Understanding Australia’s Football Codes

While the NFL is indisputably the premier football league in the United States, there are three main football codes in Australia – Rugby Union, Rugby League and Australian Rules. Sure, they aren’t exactly the same, but if you like it physical, it doesn’t get better than this. And it’s not just that the games are full on physical and exciting; Australia is one of a handful of highly successful world rugby nations, and as such has a loyal fan-base next to none.

Rugby - it’s enough like American football to hold the interest of those expats missing their beloved NFL games.

Rugby - it’s enough like American football to hold the interest of those expats missing their beloved NFL games.

Even if you’re not missing the NFL (much), as an expat you’ll do well to familiarize yourself with Australia’s three main football codes and their background and rules, and find out what you can expect out of the three. They’re all great sports to play and watch!

Rugby Union

While rugby has been played in Australia since the 1820s, Rugby Union has its roots in the early rugby clubs – Sydney University Club being the oldest (1864). Initially there were two fragmented unions in the south and north of the country. These combined when Australia played the very first rugby test series against a visiting British team in 1899, although it wasn’t until 1948 that a national Australian Rugby Football Union was formed (specifically to be eligible to sit on the International Rugby Board).

Even if you’ve never been particularly interested in rugby, chances are you’ve heard of the Wallabies, Australia’s national team. The very first Wallabies toured the UK, Ireland and North America for nine months in 1908, hot on the heels of the New Zealand All Blacks. In England the Wallabies were invited to play at the London Olympic Games. Victorious, they returned home with the gold medal, having beaten England’s champion team, Cornwall. Then lured by money, 11 of them joined the new Rugby League.

Two years later, a joint initiative between Australia, New Zealand and South Africa led to the launch of the every four year Rugby World Cup, now supported by all the rugby-playing nations in the world. The next series will be held in England in 2015, with all teams that came first, second or third in the pool stages in 2011 qualifying automatically. Teams include Australia (1991 and 1999 winners), South Africa (1995 and 2007 winners), New Zealand (1987 and 2011 winners), the host nation (2003 winners), and Argentina (the highest ranked rugby nation in the Americas).

The professional league started in 1996 when South Africa, New Zealand and Australia launched Super 12 Rugby, a transnational club competition for the Southern Hemisphere. The competition was later renamed Super Rugby when the game expanded to include 15 teams in 2011, five from each of the three nations.

Australia has five Super Rugby teams

Australia’s five Super Rugby teams are the ACT Brumbies, the Melbourne Rebels, the Queensland Reds, the New South Wales Waratahs and the Western Force. The season runs from February to July each year, with 18 rounds held before the finals. Australia didn’t see much success in 2012, with no teams progressing to the semi-finals (New Zealand’s Waikato Chiefs defeated South Africa’s Durban Sharks at home in the final). The Queensland Reds did win the competition in 2011 though!

Rugby League

Rugby League has its roots in the derivative form of British rugby that set itself apart from the official Rugby Union way back in 1895. Even though the codes and rules are different, it wasn’t so much the need for a new game than an idea that working-class rugby players should get some kind of compensation when they played for teams and were sometimes injured doing so.

Ultimately, instead of 15 in a team, there were to be 13 players, and the idea of “play-the-ball” was introduced to minimize scrums and scrappy play where balls couldn’t be seen by the refs or spectators.

At the time, Australian rugby was played according to English rugby union rules, with only unpaid amateurs competing. Then came the famous ‘rugby rebellion’, highlighted by the decision of the brilliant Australian rugby player, Herbert Henry “Daily” Messenger, to join the new league. It didn’t take much for rugby league administrators to establish a good, solid financial foundation that enabled them to attract top players. After all, rugby (in all its guises) is a full contact football sport, and the unpaid amateurs were only too happy to change route and earn a living out of rugby.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The fact that the media (in the form of Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited) got involved, maintaining that they, rather than the league, should control the sport, led to a vicious dispute now referred to as the ‘Super League War’. In an endeavor to beat the ARL at their media-control game, Murdoch (in his inimitable style) formed a breakaway league called the Super League and signed up eight ARL’s clubs to the new competition. This resulted in two separate premierships in 1997, before being reunified under the National Rugby League (NRL), a body that is jointly owned by the ARL and News Limited.

The Premiership has been run since 1909, initially as an eight-team competition, and currently a 16-team competition (although at one stage in the 1990s 22 teams were competing). It is most popular in the New South Wales (10 teams), Queensland (3 teams) and ACT (1 team), although the formation in 1998 of the NRL in its current form saw expansion with teams being added to Victoria and New Zealand and rumors of a new team in Western Australia.

The NRL season commences in March and runs for 26 competition rounds before finals are held in September.  Though it doesn’t rival the rugby union or Australian rules in terms of crowd attendance at matches, it is considered the premier television code with by far the best viewership numbers.

Mid-way through each season three State of Origin matches are held between New South Wales and Queensland, with each state selecting its best players from NRL club teams. The intensity and skill on display in these matches is second to none – if you only watch one Rugby League match it should be a State of Origin.

The expat experience in Australia wouldn’t be complete without making some efforts to understand rugby.

Australian Rules

While the exact origins of Australian Rules Football are not particularly clear cut, it is known that this version of the rugby football ‘sport’ has been played since at least 1859 when the Melbourne Football Club first published ‘laws’ or rules of the game. It seems that these were in fact the first official rules, or codes, that were used for any type of contact football down under. These were redrafted several times to accommodate various interests. The Melbourne Rules became the Victorian Rules, which became the Australian Rules (which continued to evolve and change, often quite dramatically).

Like rugby league, AFL was club based. However it was initially more popular in the western and southern states of Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. In recent years the sport has expanded north though, with New South Wales and Queensland each now having two AFL teams.

Today the AFL also has a prestigious league competition, followed by a Grand Final. But the games are not the same at all. Like all forms of rugby, the season is mostly concentrated in southern hemisphere winter, running from the end of March to the end of September. In 2011 it was the Collingwood team (the Magpies), fittingly from Melbourne, that took the honors.

The national Australian Sports Commission recognizes the AFL along with the seven affiliated (mostly semi-professional) AFL organizations based in various parts of the country. But interestingly, there are several amateur clubs and a number of competitions in other parts of the world that are affiliated to the AFL (though none in the Americas, not even Argentina).

While it is said that AFL draws more interest than any other form of rugby football in Australia with stadiums regularly filled for weekly matches, it really doesn’t have anywhere near the same following internationally. But then nor does the American NFL, so maybe you’d like to give it a go, mate!

No one can ever say that rugby isn’t a very physical sport.

Differences between the codes

And the differences between the three codes? Without going into too much detail, in Rugby Union and Rugby League and both played on a rectangular field and the objective is to score a try by putting down the ball on or past the oppositions tryline (like a touchdown, but the ball must be grounded). In both codes the ball may only be passed backwards, but Rugby League is revolves around sets of six tackles before the ball must be handed over to the opposition, whereas Rugby Union uses more free-flowing rucks.

Australian Rules is played on an oval field with four goal posts (as opposed to two in Rugby Union and Rugby League). Rather than scoring a try, the main objective is to kick a goal between the two middle posts (for six points) or the two outside posts (for one point). The ball can go forward out of the hands, but must be ‘handballed’ and can’t be passed.

There are, of course, many other subtle and not-so-subtle differences. We thoroughly urge you go and watch a match – you’ll pick up the rules in no time!

David Wright writes for Travel Insurance Cover, (www.travelinsurancecover.com.au), an online travel insurance provider who offer policies for visitors to Australia and New Zealand (www.travelinsurancecover.co.nz) You can find out more about the policies they offer including applicable terms and conditions on their website.

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1 Comment

  1. Australian Football Fan December 25, 2012 at 6:31 am

    Australian rules football is (NOT) Rugby, and that is not a picture of Australian rules football beside the article.

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