Editor’s Note: Our Australian Rules Football Guide to Grand Final provides newcomers an introduction to the sport and profiles the match-up for this year’s Grand Final.
An American’s Guide to the 2018 Australian Rules Football Grand Final
By Rick Kunkel
The last Saturday of September is an unofficial holiday in Australia. Each year the Grand Final of the Australian Football League (AFL) is played on this date at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).
The AFL Grand Final is Australia’s version of the Super Bowl. The MCG is Australia’s most historic sporting stadium. It hosted the 1956 Olympic Games and is the Aussie equivalent of Yankee Stadium. This year the Collingwood Magpies will face the West Coast Eagles in the AFL Grand Final. Some 100,000 rabid fans are expected to be in attendance.
What is Australian Rules Football?
“Aussie Rules” is Australia’s most popular sport. There are 18 AFL clubs located in the major cities around the country. About 7.6 million fans will attend AFL games in 2018. This is more than 30 percent of Australia’s population of 24.7 million people. To achieve the same ratio in America, the NFL would need to attract nearly 100 million fans! Ten regular season AFL matches were attended by more than 70,000 fans.
Aussie Rules is a unique sport that is quite different from American football, rugby or soccer, although it has some features similar to Gaelic Football played in Ireland. Both men and women play Aussie Rules, and a nationwide league for women – the AFLW – began in 2017.
The Playing Field
Aussie Rules is played on the same large oval grounds used for cricket matches. The MCG is 171 meters long and 146 meters wide, which is the size of 3.5 American football fields. With such a huge playing area each team has 18 players on the ground. There are four goal posts at each end of the ground – two taller goalposts flanked by one shorter goalpost on each side.
Scoring in Aussie Football
Teams score a six point “goal” when the attacking team kicks the ball through the two taller goalposts, either in the air or on the ground at the defending team’s end of the ground. If the attacking team kicks the ball between the tall goalpost and a short goalpost, they score a “behind” worth only one point. If any player touches the ball (not kicking it) before it goes between any of the posts, it also is a behind. Defenders will often swat the ball through the goal posts and concede a one point behind to prevent the attacking team from kicking the ball to score a six point goal.
Australian Rules Football Rules
One American observer described Aussie Rules this way: “It’s chaos, then suddenly it stops and one player is given time to kick at the goal, and then it’s chaos again!” In fact, some very important rules govern the choreographed mayhem that is Aussie Rules.
Players can advance the ball down the field in three ways: By kicking, by running or by a “handball” – where a player holds the ball in the palm of one hand and then punches it with their other fist. Throwing the ball is prohibited. When a player kicks the ball and another player catches it in the air, this is called a “mark”. A player who marks the ball gets a “free kick”.
The Free Kick
With a free kick, the player cannot be tackled, so long as the player does not keep moving toward their attacking goal. Defenders cannot come any closer to the kicker than the spot where the mark was taken. This is a key rule because after a mark, the player can back away from the defender, and calmly take a kick for a goal. Or, take time to locate an open teammate and either kick or handball the ball to a teammate nearer to the attacking goal. The most common scoring strategy is to kick the ball high about 20 meters in front of the goals to teammates leaping to mark the ball over defenders and win a free kick. If they mark it near the goalposts they will have an easy kick under no tackling pressure to score a goal.
If a player has not marked the ball, the ball is “live” and the player with the ball can be tackled at any time. So if a kicked ball hits the ground before it is caught, or if a player is running the ball downfield, or if a player receives a handball, they can be tackled – and they are!
Holding the Ball Rule
A second key rule is the “holding the ball” rule. A player with the ball must kick or handball the ball before being tackled to the ground. If they are tackled to the ground while holding the ball, possession of the ball goes to the other team for a free kick. Fierce tackling is the most exciting part of Aussie Rules. It can cause a change of possession and a free kick for the tackling team. The holding-the-ball rule forces all players with the ball to make split-second decisions to kick or handball under intense tackling pressure.
Holding the Man
A third important rule is the “holding the man” rule. Once a player has kicked or handballed, the tackler cannot continue to hold on. The player must release the player to continue in the play. If a tackler holds the man for too long without the ball, the opposing team receives possession and a free kick. The holding-the-ball/holding-the-man rules ensure that the ball remains in play continuously – and this provides nonstop action for fans.
Understanding Aussie Football Video
The World’s Most Athletically Demanding Team Sport?
Aussie Rules players must have tremendous aerobic fitness because many players will run between 7 and 10 miles in a game. Players need anaerobic fitness because they often chase the ball in flat out sprints. They need physical strength to tackle and break tackles. Players need tremendous toughness because of bone-crushing tackles and high speed collisions. These frequently occur whenever several players are chasing and fighting for the ball. In addition, players are allowed to “bump” another player away from the ball at high speed. This is legal if they collide with their opponent using their hip and shoulder only. Aussie Rules players do not wear any pads for protection!
AFL players also need to be fast, quick and possess a diverse array of skills. They need to kick strongly and accurately to score. The best players can kick goals from more than 50 meters away and on sharp angles to the goals. They also need to kick well with both legs to accurately pass the ball downfield by kicking to teammates. Agility and flexibility to bend low while running to scoop up a tumbling ball along the ground are qualities needed to compete at the highest level. Players need jumping ability and strong hands to leap high in the air to mark the ball over a pack of defenders. AFL players must be tremendously athletic and tough.
Collingwood vs. West Coast – How did they get to the Grand Final?
The Grand Final is the culmination of a grueling 5-month “home and away” season beginning in late March. All AFL teams play 22 rounds of games in this regular season, and the top eight teams gain entrance into the “finals” or playoffs. The AFL follows a unique finals process in which two teams are eliminated each week. In the first round of “elimination finals”, the 5th seed plays the 8th, and the 6th seed plays 7th. The losers’ season is over, and the two winners move on to the next round. Also in the first round, the top seed plays the 4th seed, and 2nd seed plays the 3rd in a “qualifying final”.
The winners advance and get a week off to rest, while the losing teams play the winners of the two elimination finals. This means that the top four seeds get a “double chance” – they can lose their first game, but still win the AFL Premiership. After round one, all games are elimination games, and two teams are eliminated each week.
Magpies and Eagles March to Grand Final
The Magpies finished the home and away season as the third seed, and the Eagles finished second. West Coast earned the right to play at their home ground because they finished higher on “the ladder” than Collingwood. The teams squared off in the round one qualifying final in a brand new billion dollar stadium – Optus Stadium – in Perth, Western Australia. Collingwood played well, and led most of the way, but did not make the most of their chances to score. West Coast came from behind in the fourth quarter with the support of their raucous home fans to win 86 to 70. Thanks to their double chance, the Magpies can still win the Grand Final.
The Qualifying Final Highlights Video
In the second round, the Magpies played the 7th seed, the Great Western Sydney Giants. The Giants had beaten the 6th seeded Sydney Swans in round one. The Magpies beat the Giants by ten points, 69-59. They moved on to round three, earning the chance to play the defending champion – the 2017 “premiers” – the Richmond Tigers. The Tigers had finished first in the regular season with 18 wins from 22 games, and were strong favorites to defend their title. The Tigers had defeated the 4th seed, the Hawthorn Hawks, in round one and had a week to rest while Collingwood played the Giants.
Even so, the Magpies dominated the Tigers in the first half and built a commanding 44 point halftime lead. Richmond mounted a challenge in the second half, but lost by 39 points, 97 to 58. Meanwhile, after a week of rest, the Eagles played the 5th seed, the Melbourne Demons. Melbourne had easily beaten the 8th seed, Geelong, in round one 75 to 46. The Demons had to travel across Australia from Melbourne to Perth. But the Demons were undaunted by the challenge because they had beaten the Eagles by 17 points at Optus Stadium in Round 22.
The Demons were full of confidence after several strong wins. However, the Eagles had two of their top goal-scorers return from injury. The Eagles held the Demons without a goal in the first half and led 69 to 6 at half time. They coasted to a dominating 66-point win and a berth in the Grand Final.
Australian Rules Football Guide: The Grand Final Matchup
History would favor the Eagles because they have already beaten the Magpies twice in 2018. In Round 17 of the regular season, the Eagles beat the Magpies by 35 points on the road at the MCG, in addition to their 16 point win at home in round one of the finals. However, Collingwood had lost to Richmond by 43 and 28 points during the regular season before thumping the Tigers out of the finals with an emphatic 39 point win. It is difficult to predict the effect of the Magpies’ emotional win over their longtime rivals from Richmond. Will their big win propel them to a win in the Grand Final? Or will it leave them emotionally drained and a bit flat for the big game?
The Eagles will be full of confidence after demolishing the Demons to get to the Grand Final. The Eagles’ top two goal-kickers, Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling, played together in only twelve games in 2018 because each missed several games due to injury. However are both healthy for the Grand Final and playing well. It is ominous for the Magpies that the Eagles are undefeated in 2018 when both Kennedy and Darling play. However, West Coast has to travel to Melbourne and will play at the MCG before a pro-Collingwood crowd rather than before their home fans.
Watching the Grand Final
If you would like to watch the Grand Final, either live or on replay, you can purchase the rights to stream the game online from the AFL at this link: https://www.watchafl.com.au/
A one-week pass costs US $20.
While it may be difficult to predict the outcome of the Magpies-Eagles matchup, it is easy to forecast the AFL Grand Final. It will be one of the most exciting sporting spectacles you will ever see!
About Author Rick Kunkel
Rick is a proud and fervent supporter of his beloved Fremantle Dockers, an AFL club based in Fremantle, Western Australia. Rick and his family have lived in Perth Western Australia for one year on two occasions. He has visited Australia more than a dozen times. When not watching the footy he teaches at a university in Minnesota and enjoys homebrewing, travel and golf.
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