Plains Folk

Australian Rules


It’s possible to have too much football. I mean, at our house, we follow the college game, particularly the exploits of our sentimental favorites, all of whom have the sound and savor of the prairie to them—the Cowboys, the Longhorns, the Bison. Come the conclusion of the playoffs, though, I really cannot face another platter of game day nachos.


So naturally, on our recent expedition to the Northern Territory of Australia, we took in a football game—two of them, actually. Which raises the question—just what is “football”?


No one else in the world cares about American football. In Australia, they call American football “gridiron.” As for “footie,” as it is affectionately known, Australians have four kinds.


The first is what Europeans call football, and we call soccer. It’s not generally popular. The second is rugby union, the traditional football of English origin, immensely popular in New Zealand, not so much in Australia. The third is rugby league, which is a popular commercial product, played by hulking guys, and in my opinion, uninteresting.


And then we have Australian football, as in the Australian Football League, what we Americans call “Australian Rules.” This is the sport the eminent Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey has called “a game of our own.” It is the overwhelming favorite in southern and central Australia.


Australian football is a wide-open game, eighteen players on a side, played on a huge field, 150 meters goal to goal. The game emphasizes kicking skill, both for advancement of the ball and for scoring goals. It favors speed and agility over brute strength. Hard collisions come not so much from tackling as from incidental contact while leaping for balls in the air. There are lots of injuries.


Australian football is a near-obsession in the aboriginal communities of central Australia. Many foreign visitors are disappointed that they cannot go out freely and visit native communities on aboriginal reserves. Well, all they need to do is go to the football oval and sit in the grassy section behind the goal, and the aborigines will come to them!


So, we lounged through about six hours of football stretching from afternoon into night in Darwin. First there was a game between the local club, the Thunder, and the visiting Southport Sharks. Lots of action, not much defense, and the visitors prevailed, 101-98. Then there was the marquee game pitting two touring AFL teams, the Western Bulldogs of Melbourne and the Port Adelaide Power. I don’t remember who won.


What is do remember are matters of the senses: really bad team songs played over the PA system; steak and onion sandwiches; the buzz of the crowd signaling action on the field (there are no announcers calling the game); the quality of light as the air cooled toward dusk, skies turning from blue to cobalt, black kites and white-bellied cormorants wheeling over the field. So this is Australian football.


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