A brief introduction to Australian rules football

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This is the first week of spring, but in Australia it’s the first week of autumn. And for Australian sports fans, that means it’s the beginning of Australian rules football season.

I’m not Australian, but I consider myself an AFL fan as well and I’m definitely excited to watch my Bombers once again.

So, if you’ve ever wondered how Australian rules football is played, here’s a quick guide.

First, imagine a game of soccer.

I’m assuming you’ve all seen soccer at some point, but in case you haven’t, it basically boils down to 11 players on a rectangular field trying to kick a round ball into a vertical rectangular goal at one end of the field while 11 other players try to kick that same ball into another goal at the other end of the field.

Got it? Good.

Take that rectangular field and make it an oval. Specifically, a cricket oval.

Then, go from 11 to 18 players with four substitutes that can go on and off the field on-the-fly, hockey style. Also, make the round ball into an oblong shape, like an American football, but much bouncier. Like, basketball-level bounciness at least.

Then, get rid of the goals and replace them with four large poles.

If a player kicks the ball through the middle set of poles, that’s a goal and it’s worth six points. If the ball is kicked through the outer set of poles or hits one of the poles or goes through the middle set of poles via any other body part than the foot, it’s one point. This is known as a “behind,” since the defending team takes the ball from behind the poles and restarts things from a box in front of the middle poles.

After a goal, or at the beginning of each quarter, the referee bounces the ball as hard as he can in the middle of the field and both teams jump up to get it, kind of like a tip off in basketball.

Obviously, once one team gets that ball, they’re trying to head toward those poles, but they can’t just run with it, they have to bounce the ball at least once every 15 meters.

They can also give the ball off to their teammates on the way by punching it to them (known as a “handball”) or by kicking it to them. Throwing it is a no-no.

Meanwhile, the defending team is trying to tackle whoever has the ball. Oh, tackle as in “violently wrestle to the ground,” just in case there was any confusion due to the soccer analogy.

If the ball is kicked through the air at least 10 meters and another player catches it, that’s called a “mark.” After getting a mark, a player gets a free kick: the other teams’ players have to stay away from them for a few seconds while they either kick it to a teammate or go run with it.

Free kicks are also awarded after fouls and tackles. The fouls are kind of vague, but apparent when they happen (tackling below the knees, tackling above the shoulders, punching, etc.)

After a really egregious infraction or if an opponent does not respect the distance during a free kick, the referee then gives what is known as a “50-meter penalty,” which is basically just the free kick retaken 50 meters further down the field. That’s about a third of the way toward those poles and frequently becomes an easy score.

That’s the basics in a nutshell.

Australian rules football has the physicality of American football, the fluidity of soccer and hockey and plenty of scoring. Plus, it’s the most statistically rich sport in the world, so there’s plenty to analyze.

I hope you enjoyed this primer on Australian rules football. Even if you didn’t, please send some luck over my way as I finalize my fantasy team tonight; I need to replace the hole left in my midfield created by Gary Ablett’s chronic injuries and the lingering rumors that Cyril Rioli is going to suddenly retire any day now….