Australian Rules Football 101: It's Not Rugby!

Reading this guide will guarantee you one thing: You’ll never again mistake rugby with Australian Rules football. Ever.

The two sports are about as different as basketball and volleyball. How the myth started that Australian Rules football and rugby are the same — and persists in the United States —is anyone’s guess. Rugby is English in origin and made its way to Australia, Australian football was, and remains, uniquely Australian, with its variant invented and played by its Indigenous people, perhaps a few thousand years ago.

Basics: Games are played 18-on-18 by competing teams. (Each squad has four reserves that can be brought on at any time, as temporary substitutes, as in basketball or American football). Matches are played on grass oval fields that, like Major League Baseball fields, vary in dimensions. The average oval size is 180 x 150 yards — much wider and longer than American football fields.

The teams try to outscore each other by kicking a leather football more egg-shaped than an American one, through a pair of parallel, crossbar-less goal posts at the oval’s opposite ends, which are 20 feet high and 21 feet apart, for goals.

Matches start much like an opening tipoff or jump ball in basketball, but with a “field umpire” bouncing the ball in the middle of the oval, in the “center circle” inside the larger, “center square.” Then, the two teams’ ruckmen — the tallest players — battle to tap the ball to a smaller, more mobile teammate, who attempts to advance it toward goal. “Ruck contests” between these players take place during the center square bounces that begin each of the four quarters of play, or in “boundary throw-ins” by the umpire after the ball goes out of bounds, or in “ball ups,” after the umpire blows the whistle and determines no player has clear possession of the ball.

Players are positioned are in the forward line, back line and midfield, but may go anywhere on the field. Depending on which team has possession of the ball, as in basketball, all players play offense and defense.

Rules: Players may only pass the ball to their teammates by “handballing” (holding the ball in one hand while striking it with an opposing closed fist) or kicking. Throwing or handing off the ball is illegal. So is running with it for more than 15 meters (16 yards) at a time, without bouncing the ball or touching it to the ground. As with traveling, in basketball, players violating that rule are penalized for “running too far.”

If a player’s kick travels at least 15 meters, the player “marking” (catching) it on the fly may either back up from the spot where they’ve marked — which, if an opponent steps over, concedes a 50-meter penalty — and kick or handball the footy, unchallenged, or may immediately “play on,” by running, kicking or handballing.

Tackles are legal, but can only be made between a player’s shoulders and knees. Tackling outside those areas are illegal “high contact” or “tripping” infringements, penalized by a free kick to the illegally tackled player. If a player has prior opportunity to kick or handball before getting tackled and doesn’t, the player is penalized for “holding the ball,” with the tackler winning a free kick. This is the most highly disputed rule interpretation in the sport, which is why in every footy match you’ll hear the home team’s fans roar, with gusto, “BALL!” in an attempt to convince the field umpire to penalize a visiting player.

Players may not intentionally kick, handball or paddle the ball with their hands toward the boundary line, with no teammate in the vicinity, so that the ball will roll out bounds to stop the clock, gain territory for their team, or avoid getting tackled. This penalty is called “deliberate out of bounds,” or more commonly “deliberate.” It’s similar to NCAA and NFL football’s “intentional grounding” rule, penalizing quarterbacks for intentionally getting rid of the ball to avoid losing yards from getting sacked.

Similar to the NFL’s pass interference rules, AFL defenders attempting to “spoil” (bat or punch away) balls in flight that their opponents are trying to mark may not push them in the back, chop their arms or hold them. Similarly, players may not jump on others’ backs or shoulders to use them as springboards unless they’re making a legitimate attempt to mark the ball. For unsportsmanlike or other egregious physical actions, there is no penalty box, no yellow or red cards, no technical fouls and no ejections. An offender is sanctioned with a 50-meter penalty and an AFL umpire may “report” the player to the league’s Match Review Panel for a hearing the following week.

Scoring: “Major” scores are six-point goals, which may only be kicked between the two tall goal posts, either through the air or on the ground. If the ball hits either of the goal posts, or a player touches it before it goes through them, or if a kick goes between one of the goal posts and one of two shorter, adjacent “behind posts,” the kicking team scores a “minor” one-point “behind.”

Defenders may concede a behind by carrying it through the goal square, between the goal posts. This is called a “rushed behind,” and is legal, only if, in the umpire’s judgement, there’s no option to pass it to a teammate. This is similar to an NFL player conceding a safety by running the ball out of his own end zone.

A team’s total score is its tally of goals, plus behinds. Thus, Australian football final scores read with the goal number, then a period, then the behind number, with the total reached by multiplying goals by six, then adding one for each behind. Example: In the 2016 AFL championship match, the Grand Final, the Western Bulldogs defeated the Sydney Swans, 13.11 (89) to 10.7 (67).

Statistics: The most important statistics for a ruckman, the position Australian scouts are recruiting most American former college basketball players to play, are “hitouts,” “hitouts to advantage” and “marks.”

Statisticians credit ruckmen with hitouts when, against their direct opponents, they successfully tap the ball toward a teammate during a center bounce or boundary throw-in. A hitout to advantage is even better, as it shows how successful a ruckman is in providing a teammate “first use” of the ball. A team in attack mode, in the forward 50 meters of the ground often will deploy two ruckmen — one for potential ruck contests and another to “rest” in the forward line, to be a tall target for a teammate to kick to, close to the goal square, so that the resting ruckman can mark, then attempt to kick a goal. Teams also use this strategy in defense, with one of the ruckmen stationed in the backline, to spoil an opposition kick to the goal square, or serve as a tall target to kick to, up the field, for a counterattack. Midfielders and ruckmen have a symbiotic relationship; midfielders depend on ruckmen to tap the ball to them in ruck contests.

Unlike American sporting culture, in which individual performances in team sports often are measured by one’s scoring tallies, Australian football metrics most highly value the number of possessions a player accumulates. Possessions or more commonly called “touches,” or “disposals,” help denote which players have the most influence on a match. To put it in an American context, if the NBA were to view its players through an Australian Rules football lense, the league’s most valuable player wouldn’t be the scoring champion; it would likely be the player averaging the most assists, combined with offensive and defensive rebounds.

The Australian game has become dramatically more athletic and strategically complex since the late-1990s, when it wasn’t uncommon for the league’s top goal kickers to amass in excess of 100 in a season. Center half forwards or full forwards were celebrated and idolized for their brute strength in marking contests and their goal-kicking prowess. But since the turn of the 21st century, midfielders, because they follow the ball wherever it goes, run the most and rack up the most possessions, are the AFL’s glamor boys. Fittingly, midfielders, also known as “on-ballers” are responsible for steering their team out of defense and into attack and vice versa, their domain is colloquially known as the “engine room” or the “coalface.” To use a baseball parallel, just as a team never can have too many good pitchers, a footy club can never have too many good midfielders.

Umpires working the field and boundaries see much more of the midfielders compete than other position players, so when it comes time for umpires to vote on a match’s best players, midfielders are the most likely to garner votes. The player who accumulates the most umpire votes in matches wins the coveted Brownlow Medal; the equivalent to a North American pro sports league’s most valuable player.

Timing: Matches are played in four 20-minute quarters, with “time on” (stoppage time) progressively added throughout each (as in soccer’s halves), for when the ball goes out of bounds, or after a goal has been kicked and then returned for an ensuing center bounce. There are no timeouts — only 6-minute breaks after the first and third quarters, with a 20-minute halftime intermission. Tie scores at the end of regular season matches result in draws, but in post-season “Finals,” scores are settled after two additional 5-minute periods. Until 2016, if the AFL Grand Final was a draw after four quarters, the two sides replayed the game the next week. Under the new AFL rules, two additional five-minute halves, plus time on, are played after a draw. In the event of a tie after that, the final siren would sound after the next score, whether a goal or a behind.

Gear: Players’ team uniforms consist of “jumpers” or “guernseys” (like sleeveless basketball jerseys), shorts, socks and “boots” (cleats). Pouches inside the backs of players’ jumpers, below the neck, contain GPS monitoring devices that record — among other metrics — their speeds and distances. In a long upheld tradition that epitomizes team, not individual focus, players’ surnames aren’t on the backs of jumpers. Players tend to favor lower numbers.

History: Though “footy,” as Australians affectionately call it, was first codified in the 1850s and predates the first professional American football league by more than a half-century, a growing number of Australian scholars cite historic anecdotal evidence to illustrate its ancient origins with the indigenous Gunditjmara people of southwestern Victoria, who developed marn grook (“game ball”) using a ball made of possum skins.

Leagues were organized in Victoria in 1858 and the first known recorded match happened. Historians recognize Australian cricketer Thomas Wentworth Wills — a man who grew up in southwestern Victoria among Aboriginal people and spoke at least one Aboriginal language besides English — as inventing modern footy as a way for his fellow cricketers to remain fit during the off-season.

Organization: The Australian Football League (AFL), the sport’s nationwide, elite competition, has 18 clubs — 10 of which are based in the state of Victoria and nine of those 10 in the Melbourne area. The imbalance is a result of the league’s evolution from its beginnings as the Victorian Football League (VFL) before its 1980s expansion to other Australian states. The VFL exists today as a minor league feeder to AFL for affiliated clubs, whose reserve players compete there.

AFL clubs draft teens from top statewide under-18 leagues. Australian universities do not have sporting competitions like America’s NCAA. Some minor league footy clubs, though, may carry the moniker “University” in their nomenclature, as homage to their origins. AFL teams play a weekly, 22-game season, from late March/early April through late September/early October, only catching a breather during rotating, consecutive mid-season bye weeks. The top eight clubs play four Finals (playoff) rounds. The top four clubs enjoy a “double chance,” in which they may lose a first round “qualifying final,” but not be eliminated until losing a follow-up match. The two surviving clubs square off in the Grand Final — traditionally, the last Saturday in September — at the 100,000-seat Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).

Though many Americans mistakenly assume Australian Rules football is rugby, footy may not be as obscure in America as you might think. In fact, there’s a very good chance a group of amateur men and women are playing it in your city.

The non-profit United States Australian Football League (USAFL) has been around since 1996, played its first matches the next year and today boasts about three-dozen clubs across the country in multiple divisions. Some men’s teams, like the Orange County (Calif.) Bombers and Austin Crows and women’s clubs such as the Boston Lady Demons and New York Lady Magpies share nicknames with AFL clubs. Other USAFL clubs, such as the Minnesota Freeze, St. Petersburg Starfish, San Francisco Iron Maidens and Columbus Jillaroos created completely original identities.

The USAFL season runs through the American spring and summer, with teams competing in an annual national tournament two weeks after the AFL Grand Final, in mid-October. Most teams are coached by Australian expats and players are a mix of people of varying ages, skill levels and experience, from both countries.

An American national men’s team, the USA Revolution and a national women’s club, USA Freedom, compete around the world in international tournaments, including the International Cup, in Melbourne. The next such event is scheduled for August 2017.