A primer for the game of Australian Rules football where some key elements are observed. By Robert Keeley.
Think of the game of Australian Rules football as a jigsaw puzzle. Spread out in front of an unsuspecting newcomer it might appear to be a chaotic shambles (which it sometimes is). All the pieces need to fit together for it to work, and if they don’t you just have a disconnected, discombobulated rabble on a big oval ground.
But it’s also a competitive jigsaw puzzle. There’s a lot of pieces, and because it’s a contest and other sides are trying to stop you from assembling them in the right way, it doesn’t always work. Frequently it stays a confused mess. Invested observers can go home thinking the jigsaw will never come together and occasionally they will vow to avoid the puzzle permanently. “The game is broken,” they might comment. Just like a ‘new and improved’ model that stops working soon after its guarantee runs out, when the game fails they will lash out in anger or despair with the certain knowledge they have been ‘ripped off’. “Never again,” they will cry. It’s not like the old game, which worked.
Every observer has their own views on why the puzzle won’t come together. Is there some cosmic conspiracy behind it all? The truth is arguably more prosaic and complex. Putting the puzzle together simply takes time (sometimes a lot of it), and though important pieces (usually players or coaches or administrators with a particular disposition or skill) may be missing, a diligent participant can eventually find them. And then one day the puzzle will come together and it will all fit. All the pieces will be there, and they’ll form a cohesive whole. The full picture will be there in front of you – in all its glorious and well-defined completeness.
And the observer might wonder why it took so long, and why the process was so frustrating. That’s why jigsaws are so challenging. Here’s a few important pieces of the puzzle. They’re not the whole lot, but without these the picture just won’t come together.
1. The Chaos
For an Australian Rules football puzzle to come to some coherent design you must start with chaos. Assume the whole idea behind the game is to try to make a kind of order out of it. Unlike the round ball in the game of soccer, or the rectangular pitch in the rugby codes, the Australian Rules football is shaped like an oval and the game is played on an oval ground. This makes it totally unpredictable. The oval ball bounces around the oval ground in whatever way it wants. The players of the game, no matter how skilled, can be confounded. Even the best participants simply can’t pick its path every time. The best participants work the percentages. They try to get it right more often than their opponents. But sometimes everybody is simply left confused.
2. The Players
You can’t have a game of Australian Rules football without players. You need young men and women of some physical strength (the higher the level of competition, the greater the fitness), a degree of dexterity (arguably more so than in any other game because attacks upon you can come from any side at almost any time), good awareness (see the previous point) and perhaps most of all, courage. It takes a lot of intestinal fortitude (ie: “guts”) to cross the boundary line of an Australian Rules football ground. Even at lower levels you can be hit from anywhere. It helps if the players like the challenge. It helps to have ‘game awareness’. It helps to listen to your coach’s instructions. But most of all you just have to love playing the game.
3. The Coach
You can’t have any serious team game without a coach. But in a game of Australian Rules football the coach is fundamental. There are too many players and too many options on the field. And off the field too many things can go wrong. Coaches might be working alone or they may have one (or even half a dozen) assistants. But the bottom line at every level of the game is that the buck stops with the senior coach. He’s a strategist, a tactician, a motivator, and in some teams an administrator or even a cleaner! He leads and he follows (though not necessarily the same people). And in different situations he cajoles, congratulates, applauds, stresses, and worries. Up close it’s not hard for those who are the focus of his attention to know what he’s thinking. But from a distance, how would you know? Check the scoreboard and look for a furrowed brow.
4. The Bulls
Any serious level of football requires aggression. It’s a game of physical confrontation. Some players are more aggressive than others, but nobody can afford to be timid when they’re on an Australian Rules football ground. The ‘new’ game is not like the ‘old’ one from decades ago, when players could be seriously injured by some seriously angry individuals out on a football ground. Today’s authorities tend to frown upon those types. Over the years they have weeded them out. It’s a lot safer out there than it used to be. But safety is still a relative term. Any serious team values ‘controlled aggression’; angry bulls in the paddock can have their uses. They let the other mob know you’re not about to be pushed around. And while you’re at it you can push them around a bit too.
Every team needs a few angry bulls in the paddock...
5. The Medicos
If there’s too much pushing, shoving, falling, or colliding, then eventually players get hurt. It is a contact sport. So off they’ll go to see the medicos. These educated individuals will use their skills to assess any injuries and calculate if the injured patient can make an immediate return to the action. Occasionally they might feel under some pressure to decide in the affirmative. Injured players are not much use to a harried coach. But once again, unlike the old days, the medicos are much less inclined to send out a punch-drunk player than they once might have been. Medicos are essential to keeping an Australian Rules team running efficiently through a game and through a season. Players might occasionally rail in frustration against the decisions of a medico, but in such a physically challenging contest, what the medicos say goes. Players can be out of the game with some injuries, sometimes for several months. You have to listen to the medicos. Or you can listen to the legendary Australian Football League team manager Neil Balme, who’ll tell you that, whoever he is, the player’s injury isn’t that serious and he’ll be back “in a couple of weeks”.
6. The 'Pounce'
Not to be confused with the ‘bounce’, by which umpires traditionally start an Australian Rules game, the ‘pounce’ is critical. There’s a long list of physical skills required by the array of players who partake of the game of Australian Rules football. Kicking, marking (grabbing the ball from the air), and handballing (punching the ball with a closed fist whilst holding it in the palm of the other), are the key elements. But there are others. Perhaps the most under-rated is the ‘pounce’, otherwise translated by Australia Rules fans as ‘getting the ball’ or more colloquially, imploring a central figure from Christianity to “GET THE BLOODY BALL!” (closely aligned to the following cry of “KICK THE BLOODY THING!”). To get the ball first is the most fundamental skill in football. Be quick, be smart, be evasive – but get the bloody ball. Pounce on it!
7. The 'Fly'
Whilst the most of the skills involved in Australian Rules are vital to participating, there’s one option which is revered amongst players and spectators – the big fly. It’s the most spectacular expression of individuality in this team game. The preserve of a handful of particularly adventurous and athletic players, the big fly is the embodiment of exuberant confidence (or over-confidence?). The players who fly can not only leap beyond the confines of gravity, they have the self-belief to know they can do it. That doesn’t mean they always succeed in plucking the ball from the sky. But along the way they leave their earth-bound contemporaries in awe, wondering how they had the temerity to try.
8. The Fans
In football there’s one final piece to the Australian Rules puzzle which really helps add some spice – the fans. As much as the players, the coaches and the administrators, they make the game. There are all sorts of fans who watch the game. Some are social (talking to each other about subjects not immediately or apparently germane to the tension-packed action in front of them), some are enthusiasts, some are filled with doom (gripped by fear that any moment will create disaster for their team), some are fanatical optimists (no matter how bad it seems it will soon get better), and some are just plain fanatics. But the best of them stick. When it’s the 25-minute mark of the last quarter, their team has just lost the lead, and they can’t look any more, they look. Good outcome or bad, they will stay to the final siren. If their team has to put up with it, they will too. And that says it all.
(*All images by the author from a Hawthorn versus Essendon Victorian Football League match played in June, 2018.)