives.

The selections have caused some controversy, partly because of the predominance of VFL players at the expense of those who played in other leagues, in the years before there was a national competition. Gary Ablett's induction was deferred for several years until 2005 due to a controversy associated with the death of a young woman acquaintance shortly after his retirement, which was felt to be likely to bring the Hall into disrepute.

The elite Legend status was bestowed on 12 members of the Hall of Fame in 1996; seven other football identities have subsequently received this honour.

The original legends (in alphabetical order) are:

Later additions:

Notable VFL/AFL records

See also

External links

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