WARNING: The following post is classified MA [Mildly Aussie]. It contains some Aussie language and, if you’re finding yourself lost in translation, Tristan and Cindy recommend taking a squiz at their Australian-Canadian Phrasebook.
It’s that sad time of year Down Under when the footy is finished but the cricket hasn’t started yet. And by footy, I am of course referring to AFL, probably better known by our North American counterparts (if at all) as Aussie Rules.
Late Friday night/early Saturday morning Toronto time, Australia celebrated possibly the biggest event on its sporting calendar (except maybe for the Melbourne Cup) – the AFL Grand Final. While watching this spectacle with an enthusiastic crowd of locals and expats at Hemingway’s (the Kiwi-style, as close as we can get to Aussie, pub in Yorkville), it got me thinking about how us Aussies definitely win against the Yanks and the Canucks when it comes to chasing an egg-shaped ball around a field. But before I get into that, I should probably provide our North American friends a little context.
Aussie Rules in a Nutshell
Every year on the last weekend in September (or first weekend in October, as it turned out this year) the nation’s footy faithful get together to celebrate the finest that Australian sport has to offer. While most of us have to settle for watching the game on telly, best enjoyed with a few cold tinnies of VB and some BBQ snags, there are those lucky few (100,000 or so) who make the pilgrimage to that Mecca of Australian sport, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, better known as the MCG or just the ‘G. This year’s Grand Final played out as a true underdog story as the Western Bulldogs, from the western suburbs of Melbourne, came through the finals all the way from 7th place at the end of the regular season to end their 62 year premiership drought, the longest in the AFL!
For the uninitiated, the game of Australian Rules Football was invented in Victoria in the 1850s as a way for cricketers to keep fit during the off-season. It lays claim to being the oldest of the world’s major football codes, with its first club, the Melbourne Football Club, also laying claim to being the world’s oldest football club – although I appreciate this is open to debate.
The game comprises two teams of 18 players each, who play on an oval-shaped field typically 150 metres long and 130 metres wide, although there are no standard dimensions (the MCG playing field itself is 160 metres by 141 metres). It is a free-flowing and often seemingly chaotic game during which players move anywhere on the field and the ball can be moved in any direction. The key rules of gameplay are:
- A player can move the ball around the field by either running the ball or ‘disposing’ of it.
- A legal ‘disposal’ can be either a kick or a handball (essentially a pass but where the ball is punched with a closed fist). Note, players cannot simply throw the ball, which would be an incorrect disposal and result in the opposing team being awarded a free kick.
- A player can run with the ball as far as they like but must bounce it every 15 metres (kind of like basketball but much more challenging with an egg-shaped ball!)
- If a player catches a kick on the full, so long as the ball has travelled at least 15 metres, it is called a ‘mark’ and the player can either play on or take a free kick. If the ball has not travelled 15 metres then it is just play on.
- If a player is tackled without properly disposing of the ball it is called ‘holding the ball’ and results in a free kick to the opposing team.
- Points are scored by kicking the ball between the goalposts which consist of two tall centre posts and two shorter outside posts. The scoring system works like this:
- If the ball is kicked through the centre posts it is called a ‘goal’ and 6 points are awarded.
- If the ball misses the centre posts but goes between the outer posts it is called a ‘behind’ and 1 point is awarded – kind of like a sympathy point for effort.
- A behind is also awarded if the ball travels between any of the posts in any other way, such as off hands or by the defending team.
For an explanation of some of the more colourful AFL terminology, we have prepared a short list at the bottom of this post. For now, however, I will get back to the core topic, which is putting the case as to why, in my humble opinion, Aussie Rules is superior to the North American versions of football [cue the outrage!]. For the sake of simplicity, I propose to refer to the Canadian and American versions collectively as ‘American’ Football from here on in because, let’s face it, to any objective observer they are the same sport (unlike Rugby Union and Rugby League which are clearly entirely different – but let’s save that discussion for another day). And rather than blather on in minute detail about all the intricacies of the two sports, I will try to keep this short and sweet and just focus on the big-ticket items. Here goes!
Americans have the Super Bowl, Canadians have the Grey Cup and Aussies have the plainly named, Grand Final. I have to plead ignorance on the Grey Cup as I have never watched it and so this part of my comparison will have to be limited to the Grand Final and the Super Bowl.
To kick things off, I have to put out there that in Australia, we believe sporting events should be about the sport, and the players, and the fans, and not about the million dollar commercials or whose nipple got accidentally (or was it all planned…?) exposed. In comparison, it seems like after the Super Bowl is done and dusted, the focus of the post-game analysis is the half-time show and which brand had the best commercial. I admit we Aussies are not perfect and have occasionally been guilty of a bit of over obsession about the entertainment [we all remember the infamous Meatloaf incident!], however, for the most part the Grand Final is about watching the two best teams fight it out for the holy grail.
As an example of the stark contrast between the Australian and American showpiece events, let’s look at the half-time show. Super Bowl 50, held in February this year, featured performances by international megastars Coldplay, Beyoncé and Bruno Mars, and included the customary controversy and faux outrage following Beyoncé’s tribute to the Black Power and Black Panther Movements. [And before anyone gets started, I want to clarify that I am making no comment and passing no judgement on Queen B and her performance so let’s just let that one go through to the keeper.]
On the other hand, the centrepiece of the AFL half-time show (if you can even call it a show) was a foot race between 10 amateur and professional footy players [see photograph above]. The winner was an amateur footballer from the town of Murrumbeena (which I expect most Aussies probably haven’t heard of) and I’m not sure that he even got a prize, just bragging rights and the experience of being on the hallowed turf of the ‘G in front of 100 thousand cheering fans.
This next part captures a characteristic which I think is common to many American sports, particularly football, baseball, and to a lesser degree basketball – the autonomy of the players.
American sports are much more structured and defined in their gameplay, with a focus on the key playmaker position, i.e. the quarterback or the point guard, and with the coach having a much more direct influence on the outcome of the game. For example, in American football (as I understand it, and please correct me if I’m wrong), it’s the coach and/or the quarterback who calls the plays and each player on the field has a specific role to play, whether it’s protecting the quarterback, or running to receive a throw, etc. Once the play is complete, the quarterback calls the next play and they do it all over again.
In AFL, the coach does what he can to prepare the team and map out a game plan, but once the action starts, it’s basically in the players’ hands to execute the plan and adjust to the play and the opposition as the game progresses. While some players can influence a game more than others, ultimately there are 36 players on the field who all have a chance to take the game by the scruff of the neck and make it their own. It’s fantastic to see a full-forward who has been starved of the ball up front, bust a gut all the way back to the defensive 50 just to get himself into the action and try to have an influence, or to see a defender do a stint in the forward 50 and kick a game changing goal.
In American Football, if your quarterback’s having an off day and can’t throw the ball straight, it’s game over. However, in AFL, if the star player gets shut down, any one of the other 17 blokes on the field can step up and fill the void. In my opinion, this all makes for a much purer sport and ultimately a more exciting and engaging experience, both for a player and a spectator.
This conveniently leads into my final comparison for this post:
The Spectator Experience
For this final part, I am simply going to describe why I think AFL is the greatest sport to watch live. Having only seen one pre-season Toronto Argonauts match (Toronto’s Canadian Football League team), I don’t feel I’m qualified to comment for or against the spectator experience at an American Football match. That being said, as a general lover of all things sport, I have been fortunate to have experienced a reasonable selection of what the sporting world has to offer. In Australia I’ve been a regular attendee over the years at the AFL [go Tigers!], the Rugby League/NRL [go Raiders!] and Rugby Union/Super Rugby [go Brumbies!] to name a few, and in North America, of the major sporting leagues, I’ve been to see the NHL, NBA and MLB. Of all my experiences to date, I would have to list AFL at ‘G at the top of my list. As a spectator, it gets the tick for the game itself as well as for the stadium experience.
Starting with the game: if you really want to follow the minute by minute action of any given sport, you’re generally better off watching it on the TV – you get a closer view of the action plus all the benefits of instant replay along with the live statistics and all the other bells and whistles. AFL, however, is the exception. I have already mentioned the size of the field and the number of players – well, the telly just doesn’t give you an appreciation of the sheer size of the playing field and the amount of action that goes on off the ball. For every time that a full-forward makes a lead and receives the ball, he makes three others that go to waste. And when one player has the ball, there will be half a dozen teammates going full speed either trying to get free of their man to provide a kick option, provide support close in to receive a handball, or to fend off a defender. One thing is for sure, you will appreciate after watching a game live just how fit these blokes are with some players covering up to 20 kilometres during the course of a two-hour game!
As for the stadium experience, it begins before you even arrive at the gate. The best way to experience the MCG starts with the short walk along the banks of the Yarra River from Federation Square in the heart of Melbourne City, with the brightness of the tallest light towers in the world getting ever closer as you approach the ‘G.
As you walk along the concourse surrounding the stadium, you walk past the statues of some of the greatest legends of Australian sport (not just AFL) such as Ron Barassi, Betty Cuthbert, Dennis Lillee and the greatest Australian sportsman of all time, Don Bradman. I may be biased, but you won’t find many other stadiums around the world that have the history and are as ingrained in the national psyche as the ‘G. This is, after all, the same stadium that hosted the first Test Cricket match all the way back in 1877, provided a base to American soldiers during World War II, and hosted the 1956 Olympic Games.
And once you’re inside and the game’s started, you can’t help but get swept up in the excitement of 80,000+ spectators cheering on the action and following all the ups and downs of this chaotic but beautiful sport.
So all in all, while North America (and Toronto in particular) really knows how to do sport well, I still think us Aussies can teach the rest of the world a thing or two about providing a complete sporting experience. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who will disagree with my view. I am always open to being convinced otherwise and invite you to share your two cents in the comments below.
Guide to Speaking AFL
Specky (adj.) refers to a player taking a spectacular mark, usually while jumping over the back of another player. Click here to see one of the greatest marks ever.
Clanger (n.) making a mistake during play, such as a turnover of kicking it out of bounds on the full
Shirtfront (v.) a term (unfortunately) recently made famous when our former Prime Minister Tony Abbott claimed he was going to (but never actually did) ‘shirtfront’ Vladimir Putin during the G20 conference in Australia, is actually a front-on bump or hit.
Ball! is a call regularly exclaimed by the crowd during a game, it is short for ‘holding the ball’ which is when a player fails to properly dispose of the ball before getting tackled.
Don’t argue (n.) to give the ‘good ol’ don’t argue’ is when a player uses a stiff arm to fend off an oncoming tackler.
Hip and Shoulder (n.) similar to a shirtfront, refers to a player using his hip and shoulder to ‘bump’ the opposing player off the ball.
Jumper punch (v.) when two players have each other by the jumper (i.e. their guernsey), one might deliver a sneaky punch to his opponent while holding their jumper.
One percenter (n.) an official AFL statistic that refers to when a player makes a valuable play through sheer effort which doesn’t fit within the more traditional statistical categories, such as spoiling a mark or smothering a kick.