If you follow any Australian’s on social media, you’ll probably see mentions of ‘footy’, ‘Aussie Rules’, ‘speccies’ and a host of other foreign words. They’re talking about football, Australian Rules football and… well a speccie’s a speccie but we’ll talk more about that shortly!
One day you might find yourself visiting Australia during footy season and may wish to partake in this traditional local custom, whether it be watching the game at a pub (relaxed bar) with a mob (group) of sport enthusiasts over pints of beer, or if you’re really lucky, you can head to a game to experience the electric atmosphere of this great sport of aerial ping-pong.
Here’s a quick rundown of the sport which is a lot different to any other contact sport with a ball!
One of the Oldest Sports in the World
The game was first codified in Victoria in 1859, so it is actually one of the oldest sports of the modern era. It is commonly thought that Australian Rules is an offshoot of Gaelic Football, but while there are similarities, Gaelic football was codified 30 years after the Australian game. More likely is that the sport was influenced by the indigenous game of Marn Grook which involved large teams over an even larger playing area, kicking a stuffed, possum skin ball and punt kicking it to other players.
There weren’t many rules in the game but individual players who exhibited outstanding skills such as leaping high over others, were celebrated and this is probably the skill which eventually turned into the ‘mark’ in Australian Rules. This is where a player catches the ball from a kick where the ball otherwise hasn’t been interfered with by other players. Sometimes the player will launch themselves from another player’s back to gain extra height and if they complete the mark, without dropping the ball, this is known as a speccie (from spectacular).
The Modern Footy Era
There are currently 18 clubs in the highest league, with 10 of the teams coming from Victoria, and two each from New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia. The remaining states (Tasmania) and territories (ACT, Northern Territory) do not have teams but are affiliated with some clubs who may play there once or twice a year.
Most Australians will have a team they go for, even if they don’t watch the sport, they’ll usually relate to one of the teams based on location or pretty club colours.
It’s Not Rugby!
But for visualisation’s sake, AFL is kinda like a mix between rugby, Gaelic football and even a bit of soccer, played with an oval ball on an oval-shaped ground averaging 150m (492ft or 164yards) in length. At each end are four, white poles, with the two middle poles taller than the outer. Kicking the ball with your foot or leg below the knee, through the middle poles without interference from another player, at your team’s designated end, results in 6 points (a goal).
If the ball goes through the outer poles or is ‘rushed through’ from your hands or touched by any players between any of the poles or by having the ball hit the middle poles, it results in one point (a behind). So you even get a point just for trying!
During play, if the ball is kicked directly out of the boundary area or hits one of the outer poles, the opposing team is given a free kick from the boundary line. If the ball rolls over or comes off a hand over the boundary, then the ball is thrown back in by one of the four boundary umpires who officiate the game and ensure players abide by the rules. You’ll know who they are as the crowd usually yells ‘maggot’ or some other expletive when they’re close by.
The Long Game
The game is broken up into four quarters running 20 minutes each of actual play time. Time is added on for non-play so the quarters usually end up going for 30 minutes in total.
At the start of each quarter and after each goal is scored, an umpire will bounce the ball in the middle of the field, after which one player from each team, known as ruck men, will attempt to tap the ball to one of their own players to gain possession of the ball. Once in possession, the player can only kick or hand pass the ball which involves hitting the ball with a closed fist.
Any other type of disposal results in the umpires whistle being blown and the opposing team is given a free kick. Opposing players can try to gain possession of the ball by either legally interfering with a mark or handball, a tap resulting in the ball being dropped (before a mark is called) or by tackling a player who has possession of the ball that hasn’t resulted from a mark.
A Lil Bit of Argy-Bargy
Some free kicks can also be given for making contact with an opposing player above the shoulders, restricting them below the knees or slinging them to the ground with their arms pinned to their body. For fighting, extra rough or dangerous play the umpire may decide to award a 50m penalty and the play is moved 50m down the field towards the receiving team’s goals. If the action is deemed excessively rough the umpire may wish to report the player where he will have to front a tribunal and may be given a match ban or fine.
As with a lot of contact sports, there may be injuries. The umpire can stop play for those requiring immediate medical attention such as a stretcher or for blood rule, where the player is bleeding too much to just wipe it away.
There are 24 rounds, starting in March, which culminate in three rounds of finals that the top 8 teams play in each September. This results in the two top teams of the finals playing in the Grand Final, usually on the last Saturday of September. Playing in the Grand Final is a major achievement and 100,000 fans pack into the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) to watch it live and millions more pack pubs and streets around the nation to watch it on TV.
There’s nothing a team wouldn’t do to win a Grand Final (Google ‘Essendon Saga’) where the intensity of the game is at its highest (unless you’re the West Coast Eagles in 2015).
The winning team of the Grand Final receives the Premiership Cup and bragging rights for the next year. For 2016 it was the Western Bulldogs who played one of the most exciting Grand Finals in recent history against the Sydney Swans and in winning knocked the Hawthorn Hawks off their perch, where they’d sat for 3 years straight!
So if you’re visiting Australia from late March to September, definitely try and catch a game of footy. Tickets can be purchased from Ticketmaster, if you can, try and get a seat at ground level to really feel the action!
And go Fremantle Dockers! (my team 😀 )