Why Australian Rules Football Is The Greatest Sport On The Planet

FREMANTLE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 12: Jay Van Berlo of the Dockers tackles Ashton Hams of the Eagles during the NAB Challenge AFL match between the Fremantle Dockers and the West Coast Eagles at Fremantle Oval on March 12, 2011 in Fremantle, Australia. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Australian Rules Football begins play on Thursday, and you need to be watching. Spencer Hall explains the many reasons why, and don't worry if you have no idea what's going on -- it's still awesome either way.

INSTRUCTIVE QUOTE ONE: Subject: philosophy.

"Retaliate first." ~ Jack Dyer, Aussie Rules Football legend.

Once upon a time, ESPN was one of 38 channels or so competing for your eyes on basic cable. Competing may be too strong of a word for what they were doing: they had the rights to nothing original, did Sportscenter on a set obviously made of model train foam and hot glue, and were forced to air anything they could afford. This is why you may have dim memories of Aussie Rules Football. You need to freshen up those memories, and you need to do it now.

The heroic sport of brawny men in hot pants gleefully defacing a cricket pitch in the world's most frenetic field goal kicking contest has come back home to ESPN, the network that originally brought the sport to the United States' broadcast spectrum in the 1980s. This reunion comes not a minute too soon: your sports diet is devoid of vitamin V, where the V stands for sweet sporting violence.

THE RULES

You're not coming here for the rules. In fact, let's just outsource that and say that Dave Warner does a much better job of covering all that in this concise, brilliantly put together intro to the game's basic rules. When I fell in love with the sport, I managed to intuit the following about the sport, and it is all I have ever really needed to know about Aussie Rules Football.

  • No pads. They're unseemly, unmanly, and interfere with the ladies seeing the full musculature of your shoulders.
  • The best way to display this musculature, apparently, is to throw said muscles at 20 miles an hour into the ribs of a player on the other team.
  • The game is played on a cricket pitch. This is the game's greatest joke, since it's not like there are five players on a side or something. No, there are 18 players on either side, meaning the equivalent of a full platoon of well-conditioned soldiers chewing up the pitch like polo horses at once. Groundskeepers who were evil dictators in former lives are assigned to clean up the fescue wreckage left behind. Don't weep for them; they deserve it, I'm sure.
  • You won't have any clue what's going on, but that's fine. Players have to bounce the ball every ten meters or so. Why they have to do this is a mystery; it may be to demonstrate some element of skill besides just running headlong into each other like rugby players, or it may be a tribute to early Aussie Rules players who had to smash deadly brown snakes and redback spiders crawling on their fields.
  • Actually, I'm certain it was to smash spiders and snakes, and still is.
  • Players can move the ball by running, punching the ball forward, or kicking it. You'll have no clue why they're doing this at any point, leading you to believe that Aussie Rules is really just a cover for random violence, astonishing displays of kicking accuracy, and bizarre running volleyball sets. If you have a problem with this confusion, you probably shouldn't watch Aussie Rules football. The Masters is coming on soon! You'll probably like that, especially your good friend Jim Nantz, whose head would explode from the fun overdose that is footy. 
  • Memo to self: get Jim Nantz to a footy game immediately.
  • Points are scored when teams kick the ball through the massive field goal posts. You'll notice there are two sets of poles. Kick it cleanly through the ones in the middle, and you've got six points. Miss and make it through the smaller outer set, and you're awarded one point (presumably out of pity for your pisspoor accuracy.)
  • The game is high-scoring, moves constantly, and has no offside rule. Go wherever you want, tackle between the shoulders and knees, and when you don't prepare to be annihilated by some dude who grew up tossing sheep and eating nails for fun in a desolate outback station. You might get a penalty, too, but what you really need to worry about are the 17 other dudes on the team planning vengeance for whatever heinous thing you just did.

INSTRUCTIVE QUOTE NUMBER TWO: On deaths and injury:

"Sure there have been injuries and deaths in football - but none of them serious." ~ Adrian Anderson

SO WE HAVE VIOLENCE, YES?

Is that all you're concerned with? Can't you see the splendor of Australia's fall special, its novel and highly inventive answer to the question of "what do we do once cricket season is over?" Can't you understand its role in national identity, its heroes like Bob Skilton, men who are the Joe Namaths and Mickey Mantles of this proud outpost at the end of the world? Will you not appreciate its flow, its manic pace, and the superb conditioning it takes to merely survive on the Aussie Rules pitch, much less the elite form possessed by its best players?

Can you ignore the insane coordination, strength, and balance of Leon Davis?

Is the blood and gore all you see here?

SO ABOUT THAT VIOLENCE.

Oh, of course. There's loads of it.

And fighting:

And mascots fighting and taking down people, or as the mascot puts it, "giving him a bit of what-for."

Note: The Manly Sea Eagle is in fact a rugby mascot. We let the matter stand here in error because it's still pretty awesome.

Let's get this clear: it is a sport of immense skill. Strategy and flow is dearly important. It's about so much more than just the violence, really. Please don't boil the sport down to some cromag game, please. But just to confirm: yes, it's gloriously violent at times, full of delectable, nutritious violence all over the place. 

INSTRUCTIVE QUOTE NUMBER THREE: Subject: humor.

"Kicked wide of the goal with such precision" ~ Sandy Roberts

THE BADASS OFFICIALS, PLEASE 

Afl-umpire_medium

You won't understand what the umpires are signaling, either, but you should know a few. They actually carry flags, presumably taken off some soccer umpires they beat to a pulp in an umpire gang fight on the way to the stadium. They'll hold them over their head and cross them to signal a goal, but by far the most stylish is the signal for a one point behind, a snapping of finger guns down to indicate that you? You who just sort of half-accurately kicked the ball? You're pretty cool, guy. We should hang out sometime.

NAMES. I cannot really convey how important it is to have a great name in Aussie Rules, but precisely what an AFL name has to be is hard to define. Some of the names below are real. Some are not. All, however, could conceivably be the name of an Aussie Rules Football player.

Barry Cable

Shane Wallagam

Harry Ballows

Ethan Shanks

John Hogg

Dave Brisket

Horace Cartwrong

Stephen McSacks

Artie Woolriser

Bill Snood

Barry Steakfries

Derrick Bitesize

Steve Tenpenner

John Rambo

Ron Jambo

Dealie Wintersnipe

Allen Cheesesmith

Lesley Corntucker

Aubrey Kulashaker

Roy Mud

Reg Pintcock

Max Windsock

Mel Knightman


Billy Midwinter

Affie Jarvis

Nick Pepperfarm


Algy Christmaser

Bert Ironmonger

Bob Skilton

Ken Hands

Stevie Kookaburra

Andy WombatWasteland McLeary

Ronald Feistylittlerooaintcha

FatalRedBackSpiderBite Jones

Raymond Allspice

Nigel Scallion

Nick Tank

Gavin Flanksteak

Afton Baffles

Rock Lacely

Ennis Innis

Malcolm Eggs

Addison Madison

Foreman Cloister

Efrem Goondiwindi

John Australia

Meatpie Holmes


Craig Rocker

Stan Plonk

Ballard Whitesnake

Jock Pitsnock

Stanislaus Roddy


Heath Cummerbund

Croman Hilberty

Nick Churches

Vicar Upshaw

Wilbur Jugband

Malcom Wimpledale

Steele Sidebottom

WHICH ONES WERE REAL, BY THE WAY?

Steele Sidebottom, Affie Jarvis, Barry Cable, Billy Midwinter, and Bert Ironmonger are all real names of one-time AFL players. John Hogg is an Aussie politician, but was included because he really should have been an AFL player.

THE FANS, PLEASE. Intense? Indubitably, especially when you consider that only the NFL, Bundesliga, and Indian Premier League have higher per capita attendance. They also flop enormous pom-poms the size of bean bag chairs on the sidelines, sing like EPL fans, and can wear out whole breweries in the course of a single game. They're fun. 

EPIC EXAMPLE OF THIS SPORT'S DRAMA, PLEASE. Easy: take the final from the 2010 season, a game so heroic it had to be played twice to decide a result. St. Kilda and Collingwood played the first final to a 68-68 draw. The results were the stuff of really over-the-top sports movies:

2010_20september_2025_203_2015_2030_medium

via www.mocksession.com

The rematch happened a week later, both because scheduling required a few days of logistical juggling and because seriously, just look at that: you need at least a week to recover from that. Collingwood would go on to win the title 108-52.

SO WHERE DO I WATCH THIS?

Ideally you'd do it in the stands covered in beer and screaming just a few feet from the opposition, but failing that you'll have to stay stateside and watch ESPN3's broadcasts of the games beginning with the March 24th 4:40 a.m ET showing of the AFL's season opener, Carlton vs. Richmond, available via replay all day every day. ESPN says they're going to do three games a week or so, and that's about right for beginners. The body tends to freak out a bit when that much testosterone is injected into the eyeballs at once.

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