So, in switching from Satellite to internet television, I’ve found myself getting all of my non-baseball sports via ESPN3 on my Xbox360. ESPN3 is funny because the sports on offer are somewhat…eclectic. You’ve got your occasional baseball, basketball, etc…but it’s the other stuff that’s really intriguing. Or in one case, addictive.
I have discovered a new passion, and that passion is a combination of soccer, rugby, a few dashes of American style football (the one not generally played, you know, with the foot), a few more dashes of American style basketball (no, I’m not kidding), and several very liberal doses of a game we played in high school called “smear the queer” (apologies for the politically incorrect name). I remember a few years ago there was a sports commercial that implied that US Football players were the roughest-toughest-most manly athletes in the whole world. That, was a LIE.
The men who play Australian Rules Football are, without a doubt, the most bad-ass mofos on planet earth. We’re talking the Seal Team VI of professional athletes. These guys play a more-than-full contact sport wearing only short-shorts, a tight tee-shirt, compression shorts (optional), rubber turf cleats, and a mouthguard (also, strangely optional). No body armor, no thigh pads, no shin guards, and for the love of all that is holy, NO HELMETS! I honestly expect at some point for the testosterone levels to get so high, the players will just strip down greco-roman style and paint their bodies in different colors of woad. Believe me, the current kit doesn’t offer any superior protection over the “warrior aura” of the gladiators and combatants of ancient times.
I’ll give the AFL (that’s the Australian Football League) one thing, they’ve got a very approachable sport. I’m pretty sure I’ve basically worked out the rules after watching less than a half-dozen games; and honestly, who can say that about the US counterpart? I’ll try to describe the general gist of an AFL match from an untrained american perspective, and if any real-life footy fans happen by and want to correct anything here, please drop a comment. I’ll correct as necessary.
Footy is played on an oval playing field approximately 185 meters (202 yards) long at its longest point and 150 meters (165 yards) wide at its widest point. In sheer surface area, that’s pushing up towards the size of FOUR american football fields. The layout looks an awful lot like a cricket pitch, and that may have something to do with the fact that it’s played on cricket pitches. Some of the largest cricket pitches in the world. The Melbourne Cricket Ground (or just the MCG, or “The G”) for example seats something like 120,000 people and seems to be the “home” field for about half of the teams in the AFL.
The field of play is marked out very simply, there is a 50 meter square box in the center of the field that I’m sure has a name, but I haven’t figured it out yet, so we’ll call it “The Lonely Zone” since only four players from each team are allowed in it when it’s in use. At each end of the field are four goal poles, set about six meters apart. The two in the middle are 15 meters tall (about 50 feet) and I think the two on the sides are 10 meters (about 33 feet)…but I’m not quite clear on that one. The base of the poles are wrapped in that foam mat stuff like you see on American goal posts, in what is, as far as I know, the only nod to physical safety sanctioned anywhere – at anytime – by the AFL for its pro league. Fifty meters out from the goals is an arc that is wisely called “The 50 Meter Arc” or “50m line” depending on the on-screen graphics. And there is a six meter square directly in front of the center goal that seems to be called “the land of death” or “the pain box” or “the glory hole” depending on which commentator you’re listening to.
The game is played by two teams of 22 players. Each team has 18 players on the field and 4 more on the “interchange” bench at any time. Player interchange is something I’m still not clear on. I don’t know who or when that’s allowed for, except for a couple of notable exceptions we’ll discuss later, and “breaking” the interchange rule seems to incite harsh words, a free kick to the other team, and some kind of suspension to the sin bin for the offending player. The rulings are arcane and unfathomable, and seem designed expressly to further the capricious mystery that is the AFL Umpire.
Gameplay is divided into four 20 minute periods, and the TV clock counts down and stops for stoppages (injury, out-of-bounds, restarts after a goal) but the players only see a clock on the field that counts UP and does NOT stop for stoppages. So, players have no idea when the train whistles will blow and the period will actually be over. With stoppages, I’d say the average quarter takes about 30+ minutes to play. There are no stoppages long enough for a commercial break, so the action does run for the full time alloted, which is something I like. When it’s on, it’s ON!
I’m not sure how long the break between periods is, but I’ve timed the half-time break to be just a tad longer than the Precambrian ice-age. If there’s one thing that would make the matches move quicker (and I know the AFL is considering these things), not waiting for children who are in Kindergarten when the match goes to half-time to graduate from university before playing the second half might be something to consider. The broadcast of an average AFL game (including pre-game and post-game commentary) comes in at about 3 hours and 50 minutes, with a couple pushing the 4-and-a-half mark. The bright side is that the AFL broadcasts are a lot of fun and the stuff “around” the game is almost as interesting as the kinetic action on the pitch.
It’s Full Contact, at all times. The rules say that you can only tackle “between the knees and the shoulders” and no direct “head on” collisions (this is called “shirt to shirt” which is complete bullshit, because shirts are in contact constantly). There is also some kind of rule about hands to the back, but its implementation is so rare and unpredictable, it’s not really a rule and just more of an excuse to award a free kick and change the direction of play when the whim strikes.
The game itself is relatively easy to follow. The entire sport seems to be based on two guiding principles; first, the oblong ball the sport is played with (which looks like the bastard child of a rugby oval and an american football including the laces) exists for the express purpose of punishing and being punished. No piece of sports equipment has ever been a greater subject of abuse or cause of more human suffering. Second, the entire sport seems to waffle between a Mixed Martial Arts grudgematch and a more traditional team sport as the match progresses. I’ve seen a player back-kick a player from the other team square in the groin so hard the injured player collapsed to the ground and threw up. A free kick was awarded to the kicker for a “hands in the back” violation and the kicked player (with his own puke on his face) was promptly ordered to “stop being a pansy.” By the umpire. I shit you not.
Play is started in a way very similar to a basketball tip-off. A player called the Rucker from each team (who is generally about 6’11” and built like his day job is portraying a hill giant at the Lord of the Rings theme park in New Zealand) stands inside the center circle. Around him are a couple of players who are called Ruck-Rovers or Rovers or Followers…or something…and then outside the center 50 meter square are the rest of the players on each team just itching to reenact the storming of the Bastille or the invasion of Normandy. The referee then takes the ball, holds it over his head, and then (as though it had committed some kind of unforgivable sin) slams it down on to the ground so hard it bounces up about 30 feet in the air. The two hill gian…uh…ruckers then leap skyward like they were blasted from a cannon, perform at least one round of matrix-like aerial interpersonal combat, and then attempt to punch the ball towards one of the ruck-rovers/rovers/followers who have begun to lay into each other like Spartans and Persians at Thermopylae.
Once the ball ends up in the hands of a player (any player) the full brutality of the game becomes apparent. The player in possession of the ball becomes “marked for death” and the only way to transfer this death sentence is to either punch the ball with a closed fist at another player or else kick the ball. If you kick the ball and it travels more than 15 meters, AND if another player catches it cleanly they have “taken the mark” and are awarded an uncontested transfer of the ball (and it’s death sentence) to someone else. I think the free kick has something to do with honorable death and sacrifice, but those details are lost to the ages. A player attempting to take the mark is at risk for any kind of physical contact except for the already stated verboten tackles and no chopping of the arms during an attempt to catch the ball. There is no concept of offensive pass interference. Particularly impressive marks are referred to as “speckies” and often include the catcher literally climbing the back of some poor defenseman (referred to as a “stepladder” and no, I’m not making that up to be funny) and leaping off of him before catching the ball and plummeting eight to ten feet to the ground. Often landing on his head, back, or ass.
In an attempt to find a better angle to deliver the ball/death sentence to a teammate, a player can run for up to fifteen meters before bouncing the ball on the ground. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to dribble a football at a dead run, but it’s ridiculously hard to do. If you want to really understand the experience, try dribbling a football on a grass field while several 250 lb homicidal track stars run you down with the intent to crush the very life from your bones. There are some fun details to this, if a player is spun 360 degrees without coughing up the ball he’s brutally punished (often by two or three opponents) and the referee will award a free kick to the other team. If multiple players are all in some kind of joint scramble for the ball and two or more of them become locked in an intractable death grip, preventing further progress, the referee will stop play and restart it by again slamming the ball in some kind of sick punishment of the now truly abused piece of equipment.
If the ball goes out-of-bounds because a defensive player effectively prevented his enemy from making a forward progress play, the boundary linesman will stand with is back to the players as a sign of their shame, and then fling the ball overhand in a high arc, and once again giants and mortals will begin to battle it out on the field of honor.
An interesting tactic added to the mix is the concept of shepherding, where a player who does not have the ball will protect a teammate, who is playing the ball, from the enemy by tackling, shoulder charging, mugging, assaulting, or forcibly sodomizing enemy players. Though the camera tastefully cuts away before that final option can be performed; based entirely on the amount of times you see players pulling up their short-shorts after a particularly brutal take down, that seems to be the only logical conclusion one can draw.
The end result of the carnage and combat is the attempt to earn glory and honor through the forcible punting of the ball between the two tall goal posts. This results in a “goal” of six points. If the ball is touched by a player, or touches a goal post, or misses to the left or right but passes through the shorter posts, a “behind” is tallied for one point. Scoring often gets listed as goals.behinds, for example 10.15 for a combined total of 75 points.
I have no idea what the points are good for except determining the final winner of the conflict so that the losers can be summarily executed. Or something. Based on the bloodthirsty and gladiatorial nature of the battle being played out in the round, one could make a reasonable assumption that the sport had its roots in Australia’s “convict” heritage. I’d speculate that it was originally some kind of gladiator game where the victors were allowed to live to fight again, and the weak were winnowed from the pioneering gene pool. But that’s just a guess.
As I said, there are four substitute players on the bench, and the only time I’ve ever seen one come on or off the field was due to an injury. The AFL takes the American idiom “no blood, no foul” to its logical extreme. But, players who are visibly bleeding are required to sub out until such time as the flow can be stanched and they can return to complete their sentence in the games. A player who is felled by a brutal collision or particularly hard landing (or drubbing if the ref wasn’t looking) has few options. If he can leave the field under his own power, he is allowed a substitute. Players rendered dazed or stunned but still mobile are escorted from the field and not allowed to continue due to the unsporting nature of slaying the disabled. Though I’ve not seen it yet, I assume that a player who is conscious but unable to move under his own power is presented by the ref to the assembled crowd for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down decision, as in the Colosseum of ancient Rome. I seems reasonable that a player who did not acquit himself honorably on the field of battle would be summarily fed to the Brisbane Lions (players who were particularly dreadful are likely fed to the Geelong Cats or the Adelaide Crows). Again, I’m just speculating.
The AFL is, to my knowledge, the last great inheritor of the glorious traditions of old. Battle played out for the amusement of the crowd, fought man-to-man and hand-to-hand. The only weapons being a fit body and a sharp mind. If athletes are truly demigods, than the mightiest of them all battle for supremacy upon the hallowed grounds of the southern continent of Oz.
While it’s fun to joke and compare to gladiator combat, I’d like to speak seriously for a moment about the AFL and it’s teams and players. The game is actually quite fun to watch, the tackles and hard play do seem to get the blood flowing and the passions high, but I’ve never seen a serious fight. There doesn’t seem to be the hockey-like moments of pent-up rage spilling over. Most of the time there is a LOT of shoving and bumping and chest thumping bravado, but when the whistle blows they are professional sportsmen who behave like sportsmen. As with all things in sports there are exceptions, but those exceptions are certainly not the rule.
The game is quite strategic without being slow or ponderous like American football, and it’s not as randomly kinetic as European Soccer (the other football). While the scrum might look a bit like Rugby, it really doesn’t share much with rugby from an actual gameplay perspective. The ball spends the vast majority of the time in motion, and other than a set kick earned from a mark inside the 50 meter arc, there aren’t really “set plays” to slow down the action.
I often find the reffing abstractly mysterious. But based on the commentators and fan reactions, I’m not alone in that.
If sport is supposed to be the ultimate combination of competition and athletic ability, then for my money I’d say Footy is the pinnacle of that aspiration.
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