Having now watched several AFL games with my Aussie friends, I now have tremendous respect for the sport.
The premise is actually quite simple:
The first thing that really helps an outsider understand the game is that when a player catches a punted ball, it’s a free kick for that player. This is called a “mark.” After a mark the opponent has to back off and let him kick it. A big part of the game strategy is moving the ball down field whilst punting it to one another. And when a player gets a mark close enough to the goal (their range is about 50 metres), he gets a free kick to score.
The second rule you need to know—I’ll use an NFL rule to make the comparison—is that what would be considered blatant pass interference in the NFL is considered tough defense in the AFL. And not only are you allowed to make heavy contact with a player as he goes to catch the ball, but it’s legal to leap off an opponents back to do it.
Third, you can move the ball in any directions with your hands. But you can’t throw it. Instead, you have to bump it with your fist.
Fourth, if you get tackled with the ball, it’s a free kick for the other team. So you’ll see a lot of players opt to fumble the ball into a free-for-all situation rather than simply turn the ball over to the other team.
Fifth—scoring—there are 4 upright posts. If you get it in the middle, that’s a 6 point “goal”. If you get it in one of the sides, that’s a 1 point—wait for it—“side”. Teams regularly score upwards to 100 points in a 2 hour game, so there is plenty of scoring which keeps the game interesting.
What’s amazing to me about the AFL is the sheer athleticism of each player. Make no mistake, these pretty boys running around in short shorts are MEN. They have the build of an Andre-Johnson-type NFL wide receiver—very tall, very physical, and very athletic. Since defensive players are allowed to make contact with you before the ball arrives, there is a lot of body positioning that goes into a mark. And these guys routinely catch 30+ yard punts with their finger tips. They make an incredibly tough play look easy.
Another interesting component to the game is the conditioning required to compete. It is said that players will run 13 miles (a half marathon) each game. In comparison, pro soccer players will run up to “only” 6 miles in a game.
If you’re ever visiting Melbourne or Sydney, I highly recommend trying to catch a game either live or at a pub. The Melbourne Cricket Ground and Sydney Cricket Ground are two fantastic venues (quick side note: the MCG is a historical stadium that holds 80,000 rabid fans. That is the place to catch a game if you have the choice). The game is fast-paced, physical, and is peppered with spectacular athleticism. It’s really fun to watch and quickly turning into one of my favourite sports.