Since its early beginnings in 1858, Australian Rules Football, or simply ‘footy’ (as the Aussies call it) has captivated the hearts and minds of many Australians. The fast-paced nature of the sport, its rough and tumble action, and the skills of AFL’s best players, have made it the country’s most popular spectator sport.
But while the game’s passionate fans can follow the ball as it zips around the field, those with only a passing knowledge of footy, can be left dazed and confused.
This is where we come in, to get you prepped for your first-ever live game of Australian Rules Football.
1. History of Australian Rules Football
If you are a sports lover from outside of Australia, the chances are that you still might not know the rules of this sport from the 1800s.
The game itself was conceptualized by Tom Wills in 1858 as a way for cricketers to stay fit during the winter, and the sport quickly picked up steam.
After scratch matches were played between the private schools of Melbourne Grammar and Scotch College, Aussie Rules Footy was officially born.
Modern-day professional teams, Melbourne and Geelong, both emerged in the ensuing months.
They would go on to be the founding fathers of the Australian Football League. However, it was slow progress towards the official beginning of the league.
In fact, just shy of four decades passed between the first scratch matches and the sport’s first professional competition.
In the years leading up to 1897, more clubs continued to emerge as the various suburbs of Melbourne created their own teams.
Rules were hashed out, games moved from treed parks to sporting grounds and footy’s popularity throughout the city reached boiling point.
So in 1897, the Victorian Football League was created.
By then the sport had spread throughout the other states, particularly into South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania.
However, the power and popularity of the VFL, made it the ‘Home of Football’.
From the first ‘flag’ (championship) won by Essendon in 1897 to the 1990 victory by Collingwood, the VFL was the pre-eminent sporting league in the country.
But quickly facing financial issues and pressure to expand, the VFL became the Australian Football League.
Over the following years, two teams from each state (except Tasmania and Northern Territory) were added to create a truly national competition.
2. The Rules of the Game
Aussie Rules have changed, adapted, and shifted many times since the mid-19th century.
Rules and tactics are constantly changing, while salary caps and drafting have attempted to create an even playing field between all clubs.
However, the fundamental rules of footy have largely remained the same.
The game is played on a spacious oval field, roughly 160 meters long and around 130 meters wide (although each ground can be different).
There is no offside rule, which allows for a free-flowing, creative game. But can make it difficult for newbies to acclimate.
There are four posts at each end of the ground, two small and two large.
If you kick the footy (a leather football is shaped somewhere between an NFL and Rugby ball) between the two large posts (goalposts) you score 6 points or a goal.
Either side of those posts is a single point, or what is called a behind.
If the ball is touched by hand, or by the opposition before passing the goalposts, it is always one point.
Each team has 18 players on the field, and four on the bench (substitutes).
Both teams receive 75 substitutions, which are almost always maxed out by the end of each game. Think of Ice Hockey rotations for example.
Although there are no restrictions on where a player can run or what they can do, let’s keep it simple to start.
Each team has 6 defenders, 6 forwards (attackers), and 6 midfielders, who follow the ball wherever it goes.
A game of Aussie Rules has four 20-minute quarters. But after stoppage time each quarter lasts around 30 minutes.
There are small rest breaks after the 1st and 3rd quarters, with a longer 20-minute break at half-time.
To start the game and each quarter, there is a ball-up (or a tip-off) where each team’s tallest player jumps and tries to give their team first possession.
Players then try and move the ball down the field in two different ways.
Players can pass the footy by kicking or handpassing.
If a player marks (catches) the ball and the footy has traveled more than 15 meters, then the player with the footy cannot be tackled.
A handpass can be completed by clenching your hand and hitting the ball to a teammate. This player can be tackled right away.
Throwing the football at any stage will result in the opposition receiving a free-kick and possession of the footy.
A successful tackle must be between above the player’s knees and below the shoulder. Outside of that zone will result in a free kick.
The umpire will also call free kicks when a player is held without the ball, pushed in the back, or incorrectly disposes of the footy.
The team will work together to move the ball into the ‘forward line’ which is marked by an arched line 50 meters from the goal.
The aim is to kick the ball to a tall marking target, who will catch the ball and have an attempt on goal.
However, if the ball comes to ground, quick, smaller players will try and grab the footy, then quickly attempt to kick a goal.
After the footy flies between the ‘big sticks’, the crowd goes wild and the football returns to the middle for another ‘tip-off’.
3. How to Watch Aussie Rules Football
The AFL is the most popular spectator sport in Australia. As a surprise to many travelers, AFL sees the world’s fourth-biggest crowds by average attendance.
This is purely because of the game’s free-flowing, attacking nature that is so exciting to watch live. From big ‘speccies’ (spectacular marks) to ‘bananas’ (see below), you never know what is around the corner.
If your trip to Australia coincides with football season which runs from late March to the end of September, you must find your way to a live AFL game.
The regular season has 9 games per weekend, spread from Friday night to Sunday evening with the odd Thursday night blockbuster. Unlike other major sports such as the NFL, there aren’t a lot of sell-outs so it isn’t hard to get tickets for regular-season games.
You can get tickets during the week from Ticketek.
The cities of Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, and Brisbane will usually have one game each weekend. However 9 of the league’s 18 teams come from Melbourne, so there are often up to 5 games in the city each weekend.
If you are overseas and want to get watching, you can sign up for live games, replays and AFL TV shows via https://www.watchafl.com.au/
4. Best Games to Attend
Any Preliminary Final
Each year there are two preliminary finals, and both winners will go onto the Grand Final (championship game) held at the MCG.
While the Grand Final will have 100,000 spectators, there are a lot of neutral fans and corporate packages on offer.
The Preliminary Finals are packed with passionate local supporters, screaming like no tomorrow, hoping to advance to the final game.
Since 1995 the annual ANZAC Day game between Collingwood and Essendon has grown into the calendar’s biggest regular-season game.
A crowd of over 90,000, packs the MCG to celebrate and commemorate the sacrifices, both past, and present, of Australia’s servicemen and women.
The pre-game experience of total silence as the bugle plays the ‘Last Post’ is both spine-tingling and inspiring. While the game itself, usually goes down to the wire.
The traditional rivalry games between old VFL clubs are still going strong to this day. Especially between Hawthorn/Geelong and between the Big Four of Collingwood, Carlton, Essendon, and Richmond.
However, interstate rivalries have taken over the AFL landscape.
The Showdown (between Adelaide and Port Adelaide) and The Western Derby (between West Coast and Fremantle in Perth) are especially good.
Get your tickets early as these games will sell out!
Wherever you are in Australia, you’ll always be close to a game of Australian Rules Football. So going to a game on your next adventure Down Under is a must-do.
Whether you head to the brand new AFL stadium in Perth, the endearing Adelaide Oval, or the monstrous Melbourne Cricket Ground, you’ll be in for a great time.
Grab a pre-game beer at the pub, surrounded by supporters wearing their team’s colors.
Then enjoy the march to the stadium, where the chaotic game of Aussie Rules will begin.