Before moving to Melbourne, I had a vague idea that there existed a thing called Australian Rules Football, which was played with a rugby ball and was a bit like Gaelic football.* After nearly four years here, I am a big fan of the sport (with the pajamas to prove it) and am therefore qualified to explain it to newcomers.
Warning for Australians: It’s safe to say I still don’t understand all of the intricacies of your beloved game, but I’m OK with that. I work with a former AFL umpire and a former AFL player so could easily have checked a few things with them… but I did not.
OK, here we go.
In the same way that Chinese people don’t call it “Chinese food”, Australians don’t call it “Australian Rules football”. Instead it is just footy, or AFL. AFL stands for Australian Football League (which is the top level of the game, like the Premier League**) but you can call all levels of the sport AFL. I don’t know how that works.
There are 18 teams in the AFL; my team is Geelong. This year sees the first ever AFLW (womens) and they have started out with just 8 teams. Geelong don’t have a team yet so I’m going for Adelaide – more on that another time.
The pitch is an oval shape. It has nice grass. I wish our grass looked like that. (Green, that is. I could take or leave the oval shape.)
The goals are similar to rugby goals, except that there are four posts at each end and no cross bar. You get 6 points for kicking the ball between the middle posts, and just one point for kicking between the outer posts or if you hit one of the posts. An illustration would be helpful here.
There are no ‘own goals’. If you kick or hit the ball through your own goal, that is just one point to the other team. So it’s a defensive tactic that can save you five points. Maths.
The ball is indeed similar to a rugby ball, but to watch the players scrabbling around after it, you’d think it was covered in butter. Further investigation is needed to confirm this.
The umpire starts the game by bouncing the ball in the centre of the field as hard as they can so that it bounces high in the air and a player from each team jumps in the air to try to thwack the ball to their team. This bit is like basketball.***
When the ball goes off the field, the boundary umpire stands with their back to the field and throws the ball over their head towards the players. This is my favourite bit as they look so absurd. Depending on how the ball went out, one of the players might get possession from the side line instead of the umpire doing their backwards fling. That is quite boring in comparison.
In a rule seemingly designed solely to make things more complicated/subjective for the umpires, the ball is only ‘out’ if it goes over the line, not if the player holding it goes over the line. So, your feet can be ‘out’ but as long as you hold the ball ‘in’, you’re all good.
In this sport, a handball is a good thing. In fact, it’s the way that you pass the ball with your hands. You hold the ball in one hand and then hit it with your other hand, kind of like serving in volleyball. Except not really.
If you catch a kick that has traveled at least 15 metres, that’s called a mark. The ball is yours and no one can take it from you. You can either play on or take your time to set up a kick. The rest of the time, if you have the ball, you can be tackled. This is most definitely a contact sport.
You can run with the ball but once you’ve been running for a bit, you have to bounce the ball on the ground and then you can keep running. Now, let me tell you, bouncing an oval ball and getting it to come back to you is much harder than bouncing a round ball. And they do it while running. I can only conclude that there must be some sort of witchcraft involved. Or maybe magnets.
So there you have it – a comprehensive and mostly accurate (maybe) understanding of AFL. You are quite welcome.
* Things I know about Gaelic football: there are no things I know about Gaelic football.
** To further put my sporting knowledge into context, I just had to Google ‘Premier League’ to check I had it right.
*** Let’s pretend for a moment that I know what basketball is like.