The game is a fast-paced combination of speed, athleticism, skill and physical toughness. Players are allowed to tackle the player with the ball and impede opposition players from tackling their teammates (known as shepherding), but not to deliberately strike an opponent (though pushing the margins of these rules is often a substantial part of the game). Like most team sports, tactics are based around trying to get the ball, then — through a combination of running with the ball, hand-passing (punching the ball from the open palm of the other hand) and kicking — deliver it to a player who is within range of goal. Because taking a mark entitles the player to a free kick, a common tactic is to attempt to kick the ball on the full (without bouncing) to a teammate who is within kicking range of goal. In this situation, packs of players often form around the goal square, and the opportunity arises for spectacular high marks (or “speckies”), in which players launch themselves off opponents’ backs to mark the ball, high in the air.
There are no set positions in the rules of the game, but traditionally the field was divided into three major sections: the forward line, back line, and midfield. The forward and back lines consisted of six players, arranged into two lines of three players each. The midfield generally consists of the designated ruckman (i.e. player who contests the ruck or bouncedown) and players who either stay in the centre area of the ground (between the two 50 metre arcs) or follow the ball and are not confined to a particular area.
The modern game, however, has largely discarded positional play in favour of a free flowing running game and attempting to have loose men in various positions on the ground. The rise in popularity of the hand-pass since the 1970s has greatly influenced this style of play, with players more willing to follow the ball and move it quickly amongst themselves rather than kicking long to a one-on-one marking contest. In the late 1990s a tactic known as flooding was devised and also shifted focus away from set positions. When a team “plays a flood”, they direct two or more of their midfield or forward line players into their defence, thus out-numbering their opponent and making it difficult for any opposing forward to take an uncontested mark. Most football sides are named (and demonstrated) in the traditional set positions, but it is in fact uncommon for players to stay within the traditional areas of their position. The players are shuffled on and off the field using the interchange bench, the blood rule means that if any player, for any reason, should begin to bleed, no matter how minor or severe, they must remove themselves from the ground to receive treatment. They may return when the flow of blood has stopped and has been treated by the team medic.
Like many other codes of football, the way to score points is to score goals. In Australian Football, there are two types of scores: a goal, and a behind. There are four posts at each end of the ground; the two middle (and taller) posts are the goal posts, and the two outer (and shorter) posts are the behind posts. The area between the goal posts is the goal: kicking the ball between these posts scores a goal which is worth six points. Kicking the ball between a goal and a behind post scores a behind, which constitutes a single point. A behind is also scored if the ball passes between the goal posts, but is not kicked by the attacking team (e.g., it comes off the hands of either team, or is kicked by the defending team), or if the ball hits the goal post. (If the ball hits the behind post, the ball is considered to have gone out of bounds.) A rushed behind (also worth one point) is scored when the defending team deliberately forces the ball between any of the posts. This may occur in pressure situations where a defender decides that it is safer to concede one point to the opposing team rather than risk a goal being scored.
A goal umpire judges whether a goal or behind is scored. The goal umpire shows that a goal has been scored by pointing both index fingers in front of him and then waving two flags above his or her head to indicate the score to the other goal umpire. A behind is signalled by pointing one finger, and waving one flag.
As an example, consider a match in which the home team scores 11 goals and 12 behinds, totalling 78 points, and the away team scores 8 goals and 8 behinds, totalling 56 points. The home team wins the match by 22 points, and the result would usually appear like this:
- Home Team 11.12 (78) def. Away Team 8.8 (56)
The first number is the number of goals (six points) scored, the second number is the number of behinds (one point) scored, and the final number is the total score. The final result is decided on the total score only: a team may win the game despite scoring fewer goals (e.g. 13.21 (99) def. 14.9 (93)); and, if two teams finish with the same total score, the match is considered a draw even if the teams kick a different number of goals (e.g. 12.10 (82) drew 11.16 (82)).
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