Every Aussie Rules match follows the same format; it is competed between two teams, each of which has 18 players, and four interchange players. Considered a contact sport, AFL is held outdoors on a large oval-shaped grass pitch, and revolves around the advancement of an oval-shaped ball. At each end of the oval are two tall posts and the overall aim of AFL is for a team to score as many goals as they can, by kicking the ball through the opposing team’s goal posts, and to prevent the other team from doing the same – often by obstructing or tackling their opponents. Held in quarters, the winner is the team to have scored the most goals after all four quarters have been played. At the end of each quarter, which lasts 20 minutes, the play rotates and teams attack in the opposite direction.
Each Aussie Rules game is overseen by an umpire, who starts the match after a siren goes off, by bouncing the ball on the ground. Fro every match there are three field umpires, two boundary umpires who conduct throw-ins once the ball is out of play, and two goal umpires who are the official score-keepers. There is also an emergency umpire who can immediately replace any of the umpires if needed. Matches held during the day use a red ball, whereas night time games are played with a yellow ball.
The AFL rules are revised each year to keep concurrent with evolutions in the game itself and public perceptions of the game. Growing recognition of the impact of drugs on sport, as well as improved understanding of the long-term consequences of certain injuries have led to major rule changes in the past.
Listed below are the official rules of Australian Football as laid out by the AFL.
Every AFL game takes place on a grass oval which does not have to be a specific size, but must fit into a certain category; 135 to 185 metres in length and 110 to 155 metres wide. There are four posts at either end of the oval, with the inner two being the goal posts, and the outer two the behind posts.
On the pitch, white lines are used to outline the various areas of the oval, with the obvious being the outer boundary. There is also a 50 metre wide centre square with two circles in the middle of it which is where the bounce takes place at the beginning of a match. In front of the goal posts at either end of the oval, there are goal squares, and further out – the fifty metre line.
Unlike soccer, in AFL a player is able to use any part of their body to move the ball up the oval; most common is kicking, handballing and running while holding the ball. However there are specific rules laid out which distinctly explain manners in which to advance the ball:
- When a player is running while holding the ball they must perform what is known as a running bounce at least every 15 metres. If a player fails to do so, the umpire calls a free kick for the opposing team at the point where the player overstepped the mark. The ‘running too far’ signal by the umpire is indicated by rolling clenched fists around each other. Running bounces are normally carried out by attacking half-back flankers, or link-men, who would receive the ball off a rebound and attack into wide space allowing their team mates to create playing options. Due to the odd shape of the ball, the running bounce is quite a skill, and some players prefer to touch the ball to the ground which is considered the same technically, however slows momentum.
- One of the major AFL rules is holding the ball which helps prevent players from deliberately slowing down the play. This is put into practice when a player is tackled and they must dispose of the ball by either kicking it or handballing it, and is usually interpreted by the umpire as to whether or not it is a held ball. If it is called as a hold ball the team who performed the tackle is awarded a free kick.
- When handballing, the ball must be punched from one hand with the alternate fist, and is not allowed to be punched like a volleyball serve. The ball is also not allowed to be simply handed to a teammate.
- The ball cannot be thrown.
- In AFL there is no offside rule, so all 18 players on both teams are allowed on any part of the oval at any point in the match.
In AFL kicking is the most common method for advancing the ball up the field, with a variety of techniques, depending on the players form. Here are a few of the more common methods of kicking seen in AFL:
- Drop punt: The most used kick where the ball is dropped vertically and kicked before it hits the ground. As the ball moves through the air it spins backwards and is regarded as more accurate, and easier for a teammate to mark.
- Grubber: Is used to make it harder for the opposition to gain control of the ball, as it rolls and skids along the ground. Usually used in AFL as a scramble to score a goal, the kick is quite rare due to its unpredictability.
- Torpedo Punt: Is harder to catch as it spins on its long axis, but is used because it can travel slightly further.
- Checkside Punt: Also known as a banana kick, it bends away from the body and is often used for a set shot on goal with a narrow angle. It comes off the inside of the boot with the ball spinning in the opposite direction to the swing of the leg.
One distinguishing feature of Aussie Rules is the mark. This is when a player catches a ball which has been kicked and travelled over 15 metres without being intercepted by a person or the ground, cleanly. Each year an award is given out to the mark of the year. Usually the top markers take an average of around eight a game, but in 2006, in a game between St Kilda and Port Adelaide a record 303 marks were taken. After a mark has been awarded the player then receives a free kick.
There are a variety of types of marks which can be awarded:
- Overhead mark: Catching the ball with hands above the head.
- Contested mark: Catching the ball against one or more opponents who are also attempting to mark or spoil that player from achieving the mark.
- Pack mark: Catching the ball while another player, either an opponent or teammate, is in close distance to the fall of the ball.
- High mark: Catching the ball while jumping.
- Spectacular mark: Often named ‘screamer’ or ‘speckie’, is when the player catches the ball in the air using their legs to elevate themselves further by springing off the back of another player on the oval. It is a popular trademark of the sport as the vulnerability of the player jumping often produces spectacular results.
- Chest mark: Catching the ball and drawing it into the chest.
- Out in front: Catching the ball with arms extended in front of the body.
- One handed mark: Catching the ball with one hand.
- Diving mark: Catching the ball when jumping horizontally.
- With the flight of the ball: Catching the ball when running in the same direction the ball is travelling in.
- Standing one’s ground: Catching the ball when standing still which is often difficult as it gives opportunities for opponents to intercept the ball.
- Backing into a pack: Catching the ball when travelling backwards but facing the ball.
- Half Volley: Not technically a mark, however sometimes a player catches the ball so close to the ground it is often hard to decipher whether or not it bounced off the ground – up to the umpire to decide.
- Juggled mark: Catching the ball with two or more touches to gain control.
- Fingertip mark: Catching the ball with only the player’s finger tips catching it at full stretch.
Spoiling the mark is a technique used by the defence to stop a player from making the mark, but legally. It is normally a hand or a fist used in a punching motion either just prior to, or just after, a player catches the ball. However a player is not allowed to push other players out of the marking contest.
When the ball is considered to be in an opposing team’s possession, a player usually carries out a tackle to gain possession, or prevent the other team from maintaining control of the ball. Due to the contact nature of the sport, and the no offside rule, a player can be tackled from any direction. Because of this, teams often employ a shepherding method – where a player is protected by their own team when they have the ball as they are advancing on the field.
When tackling, the person conducting the tackle must do so below the shoulders and above the knees of the person they are tackling, and that player can be thrown to the ground. The tackler is not allowed to push in the back when tackling – making it quite a skill to do so correctly.
When a player is tackled, they must dispose of the ball, by either kicking or handballing it. If they do not, and had prior opportunity to have done so, they are penalised for ‘holding the ball’ and therefore a free kick is handed to the team of the player who made the tackle.
There are a variety of types of tackles which can be carried out in AFL:
- Perfect tackle: Conducted when the opponent has had prior opportunity to dispose the ball, but makes it impossible for them to do so, such as pinning their arms which makes them not able to kick or handball it.
- Gang tackle: When a player is tackled by more than one opponent at the same time.
- Diving tackle: Tackling when off the ground.
- Broken tackle: When the player being tackled is able to break free from it.
- Slam tackle: When the player getting tackled’s head is deliberately slammed into the ground and is not always tolerated.
- Wing tackle: When an arm is pinned in a tackle.
There are a few rules when it comes to tackling – a high tackle is not allowed, which is when the tackle takes place above the shoulder, and results in a free kick for the team who’s player was illegally tackled. Spear tackles are also not tolerated, which is when a player throws themself into an opponent using their shoulder to bring them down, and is a reportable offence which can result in suspension.
The player who has the ball in the tackle has methods at hand in which to dodge an imminent tackle such as:
- Footwork: Techniques such as dummying, side stepping and baulking are all common methods.
- Breaking: Methods such as chopping, fending off with your arms, shrugging, arching the back and ducking the head.
- Lubricant: Some players wear lubricant on their arms which decreases the amount of grip a tackler can manage.
Shepherding is a technique used in AFL to prevent a player from the opposing side to gain possession of the ball or from tackling a team mate. Shepherding is a legal from of obstruction in AFL and can occur even if a player is not in possession of the ball. Normally, shepherding is carried out by a player using their body to stop their opponent from reaching a contest, which is usually achieved by rigid outstretched arms and using body weight between the players.
Another form of shepherding is bumping, which is when a player uses their hip and shoulder to bump another player, not using their arms. This technique can be carried out by anyone against any opponent as long as they are within five metres of the ball. Bumping can only occur if the player bumping has their feet on the ground, and no contact can be made with the head. A shirt front, which is a front on bump and usually quite aggressive, is a reportable offence and considered illegal. While a tackle is usually more effective in dispossessing a player, a bump is normally a harder physical hit, although will not result in a free kick, whereas tackles can.
Free kicks are awarded in AFL by the umpire, the player who has caused the free kick ‘stands the mark’, while the person with the ball on the other team moves back to kick the ball over the player standing on the mark. The person taking the free kicks lines up the player on the mark, and the centre of the attacking goal into the same line before they take the free kick. A free kick does not have to be carried out as a kick, it can also be hand balled.
There are a variety of reasons for a free kick to be awarded such as:
- Holding the ball: When a player does not dispose of the ball when tackled.
- Running too far while carrying the ball.
- High tackling: Tackling a player above the shoulder.
- Holding the man: Holding/tackling a player who does not have the ball.
- Tripping: Tackling a player below the knees.
- Pushing in the back.
- Taking/chopping the arms: Spoiling a mark by restricting an opponent’s arm.
- Out on the full: When the ball is kicked and travels over the boundary line before bouncing.
- Deliberately out of bounds: When a player deliberately forces the ball out of bounds.
- Throwing: When a player throws the ball as opposed to handballing.
- Illegal shepherd.
- Kicking in danger: When a player kicks an opponent while attempting to kick the ball off the ground.