Saturday, May 30, 2009

Aussie Rules

In AFL, even the match ball can attack at any time.

I have dim and distant memories of watching a tv show back in Blighty called TransWorld Sport. It was an early hours show that featured any sport from anywhere as long as it filled two criteria, namely that it was cheap and entertaining. Aussie Rules ticked both those boxes easily and so I would sit, laughing and wincing in roughly equal proportions, watching this bizarre sport in it's natural environment; the Australian Football League.

I can remember being utterly baffled and yet oddly fascinated by Aussie Rules footy and the AFL and whilst my bafflement has diminished (I was amazed to find the game had actual rules), my fascination continues to grow.

This is a sport where the two teams take to the field dressed in kits that seem to have been taken straight from a 70's disco, all tight shorts and singlets. Their pitch is an oval, like cricket, and the match ball is (I looked it up, trivia fans) a prolate spheroid, which is to say it's like a rugby ball. Also, while Aussies call it football, the ball is moved by way of the hands more than by way of the foot, similar to that other mislabelled sport, American Football. And as in a whole bunch of other sports there are goals and goalposts, umpires and linesmen, catches and kicks.

So, aside from the 70's disco theme, you'd likely think it was all very straightforward. Yep, and then you watch them play the game and you realise why it's almost unknown as a sport outside Australia.

It's insane.

Ready? Off we go...

This is a game where throwing the ball was apparently considered far too girly and so you can only either slap it or punch it to a teammate. Seriously.

And then there's the umpires; three guys run the show (whose sole job seems to be to just yell 'play on' all the time) and he's assisted by a couple more on the sidelines that are responsible for returning the ball to play when it goes out. They do this by turning their back on the game and hurling the ball over their head as hard as they can in as short a time as possible. No, really, they do.

And then there's the goal umpire who, when the ball cross the line between the four goalposts (yeah, four... don't ask), indicates if it's a goal or a behind (6 points or 1 point respectively). And then he waves a flag or two, depending, at the goal umpire at the other end of the oval. He then waves back, which is quite touching, and then they both write the score in their little notepads.

I know how it sounds, but that's what happens. They make a pointy gesture and then wave flags at one another. I'm not making it up. I couldn't.

And it goes on.

Many sports have a blood rule, to legislate for someone who's bleeding or been bled on, and here's the last two sentences of the AFL blood rule...

This player can be interchanged off the ground, or the umpire can call a halt to play while the player is seen to. The first option is that most commonly used.

Yep, if you're bleeding then the umpire is very unlikely to stop the match to allow a player to get treated, even when he's bleeding. Serves him right for bleeding in the first place, I suppose. Poof.

And the blood rule above also mentions the interchange, which is a marvel in itself.

Basically the interchange allows players to be swapped in or out of play. Each team starts with 18 on the pitch (Fiona keeps correcting me here - it's a ground, apparently) and 4 on the interchange. Any of those 18 can be swapped at any time for any of the 4 and, as long as there's only 18 on the field, everyone's fine with it. Now interestingly, in an attempt to annoy Fiona by saying field, I read that last part back to her. She instead clarified another point of the interchange. Apparently there are marks on the pitch through which a player has to leave to be allowed to sit on the interchange bench. Leave the pitch anywhere else and whilst you can be replaced to make up the 18, you can't re-enter the game later on. This is presumably to weed out the wimps who can't play on in a cast and need a stretcher.

So you have players regularly jogging on and off the pitch during the game. But that's not all. Oh no, not in AFL. In AFL you have runners and drinks carriers.

The first time I saw either of those, I thought someone in the crowd had made a dash across the field (ground, yes dear). You have to understand that, in the Premier League, the only people allowed on the pitch during play are players or officials. Anyone else setting foot on the turf tends to get a good shoeing from the stewards and/or the police. And then they get banned from the ground.

In AFL, a runner will pop on and have a chinwag with one or two of the players and a drinks carrier will wander around and provide refreshments. And don't think for a second these people all run on like their shoes are on fire, bottle in hand, dispensing much-needed fluids. Far from it. Some are so old and creaky the best they can manage is a gentle stroll. It's far from uncommon to see some poor bugger huffing and puffing around trying frantically to avoid getting in the way of the actual game.

And then there's the cheer squads, sections of the crowd behind the goals that wave giant pom-poms to put off goal kickers.

And let's not forget the giant, fan-made banners that the teams run through when they first come on.

The list of things that makes AFL bonkers goes on and on and all of them, in their own way, are fantastic.

But above and beyond all of this, and probably explaining why this fantastic sport will never be a global game, is it's sheer merciless nature. To give you an idea, consider it's two closest comparisons in terms of gameplay are rugby and gridiron. Look up safety equipment for those two sports and you go from the sublime (padded shirts and head protection in rugby) to the ridiculous (full face guard helmets and something akin to body armour in gridiron).

Look up safety equipment for Aussie Rules and you get gumshields.

Oh, and they pad the goal posts. They're probably expensive.

So as a result, you get the unique experience that combines skill, athleticism and physical endurance with the expectation that you can 'run off' a broken leg.

You get AFL.

And it's bloody, brilliant and bloody brilliant.

ps - It's worth remembering that the above video is from one single season of AFL. Ponder on that as you watch.

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