In my original “intro to footy” blog, I covered some of the general FAQs surrounding the sport of Aussie rules football, specifically its historic origins, popularity within Australia, and some of the basic rules of the game, including the scoring system.
Today, I’d like to go over the gameplay/rules in depth, specifically for my American friends who are unfamiliar with footy and who might be interested in catching a game online or on cable TV at some point. So here we go!
Since a footy oval is synonymous with a cricket ground, the dimensions of the field vary considerably, since cricket is one of the few sports with no universally-declared field size. Most grounds are a maximum of 185 meters long and 155 meters wide.
There are two large semicircles at both ends of the ground marking 50 meters from the goalposts (called forward-50 lines). The goal square is located in the shadow of the goalposts and is similar to a “key” region on a basketball court. The midfield region is marked by a large center square and a center circle within the square. This is where gameplay starts.
The game is divided into four quarters of 20 minutes each. If there are stoppages in play, such as the ball going out of bounds, the time is added onto the total, just like in soccer. Other stoppage examples include when the ball is being run back into the field of play after a goal is scored.
There are breaks in between quarters, as well as halftime. The halftime is a 20 minute break, while the breaks in between quarters are six minutes long.
- What kinds of pregame traditions are there in footy?
Just like in American football, fans will frequently tailor-make a large banner for the team to run through before the game. Often, the fans will make competitive references to their opponents or even honor veteran players who have accumulated a certain number of games.
In the past, during the AFL regular season, most matches have lower-level minor league games that are played before kickoff. These are called “curtain-raisers.”
After a coin toss decides which goal each team will defend, the game starts in the center square. The umpire blows his whistle and will either toss the ball upwards (a ball-up) or bounce the ball hard on the ground so it bounces back up (a center bounce). It is at the umpire’s discretion as to which method will be used, based on weather and the condition of the ground. Two tall players, known as ruckmen, contest the ball in a manner very similar to basketball, trying to knock the ball down to their smaller teammates in the midfield and forward line.
- After the ball is knocked down by the ruckmen, what happens?
In addition to the ruckmen, there are several midfielders from both teams surrounding the ruckmen in the center square area. These are referred to as rovers and ruck-rovers, and together with the ruckmen, they are collectively called “followers.” It is the job of these players to grab possession of the ball, handball it to a teammate (known as a disposal) or kick the ball forward to their other teammates (known as a clearance).
A mark is when a player on the receiving end of a kick jumps up and catches the ball cleanly. From here, they can decide to dish it off via a handball or kick it to another teammate. They can also attempt to kick a goal themselves if they’re close enough, or run with it in the open field provided they bounce it every 15 meters.
If a player takes a mark, the defender cannot touch them or encroach on the space where the mark was taken. If the player takes a mark inside the forward-50 line, they have 30 seconds to take their kick unimpeded, as opposed to 10 seconds anywhere else on the field. If that time passes, the umpire will call “play on” and the defender is free to tackle you.
- What is a spectacular mark?
Simply put, a spectacular mark is the most exciting play in footy. Frequently called a “speckie,” it occurs when a player jumps on top of another’s back in order to take the mark. While you’re not allowed to push anyone in the back, you can jump up and use your opponent for leverage while you attempt to grab the ball, essentially planting your shin on their back. It’s pretty awesome!
A “crumb” or “gathering the crumbs” is when a group of players try to contest a mark (typically inside the forward-50 line) and none of them get it, leading to a mad dash for the ball. It is called this because the image of several players trying to grab the ball looks like a group of pigeons going after bread crumbs. You may frequently hear AFL commentators referring to players as being quality “crumbers.”
- What can you do when you don’t have the ball?
All players need to contest the ball when it’s in their immediate vicinity and try to stave off their opponent, but when you don’t have the ball, you need to keep your head in the game.
In addition to playing tight defense regardless of your position, it’s a big rule of thumb to be able to shepherd. A crucial part of playing footy, shepherding is just like guarding in basketball or checking in hockey – having your teammates’ backs when they have the ball. The only catch is that you can’t shepherd if you and your opponent are less than five meters from the ball.
- What happens after a goal or a behind is scored?
After a goal, the goal umpire will signal that the team has scored and another umpire will grab another ball and run it back to the center square so that play can be restarted with a ball-up.
If a behind is scored, one of the defenders nearest the goalposts will go behind the goalpost and kick it back into the field of play for his own team.
- What happens after a tackle?
If a player is tackled cleanly while still possessing the ball, it’s a turnover and the opposing player who made the tackle will get a free kick. This also applies if the man being tackled does not dispose of the ball properly (with a clenched fist) or if he holds onto the ball after having prior opportunities to get rid of it (“holding the footy”). Throwing the ball is not tolerated and will also result in the opposition getting a free kick.
- Can you kick or touch the ball directly on the ground?
Yes. If a player (typically a forward) has the ball fall in front of him within sight of the goal square, he is allowed to kick it directly along the ground, soccer-style, as long as no other players are within the vicinity.
If a player is attempting to go for the ball in the open field but is being pursued by another player, he can tap the ball forward once or twice in order to gain separation from his opponent, get a better grip on the ball, or knock it forward to a teammate.
- What happens if you run too far with the ball?
One of the unique skills required in Aussie rules football is the running bounce – when a player running with the ball in the open field must bounce the ball every 15 meters. This rule is not enforced strictly if you’re about to be tackled, but if a unimpeded player is deemed to have run too far without bouncing, he will be whistled and the other team will be given a free kick.
- What can defenders do? And what can’t they do?
All players are permitted to tackle the man with the ball, but defenders consist of the six players defending their forward-50 line and goal square against the opposition. These players are comprised of three halfbacks and three fullbacks, and all must attempt to stop the other team’s forwards from kicking goals.
They are all allowed to block (or smother) kicks, tackle in a legal manner, shove the ball-handler out-of-bounds, or spoil kicks by punching the ball out of the opponent’s hands when he is attempting to make a mark. Defenders can even deflect a ball that’s going through the goalposts; if they do this, the other team will only score one point (a behind) rather than six (a goal).
- What other types of penalties are there?
- Argue with or swear at an umpire
- Directly prevent a player from taking a free kick or otherwise encroach on the mark
- Enter the field at areas other than the interchange area
- Make head or neck contact with your opponent while in a marking contest
- Attempt to trip your opponent
- Make high or low tackles (above the shoulders or below the knees)
- Shove an opponent in the back
- Hold onto a player’s jersey or restrict their movement by grabbing
- Tackle a man who does not have the ball
- Tackle a player who has already taken a clean mark
If you commit any of these penalties (as well as some others), you will either give away a free kick or be cited for a more severe 50-meter penalty.
- What if there’s a jump ball?
If a group of players are trying to grab the ball and the umpire cannot determine who has possession, he will conduct a ball-up from the spot of the ball and the two teams will contest the play from there.
- What happens when the ball goes out of bounds?
If the ball goes out of bounds, the boundary umpire will pick up the ball and, with his back to the field, throw it over his head back into play. The players will then contest the ball just like they would in any other marking contest. However, players are not allowed to deliberately push or kick the ball out of bounds, and will be penalized if they do.
- What is an “after the siren” kick?
If the siren sounds to signify the end of the first half or of the entire game, a player can still kick a goal. For example, if a player kicks the ball to a teammate and the receiving player marks it cleanly, he is still allowed to take the kick even if time expires.
Most of the time, this kick has little consequence, but there have been several instances when a player has kicked a game-winning goal. It’s the Aussie rules equivalent of a buzzer-beater, and it’s rare enough to make any close game an instant classic.
- Is any padding permitted?
Aussie rules is a full-contact sport, just like rugby. Soft protective headgear and light shin guards may be worn, but no other padding is allowed. Mouthguards are strongly encouraged, but not required.
- How many substitutions are allowed?
Each team is comprised of 22 players – 18 on the field and four on the bench. Of those four bench players, three are regular substitutes and one is an injury replacement. New players can sub onto the field during stoppages of play, but they must enter at the designated interchange area or risk a penalty. In the AFL, the maximum number of exchanges is 120 per game.
- How are in-game penalties handled? Is there a carding system?
Unlike in soccer or rugby, there is no carding system in Aussie rules, which means that players cannot be ejected for rough conduct. However, they can be reported at the umpire’s discretion.
In the AFL, the player discipline is handled in a post-match tribunal, who will issue suspensions or fines if needed. The severity of the offense is based upon video review of the incident in question, specifically determining which players were at fault and/or if the illegal contact was deliberate.