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Australian Rules, or Aussie Rules, is a sport unique to Australia. It originated from the Irish game of Gaelic Football in the mid-1800s. The first recorded game of Australian Rules took place in Melbourne on 7 August 1858 between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar and it was in that year that the rules of the game were formalised into a code.

The code is most popular in the southern states of Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania, but with the formation of major clubs in Sydney in 1983, the sport is now widely followed in New South Wales and Queensland.

Australian Rules is played on a large oval pitch between two teams, each of 18 players. The teams try to score goals (six points) through the centre posts, or behinds (one point) through the outer posts. The ball may be kicked or punched (handballed), but it may not be thrown. It is a game of positional play, each position using the basic skills of kicking, handball, marking, baulking and shepherding.

Kicking - Soccer excepted, Australian Rules uses more kicking than any other code. The advantage of kicking over other methods of getting rid of the ball, eg hand passing, is distance. The drop kick, drop punt and torpedo punt are the basc kicks of the game.

Handball - This skill must be mastered with both hands; the ball is held with one hand until struck with the clenched fist of the other. It can be used defensively or as an attacking skill to open up play.

Marking - A crowd-pleasing feature of the game. Height in the player is helpful but the main essentials of good marking are an ability to spring or leap into the air, and timing and judgement in getting into position. The player must always keep his eye firmly on the ball when taking a mark. The two kinds of marks are called 'high' and 'body'.

Baulking, Spinning, Pivoting and Shepherding - These are important team skills which can check or block the approach or tackle of an opponent. Tackling must be below the shoulders and above the knees.

It's very hard to explain how a game of Aussie Rules works to someone who has never experienced one. Unlike most games the play is very dynamic, with an emphasis on keeping the ball moving. It is often referred to as 'organised chaos' and the name is also used to refer to everyday situations in which there is no apparent order. This writeup will attempt to explain the complexities of the code and give some idea as to what a game might look like.

The structure of the game

First things first. The teams each consist of 18 players. Having a total of 36 players in one game naturally leads to a lot of confusion for first time viewers, especially as there are no rules about which parts of the ground players may stand in and there is no offside rule. The ground itself is an oval and at each there are four goalposts (see below). The ball is an oval shape and is slightly smaller than a rugby ball, slightly bigger than an American Football. During a game, coaches sit in corporate-style boxes up in the stadium so that they have a good view of the ground and all the action. The game consists of four quarters, each of which usually ends up being about 25-30 minutes depending on how much time is wasted by stoppages and interruptions. After the first two quarters there is an extended break, and between the first and second and the third and fourth there is a short break. In each of these the coach will come down from the box and discuss tactics and positional moves with the team, as well as trying to motivate them or chastise poor play. During a game a coach may make unlimited substitutions but there are no time outs; play does not stop during a quarter except for serious injuries.

The players and the violence

Players do not wear body armour or any protection other than a mouthguard to stop their teeth getting knocked out. They wear long-sleeved or sleeveless jumpers, shorts and football boots similar to those worn in soccer (no shin guards though). This lack of protection has lead to the claim that footy players are tough, and indeed they are. The game is a full contact sport - imagine if you will being unexpectedly hit in the middle of your back by the angled shoulder of a large and muscular man running at top speed and you will have some idea of how much punishment these guys take. It is quite common for players to be knocked unconscious, dislocate fingers, sprain knees and wrists, and bleed from injuries to their faces, legs and arms. In addition to taking this kind of beating they also play for up to two hours in a single game, meaning that they generally have amazing cardio-vascular fitness. This results in a unique physique - Australian footballers are generally deceptively slim but very muscular at the same time. In my time watching the game I have seen broken legs, a broken upper-arm, broken noses, a man receive an injection of painkillers directly into his skull, a man receive stitches directly into his skull, and worst of all a ruptured testicle (not something you want) as well as countless concussions including some that were delayed, where players got up after a hit and continued playing only to unexpectedly lose their balance, vomit, fall over and similar.Probably the worst injury that happens is the damaging of a player's knee. This often leads to 12-month rehabilitation times and has ruined many a promising player's career. Nothing is more sickening than seeing a talented young player get stretchered off with a damaged knee and thinking "that could be the end of his whole career."

Gameplay

At the start of a quarter or after a goal is scored play commences in the centre of the ground when the umpire bounces the ball on the ground in the middle of the centre square. Each team has a ruck who has the job of jumping up and trying to knock the ball to one of his teammates. Once play is started in this manner the two sides battle to gain possession of the ball. Possession can be gained by picking the ball up off the ground, catching a kick or handball from a player of either team, tackling an opponent who has had a significant opportunity to dispose of the ball and failed to do so, or by being awarded a free kick for a rule infringement.

Possession does not give the team or player any particular rights under the rules, unless a free kick has been awarded or the ball has been caught on the full from a kick (this is called a mark, and does not distinguish between teams in the sense that you can mark the kick of an opposing player). In these situations an opponent stands on the spot where the free kick or mark was awarded and the player in possession must kick over them in the attacking direction. If a player acts swiftly they can choose to resume normal running play instead and kick or handball in any direction; otherwise normal play begins when the player kicks over the 'man on the mark.'

If you managed to understand that last paragraph you might be able to see that kicking the ball directly to players on your team is a good way to retain possession and move in range of the goals. The difficulty is that other players will be competing to try to prevent marking of the ball or to mark it themselves. This contest to catch the ball has lead to some of the most memorable moments in the history of the game. Often when scores are tied or very close a critical mark will be taken in range of the goal and result in frenzied celebrations.

Scoring occurs when the ball is kicked between any of the four goalposts. If you are standing on the ground facing the goals thus:

            |      |
            |      |     
      |     |      |     |
      |     |      |     |
      |  B  |  A   |  B  |
______|_____|______|_____|_______
      A     B      C     D


Then kicking the ball through B is worth one point (called a 'behind') and kicking the ball through slot A is worth six points (a goal). If a behind is scored then a player from the defending team is given possession standing in slot A and must kick the ball back into play from there. If this player kicks the ball and it goes out of bounds without being touched then the attacking team gets a free kick from wherever the ball crossed the line. If the player 'kicking in' takes too long to kick then the umpire will bounce the ball right in front of the goals. If, during the course of play, the ball passes through the goals but is not kicked then a 'rushed behind' is scored, again worth one point. If the ball is kicked into post B or C then one point is scored; if it is kicked (on the full) into A or D then it is classified as 'out on the full' (see next paragraph).

If the ball passes over the boundary line (the edge of the ground) then it is thrown back in by a boundary umpire after a pause in play. There are two exceptions - if the ball is kicked over the line on the full, then a free kick is awarded to the other team. If a player deliberately takes the ball over the line to cause a break in play then a free kick is also awarded.

Tackling is another important component of the game. When a player doesn't have the ball, then only minor contact is generally acceptable. When they have the ball they may be brought to ground or otherwised stopped by a tackle between the shoulder and the waist. They may also be hit with the body, similar to a body check in ice hockey; when performed correctly this is called a 'hip and shoulder' because of the way that the attacker hits the victim. When contesting a mark the body may also be used to muscle for position. At certain points in the game a player may find themselves in possesion of a live ball and standing full upright but with no balance or momentum. At this point the player is vulnerable to the notorious 'shirtfront,' in which the victim is slammed in the chest by an airborne opponent and almost always winded or injured. There is often talk of removing this element of the game altogether as it is rather dangerous.

Players can typically kick the ball 40-50 metres with a big kick. Some very talented players can kick torpedo punts, in which the ball is kicked at an angle so that it spins and travels further; the longest of these can approach 80 metres in range, although they lack accuracy. As a result of the kicking range, there is a line on the ground to indicate 50 metres distance from the centre of the goals. This serves a largely psychological purpose, in that 'forwards' typically lurk behind this line and 'midfielders' attempt to deliver the ball to them, although this is not enforced by any zoning rule. The ideal range to kick for goal is between 15-35 metres and from a minimal angle. Many freak goals occur in which players kick from 50-60 metres off a few steps and on acute angles and still score goals.

Handballs are used to transfer the ball from player to player. They are more accurate and controllable than kicks, but to not travel as far. A correct handball involves holding the ball in the palm of one hand and making a fist with the other hand, and then hitting the ball with the fist to propel it in the desired direction (try it now with a pair of socks to get the idea).

So, to summarise - we have two packs of players running around chasing a ball. When one team gets the ball, they do their damndest to get it through the middle of their goals by foot, moving it amongst themselves by foot or by hand. The other team does their damndest to get the ball for themselves, and this usually involves a lot of hitting other people with their bodies and jumping in the air to catch the ball.

The score

The score in a game of football varies. The highest ever score was 37 goals, 17 behinds to total 239 points (scored by my team, Geelong :). On the other hand, teams have sometimes gone goalless for at least half a match too. Typically the scores hover around the 100 point mark in a good match, but weather can often affect this. Scores are usually presented in the format 'goals.behinds total', eg. 10.12 72. Games are generally very interesting because of the high level of scoring - unlike soccer where 4-0 at half time means a game is over, Australian Rules features many comeback victories and unlikely fairy tale endings. Momentum is critical, and if a team loses it then fortunes can change very quickly.

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