Australian rules football

Australian Rules redirects here. For the movie, see Australian Rules (film).
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Australian rules football at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Australian rules football (also known as Aussie rules or Footy) is a game played between two teams of 18 players on cricket ovals, or similar-sized areas. The game is distinguished from other kinds of football by the fast, relatively free movement of the ball (partly due to the absence of an offside rule) and the awarding of a free kick for any clean catch — known as a mark — of a ball which has been kicked more than 15 metres.

Australian rules, which was invented in Melbourne, is the predominant winter sport in most parts of Australia. The top-level league in Australia is the Australian Football League (AFL). Professional pre-season competitions usually begin in late February, although the "football season" proper is from March to August, with finals being held in September. The game is the most popular winter sport in Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. In Queensland and New South Wales (NSW) the main winter sports are rugby league and rugby union, although with the establishment of successful Australian Football League teams in Sydney and Brisbane, and hence the growth of amateur football in those areas, this is changing to some degree. In recent years a boom in the sport has occurred in Brisbane, which appears to be closely linked to the success of the Brisbane Lions. In both the Australian Capital Territory and south-western NSW, Australian Rules rivals the two varieties of rugby in popularity.

Cricket is the most common summer spectator sport in Australia, and is usually played on the same grounds as Aussie Rules. In the past, many elite-level footballers played representative cricket, but the increasingly professional nature of the game made this impossible by the 1980s. Many amateur and school-level players still play both.

Unlike most soccer competitions, there are no separate "league" and "cup" trophies. The teams that occupy the highest positions (usually four in most amateur leagues, but eight in the AFL) play off in a "semi-knockout" finals series (in the AFL, the top four sides get a second chance if they lose their first final), with the two successful teams meeting to contest the premiership. This is decided by one game, the Grand Final.


Rules of the game

The equipment needed to play the game is minimal. As in other kinds of football, players wear boots with stops (known as studs in some regions) in the soles, shorts, and a thick, strong shirt or jumper known as a guernsey.

The game is played with a bouncy ellipsoid ball which may be caught, kicked or passed to another player by punching, but may not be thrown or handed between players. There is no offside rule at all and a player may run as far as he likes with the ball, provided he either bounces or touches the ball to the ground every 15 metres. A player who cleanly catches a kicked ball that has travelled more than 15 metres without anyone else touching it — called a mark — is entitled to an unimpeded kick of the ball, to advance his team towards their goalposts.

Four posts are erected at either end of the oval and markings are placed on the ground as shown in the diagram below. The aim for each team is to kick the ball between the two inner posts of one set, for a goal, worth six points. If the ball travels between one outer and one inner post (which includes striking an inner post), it scores a behind, worth just one point. If the ball travels outside the posts, or strikes the outer-most post, it is deemed out of bounds and is either thrown in or awarded to the opposing side as a free kick, depending on whether it bounced before going out of bounds.

There are no set positions in the rules of the game, but traditionally the field was divided into three major sections: the forward line, back line, and midfield. The forward and back lines were comprised of six players, arranged into two lines of three players each. The midfield generally consists of the designated ruckman (i.e. player who contests the ruck) and players who either stay in the centre area of the ground (between the two 50 metre arcs) or follow the ball and are not confined to a particular area.

The modern game, however, has largely discarded positional play in favour of a free flowing running game and attempting to have loose men in various positions on the ground. The rise in popularity of the hand-pass since the 1970s has greatly influenced this style of play, with players more willing to follow the ball and move it quickly amongst themselves rather than kicking long to a one-on-one marking contest. In the late 1990s a tactic known as flooding was devised and also shifted focus away from set positions. When a team "plays a flood", they direct two or more of their midfield or forward line players into their defence, thus out-numbering their opponent and making it difficult for any opposing forward to take an uncontested mark. Most football sides are named (and demonstrated) in the traditional set positions, but it is in fact uncommon for players to stay within the traditional areas of their position. Below is a diagram illustrating the tradition positions of Australian rules football.

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The markings on an Australian Rules Football ground. Note that the actual dimensions of the playfield are not fixed, but can vary between 135 and 185 metres in length and 110 and 155 metres in width.
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The traditional playing positions.

The game is controlled by a number of field umpires (at elite level, three), two boundary umpires whose main job is to conduct throw-ins when the ball leaves the field of play and two goal umpires who judge whether the ball is kicked between the goal posts without being touched by another (thus scoring a goal), between a goal and point post (thus a point) or outside the goals entirely (thus becoming the boundary umpire's responsibility). The goal umpires wear distinctive uniforms (such as white, and recently brightly coloured, coats) and are equipped with two flags. After a goal is scored and indicated to the players, the goal umpire waves the two flags such that the other goal umpire sees and records the goal. One flag is waved for a point.

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Australian rules football at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Alastair Lynch, (Brisbane Lions, seen here in maroon and blue guernseys), is attempting to take a mark, with his Collingwood (black and white guernsey) opponent trying to stop him. (Note: This photograph was taken during a match played as part of the AFL's annual "Heritage Round", a week in which teams wear guernseys used by their club in previous generations.)

The game is a fast-paced combination of speed, athleticism, skill and physical toughness. Players are allowed to tackle the player with the ball and impede opposition players from tackling their teammates (known as shepherding), but not to deliberately strike an opponent (though pushing the margins of these rules is often a substantial part of the game). Like most team sports, tactics are based around trying to get the ball, then — through a combination of running with the ball, hand-passing and kicking — deliver it to a player who is within range of goal. Because taking a mark entitles the player to a free kick, a common tactic is to attempt to kick the ball on the full (without bouncing) to a teammate who is within kicking range of goal. In this situation, packs of players often form around the goal square, and the opportunity arises for spectacular high marks (or "speccies"), in which players launch themselves off opponents' backs to mark the ball, high in the air. This particular skill is highly regarded as a spectacle, and an annual "Mark of the Year" is awarded at the end of a season.

Holding the ball

One of the things that causes the most confusion for people that are not familiar with the game are the Holding the Ball, Dropping the Ball, and Throwing rules. Confusion arises because a player being tackled is not allowed to hold onto the ball, but is not allowed to throw it either.

These rules are easily summarised:

  • Players must always dispose of the ball cleanly. A disposal is either a kick or a handpass. Failure to do so results in a penalty to the opposing team, which is awarded a free kick. This is usually called either dropping or throwing.
    • A handpass, also called a handball, is performed by punching the ball from one hand with the other fist.
  • When a player is in possession of the ball, and moving, the ball must be bounced, or touched to the ground, at least once every 15 metres. Failure to do so results in a penalty to the opposing team, who is awarded a free kick. This is usually called holding the ball and occasionally travelling (signalled by the umpire in the same way as travelling is signalled in basketball).
  • When a player is in possession of the ball, and is tackled correctly, they must immediately dispose of the ball by kicking or handpassing. Failure to do so results in a penalty to the tackling team, who is awarded a free kick. This is also called holding the ball. Exceptions to this rule include:
    • Being bumped, that is, hit side-on by another player, and dropping the ball.
    • Being swung off balance and making an attempt to dispose of the ball, but not making contact.
    • The tackling player pinning the ball to the player being tackled or to the ground.
  • These exceptions do not apply if the player had an opportunity to correctly dispose of the ball before being tackled.

Origins of the game

Tom Wills began to devise the rules of the game in Melbourne, in 1858, making Australian Rules — originally known as "Victorian Rules" — arguably the oldest officially codified form of football played today. (H.C.A. Harrison, Wills's cousin, was also named much later as an official "father of the game", but his role does not now seem to have been significant at this very early stage.) A letter by Wills was published in Bell's Life in Victoria & Sporting Chronicle on July 10, 1858,[1] ( calling for a "foot-ball club" with a "code of laws" to keep cricketers fit during winter. An experimental match, played by Wills and others at the Richmond Paddock (later known as Yarra Park, next to the MCG) on July 31, 1858, may have been the first game of Australian Rules. However, few details of the match have survived.

On August 7, 1858 two significant events in the development of the game occurred: the Melbourne Football Club was founded, one of the world's first football clubs in any code, and a famous match between Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and Scotch College began, umpired by Wills. A second day of play took place on August 21, and a third and final day on September 4. The two schools have competed annually ever since. However, the rules used by the two teams in 1858 did not have much in common with Australian Rules Football as it became known.

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A game at the Richmond Paddock in the 1860s. A pavilion at the MCG is on the left in the background. (A wood engraving made by Robert Bruce on July 27, 1866.)

The Melbourne Football Club rules of 1859 are the oldest surviving set of laws for Australian Rules. They were drawn up at the Parade Hotel, East Melbourne on May 17, by Wills, W. J. Hammersley, J. B. Thompson and Thomas Smith (some sources include H. C. A. Harrison). The 1859 rules did not include some elements which soon became important to the game, such as the requirement to bounce the ball while running, and Melbourne's game was not immediately adopted by neighbouring clubs. Before each match, the rules had to be agreed by the two teams involved. By 1866, however, several other clubs had agreed to play a single updated version of Melbourne's rules.

It is often said that the founders were partly inspired by the ball games of the local Aboriginal people in western Victoria. Aborigines did play a sport called Marn Grook, which used a ball made out of possum hide, and included play resembling the high marking ("speccie") in Australian Rules. There is considerable debate over the connection between the two. Wills did have a deep knowledge of Aboriginal culture, and Harrison had grown up in an area of Victoria near present day Moyston where he may have seen Marn Grook.

Wills had been educated at Rugby School in England and had also, like W. J. Hammersley and J. B. Thompson, been to the University of Cambridge. The Cambridge Rules, drawn up in 1843, included some elements which are important in Australian Rules, such as the mark. Thomas Smith was Irish and had attended Trinity College, Dublin, where the Rugby School rules were popular at a very early stage. These men would have been familiar with other public school and university "football" games. They may also have been inspired by traditional games, played among the thousands of immigrants who poured into Victoria from the UK, Ireland and many other countries during the goldrushes of the 1850s.

Similarities to Gaelic football

While it is clear even to casual observers that Australian Rules is similar to Gaelic football, the exact relationship is unclear, as the Irish game was not codified by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) until 1887. The historian B. W. O'Dwyer points out that Australian Rules has always been differentiated from rugby football by having no limitation on ball or player movement (in the absence of an offside rule), the need to bounce the ball (or toe-kick it, known as a solo in Gaelic football) while running, punching the ball (hand-passing) rather than throwing it, and other traditions. As O'Dwyer says:

These are all elements of Irish football. There were several variations of Irish football in existence, normally without the benefit of rulebooks, but the central tradition in Ireland was in the direction of the relatively new game [i.e. rugby]...adapted and shaped within the perimeters of the ancient Irish game of hurling... [These rules] later became embedded in Gaelic football. Their presence in Victorian football may be accounted for in terms of a formative influence being exerted by men familiar with and no doubt playing the Irish game. It is not that they were introduced into the game from that motive [i.e. emulating Irish games]; it was rather a case of particular needs being met... [B. W. O'Dwyer, March 1989, "The Shaping of Victorian Rules Football", Victorian Historical Journal, v.60, no.1.]

After 1887, the two games developed in isolation from each other. However, since 1967, there have been many matches between Australian rules and Gaelic football teams, under various sets of hybrid, compromise rules. In 1984, the first official representative matches of International rules football were played, and these are now played annually each October.

The clubs and leagues

The modern day Australian Football League (AFL) has many teams dating back to the beginnings of the game: apart from the Melbourne Football Club, other early clubs still in existence include: Geelong (1860), Carlton (1864), North Melbourne (aka Hotham, now Kangaroos) (1869), Port Adelaide (1870), Essendon and St Kilda (1873), South Melbourne (now Sydney Swans) (1874) and Footscray (now the Western Bulldogs) (1877).

In 1877, the Victorian Football Association (VFA), the game's first league, was formed by 14 clubs: Albert Park, Ballarat, Barwon, Beechworth, Carlton, Castlemaine, East Melbourne, Essendon, Geelong, Hotham (later North Melbourne), Inglewood, Melbourne, Rochester and St Kilda. Six of these clubs were from the Victorian country. At the time, Essendon was regarded as a semi-junior club rather than a full member, and was allowed concessions such as fielding teams of 25 players, instead of the standard 20.

Gradually the game spread from Victoria into other Australian colonies, especially South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia, all of which had strong, separate leagues by the 1890s, in particular the South Australian National Football League (SANFL) and the Western Australian Football League (WAFL). Meanwhile, a rift in the VFA led to the formation of the Victorian Football League (VFL), which commenced play in 1897 as an eight-team breakaway of the stronger clubs in the VFA competition: Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy, Geelong, Melbourne, St Kilda and South Melbourne.

Another five VFA clubs joined the VFL later: Richmond and University joined the VFL in 1908, although University withdrew in 1915. Footscray, Hawthorn and North Melbourne joined in 1925, by which time VFL had become the most prominent league in the game. In 1982 the VFL would evolve into the AFL.

For much of the 20th century the SANFL and the WAFL were considered peers of the VFL. Although the VFL was generally accepted as the strongest league, clubs from all three leagues frequently played each other on an even footing in challenge matches and occasional nationwide club competitions.

The various state leagues also selected teams for interstate matches. Because VFL clubs increasingly recruited the best players in other states, Victoria usually dominated these encounters. However, State of Origin rules were introduced in 1977, and in the first such game, at Subiaco Oval in Perth, Western Australia defeated Victoria, 23.13 (151) to 8.9 (57), a huge reversal of the results in most previous games between these states. Western Australia and South Australia began to win many of their games against Victoria. State of Origin games were ceased in 1999 due partly to concerns over injuries to players, and partly because of its waning popularity.

In 1982, in a move which heralded big changes within the sport, one of the original VFL clubs, South Melbourne Football Club, relocated to the Rugby League stronghold of Sydney and became known as the Sydney Swans. In the late 1980s, strong interstate interest in the VFL led to a more national competition; two more non-Victorian clubs, the West Coast Eagles and the Brisbane Bears began playing in 1987. The league changed its name to the Australian Football League (AFL) following the 1989 season. In 1991, it gained its first South Australian team, Adelaide. West Coast's local derby rivals Fremantle were admitted in 1995. Fitzroy merged with Brisbane after 1996 due to financial difficulties to form the Brisbane Lions and the proud old SANFL club, Port Adelaide joined in 1997, immediately becoming fierce local rivals to Adelaide. The AFL, currently with 16 member clubs, is the sport's elite competition.

All of the clubs which have competed in the VFL or AFL still exist in one form or another. For example, the Fitzroy Football Club still exists in the Victorian Amateur Football Association as the Fitzroy Reds, who wear Fitzroy Lions guernseys and play their home games at the Brunswick Street Oval.

With the introduction of the AFL, the SANFL, WAFL and other state leagues rapidly declined to a secondary status. Apart from these there are many semi-professional and amateur leagues around Australia, where they play a very important role in the community, and particularly so in rural areas.

The VFA, still in existence a century after the original schism, merged with the former VFL reserves competition in 1998. The new entity adopted the VFL name.

Even at the elite level, the game still retains some touches from its suburban roots. Players run on to the field through a crepe paper banner depicting some message (for instance, congratulating players on a milestone number of games) constructed by volunteer supporter groups. All clubs also have a team song, most of which were composed in the 1940s or mimick the musical style of that era.

Australian Rules internationally

While Australian Rules Football is a major spectator sport only in Australia (except for occasional exhibition games staged in other countries), there has, since the late 1980s, been a growing international amateur competition in countries such as New Zealand, Ireland, Great Britain, Denmark, the USA, Canada, Germany, Japan, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Samoa, China and South Africa, initially established by Australian expatriates but collecting growing numbers of native players. Separate from their local competitions, North American fans have formed an organization, AFANA, specifically to work for improved media coverage of Australian Rules Football and its U.S. branch, US Footy.

A series of hybrid International Rules matches between Australia's best and a representative Gaelic football team from Ireland have been staged on an annual basis. The rules are a compromise between the two codes, using a round ball and a rectangular field but allowing the fierce tackling of the Australian code. The series have remained evenly matched with the Irish using speed and athleticism, and the Australians strength and power - both inherent skills in their respective codes. This contrast of skills has created exciting contests that have been a hit with spectators.

Several Irish gaelic footballers have been recruited to play in Australia, most notably Brownlow medallist Jim Stynes, Sean Wight, and more recently Tadhg Kennelly and Setanta hAilpn.

The International Australian Football Council (IAFC) was formed in 1995 to promote and develop Australian football internationally. The inaugural Australian Football International Cup was held in Melbourne in 2002. It was contested by 11 teams made up exclusively of non-Australians: Ireland won the cup, defeating Papua New Guinea in the final.

Australian Rules Hall of Fame

For the centenary of the VFL/AFL in 1996, a Hall of Fame was formed. That year 136 Australian Rules identities were inducted, including 100 players, 10 coaches, 10 umpires, 10 administrators and 6 media representatives. "Legend of the Game" status was bestowed on 12 players and another six in following years. The selections have caused some controversy, most notably because of the continuing omission of Gary Ablett, but also because of the predominance of VFL players in the hall, at the expense of those who played in other leagues, in the years before there was a national competition.

The original legends (in alphabetical order) are:

Later additions:

Notable VFL/AFL records

  • Highest score: Geelong; 37 goals, 17 behinds (239 points), Carrara Oval, May 3, 1992.
  • Highest winning margin: Fitzroy, 190 points, Waverley Park, July 28, 1979.
  • Most premierships: 16; Carlton (the most recent being 1995) and Essendon (2000).
  • Most consecutive premierships: Collingwood, four, 1927-30.
  • Most games won in a season: Essendon, 2000, 24 wins (and one loss).
  • Most games played in a career: Michael Tuck (Hawthorn), 426 games.
  • Most goals in a career: Tony Lockett (St Kilda/Sydney), 1,360 goals.

See also

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