AFL for beginners: A guide for new arrivals to Australia

Arriving in Australia, it doesn’t take long to see how much the locals love sport. Whether watching or playing, they take it seriously.

Sport is one of the main topics of conversation at almost every social occasion and a chance to bond over shared comradery or rivalry. Australians love a huge number of different sports, including cricket, soccer, rugby union, rugby league and basketball, but nothing quite matches their passion for Australian Rules Football.

Originating in Victoria, it has spread around the country over the last hundred years, with teams from Western Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, as well as Victoria, making up the premier competition — the Australian Football League (AFL). Referred to as Aussie rules, AFL or simply ‘the footy’, it is a fast paced, physically demanding sport that often resembles a mass brawl. With a ball.

The main concepts

The key to understanding what is happening on the field is to be aware of a few concepts. The in-depth details of the sport are apparent to only experienced watchers and players, however, knowing a few basics can help you successfully engage with the locals.

The playing sides

The field is enormous and roughly the size of two regular football fields. Due to the sheer amount of space, each team fields 18 players at a time, with four additional players available on the interchange bench. These extra players can be used tactically to influence certain periods of play, to replace injured players, or to keep the team fresh and rested throughout the match.

The match

Each AFL game consists of four 20-minute periods and the umpire starts each quarter by bouncing the ball in the centre circle. Once the ball is bounced, it is considered ‘in play’ and the players can contest possession.


A player can score either a goal or a behind, with six points and one point awarded respectively. To score a goal, a player must kick the ball between the two middle posts, without it being ‘touched’ by another player. A behind is scored if the ball is kicked between the inside and outside posts, hits the two taller posts, or is carried behind or handballed across the goal line by a player, between any of the posts. The score is then presented to reflect the number of goals (six pointers) and the number of behinds (one pointers), with the combined score in brackets. For example: Essendon 15.12 (102) defeated Richmond 10.7 (67).

General play

The ball is moved around the field by a combination of kicking, handballing and running. When the ball is kicked, the players contest the ball in the air and if it is caught cleanly by a player on the same team as the kicker, it is called a mark. The player who marks the ball can then take a shot at goal or kick the ball to a teammate in a better position who, provided they also catch it cleanly for a mark, can then make the same decision.

When running with the ball, the player must bounce and catch it every 15 metres or so to avoid being penalised, or pass the ball either through kicking or handballing it to a teammate. A handball is performed by punching the ball in the desired direction.

Other things to note

· There are 23 rounds in the regular ‘home-and-away’ season. At the end of these rounds, the top eight teams on the ‘ladder’ (leader board) go on to play finals. The finals consist of qualifying, elimination, semi and preliminary finals before the final two remaining teams compete in the AFL Grand Final at the beginning of October.

· There are 18 AFL clubs in Australia: 10 in Victoria, and two in New South Wales, Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland.

· Supporting your team is called ‘barracking’. For example: ‘I barrack for Collingwood’.

· Each club has their own mascot and song, which is played as the players run out onto the ground and at the end of the match if they win.

· The Brownlow Medal is awarded to the ‘best and fairest’ player over the course of an AFL season, the Coleman Medal goes to the player who kicks the most goals in the regular season and the Norm Smith Medal goes to the best player in the Grand Final. Each club also awards their own best and fairest medal.

· A guernsey is the jersey or jumper worn by the players.

Useful links:

· Australian bucket list for international students

· Australian city spotlight: what's on in Melbourne?

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