Australian Rules Football Explained

Ball is in dispute in Hawthorn-Essendon AFL match
Ball is in dispute in Hawthorn-Essendon AFL match | © Tom Reynolds/WikiCommons
Monique La Terra

If you felt dazed and confused while watching Saturday’s AFL Grand Final, then you’re not alone. Although Australian Football may be Australia’s most popular sport, many people fail to understand the game. Fear not, as we at The Culture Trip are here to help with easy-to-comprehend explanations of everything from scoring to season structure, clubs and rules. With this guide, you’ll be well prepared for the next football season.

A Brief History

Conceptualised by Tom Wills in 1858 as a way to keep cricketers fit during winter, the Australian Football League (AFL), originally known as the Victorian Football Association (VFA), is a unique game that combines aspects from other types of football. The VFA was established in 1877, and in 1990 the league was renamed the Australian Football League to reflect the game’s national presence. The AFL attracts the highest amount of spectators of any sport in Australia and the fourth-highest attendance of any professional sport in the world with an average of 33,461 people per game. The game is so popular in the state of Victoria that the Friday before the Grand Final is celebrated with a public holiday.

The Game

Played on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, each AFL game is divided into four 20-minute quarters with a 20-minute break at halftime, plus time on, also known as stoppage time, for goals, injuries or when the ball goes out of bounds. In 2015 the average AFL game lasted 122 minutes.

AFL is played on a grass oval which does not need to be a specific size as long as it measures 135–185 metres long and 110–155 metres wide. The field is marked with a boundary line indicating the area of play, a curved fifty-metre line, a centre square, a goal square and centre circles.

There are currently 16 venues across every state in Australia capable of hosting AFL games, with the largest being the Melbourne Cricket Ground, which has a capacity of 100,024 and hosts the Grand Final each year.

Diagram of an AFL stadium

The Season

The AFL season kicks off with the pre-season NAB Challenge followed by 23 home and away rounds, which run through the winter from March to September. The top eight teams then proceed to compete in a four-week finals series in September, resulting in the top two teams then battling it out at the MCG to decide the champion. The winning team receives a silver premiership cup and a navy-blue premiership flag, and their win is recorded on the permanent E. L. Wilson Shield. Each player is also awarded a premiership medallion.


There are 18 clubs in the AFL from five different states: Adelaide and Port Adelaide from South Australia; Brisbane and Gold Coast from Queensland; Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Geelong, Hawthorn, Melbourne, North Melbourne, Richmond, St Kilda and Western Bulldogs from Victoria; Fremantle and West Coast from Western Australia; and Greater Western Sydney and Sydney Swans from New South Wales. The majority of clubs are Victorian, including the game’s oldest club, Melbourne, which dates back to 1858. In contrast, the youngest team in the AFL, Greater Western Sydney, played their first round in 2012.

Each club has both a senior and a rookie list of players, with a total of approximately 45 players per team. Each week 22 players are selected for the game, with 18 allowed on the field while the remaining four sit on the bench.

The teams line up for the national anthem at the 2005 AFL Grand Final


In order to move the football up the field players are permitted to kick, handball or run with it, permitting they bounce it every 15 metres.

Free kicks are awarded when the umpire deems that a player has either incorrectly disposed of the ball, pushed a player in the back, tackled above the shoulders, held or pulled another player, kicked the ball over the boundary line, or been overly aggressive.

Tackling in AFL, similar to rugby and American football, sees players attempting to stop the other team from progressing by making contact with them below the shoulders and above the knees. When a player is tackled they must release the ball by kicking or handballing it. If the umpire deems the player had the opportunity to release the ball but didn’t, a free kick is awarded to the tackling team, if a ball up isn’t called.

A ball up is similar to a tip-off in basketball, where two ruckmen attempt to hit the ball after the umpire throws it up to restart play.

A mark is when a player kicks the ball over 15 meters to another player and it is successfully caught. The player who caught the ball is then awarded space and time to make the next play without pressure.

A handball, different to a throw, is when the ball is punched using the alternative fist to catapult the ball from the opposite hand (think of an underhand serve in volleyball). A handball is used to move the ball between teammates without having to kick it.

Stoppage in an AFL game


Any player on the field can attempt to score by kicking the ball through the goal posts. There are four posts positioned at either end of the field; the taller posts are goal posts, which are flanked by two shorter posts called behind posts. A goal, equivalent to six points, is awarded when the ball is kicked through the two middle posts, while a single point, or behind, is awarded when the ball goes between an outside and middle post.

Subiaco Oval in Perth, Western Australia
landscape with balloons floating in the air


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