Australian Rules Football: AFL for beginners

Whichever country you’re emigrating from, chances are you don’t have an Aussie Rules Football league. You might have rugby league, rugby union or soccer, but you probably haven’t tried to mix the sports together to make a new one. It’s confusing to say the least, but, boy, do the Aussies love it and you will too once you get your head round it.

Australians love sport; it’s the hub of most pub conversations and the buzz around a big AFL game like the Grand Final is electric. However, as a foreigner it can be hard to get fully excited about it with your new friends if you have no clue what’s going on. Often it looks like a disorganised scramble for the ball (sometimes it is) but the extensive complex rules and excellent athleticism make it an addictive spectacle.

The aim of the game is to kick the ball through the central goal posts without anyone touching it. That is a ‘goal’ and worth six points. You win if you get the most points. Easy. Not so fast: if someone touches it or it goes between the outer posts, that’s called a ‘behind’ and you only get 1 point. Then you’ve got to get your calculator out and decode the score board to work out who is winning.

We could go into the 5000 rules that make up the chaotic structure of the game but this is a beginner’s guide and there are more important things to learn first.

Let’s start with the basics: where they play, who is playing, what they play with and for how long. Here’s our guide to the AFL for beginners.

Moving the goal posts

They play in an oval shaped ground, similar to a cricket ground in many ways. The size is anywhere between 135-185m long and 110-155m wide depending on what standard you are playing at or which team is hosting you. There can be up to 20m difference in length and 26m in width between the premier stadiums! This can really affect how the game is played and how big your home advantage is.

The markings on the ground start with the centre circles, which sit in the middle of the ground and are divided by a straight line parallel with each goal line. Then move out to the centre square which is 50m long and wide. Then the 50m arc at each end. Finally, a goal square 9m from each goal post. The game is played within a continuous boundary line which should be around 5m from any seating or structures to allow players room to run off.

The goal posts look similar to those in rugby at first glance, but then you realise they’ve stuck an extra one on each side. The centre two posts are 6.4m apart and then the extra ‘behind posts’ are a further 6.4m outside, each side situated on a straight line flattening the ends of the oval.

If you kick the ball through the goal posts and no one touches it you get 6 points. If someone touches it you only get 1 point. If you kick it through the outer ‘behind’ posts then you only get 1 point. The score is presented in this format: goals:behinds:total e.g. 13:11:89. This is 13×6 for the goals scored, 11×1 for the behinds scored, with the total being 89 points. Stay with us.

Who’s allowed where?

Next on our guide to the AFL for beginners is the personnel. There are 18 players on the field per footy team, so 36 total, and 4 rolling substitutes per team on the bench. Positions played are: full forward, half forward, centre line, half back and full back. Then there are 7 umpires.

The reason it often looks like a free-for-all is because it is! The players can go wherever they like, whenever they like. There’s no offside rule and the substitutes can swap at any time. The only time movement is restricted is when a player ‘marks’ the ball (or ‘catches’ the ball); that player cannot be tackled.

Similar rules apply to a ‘free kick’ after poor tackles. A good tackle is above the knees and below the shoulders and not from behind. Anything outside of this would be classed as a poor tackle and would invoke a free kick. If a player is tackled they must attempt to get rid of the ball by kicking or handballing it to a teammate.

Oddly-shaped balls

The game is thought to have originated in the mid 1800s to keep cricket players fit over the winter months. This would explain the shape of the field but that is where the link to cricket seems to end. They play with a ball more similar to an English rugby ball or an American football. The AFL ball tends to be slightly smaller and more rounded than the rugby counterpart to give it better bouncing characteristics. It shares the oversized stitching detail with the American football.

The ball’s design lends itself to being passed, kicked, bounced and caught with ease. The ball is to be ‘handballed’, not thrown, slapped or punched. This technique involves holding the ball with one hand and striking it with the heel of the other hand, similar to volleyball in a way. You must bounce or pass the ball after each 15 metres travelled.

How much longer? 

The game consists of four quarters of 20 minutes each. The game starts with a ‘bounce down’ or ‘bounce’ where the umpire brings the ball into play. Each quarter or after each goal, the game is started by a ‘ball-up’ where the umpire throws the ball vertically to begin play again. ‘Time on’ is added at the end to make up for time used for stoppages, injuries or when the ball is out of play similar, to that in a soccer game.

And breathe… That’s AFL for beginners

So that is probably all you need to know, or all your brain can handle when it comes to introducing AFL. There are many more nuances to the game but this basic understanding will let you follow it with your new Aussie mates down at the pub. Now you’ve just got to pick the right team to support! The oldest teams in the world are Melbourne and Geelong, and the most popular are Collingwood and Richmond.

Things still going over your head? Every country has its own patois, so check out our article on Aussie slang so you can keep up with the convos.

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