If you try to picture rugby combined with a mix of punting and place kicking from American football, you might start to get a general idea of how Australian rules football works.
Two teams of 18 players each compete against each other on a large, oval-shaped field. Put simply, the goal for each team is to work its way down the field by passing or kicking the ball among teammates while avoiding being tackled. At each end of the field stand four tall posts, similar to field goal posts. A punt through the middle two posts earns six points for the team, but if it’s through the other posts it’s just one point.
Seem complicated? Probably, but watch it for 10 minutes and it starts to become a lot easier to understand. It also becomes apparent just how skilled the players (“footballers,” if you want to sound like a proper Australian) are at punting the ball. Imagine booting an American football 50-plus yards through the field goal posts on command, all while 18 defenders try their best to wrestle you to the ground.
The level of skill required makes it no small wonder that more and more Australians are capable of punting in American football. In fact, there are three Australian punters in the NFL right now: Brad Wing of the New York Giants, Jordan Berry of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Lachlan Edwards of the New York Jets.
Even former UNC punter Tom Sheldon, who played for the Tar Heels the last two seasons, got his start playing Aussie rules. The Echuca, Victoria, native spoke with UNC Athletics’ YouTube channel about the differences between the two sports back in 2016.
“It’s virtually a completely separate game,” he said.
“There are very few similarities in it apart from the brief bit of kicking I do in this game, compared to our game back home which is 95 percent kicking.”
The sport is nothing less than a national obsession down under, and the area surrounding Melbourne is its Tobacco Road. Ten of the 18 teams that currently compete in the Australian Football League are located in the state of Victoria. Just as the sporting rivalries between nearby universities in North Carolina have an added level of intensity, so do the local battles in the Australian state.
To Tom Heenan, who is a professor at Monash University in nearby Clayton, Victoria, the competition on the pitch is about far more than just bragging rights.
“This is the birthplace of football,” Heenan said. “What you see on the pitch is nothing short of tribal. This is two local tribes battling for their territory.”
He said this just a stone’s throw away from the holiest of all of Australia’s many temples to sport: the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Don’t let the name fool you, the MCG as it’s commonly known is one of Australian football’s finest stadiums, and on Friday night I joined 76,423 other fans as they went to see two local tribes battle there.
On this night it was Richmond Football Club, the reigning AFL champions, versus Essendon Football Club, a team that is tied for the most championships in the sport, that took the field. The passion within that massive fiery cauldron they call a stadium was palpable, and screams from fans that cannot be reprinted in this publication soared high into the cold Australian winter sky. In the end, Richmond was victorious, and its fans traveled home happy in the knowledge that another local rival had been conquered.
If you’re willing to endure at least 20 hours on an aircraft, you too can experience a footy match at the MCG. It’s a football very different from our own, one in which touchdowns don’t exist and good punters are prized above all else. It’s a sport that’s as unique and unmistakable as its homeland.
This is Australian rules football, and if you ever do experience it in person, you won't regret it.
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