The Super Bowl Of Australian Football
The Super Bowl is still months away here, but on the other side of the globe, the Australian Football League — known as Australian Rules — is getting all the headlines. The Grand Final is the Super Bowl of Aussie Football and it will take place tomorrow.
A primer on Australian Rules for the uninitiated.
First up, there’s no protective gear, Down Under, or anywhere else.
“We don’t use pads and helmets and these chest things,” Craig Watson, an Aussie fan says. “Any day I’d play AFL over American football. We get to play with the ball more.”
Australian Rules has its origins in Australia, where it began in the 1860s. But some of its roots go deeper: It’s a combination of Gaelic football, rugby, and “ping pong football,” as Julie Campbell, who works at Stadium Australia in Sydney says.
“The ball goes up in the air,” Campbell explains. “It’s the first one to get it, and then it’s the quickest member of the team being in front of another member, to keep the ball going either end of the field.”
The field is oval-shaped and varies in size because it often doubles as a cricket venue. It’s much bigger than in American football. And while NFL teams field 11 players from an active squad of 53, in the A-F-L, it’s 18 from a 22-player roster.
“We have defense, we have midfield, we have forward, but effectively you need to be flexible to play in a host of roles. action can happen, from any aspect of ground at any stage,” former player, now commentator, Wayne Schwass explains. “It’s a ballistic game, played by great athletes, and whoever kicks the highest score wins the game.”
To score, you kick the ball — which is similar to the pigskin here — through two big goal posts in the middle. You get six points for that. But, in Aussie Rules, there are also two smaller uprights on the sides: kicking the ball through them gives you one point.
Alexander Parthenis knows the drill: “This is my seventh year of football,” he said. He’s now all of nine years old.
“You have to be fit,” Parthenis continues. “You can’t tackle around the neck or below the knees. You have to know how to kick ball, handpass a ball.”
For a handpass, you hold the ball in one hand and hit it with the clenched fist of the other. Then, there’s the “mark” where you catch a kicked ball, like the punt-return in NFL. But there’s a special kind of “mark” you wouldn’t see in the U.S. It’s called a “Specky,” and commentator Nathan Brown tussled in a few when he played AFL.
“You jump up and you land on someone’s shoulders, so basically you’re standing on top of them and you have to jump at the football and mark it,” Brown said. “Every now and then when it does happen, it’s a good highlight reel.”
Tony Leonard is a longtime game caller. He says AFL games are much shorter than in the NFL…on average, about two hours. But there are far fewer stoppages in play. This means little rest for the players, such as Lewis Roberts-Thomson, who recently retired. He’s a rarity, having notched up 13 years in the AFL. Most players last four.
“Certainly one thing about the modern game these days is you need to be really fit,” Roberts-Thomson said. “And you need to be running nonstop that whole time. It’s a contact game, so a little bit [of] blood is inevitable.”
Average player salary for this game where blood is inevitable? Just over a quarter million Australian dollars a year. The best get close to a million annually. The 18 teams in the league don’t spend a lot of money on uniforms either. We’re talking sleeveless shirts, short shorts, long socks, boots with moulded cleats.
Differences aside, many Aussie Rules fans also enjoy the American game. Melissa Darchy is partial to the Philadelphia Eagles.
“AFL just brings in lot more, with kicks and handballs and everything into the one instead of having offense, defense and special teams at separate times in the game,” Darchy says. “Whereas AFL, it’s a lot faster, a lot more to point.”
Also, to the point, there are very few rules in Aussie Rules. For example, says Roberts-Thomson, no offsides.
“So that’s why it looks like sort of organized mayhem out there, really,” Roberts-Thomson said.
- Margaret Evans, senior editor at WBUR, a member of the Here & Now Contributors Network. She tweets @WBUREvans.
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