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Explaining Aussie Rules

  • Thursday, June 18 2020 @ 01:40 pm ACST
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Since the arrival of the most recent coronavirus, Australian Football (also known as Aussie Rules) has captured the imagination of sport fans worldwide, particularly in the United States of America. With their own sporting codes on indefinite hiatus until the threats of COVID-19 disappear, cable and television networks have been showing our unique Australian game. 

The audiences have been growing exponentially and a look through Twitter reveals a large amount of people raving about the game – its hardness, its skills and its speed. New fans are even seeking advice on what is the best AFL club to support. One pattern, however, in all of this feedback has been the amount of times people have been asking for an explanation of the rules and how the game works – the logic behind everything that lights up the screen once the ball is bounced. 

Having been involved in most facets of the game myself for over 50 years, I felt it might be of value for me to have a stab at “Explaining Aussie Rules”.


The matches are played in enormous cauldrons of excitement, not dissimilar to Rome’s Coliseum but without the Lions and Tigers – unless Brisbane or Richmond are playing. They are all consistently oval-shaped , but that’s about where the consistency ends. Geelong’s GMHBA Stadium is 170m long and 116m wide – long and slender. Marvel Stadium is 160m by 129m. The renowned MCG is 161m by 138m and poor old SCG is a short and stumpy 155m x 136m. 

The amount of dimensions of football grounds is only really matched by the different body sizes of human beings. This probably fits with the Australian mantra, play wherever you like – size doesn’t matter. As long as the area of grass (or red dust, sand, bitumen or gravel, as the case may be) has room for two sets of goal posts, we’ll call it a footy ground.



As with most sporting leagues, animals dominate the club emblems. We have Lions, Tigers and, strangely, no bears, which immediately rules out and Wizard of Oz connections. We had bears once, but they got eaten by Lions in Brisbane. We have an inordinate amount of birds – Swans, Magpies, Hawks, Crows, Eagles. We have domestic house pets in Cats and Bulldogs. We have great sources of Earthly energy in the Power and Suns. There be Giants also. There are Blues, which could be a genre of music, but isn’t. We also have Dockers, which sounds like some sort of waterfront union or stevedores. We have gentle Kangaroos and Bombers which could destroy all others with one payload – except for Saints and Demons who aren’t really real (or are they?). 

The teams are located a across most of Australia from Melbourne to Sydney, Perth to Adelaide, Gold Coast to Brisbane and then little old Geelong. 

Tribalism amongst fans is as intense as anywhere in the world. The mascots for each team, dressed according to the above list, are largely benign but, frankly, I don’t trust any of them. They are not quite as scary as clowns, but could be one day.



Now, this is where things become crystal clear. To save time, I’ll start at the beginning. Teams have 18 players on the field at once. That is 36 players all squabbling for the ball. There are two teams playing each other. Another team, called umpires, enter the field with almost as many in their ranks as the teams themselves. They wear lime green. Or just green. Or Yellow. Or orange. Or red. Or pink. I guess they wear whatever they feel comfortable in.  That’s nice. 

It is their job to control the angry mob of 36 players. They do this through a series of very rigidly defined grey areas. A free kick is paid for a push in the back, unless it isn’t. The same goes for a free kick for head high contact, unless the head shouldn’t be there, in which case it is open to interpretation 

There are frees for deliberately forcing the ball out of bounds and dropping the ball. Now this is probably the easiest free kick to define. If the ball leaves your via hand or foot you are usually safe – though by hand has to be a handpass. Almost any other means of the ball escaping you is a potential free kick against you. The umpires rigidly decree that you must look after your balls better. Or else.

There are free kicks for holding on to a player if the ball is in flight. If two players are holding each other, the umpires toss a mental coin to decide who was naughtiest first. If you kick a ball off the ground and someone else’s extremities are reaching for the ball, that is also a free kick. Holding the ball is a case of you have had the ball for far too long and must now hand it over to the other team…honestly, that is as close as I’ve ever come to understanding that rule.



In essence, this is easy. If a team kicks a ball between the two highest posts, they get six points. If they kick between the tall post and shorter post they get one point. If they miss the posts altogether they get nothing…and deserve it! The ball must come off the foot untouched. If a ball goes through the posts by hand they get just one point. To that point, scoring is easy. 

More difficult is the question of whether or not the ball had FULLY crossed the white line on the ground – the goal line. This is where things get murky. With enough technology available to solve most serious crimes, camera angles are viewed multiple times. Eventually, someone in a dark room miles away from the action (sort of like The Truman Show) decides whether the ball did or did not cross the line and a score is awarded…or not. With me so far? 

Half of the crowd cheers like maniacs. The other half boo the umpires, video umpires, technology, relevant deities and any nearby opposition supporters mercilessly (this actually applies to most, if not all, umpire decisions). 

The team with the greatest score wins. So, here is the extremely simple breakdown of a score: 

5 goals x 6 points each equals thirty points, added to 10 behinds x 1 point each equally 10 points, therefore 5 goals 10 behinds equals 40 points (shown as 5 10 40). Now, if you have that little formula sorted in your head, you should apply to help launch NASA’s next spaceship to the moon – similar set of figures.


Ball Movement:  

The main objective for all teams is to retain possession long enough to set up a score – much like any other sport. In simple terms it works like this. When the ball is bounced in the middle of the ground (always a thing of beauty, until it goes wrong – which is often) and the two ruckman (taller than most other players, but not as tall as the goal posts) try to tap the ball to their team’s advantage. 

This sometimes ends with a magnificent show of athleticism whereby a running player plucks to ball from mid-air, swerves around baffled opponents and launches a long kick towards or through the goals. More often than not, however, the ball lands on the ground and you have around as many players squabbling for the ball as seagulls around a chip. The umpires intervene and the ball is thrown up again and again until one team does break away.

When they do, that team ALWAYS drives the ball forward towards their goals, except when they go backwards, sideways or possibly underground (depending on ground conditions – mud, etc) which is, to be perfectly honest, most of the time.  Because our game has no offside rule, players can run pretty well wherever they like. The reality is, it is like a game of Keepings Off – perfected in the early years of childhood when you didn’t want anyone else to have your ball. Whatever it takes to keep the ball long enough to set up a score. 

So, that’s probably it. Or, at least, enough to take in at this sitting. It is a complex game, and not for the faint hearted. Its moments of great clarity are swamped under a cloak of ambiguity, incoherence, unfathomability and things unexplainable by science. Yet, the journey is worth it. 

Australian Football really is a showcase of strength, power, accuracy, skill and speed. The tackles are ferocious. The high marking is spectacular. Some of the punt kicking makes American Football’s eyes water. The gut-busting running and associated ball movement is exhilarating. It is little wonder that the code has captured the imagination of people around the world who had previously missed seeing the spectacle. 

But, a word of warning. Those hoping to understand the rules must be prepared for long hours of study, not dissimilar to a college or university degree. 

Of course, most of what I have mentioned here applies to the televised world of the AFL, mainly because they are the matches being televised or streamed to new audiences. However, closer examinations of the way the game looks at grass roots level (juniors), metropolitan and country footy and international level, VFL, AFLW or state leagues just broadens each of the characteristics listed – adding even more colour, excitement and emotion.

Enjoy your wonderful new addition to your sporting and televised world.