Australian Rules Football is a highly physical, energetic and engaging sport. Played on a cricket sized pitch with the aggression of rugby, the pizzazz of the NFL and a truly unique rulebook, there really is no sport like it. Characterised by crunching tackles, Aussie Rules is certainly not for the faint hearted. However, the brutality is balanced with sensational solo goals and moments of sheer brilliance, making it a must-see sport. With highly committed fans ever present, sampling Aussie Rules is worth it for the atmosphere alone. Here we provide a quick taste of the Aussie Rules basics, an overview of the rules, some key terms and recommendations of who to see and where to see them.
Country of Origin
As the name suggests, Australian Rules Football originated in Australia. There are 15 international governing bodies across the globe, including Germany and South Africa, but Australia is the only country with a professional Aussie Rules league.
Aussie Rules was first played in Melbourne in the 1850’s inspired by the football played in English public schools. Nearly 50 years later, eight teams joined forces to form the Victorian Football League, a professional Aussie Rules competition. The league still exists today and has been known as the Australian Football League (AFL) since 1990.
An Australian Rules Football team is made up of 18 players. Their aim is to score more goals than their opponents by kicking an oval ball, similar to the one used in American Football or Rugby, through a set of large goalposts located at either end of the oval field. There are four posts, two larger in the centre (goal posts) and a smaller post on either side (behind posts).
The ball can be moved up the pitch by kicking, handballing (but not throwing) and running. The opposition prevent progression up the pitch by tackling with their hands and arms or blocking with their bodies.
Players cannot hold onto the ball for more than 10 seconds without bouncing it, otherwise a freekick is awarded. Freekicks are also awarded for fouls such as a high tackle (touching an opponent above the shoulders) and pushes in the back.
Matches are made up of four quarters of 20 minutes, plus additional time if needed.
Goal – worth six points, scored when the ball is cleanly kicked through the goal posts without touching another player or the goalpost. The ball can bounce or fly through.
Behind – worth one point, scored when the ball passes through the gap between the behind post and the goal post, or when the ball passes the goal posts in any other manner than stated above (touching another player, hitting the goalpost).
Mark – A player catches the ball after it has been kicked by another player from at least 15 metres away. A mark allows the player to make their next move (kick or pass) without being challenged by the opposition.
Spoil – intercepting a pass, often by punching the ball away.
Disposal – passing the ball, via a handball or kick.
Contested Possessions – winning the ball back.
An Aussie Rules score will display the number of goals, behinds and the total score. For example, if team A scored 12 goals and 15 behinds, and team B scored 10 goals and 12 behinds the score would be displayed as: team A 12.15 (87) defeated team B 10.12 (72).
There are 18 different Aussie Rules positions. The field is split up into defence, midfield and attack, and each of these has six positions. However, the positions are not rigid due to the fluid and dynamic nature of modern Aussie Rules Football:
Back Pocket (Left and Right) – the deepest lying defensive player, skilled at spoiling the ball. Often quick, as they mark the pacey, nimble opposition.
Fullback – a strong defensive player, responsible for stopping the Full-Forward from scoring.
Half-Back Flank (x2) – play slightly higher up the field than the two previous positions. Responsible for spoiling the ball and winning the ball in contests. Can help with the transition of play by bringing the ball out of defence and up the field.
Centre Half-Back – a tall, strong player with the job of preventing the Centre Half-Forward from scoring or taking marks.
Wing (Left and Right) – a fit midfielder, responsible for both attacking and defending. He/she is usually strong at kicking.
Centre – a real allrounder, with good stamina and the ability to win the ball back and get the ball forward.
Ruckman – a tall midfielder, normally the tallest player on the team. This is a crucial role as they are responsible for winning the ball at key times. It is very physically demanding, as they are often dueling with the opposition Ruckman.
Ruck-Rover - a fit and sturdy player responsible for winning the ball back and getting it down the field.
Rover – often the smallest player on the field, they are very agile and follow the ball around the field.
Full-Forward – a well-built player who plays very high as a target. Capable of taking marks and will often be the player who kicks the most goals.
Forward Pocket (x2) – a small, agile and skillful player who will often produce moments of brilliance, be it a solo goal or a weaving run.
Half-Forward Flank (x2) – are an option for a long ball put wide and deliver forward balls to bigger players.
Centre Half-Forward – considered the most demanding position in the game, a Centre Half-Forward is tall, strong and athletic. Responsible for taking marks and scoring goals. A centre half forward can determine whether a game is won or lost.
The Australian Football League (AFL) is the nation’s professional Aussie Rules league. With bitter rivalries and huge levels of excitement guaranteed, the AFL is Australia’s highest attended sporting league. It is made up of 18 teams from five out of the six Australian states (there are no teams in Tasmania). The season runs from March to September and is made up of 23 regular season rounds, with each team playing 22 games and getting 1 bye. The team who tops the ladder after these 23 rounds is crowned minor premier, but the season does not finish there. The top eight teams progress to the finals series, a knock out format which concludes with the illustrious Grand Final. Typically 100,000 fans flock to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, for what is one of the great occasions in the Australian sporting calendar. The atmosphere is always electric and the action is captivating.
The women’s Australian Football League (AFLW) began in 2017 following the success of exhibition matches in 2013. The second season in 2022, AFLW Season Seven, will see eighteen teams play a 10 round season, with a four week final series taking place for the top 8 clubs. The women’s game is progressing rapidly in Australia, considering discussions for a women’s league only began in 2010, in spite of the male format running since 1897. With increasing media coverage and proper player contracts in place, it is only going to continue to grow.
Aussie Rules is full of eccentric customs. Between 2003-2007, one round in the AFL was Heritage Round in which teams played in a retro style kit. Rivalry Round was another themed week, where traditional rivals all played each other in one blockbuster weekend. This was scrapped in 2010 in order to spread out the big games throughout the season. There has been talk of trying to resurrect both of these rounds.
Another tradition that we have not seen for a few years occurs when a player kicks their 100th goal of the season. This accomplishment is marked by the crowd all running onto the field in celebration. Only 28 men have achieved this feat in the history of the game, with Lance Franklin of Hawthorn being the last back in 2008.
Each team has their own chant. After a win, teammates link arms in the clubrooms and sing their hearts out in celebration.
Teams begin the game by running onto the field through a huge 10 metre banner which sports the teams colours, an inspirational message and is held aloft at the start of the game by the team’s cheer squad. The team captain, or a major player, leads the team when breaking the banner, which can also be used to poke fun at the opposition. In 1971, a poorly performing South Melbourne side took on St Kilda. St Kilda’s run through banner was emblazoned with “South Melbourne, the Invincible Masters and Supreme Conquerors of… the wooden spoon”. Banners have also been used to celebrate milestones, protest against the AFL and pay tribute to the passing of former players.
The Teams and Matches to Watch
Naturally, the grand final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground is an awesome spectacle and the best place to soak up the Aussie Rules atmosphere. Further fixture highlights in the AFL season include Anzac Day (the Australian and New Zealand day of remembrance) when Collingwood have played Essendon at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on April 25th every year since 1995 to pay tribute to those who have served their country. This is considered the biggest game in the AFL calendar outside of the grand final, and much like the season finale it is the hottest ticket in town, with close to a six-figure crowd spilling into the MCG every year.
Dreamtime at the ‘G is another huge AFL fixture. Contested between Essendon and Richmond at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, it attracts one of the biggest attendances of the season. The game was first hosted in 2005, aiming to recognise the contribution made by Indigenous players to the AFL. The team who emerge victorious are awarded the Kevin Sheedy Cup, named after the great Kevin Sheedy, who was not only one of the most talented players to pull on the Richmond colours, but also coached Essendon for a staggering 26 years.
As you can probably guess from the previous existence of the Rivalry Round, rivalries are a huge part of Aussie Rules Football. Regardless of positions in the AFL ladder, they are always the biggest games and draw the biggest crowds. Aussie Rules fans are passionate enough as it is, and this is heightened on a Derby Day. Carlton versus Collingwood is arguably the most historic, deep-seated, bitter rivalry in the AFL. Put simply, these two teams detest each other. Not only are they close geographically, they have also met in six grand finals, just to intensify the rivalry. Carlton famously trailed by 44 points in the 1970 final before going on and spectacularly winning the game. Although the in form team changes from season to season the rivalry remains constant, making a Collingwood – Carlton showdown a game like no other.
Collingwood are also big rivals with suburban neighbours Richmond. This is a rivalry steeped in history, with the sides having met in five grand finals between 1919 and 1929. The 70’s and 80’s were a particularly heated period, as big names from both sides transferred from one to the other almost bankrupting the two clubs. The rivalry was re-ignited in the 2018 season, when underdogs Collingwood battered Richmond in the preliminary final. Huge crowds and hostility are a guarantee from a Collingwood versus Richmond encounter.
Hawthorn against Essendon is a more modern rivalry in comparison to the two previous examples. This came to the boil in the 1980’s, when the two sides met in three consecutive Grand Finals. And these weren’t any old Grand Finals. These were bruising, fierce and brutal encounters. Matches in a similar ferocious vein have followed, with the occasional controversy sprinkled in for good measure.
Further great rivalries include Carlton versus Richmond, Essendon against Carlton, Adelaide versus Port Adelaide and West Coast against Fremantle. The best place to sample the unique atmosphere of Aussie Rules Football is at a derby match. With so many huge AFL rivals, there are plenty of opportunities.
Players to Watch
Dustin Martin won a cluster of individual accolades in 2017, following a dazzling season. He won the AFL player of the year award (the Brownlow Medal) with a record vote haul and was awarded the player of the match award in the 2017 Grand Final (the Norm Smith Medal) as he guided Richmond to a 48-point victory. However, since his storming season in 2017 Martin has struggled with a string of injuries. Despite a lack of playing time of late, the Richmond player is a fan favourite and will be one to watch for years to come.
Christian Petracca’s ability to play dual-positions as a forward and midfielder, both on the inside and outside, makes him incredibly exciting to watch. The 26 year-old is a two time All-Australian and won the premiership with Melbourne in 2021, helping the side win their first premiership in 57 years. In doing so Petracca equalled Simon Black’s record for the most disposals in a grand final and won the prestigious Norm Smith medal for his best-on-ground performance. Melbourne will be hoping his form continues this year.
Fremantle captain Nat Fyfe is the 2015 and 2019 Brownlow Medal winner. He is an incredible athlete; strong and aggressive, making him awesome at winning contested possessions, with leading disposals statistics and a strong goal return too. A real allrounder, Fyfe has had to recover from multiple injury setbacks, bouncing back each time to the top of his game. With Fremantle very much towards the top of this year’s table, he is certainly a player to keep an eye out for in the upcoming matches.
All Time Great Players
Gary Ablett is widely regarded as one of the greatest players to grace the Australian Rules field. He starred for Geelong during the 1980’s and 90’s, and is one of five players in Aussie Rules history to kick over 1000 goals. Ablett’s prowess led to him being nicknamed “God”, high praise indeed for a man who shied away from the spotlight. Interestingly, his son Gary Jnr was also a highly talented player, following in his father’s footsteps at Geelong where he was considered one of the best players in the AFL, before retiring following the Cat’s Grand Final defeat in 2020.
Leigh Matthews has also been afforded legend status. His goal return is up there with the very best (he amassed a staggering 915 goals for Hawthorn in 332 appearances), but it was the lasting impression he would leave on games that he is best remembered for. Matthews was a one-man match winner thanks to an array of spectacular solo goals, and his sheer strength made him near impossible to win the ball off. Matthews was part of the hugely successful Hawthorn side who made seven Grand Finals between 1969-1985.
Tony Lockett is the highest scoring Aussie rules player of all time. In a career spanning nineteen years and 281 matches, he scored a staggering 1360 goals for both St Kilda and then the Sydney Swans before his retirement in 2002. Lockett scored 100 goals in a season on a record six occasions, and his individual score of 16 goals against Fitzroy in 1995 is the fourth highest in AFL history. At 6 ft 3, he was a towering presence and his shooting, strength, pace and leap made him a complete player.
Where to See It
The iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground is undoubtably the number one venue to sample Australian Rules Football. When all 100,024 seats are full of passionate Aussie Rules fans for a big fixture, there is no place like it.
The Docklands Stadium in Melbourne is another great place to catch Aussie Rules Football. Boasting a capacity of 53,359, it is the AFL headquarters. The stadium has a retractable roof, making it perfect for all weather conditions.
No matter whether you are new to AFL or have followed it for as long as you can remember, it can be easy to miss the first bounce of your teams biggest game or lose track of who is playing when. However, this is where Fixture Calendarcomes in. Fixture Calendar provides extensive and time zone accurate AFL fixture information, as well as fixture specific links to tickets, travel, news and more. Use our site to make sure you don’t miss any Aussie Rules Football action, no matter where you are in the world.
Written on 22nd July 2022
Photos by thomasrdotorg, Simon Yeo