‘The greatest sport you’ve never heard of’: Introducing Aussie rules

photo of Aussie rules football player
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Maybe basketball is too small. Maybe football is too slow. Maybe soccer just doesn’t get to the point fast enough. Maybe you wonder, scrolling through The Daily Californian’s coverage of 22 Cal varsity sports and diverse Bear Bytes articles, if this is really it. Maybe, at night, you look up at the stars and dream about something more, something greater.

The answer to your musings does not, however, lie in the night sky. If you’re searching for a fantastic sport, or simply don’t want to watch professional competitions largely devoid of fans because of a country that’s seemingly incapable of handling public health crises, look no further than Australian rules football.

If you’re not from a certain continent in the Southwest Pacific, you might not have heard of one of humanity’s greatest games. Australian rules football, also known as Aussie rules or just plain old “footy,” is one of the hidden wonders of the world.

Invented in 1858 by a handful of cricketers who decided that they needed a sport to play during the offseason, Aussie rules grew from a way for said cricketers to stay in shape into a sensation.

Two teams of 18 face off on a cricket oval, which can stretch from 135 to 185 meters (442 to 607 feet, for those of us who use rulers) in length and are between 110 and 155 meters wide (300 to 508 feet). For reference, an American football field would fit nicely in a cricket oval’s pocket — the gridiron is played on a pitch 360 feet long and 120 feet wide. There’s plenty of space, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the game is spread out — footy is full contact, as players dribble, punch or kick an oblong ball downfield.

The targets are a set of four posts that stand at each end of the ground. Players aim to score 6-point goals by kicking the ball untouched through the gap between the two middle posts. If the ball flies between any of the other posts, makes contact with a post or touches anything other than an attacking player’s boot or the grass before flying through the middle posts, then a 1-point behind is earned.

Aussie rules is only made more spectacular by the mark. Players can move the ball down the pitch by dribbling the ball once every 15 meters or punching it forward to teammates. However, the most efficient method of movement is to catch or “mark” the footy from a kick of more than 10 meters, which halts play and gives a player time to kick unmolested.

The result is somewhere in between the beauty of flight and speed and the chaos of a flock of pigeons chasing a discarded bread crust. Acrobatic marks and kicks are broken up by gritty scrambles and tackles to retrieve the footy.

The play never truly stops, though. Wish a fond farewell to commercial breaks. The only thing on any player’s or spectator’s mind is “what next” as they speed toward the goal. Scores get high — you could not mistake an Aussie rules result for that of its cousin soccer — and goals can truly come at any time.

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Interested? Fascinated? Excited? Confused? These emotions (and many more) are common reactions to the game of footy, but if a quick perusal of YouTube videos and highlights isn’t enough, fear not, the Australian Football League finals series is already in full swing.

Aussie rules’ playoffs are a hallowed time in the sport, as the top eight teams from the regular season challenge one another in a unique playoff format. The first round of the finals series features a qualifying final among the top four seeds (first seed versus fourth seed, second seed versus third seed). The winners of these matches earn a bye and advance to the preliminary finals (the final four), while the losers earn a second chance to advance against the winners of the elimination finals, a set of matches between the fifth and eighth seeds and between the sixth and seventh seeds.

The losers of the elimination finals are, as one would expect, eliminated. Meanwhile, the winners from the elimination finals face the losers from the qualifying finals for the last two spots in the preliminary finals. The winners from the preliminary finals punch their ticket to the grand final and have a shot at the premiership, the AFL’s top trophy.

While the finals series format takes a minute to understand, it generally allows for plenty of excitement, and 2020 should be no different.

This postseason kicks off with a qualifying final between the Port Adelaide Power, which is the AFL’s top team, and the Geelong Cats, which lead the league in points scored. Port Adelaide has won just one premiership, while Geelong is one of the trophy-laden old guards from Victoria.

The other Victorian side to qualify for the top four is the Richmond Tigers. Despite being the winner of two premierships in the last three years and current defending champions, the Tigers are the underdogs to a young and hungry Brisbane Lions side that nearly overtook Port Adelaide for the AFL’s top seed.

The winners from those matches will advance to the preliminary finals, while the losers will play the winners from the elimination finals, which will begin when St. Kilda plays the Western Bulldogs at the Gabba.

While these clubs are both more than a century old and are two of the many teams from Melbourne, neither is a powerhouse. The Bulldogs broke a 62-year premiership drought when they won their second title in 2016. St. Kilda has its own woes — the club has just one premiership, a flag from 1966. In addition, the Saints are playing in their first finals series in a decade after a heartbreaking grand final loss in 2010. The underdog train starts here.

Meanwhile, the West Coast Eagles will play Collingwood in the last elimination final. The Eagles drubbed the Magpies earlier this season, but both teams have lost two of their last five and fell down the ladder during the final week. Collingwood is a divisive team from Melbourne — many either love them or hate them. West Coast is the new giant on the block. The club is just 34 years old but has already reeled in four premierships, including a comeback grand final victory just two years ago against the Magpies.

Aussie rules, like anything unfamiliar, may be entirely confusing, but it is also exciting and a sport that truly never stops. It’s probably the greatest sport you’ve never heard of.

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen covers football and is the deputy special issues editor. Contact him at [email protected].