Australian rules football

Australian football
A ball-up in a game between Essendon and Hawthorn during the 2007 AFL season
Highest governing body AFL Commission
Nicknames Football, footy, Aussie rules
First played Codified in May 1859 in Melbourne, Victoria.
Registered players 790,905 (total) (2011)
163,000 (adult) (2011)
Clubs 2,659
Contact Full contact
Team members 22 (18 onfield)
Mixed gender Single (at senior level)
Type Outdoor
Equipment Football
Olympic Demonstration sport, 1956 Melbourne Olympics

Australian rules football, officially known as Australian football,[1] also called football, footy, or Aussie rules[2] (and in some regions marketed as AFL after the Australian Football League, the pre-eminent and fully professional Australian football league in the country),[3] is a sport played between two teams of eighteen players on the field of either an Australian football ground, a modified cricket field, or a similarly sized sports venue. The main way to score points is by kicking the ball between the two tall goal posts. The team with the higher total score at the end of the match wins[4] unless a draw is declared.[5]

During general play, players may position themselves anywhere on the field and use any part of their bodies to move the ball. The primary methods are kicking, handballing and running with the ball. There are rules on how the ball can be handled: for example, players running with the ball must intermittently bounce or touch it on the ground. Throwing the ball is not allowed and players must not get caught holding the ball. Possession of the ball is in dispute at all times except when a free kick or mark is paid. A distinctive feature of the game is the mark, where players anywhere on the field who catch a ball from a kick (with specific conditions) are awarded possession.[6]

Australian football is a contact sport in which players can tackle using their hands or use their whole body to obstruct opponents. Dangerous physical contact (such as pushing an opponent in the back), interference when marking and deliberately slowing the play are discouraged with free kicks, distance penalties or suspension for a certain number of matches, depending on the seriousness of the infringement. Frequent physical contests, spectacular marking, fast movement of both players and the ball and high scoring are the game's main attributes.

The game's origins can be traced to football matches played in Melbourne in 1858. Australian football became codified in May 1859 when the first laws were published by the Melbourne Football Club.[7][8]

Australian football has the highest spectator attendance of all sports in Australia.[9][10] The sport is also played at amateur level in many countries and in several variations.

The most prestigious competition is the Australian Football League (AFL), culminating in the annual AFL Grand Final, currently the highest attended club championship event in the world. The rules of Australian football are governed by the AFL Commission with the advice of the AFL's Laws of the Game Committee.


  • Laws of the game 1
    • Field 1.1
    • Match duration 1.2
    • General play 1.3
    • Scoring 1.4
  • Structure and competitions 2
  • History 3
    • Origins 3.1
    • First rules 3.2
    • Early competition in Victoria 3.3
    • Spread to other colonies 3.4
    • Emergence of the VFL 3.5
    • Effects of the two world wars 3.6
    • Interstate football and the Australian National Football Council 3.7
    • Towards a national competition 3.8
  • Women's Australian football 4
  • Australian football internationally 5
    • International rules football 5.1
  • Cultural impact and popularity 6
  • Australian Football Hall of Fame 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10

Laws of the game


Both the ball and the field of play are oval in shape. No more than 18 players of each team are permitted to be on the field at any time.

Up to three interchange (reserve) players may be swapped for those on the field at any time during the game. In Australian rules terminology, these players wait for substitution "on the bench"—an area with a row of seats on the sideline. Players must interchange through a designated interchange "gate" with strict penalties for too many players from one team on the field. In addition, some leagues like the AFL have each team designate one player as a substitute who can be used to make a single permanent exchange of players during a game.

There is no offside rule nor are there set positions in the rules; unlike many other forms of football, players from both teams may disperse across the whole field before the start of play. However, a typical on-field structure consists of six forwards, six defenders or "backmen" and six midfielders, usually two wingmen, one Centre line (football) and three followers, including a ruckman, ruck-rover and rover. Only four players from each team are allowed within the centre square (50 metres (55 yd)) at every centre bounce, which occurs at the commencement of each quarter, and to restart the game after a goal is scored. There are also other rules pertaining to allowed player positions during set plays (that is, after a mark or free kick) and during kick-ins following the scoring of a behind.

Match duration

A game consists of four quarters and a timekeeper officiates their duration. At professional level quarters consist of 20 minutes of play, with the clock being stopped for instances such as scores, the ball going out of play or at the umpire's discretion. The umpire signals time-off to stop the clock for various reasons, such as the player in possession being tackled to the ground and leading to stagnant play as neither side can recover the ball. Time resumes when the umpire signals time-on or when the ball is brought into play. Such stoppages generally lead to quarters being extended by between five and ten minutes. The official game clock is only known on the field by the timekeepers. Official game time is not displayed to the players or the public; the only knowledge they have of time is when sirens sound to mark the beginning and end of each quarter. Official time may be approximated by broadcasters to display to television audiences. Teams change ends at the end of each quarter; umpires change ends at half time.

General play

Marking the ball is one of Australian football's distinctive features. (Pictured: Essendon great John Coleman takes a spectacular mark in 1950.)

Games are officiated by umpires. Before the game, the winner of a coin toss determines which directions the teams will play to begin. Australian football begins after the first siren, when the umpire bounces the ball on the ground (or throws it into the air if the condition of the ground is poor), and the two ruckmen (typically the tallest players from each team) battle for the ball in the air on its way back down. This is known as the ball-up. Certain disputes during play may also be settled with a ball-up from the point of contention. If the ball ever goes out of bounds (beyond the oval boundary line around the edge of the field), a boundary umpire will stand with his back to the infield and return the ball into play with a throw-in, a high backwards toss back into the field of play.

The ball can be propelled in any direction by way of a foot, clenched fist (called a handball or handpass) or open-hand tap but it cannot be thrown under any circumstances. Once a player takes possession of the ball he must dispose of it by either kicking or handballing it. Any other method of disposal is illegal and will result in a free kick to the opposing team. This is usually called "incorrect disposal", "dropping the ball" or "throwing". If the ball is not in the possession of one player it can be moved on with any part of the body.

A player may run with the ball, but it must be bounced or touched on the ground at least once every 15 metres. Opposition players may bump or tackle the player to obtain the ball and, when tackled, the player must dispose of the ball cleanly or risk being penalised for holding the ball. The ball carrier may only be tackled between the shoulders and knees. If the opposition player forcefully contacts a player in the back while performing a tackle, the opposition player will be penalised for a push in the back. If the opposition tackles the player with possession below the knees (a low tackle or a trip) or above the shoulders (a high tackle), the team with possession of the football gets a free kick.

Precise field and goal kicking is the most important skill in Australian football.

If a player takes possession of the ball that has travelled more than 15 metres (16 yd) from another player's kick, by way of a catch, it is claimed as a mark (meaning that the game stops while he prepares to kick from the point at which he marked). Alternatively, he may choose to "play on" forfeiting the set shot in the hope of pressing an advantage for his team (rather than allowing the opposition to reposition while he prepares for the free kick). Once a player has chosen to play on, normal play resumes and the player who took the mark is again able to be tackled.

There are different styles of kicking depending on how the ball is held in the hand. The most common style of kicking seen in today's game, principally because of its superior accuracy, is the drop punt, where the ball is dropped from the hands down, almost to the ground, to be kicked so that the ball rotates in a reverse end over end motion as it travels through the air. Other commonly used kicks are the torpedo punt (also known as the spiral, barrel, or screw punt), where the ball is held flatter at an angle across the body, which makes the ball spin around its long axis in the air, resulting in extra distance (similar to the traditional motion of an American football punt), and the checkside punt or "banana", kicked across the ball with the outside of the foot used to curve the ball (towards the right if kicked off the right foot) towards targets that are on an angle. There is also the "snap", which is almost the same as a checkside punt except that it is kicked off the inside of the foot and curves in the opposite direction. It is also possible to kick the ball so that it bounces along the ground. This is known as a "grubber". Grubbers can bounce in a straight line, or curve to the left or right.

Apart from free kicks, marks or when the ball is in the possession of an umpire for a ball up or throw in, the ball is always in dispute and any player from either side can take possession of the ball.


Sherrin is the official game ball of the Australian Football League.
The two tall central posts are the goal posts, and the two shorter outer posts are the behind posts

A goal, worth 6 points, is scored when the football is propelled through the goal posts at any height (including above the height of the posts) by way of a kick from the attacking team. It may fly through "on the full" (without touching the ground) or bounce through, but must not have been touched, on the way, by any player from either team. A goal cannot be scored from the foot of an opposition (defending) player.

A behind, worth 1 point, is scored when the ball passes between a goal post and a behind post at any height, or if the ball hits a goal post, or if any player sends the ball between the goal posts by touching it with any part of the body other than a foot. A behind is also awarded to the attacking team if the ball touches any part of an opposition player, including his foot, before passing between the goal posts. When an opposition player deliberately scores a behind for the attacking team (generally as a last resort, because of the risk of their scoring a goal) this is termed a rushed behind. Before the start of the 2009 season, there was no additional penalty imposed for rushing a behind, compared to any other behind. However, for the start of the 2009 season[11] a new rule was announced[12] awarding a free kick against any player who deliberately rushes a behind.

The goal umpire signals a goal with two hands pointed forward at elbow height, or a behind with one hand. The umpire then confirms the signal with the other goal umpire by waving flags above their heads.

The team that has scored the most points at the end of play wins the game. If the scores are level on points at the end of play, then the game is a draw; extra time applies only during finals matches in some competitions.

As an example of a score report, consider a match between Collingwood and St Kilda. Collingwood's score of 16 goals and 12 behinds equates to 108 points. St Kilda's score of 7 goals and 10 behinds equates to a 52-point tally. Collingwood wins the match by a margin of 56 points. Such a result would be written as:

"Collingwood 16.12 (108) defeated St Kilda 7.10 (52)."

And said:

"Collingwood, sixteen-twelve, one hundred and eight, defeated St Kilda seven-ten, fifty-two".

Additionally, it can be said that:

"Collingwood defeated St Kilda by fifty-six points".

The home team is typically listed first and the visiting side is listed second. The scoreline is written with respect to the home side.

For example, Port Adelaide won in successive weeks, once as the home side and once as the visiting side. These would be written out thus:

"Port Adelaide 23.20 (158) defeated Essendon 8.14 (62)."[13]
"West Coast 17.13 (115) defeated by Port Adelaide 18.10 (118)."[14]

Structure and competitions

The football season proper is from March to August (early autumn to late winter in Australia) with finals being held in September and October.[15] In the tropics, the game is sometimes played in the wet season (October to March).[16] Pre-season competitions in southern Australia usually begin in late February.

The AFL is recognised by the amateur clubs and competitions around the world.[18]

For almost all Australian football club competitions the aim is to win the Premiership. The premiership is always decided by a finals series. The teams that occupy the highest positions on the ladder after the home-and-away season play off in a "semi-knockout" finals series, culminating in a single Grand Final match to determine the premiers. Typically between four and eight teams contest the finals series. The team which finishes first on the ladder after the home-and-away season is referred to as a "minor premier", but this usually holds little stand-alone significance, other than receiving a better draw in the finals.

Many suburban and amateur leagues have a sufficient number of teams to be played across several tiered divisions, with promotion of the lower division premiers and relegation of the upper division's last placed team at the end of each year. At present, none of the top level national or state level leagues in Australia are large enough to warrant this structure.



Statue next to the Melbourne Cricket Ground on the approximate site of the 1858 "foot-ball" match between Melbourne Grammar and Scotch College. Tom Wills is depicted umpiring behind two young players contesting the ball. The plaque reads that Wills "did more than any other person – as a footballer and umpire, co-writer of the rules and promoter of the game – to develop Australian football during its first decade."[19]

As early as 1841, there is documented evidence of "foot-ball" being played in metropolitan and country Victoria as well as mention of early matches in Adelaide (1843) and southern Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). While the exact rules being played in these matches are unknown they may have shared similarities and influences.

In the late 1850s Melbourne's schools are first recorded organising football games modeled on precedents at English schools.[20] The earliest known such match was played on 15 June 1858 between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar School on the St Kilda foreshore.[21][22]

On 10 July 1858, the Melbourne-based Bell's Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle published a letter by prominent Victorian cricketer Tom Wills, calling for the formation of a "foot-ball club" with a "code of laws" to keep cricketers fit during winter.[23] This letter is regarded by many historians as giving impetus for the development of a new code of football today known as Australian football.

On 31 July, a scratch match was held at the Richmond Paddock adjoining the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Trees were used for goal posts and there were no boundaries and the match lasted from 1 p.m. until dark. There were no rules and fights frequently broke out. Melbourne being a relatively young city, the majority of the early players were migrants and the media of the time noted that participants of each nationality played the game their own distinctive way: some were "guided by their particular set of rules, others by no rules at all".

Another significant milestone in the sport's development was a match between Melbourne Grammar School and Scotch College, which began on 7 August 1858 at Richmond Paddock, was umpired by Wills and John Macadam,[24] and which also involved Scotch College headmaster Thomas H. Smith.[25] A second day of play took place on 21 August[26] and a third, and final, day on 4 September.[27] While the full rules that were used is unknown, some details of the match survived. It was played with a round ball, the distance between the goals was approximately half a mile (approximately four times longer than the modern Melbourne Cricket Ground playing surface), there were 40 players per side and one goal each side was scored with the game being declared a draw. The two schools have competed annually ever since in the Cordner-Eggleston Cup, the world's oldest continuous football competition.[28]

The theory that Australian football was derived from Gaelic football became popular in the mid-20th century, despite the fact that Australian football was codified almost 30 years before the Irish game.[29] There is no archival evidence in favour of a Gaelic origin, and the style of play shared between the two modern codes was evident in Australia long before the Irish game evolved in a similar direction.[30] Since the 1980s, the theory that Australian football comes from the Aboriginal game of Marn Grook has also gained attention.[31] It is claimed that Tom Wills, growing up amongst Aborigines in Victoria, may have seen or played Marn Grook, and used elements from the game when formulating the laws of Australian football. This, too, has no basis in direct evidence.[32]

First rules

The Melbourne Football Club's rules of 1859 are the oldest surviving set of laws for Australian football. The