When I was traveling across Australia a few years ago (yeah, gap yah story, deal with it), a helpful Antipodean tried his best to explain the madness that was occuring on the television in front of me. It looked like 36 angry men in coloured wife beaters charging around a cricket pitch with four vertical posts at each end. There was a ball, but it seemed merely incidental. This was my introduction to Aussie Rules football, and a visit to a local derby at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (capacity: 100,000, atmosphere: second to none) later, I was hooked.
It is hard to appreciate just how massive Aussie rules is in Australia when one barely ever hears about it over here. The AFL has a higher average attendance than the Premier League. It is like rugby, both in ball shape and general handling and tackling, and played on a large egg-shaped pitch. The object is to kick the “footie” through the sets of four posts at the end of the pitch to score points, and a few other minor rules aside, that’s pretty much it.
I turned up to the training along with seemingly every Aussie in Oxford. The Rhodes Scholarship and its emphasis on academic and athletic excellence ensures a constant supply of players, and means the annual Varsity match with Cambridge is now in its 91st year. We started off with some drills, designed to get newcomers used to some of the peculiarities of the game. Rather than passing as in rugby, you punch the ball out of your hand with your other fist, in what is known as a handpass. There is also a lot of kicking, and if you catch a kick on the full it is known as a ‘mark’ and is the only time in an incredibly frantic game where you cannot be touched as you are allowed to make the next kick for free, unchallenged.
Training finished with a proper game of eight-on-eight footie. This was chaos, but also great fun. It was incredibly physical, and as, unlike in both rugby codes, there are no offside lines, things can and do happen from any and every direction. You can think you’re clean through and ready to kick a glorious six-pointer (kicks between the two central posts are worth six, others are worth one), when suddenly you’re flattened by an opponent you had no idea was there.
The ball spent a lot of the time being scrapped over on the ground, making the satisfaction of taking a mark, and being afforded the few seconds’ peace that offers, even greater. There were nuances to the game I didn’t pick up (what I thought were excellent ‘cheeky offloads’ were all immediately pinged for being passes, not handballs), but in terms up of being easy to pick up and play, it was a revelation.
If any rugby players are looking for something a little different, or if you just fancy playing a sport where a team beer after training is not merely encouraged but mandatory, I can’t recommend it enough.