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Australian Rules Football

Australian rules football (also known as football, "footy" or "Aussie Rules" in areas where it is the predominant winter sport) is a game played between two teams of 18 players, generally played on cricket ovals during the winter months.

Football competitions run approximately from March to August, with finals being held in September. Pre-season competitions sometimes begin as early as late February. The summer months mostly belong to cricket, usually played on the same grounds. In the past, many elite-level footballers played representative cricket, but the increasingly professional nature of the game made this impossible by the 1980s. Many amateur players still play both. Unlike most soccer competitions, there are no separate "league" and "cup" trophies. The teams that occupy the highest positions (usually four in most amateur leagues, but up to eight in the AFL) play off in the "semi-knockout" (under most systems, the very highest-finishing teams usually get a second chance if they lose their first final) finals series, with the two successful teams meeting in the Grand Final.

The sport is the predominant winter sport in Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, and Western Australia. Queensland and New South Wales main winter sports are rugby league and rugby union, though with the establishment of AFL teams in Sydney and Brisbane, those teams' success and quality and hence the growth of amateur football in those states, this is changing to some degree.

Rules of the game

Four posts are erected at either end of the oval and markings are placed on the ground as shown in the diagram below. The aim for each team is to kick the ball between either the two inner posts of one set (for a goal, worth six points) or between an outer and inner post (for a behind, worth just one point). The standard starting player positions are shown in the diagram below, but they are not enforced by the rules of the game - players may locate themselves and move in any direction.

The markings on an Australian Rules Football ground. Note that the actual dimensions of the playfield are not fixed, but can vary between 135 and 185 metres in length and 110 and 155 metres in width.

The traditional playing positions. These are not specified in the rules and in recent years teams have experimented with alternatives.

The game is played with a bouncy oval ball which may be caught, kicked or passed to another player by punching, but may not be thrown. A player may also run with the ball, provided they either bounce or touch the ball to the ground every 15 metres. A player who cleanly catches a kicked ball that has travelled more than 15 metres without anyone else touching it - called a mark - is entitled to an unimpeded kick of the ball, to advance his team towards their goalposts.

The game is controlled by a number of field umpires (at elite level, three), two boundary umpires whose main job is to conduct throw-ins when the ball leaves the field of play and two goal umpires who judge whether the ball is kicked between the goal posts without being touched by another (thus scoring a goal), between a goal and point post (thus a point) or outside the goals entirely (thus becoming the boundary umpire's responsibility). The goal umpires wear distinctive white coats and are equipped with two flags. After a goal is scored and indicated to the players, the goal umpire waves the two flags such that the other goal umpire sees and records the goal. One flag is waved for a point.

Australian rules football at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Alistair Lynch is attempting to "take a mark", with his opponent trying to stop him.

The game is a fast-paced combination of speed, athleticism, skill and physical toughness. Players are allowed to tackle the player with the ball and impede opposition players from tackling their teammates, but not to deliberately strike an opponent (though pushing the margins of these rules is often a substantial part of the game). Like most team sports, tactics are based around trying to get the ball, then - through a combination of running with the ball, handballing/handpassing (punching the ball) and kicking - deliver it to a player who is within range of goal. Because taking a mark entitles the player to a free kick, a common tactic is to attempt to kick the ball on the full (without bouncing) to a teammate who is within kicking range of goal. In this situation packs often form, and spectacular high marks (where players launch themselves off opponents' backs high in the air to mark the ball) are common.

History of the game

Initially brought into being ostensibly as a method of keeping cricketers fit in winter, the first rules were drawn up in a Melbourne pub by Tom Wills and H.A. Harrison in 1858, making Australian Rules the oldest officially codified football game of any played today. Australian Rules Football was first played in 1858 between Melbourne Grammar and Scotch College.

It was said that Australian football was inspired by the ball games of the local Aboriginal people in western Victoria. However, whilst the Aborigines did play a sport called Marn Grook, which used a ball made out of kangaroo hide and which included features resembling the high marking in Australian Rules, there is considerable debate over the connection between the two. H.A. Harrison had grown up in an area of Victoria near present day Moyston where he may have played Marn Grook with local Aborigines. It is considered more likely, however, that he drew inspiration from varieties of football brought to Victoria by immigrants from Britain and Ireland.

The VFL and AFL

The modern day Australian Football League (AFL) has many teams dating back to the beginnings of the game - the Melbourne Football Club is the oldest professional sporting club in the world, having beeen formed in 1860. Other clubs include Geelong (1860), North Melbourne (1869) Port Adelaide (1870), Essendon (1873) and Footscray Football Club (Western Bulldogs) (1877)).

A schism in the Victorian Football Association (VFA) in the 1890s led to the formation of the Victorian Football League (VFL), which commenced play in 1897 as an eight team breakaway of the stronger clubs from the original VFA competition, increasing by 1925 to 12 Melbourne suburban clubs. All of the original VFL clubs are still in existence, with the exception of South Melbourne Football Club who in 1982 relocated to Sydney and became known as the Sydney Swans, and Fitzroy, which merged with Brisbane in 1996 due to financial difficulties.

In the late 1980s, a strong interstate interest in the game led to a more national competition and the VFL changing its name to the Australian Football League (AFL) in 1989 and admitting non-Victorian clubs. The AFL is the 16 club elite-level competition in the game.

At the elite level, the game still retains some touches from its inter-suburban roots. Players run on to the field through a crepe paper banner depicting some message (for instance, congratulating players on a milestone number of games) constructed by volunteer supporter groups at the mostly member-owned clubs. All clubs have a team song, most composed in the 1940s or aping the musical style.

Leagues other than the AFL

There are many semi-professional and amateur leagues around Australia, where they play a very important role in the community, and particularly so in rural areas.

Perhaps the most notable of the other leagues are the South Australian National Football League (SANFL) and the Western Australian Football League (WAFL). Prior to the birth of the AFL, these two leagues were every bit as important as the VFL - these three leagues being the premier football league in each of the three premier football states. Although the VFL was generally accepted as the strongest league, clubs from all three leagues frequently played each other on an even footing in challenge matchs and occasional nationwide club competitions that were basically precursors to the AFL. However, with the introduction of the AFL, the state leagues rapidly declined to a secondary status.

The VFA, still in existence a century after the original VFL schism, changed its name to the Victorian Football League soon after the VFL changed its name to the Australian Football League.

Australian Rules internationally

While Australian Rules Football is a spectator sport only in Australia (except for occasional exhibition games staged in London for the large Australian expatriate community there), there has, since the late 1980s, been a growing international amateur competition in countries such as New Zealand, Ireland, Great Britain, Denmark, the USA, Canada, Germany, Japan, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Samoa, China and South Africa, initially established by Australian expatriates but collecting growing numbers of native players.

A series of hybrid matches between Australia's best and a representative Gaelic football team from Ireland have been staged on an yearly basis. The rules (called "International Rules") are a compromise between the two codes, using a round ball and a rectangular field but allowing the fierce tackling of the Australian code. The series have remained evenly matched with the Irish using speed and athleticism, and the Australians strength and power - both inherent skills in their respective codes. This contrast of skills has created exciting contests that have been a hit with spectators.

Several Irish gaelic footballers have been recruited to play in Australia, most notably Brownlow medallist Jim Stynes, Sean Wight and more recently Tadhg Kennelly.

The inaugural Australian Rules International Cup was held in Melbourne, Australia in 2002. 11 teams made up exclusively of foreign nationals played a series of matches, with, in a surprise result, Ireland defeating Papua New Guinea in the final.

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