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Footy for Foreigners (Like Me)

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

Posted 2015-07-01

Back at the beginning of the AFL season, I posted an article about the basics of Australian Rules Football from the view of a Canadian football (gridiron) or general North American sports follower. If you've had a chance to watch some Footy since then, you may have started to notice some other details — and started to have more questions. So in this article, I'm going to talk about four of those details that start with the letter S: spoil, shepherd, size, and songs.

Spoil

Marking the ball inside the 50 m arc is a high-reward activity, whether you are on defence or offence. If you are successful on offence, you'll usually have a set shot on goal (hey, another two Ss!); on defence, a mark can thwart a promising offensive attack. But when you try to mark, you often make yourself vulnerable (e.g., going airborne to get the ball), allowing an opponent to quickly scoop up the loose ball and perhaps score if you don't mark. So sometimes it makes better sense to spoil instead.

In a marking contest, everyone needs to be playing the ball, but no one says you actually have to catch it. A spoil is when you deliberately fist the ball in a marking contest, hopefully out of harm's way. As much as it is a key technique "Inside 50," it is used all over the ground. For example, spoiling the ball out of bounds (leading to a boundary throw-in by a boundary umpire) on a threatening pass by your opponents up the side of the ground can give your side time to regroup. While you will occasionally see a two-fisted spoil, most commentators will say that if you can get two hands on the ball, you are better off trying to mark it. In many ways, you get the same kind of decision in Footy as you do in North American gridiron on a long passing play: do you go for the interception or the knockdown? The only difference is that the ball is often still in play after a spoil in Footy, so you have to take more care in how you prevent the catch.

Shepherd

Shepherding is kind of a cross between a screen in basketball and open field blocking in gridiron. Simply put, if your teammate has the ball, you can block opponents within a 5 metre radius. It looks like a basketball screen in the style of contact that is allowed (you are not grabbing or tackling), but you are allowed to move and even bump the opponent, much like how you might block on a sweep or kick return in gridiron. This is a great way to free your teammate for a quick surge up the ground.

Outside of that 5 m halo, players run around mostly unimpeded, more like basketball. That's not to say there's not contact. You can have players fighting for position that looks a lot like (rough) post play in basketball. Players will even grab each other by the guernsey (a.k.a. jumper; the tight-fitting jersey worn by the players) and rough it up, with play continuing on in the background so long as no one gets hit above the shoulders. That's right, there's no penalty for fighting per se. You might get "reported" to the Match Review Panel for an unsporting or dangerous act on the ground (and subsequently suspended), but you generally won't be ejected from that game. (Hey, another S: suspended!)

Size (or, perhaps, Scale)

I was recently watching a match between West Coast and Richmond and noticed that some large patches of painted grass had been recently cleaned about halfway inside the 50m arc on both ends of the MCG. Upon closer inspection, I also noticed erased numerals like you normally see in gridiron. (You may be able to see what I mean in the video clips from the game.) It turns out that it was a field for a Rugby League game, not gridiron, which has a similar size to a Canadian Football field (somewhat shorter but wider). The interesting part was how far in from the goal posts the Rugby League field ended.

This gave me the impetus to do something I've wanted to do for a while now: create a size comparison of the playing fields for "football." I've included Rugby League because of the above example; Rugby Union would be similar in width but with the length of a Canadian Football field (even up to the length of an old Canadian Football field with 25-yard end zones). Here's the comparison (click on the picture to view a PDF version):

Football field picture

To be fair, the MCG is one of the larger grounds on which AFL games are played (particularly width-wise), but it is where the Grand Final is played as well as being a home ground (either full-time or part-time) for six of the 18 teams in the AFL, so it is still representative. Those who watch American Football may notice that the width of an American field is about the same width as the centre square in Footy! To put a finer point on it, you could play American Football on every ground in the AFL width-wise (since the minimum width is 110 m or about 120 yards). That should give you a better sense of scale.

As a side note on size, you will hear broadcasters refer to player heights and weights in metric units (with the occasional additional reference to "old" units). For quick reference, a player who is 183 cm is 6 feet tall and someone who is 2 metres (or 200 cm) tall is almost 6'7"; a player who is 100 kg is 220 lbs.. So, for example, Buddy Franklin of the Sydney Swans is always a handful because he is listed at 198 cm (6'6") and 102 kg (225 lbs.), while Eddie Betts of the Adelaide Crows is speedy and elusive at 173 cm and 73 kg (5'8", 160 lbs.).

Songs

Yes. songs. At the end of every game, home or away (or when the two teams share the same home ground), the winning team has their team song played. Their supporters generally sing along. When the players retreat to the locker room, they too sing the team song to celebrate the victory, but since these players are known for their athletic prowess rather than their musical gifts, it's a lot more like a chant than a song in their performance.

The thing that you may find strange is how cheesy-sounding culturally-different some of the recordings are of these songs. Yes, it's like the more established clubs recorded their songs at around the same time (and probably with the same musicians, much like the Dal Richards CFL recordings from 1968) and have never changed them. Rolf Harris could still be Top of the Charts with Six White Boomers. (If Wikipedia is to be believed, it seems like a 1972 Fable Singers set is responsible for many of them; that sounds about right.) Admittedly, this almost certainly is about not messing with tradition, but if you are just jumping into following the game at the pro level, it's going to be a little jarring at first. Don't worry, it grows on you.

The older the team, the more likely they were to use known tunes (many in the public domain by now) and add new words. For example (team, followed by known tune):

Again, North Americans will find these more jarring than most because of the built-in association with the original. Just remember that the goal is to have a memorable, singable song for their club, and those tunes all qualify.

Now not all clubs in the competition have songs that old or borrowed. Port Adelaide Power, for example, moved into the AFL in 1997 (even though they have a much longer history) and their "Power to Win" ditty sounds from about that time. Fremantle was founded in 1994, and while their song has gone through some trimming in the intervening years, it's designed to sound like a rock anthem. Again, the era is about right.

The only time you'll get a cover of these tunes is on Grand Final Saturday, when each side's song will be played live as part of the pre-game festivities.

So that's the 4 Ss (and a few more for good measure) of Footy. After about 30 years of seeing Footy on cable TV, I'm planning to go watch it in person for the first time in Calgary at the Stampede Cup on Saturday (Inland Athletic Park, 09:40–15:30, Men's and Women's matches). Check out AFL Canada to see if there are matches you can watch in your area. If not, you can always watch the pros (on TSN2 in Canada). And again, if you want me to write about anything that seems to have you confused, suggest a topic at footy at jazzace.ca.