Anthony's Footy Pages

Copyright © 1996–2016 Anthony Reimer

Footy for Foreigners (Like Me)

The Basics

Posted 2015-04-02; updated for 2016 change in the Laws (Rules)

Centre BounceIf you're waiting for Football season to begin (for me, that's the CFL), there's a hard-hitting, fast-flowing game that I love that you might want to try on for size. In fact, the professionals start their season this week! Let me be your guide to Australian Rules Football — or Footy for short — explaining it in terms that Canadian sports fans (and many Americans as well) can understand. For clarity, I'll call North American Football "Gridiron" and I'll won't bother translating the metric units to yards or feet—just realize that a metre is almost 10% longer than a yard.

Footy has a lot to offer fans of Canadian Football in particular. First of all, it's a passing game. The only difference is that passes are made by kicking rather than throwing the ball. You can play a possession passing game, kicking 15 metres at a time (and in any direction!), or you can go for the long pass, usually kicking the ball into a contest. Just like in Gridiron, if you catch the pass in the air, you keep possession of the football. In Footy, it is called a Mark (because that is the mark from where the next play begins, sometimes literally marked by an umpire by creating a line on the field with their shoe). Contested Marks create some of the most spectacular plays in Footy. You get players flying in the air from all directions, jumping on/above each other's backs, trying to be the first to grab the ball, as only the first player to touch the ball "off the boot" can mark it. The player marking the ball merely has to gain control of the ball, much like in basketball. They do not have to survive contact with other players or the ground as in post-video replay Gridiron. Go search for Mark of the Year videos (the top 3 from 2014 are embedded below) and you'll see what I mean. If there is no successful mark on a kick, play continues; one of the umpires will signal "Play On," both verbally and by raising both arms.

If there is a successful mark, an umpire will blow their whistle to confirm the mark. The player who marked is entitled to walk back in a line from the mark as far as they wish (often 10 to 15 metres), protected by a 10 metre buffer on each side (prior to 2016, it was 5 m). (Who said only the CFL has No Yards!) Normally, an opponent is standing on the mark itself. The player who marked can then kick the ball in any direction. As long as it travels 15 metres in the air, it can be marked in the same way. (Either team can mark the ball on any kick, by the way. So an "intercept mark" is always possible.) Their other option is to "play on" at any time (or be forced to play on by an umpire if they are delaying play). The umpires will allow a player who is running full steam when they mark a few steps to stop and then backup from the mark, but they can choose to keep running, giving up their protected area. Players can also play on by moving laterally away from that line they were walking back on. Finally, they can pass the ball to another player using their hands. Which bring me to the next bit of Footy goodness.

You are not allowed to throw the ball. You're not even allowed to hand the ball to a teammate. You must always execute what is called a hand pass if you are not kicking the ball. Basically, you hold the ball on one hand and punch it off that hand with the side of your fist. So if kicking and marking is the equivalent of a passing game, making hand passes are the equivalent of a ground game in Gridiron. Pro Footy players can make a hand pass travel a surprisingly long distance, but it is the quick hand pass to a nearby teammate in full stride or the clever arcing hand pass over a charging defender that are some of the most effective uses.

"That's all well and good," you might say, "but I love watching football (Gridiron) for the hard hitting." So how does open field tackling without pads and helmets sound to you? Basically, what we think of as a good form tackle in Gridiron is mandatory in Footy. No high tackles (above the shoulders). No tripping the opponent, even with your hands. You get good, honest, mano-a-mano battles. You also get positional battles similar to Post play in basketball, particularly as you get closer to the goal square.

So I haven't talked about scoring yet. That's partially because the scoring of a goal is often just the icing on a great mark or series of passes, almost like a field goal or convert in Gridiron. But since they do determine the winner of the match by the score, I should address it.

There are four posts at each end. The two taller posts in the middle are the goal posts. Kick the ball between the goal posts without it being touched by a player or the post and you score a Goal, worth 6 points. (Yes, the ball can bounce or roll over the line and still be a goal — there is no crossbar of any kind.) The two outside posts are the behind posts. If the ball crosses the line between those two posts by virtually any method (and it wasn't a Goal), it is a Behind worth one point. (Yes, CFL fans, the rouge lives!) The commentators may choose to describe the score in Goals-Behinds form (e.g., "12-5 plays 10-9" instead of "77 to 69"), but it is more common to just say points these days. Regardless, players and fans do think in terms of goals when describing a lead, just like a Gridiron player or fan is thinking of how many touchdowns they are behind or ahead.

The AFL is the top pro league, and its season runs until the Finals (playoffs) in September. This year, the Grand Final will be played on the first Saturday in October (it's usually the last Saturday in September). Since there is so much more to discuss, I'm hoping to write a few more articles like this over the course of the season as my time permits. If you have any questions, e-mail me at footy @ jazzace.ca and I'll try to include a response in my next article.

Round 1 of the AFL starts this week and the first game you can see in Canada on TV is on live in the wee hours of Sunday morning (a Sunday afternoon match in Australia) on TSN2, so get the PVR cranked up. I hope you'll enjoy your first taste of Footy.

Photo at top by Mark Ehr used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence

Next: The 4 Ss: Spoil, Shepherd, Size, and Songs