Laws of Australian football

A ruck contest in after the centre bounce. The man in the green shirt is a field umpire.

The laws of Australian football describe the rules of the game of Australian rules football as they have evolved and adapted, with the same underlying core rules, since 1859.

The laws is an extensive document containing rules and interpretations and is currently managed by the Australian Football League.

The rules were first formed by the Melbourne Football Club, chaired by Tom Wills in 1859. The laws significantly pre-date the advent of a governing body for the sport. The first national and international body, the Australasian Football Council, was formed in 1890 to govern Australasian Rules. Since 1990, the rules for the game known as Australian football have been governed by the AFL and the organisation's Laws of the Game committee.


Players, ground and equipment

Eighteen players are permitted to take the field for each team, with an additional four players on an interchange bench (although this number often varies in exhibition and practice matches). The equipment needed to play the game is minimal. As in other kinds of football, players wear boots with stops (known as "cleats" or "studs" in some regions) in the soles, shorts, and a thick, strong shirt or jumper known as a guernsey.

AFL football

The game is played with an ellipsoid ball, on a grassed oval. A red ball is used for day matches and a yellow ball is used for night matches. A full size ball is a size 5.


Four posts, aligned in a straight line, 6.4 metres apart from each other, are erected at either end of the oval. The size of the ground is not fixed, but is generally between 135-185m long and 110-155m wide. Lines are drawn on the field to mark

  • the boundary,
  • a 50m wide centre square,
  • two circles in the centre with diameters 3m and 10m and a line dividing the circles in half,
  • a 9×6.4m goal square at each end of the ground,
  • a 15m wide interchange on one flank of the oval.
  • a distance of 50 metres from the goal line (the "Fifty Metre Line"); after introduction of 50m centre square, the "Fifty Metre Lines" were replaced by 45m lines at Sydney Cricket Ground due to the ground's length, to avoid the overlapping with the centre square
Diagram of a standard ground for Australian rules football


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. This particular skill is highly regarded as a spectacle, and an annual "Mark of the Year" is awarded at the end of a season.

The traditional playing positions.

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.

Holding the ball

One of the things that causes the most confusion for people that are not familiar with the game are the Holding the ball, Dropping the Ball, and Throwing rules. Confusion arises because a player being tackled is not allowed to hold onto the ball, but is not allowed to throw it either.

These rules are easily summarised:

  • Players must always dispose of the ball by either a kick or a handpass.
    • A handpass, also called a handball, is performed by punching the ball from one hand with the other fist. The ball can not be thrown up (like a volleyball serve) and hit, nor handed to a teammate like an American/Canadian football handoff.
  • When a player is in possession of the ball, and moving, the ball must be bounced, or touched to the ground, at least once every 15 metres. Failure to do so results in a penalty, where a free kick is awarded to the opposing team. This is sometimes called running too far or travelling, and is signalled by the umpire in the same way as travelling is signalled in basketball.

If the ball carrying player decides to run with the ball or to evade a tackling opponent, he would be deemed to have a prior opportunity of being able to dispose of the ball legally, as long as there was a reasonable time for the player to dispose of the ball correctly prior to being tackled. e.g. a couple of steps would not normally constitute "prior opportunity".

  • When a player is in possession of the ball, and is tackled correctly (i.e., above the knees and below the shoulders), he must immediately dispose of the ball by kicking or handpassing. Failure to do so, when a prior opportunity to dispose of it existed, results in a penalty benefiting the tackling team, which is awarded a free kick. A free kick is also awarded to the tackler if there was no prior opportunity, but the player in possession of the ball does not dispose of it or attempt to do so within a reasonable time. This is also called holding the ball. Exceptions to this rule include:
    • Being bumped, that is, hit side-on by another player or tackled in such a manner that causes the ball to be knocked free or come loose from a player's possession.
    • Being tackled with the ball despite gaining possession of it but had no chance of disposing it (no prior opportunity), where the ball is unable to be released. A ball-up would result to restart play.

If the ball carrier, who had prior opportunity before the tackle, was swung off balance while attempting to dispose the ball but not making contact, a holding the ball decision would be awarded against the ball carrier on the basis of the ball not being legally disposed of whilst tackled. Where there is no prior opportunity, the umpire will call "play on".

In a recent effort to reduce the amount of unnecessary stoppages, the interpretation of the prior opportunity has widened to include any player who grabs hold of the ball during a ball-up or throw-in situation instead of knocking it away. In this instance, if the player is then tackled and could not dispose of the ball legally, a holding the ball penalty would be paid against him.

For detailed interpretations, go to Holding the Ball.


Australian rules football goal posts - the two tall central posts are the goal posts, and the two shorter outer posts are the behind posts.

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 between Essendon and St Kilda. Essendon score 19 goals and 5 behinds which equate to 119 points. St Kilda on the other hand manage 16 goals and 8 behinds, totalling 104 points. Essendon wins the match by 15 points, and the result would usually appear like this:

Essendon 19.5 (119) def. St Kilda 16.8 (104)

And read:

Essendon nineteen-five, one-hundred and nineteen, defeated St Kilda sixteen-eight, one-hundred and four.

The margin in this case would be read as:

Essendon by fifteen points.

However in some cases the score is written like this:

Essendon 19.5 - 119 def. St Kilda 16.8 - 104.

The first number is the number of goals (six points) scored, the second number is the number of behinds (one point) scored, and the third number in the brackets is the total score. The final result is decided on the total score only, there is no 'countback rule' in which the team with the most goals wins.

Some experimental rule changes in the Australian Football League pre-season competition relate to scoring.


The goal umpire is signalling a goal, while a field umpire makes his way back to the centre square for the centre bounce.

The game is controlled by a number of field umpires (at elite level, three), two boundary umpires whose main job is to conduct throw-ins when the ball leaves the field of play and two goal umpires who judge which scores are recorded, and are the official score-keepers of the game. In addition, there is an emergency umpire, who can replace any field umpire who becomes injured. Each of the eight umpires may report players, but only field umpires may pay free kicks.

Historically, all umpires have worn white, but most competitions have changed this now to ensure that umpire uniforms do not clash with team uniforms. Historically, the field umpires and boundary umpires have worn white short-sleeved shirts and white shorts, while goal umpires wore a white coat, white broad-brimmed hat and black trousers. Today, goal umpires wear the same short-sleeved shirts as the other umpires and a peaked cap, but retain the black trousers. Goal umpires also have white flags which are waved to signal scores.

Length of the Game

The length of a game of Australian Football can vary from league to league, but is generally around 15 to 25 minutes per quarter. In the AFL, each quarter runs for 20 minutes excluding stoppage time (also known as time on). The clock is stopped on occasions such as the ball going out of bounds, injuries, goals (or behinds) being kicked, or when the umpire is setting the angle of a free kick on goal. Time is kept by two off-field officials, known as timekeepers, who sound the siren at the start and end of each quarter. A typical AFL quarter might run from 27 to 33 minutes, but might run to 35 minutes if, say, a stretcher injury causes undue delay.

In the AFL, the four quarters are each 20 minutes, with the clock stopping when the ball is out of play. This clock is seen by the coaches and on TV. However, the clock at the ground counts up from 0, and does not stop. Therefore, spectators and players never know exactly how much time is left in the game. AFL breaks after the first and third quarters are six minutes, with a 20-minute break at halftime.[1] Thus a match whose quarters averaged 30 minutes would last about two and a half hours.

AFL Rules Committee

The AFL rules committee or "Laws of the Game" committee currently manage the Laws of the Game. Current members of the committee include former VFL/AFL players Kevin Bartlett, Brendon Gale, Andrew McKay and Michael Sexton.[2]

Matthew Pavlich is the only current player on the committee.[3] Nathan Buckley controversially resigned in 2007 due to apparent disagreement with the frequent changes made by the committee, citing that he did not want his name to be associated with the changes.[4] Since Buckley's retirement and resignation, Luke Darcy has joined the committee in 2008. Leigh Matthews joined the committee in 2009.[5] Adrian Anderson is chair of the committee and other members include Rowan Sawers.

The committee has managed to make large changes to the game in recent years through the introduction of "interpretations", unofficial rules which are enforced by AFL umpires manager Jeff Gieschen, however the AFL Umpires Association is not represented on the committee.

History of the Laws and Governing Bodies

Melbourne Rules of 1859

These ten rules, instituted by the Melbourne Football Club were originally known as "The rules of the Melbourne Football Club - May 1859."

1. The distance between the Goals and the Goal Posts shall be decided upon by the Captains of the sides playing.
2. The Captains on each side shall toss for choice of Goal; the side losing the toss has the kick off from the centre point between the Goals
3. A Goal must be kicked fairly between the posts, without touching either of them, or a portion of the person of any player on either side.
4. The game shall be played within a space of not more than 200 yards wide, the same to be measured equally on each side of a line drawn through the centres of the two Goals; and two posts to be called the "kick off posts" shall be erected at a distance of 20 yards on each side of the Goal posts at both ends, and in a straight line with them.
5. In case the ball is kicked "behind" Goal, any one of the side behind whose Goal it is kicked may bring it 20 yards in front of any portion of the space between the "kick off" posts, and shall kick it as nearly as possible in line with the opposite Goal.
6. Any player catching the ball "directly" from the foot may call "mark". He then has a free kick; no player from the opposite side being allowed to come "inside" the spot marked.
7. Tripping and pushing are both allowed (but no hacking) when any player is in rapid motion or in possession of the ball, except in the case provided for in Rule 6.
8. The ball may be taken in hand "only" when caught from the foot, or on the hop. In "no case" shall it be "lifted" from the ground.
9. When a ball goes out of bounds (the same being indicated by a row of posts) it shall be brought back to the point where it crossed the boundary-line, and thrown in at right angles with that line.
10. The ball, while in play, may under no circumstances be thrown.

Although not explicitly mentioned in the rules, each captain was to umpire the game, and each team consisted of 20 per side. In the early days there were no set rules to decide the winner of a game, however it was most commonly the first side to kick 2 goals. In some circumstances this meant that games could draw out for long periods of time.

Melbourne Rules of 1860

A game at the Richmond Paddock in the 1860s. A pavilion at the MCG is on the left in the background. (A wood engraving made by Robert Bruce on 27 July 1866.)

The first significant redrafting of the rules occurred in 1860 when the Melbourne Football Club met to refine the rules based on some input from other existing clubs.[citation needed]

The following changes were made:

Rule 3: Added the provision "In case of the ball being forced between the goal posts in a scrimmage, a goal shall be awarded"

Rule 7: Added that "Pushing with the body" is allowed

Rule 8: Added that "It shall not be run with in any case"

The most significant change was the provision for captains and umpring in the newly added Rule 11: "In case of a deliberate infringement of any of the above rules, by either side, the captain of the opposite side may claim that any one of his party may have a free kick from the place where the breach of the rules was made; the two captains in all cases, save where umpires are appointed, to be the sole judges of "infringements"

Victorian Rules of 1866

Henry C. Harrison's committee redrafted the laws of the game in 1866, which was subsequently agreed upon by the major clubs playing the sport and widely adopted by several major leagues in Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, Queensland and New Zealand.

The major changes at this time were:

  • Players must bounce the ball every 10 or 20 yards when carrying it (this had previously been adopted as one of the Geelong Football Club's compromise rules)
  • Games must be officiated by umpires. Not one but two umpires (independent of the players) must control the match. The closest umpire to the play adjudicated all aspects of the game, including scoring and free kicks.
  • Time limit established for matches
  • Behind posts used for first time

In 1869, a time limit – 100 minutes – was introduced to the game for the first time.

By 1877, state bodies began to govern their own leagues. The first of these was the South Australian Football Association (renamed the SANFL in 1907). During this time, transfer of official governing body took place after the formation of the Victorian Football Association in 1877, with leagues in Tasmania and Queensland affiliating to the VFA. By around 1884, Tasmanian goal umpires had begun to wave white flags to communicate with each other about the scoring of goals or behinds. This was adopted in the Victorian Rules in 1887. In the same year, the umpire were required to bounce the ball instead of throwing it up in the air.

Australasian Rules of 1890

In 1890, delegates from New Zealand were added and the Australasian Football Council was formed to facilitate a growing number of intercolonial matches which at one point also included leagues and teams from New Zealand. Major rule changes during this time were:

  • 1891 - Centre bounce at start of quarters and after every goal; Players required to take up set field positions at start of play.
  • 1897 - 6 points for a goal, 1 for a behind - previously, only goals counted. Push in the back rule introduced to protect players jumping for the ball. VFA reduced number of players on the field from 20 to 18.[6]
  • 1899 - VFL reduced number of players from 20 to 18, a number which remains today.[7]
  • 1903 - Boundary umpires appointed at VFL level - 2 each game. (First appeared in Ballarat and charity games in 1891.)

Australian National Football Council of 1927

With the absence of New Zealand delegates, the council reverted to the title "Australian Football". The organisation was rebranded in 1927 and state leagues were encouraged to include "National Football League" in their name. (This continues to be used in the case of the SANFL; the now defunct Tasmanian Football League was briefly styled the "TANFL" from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s).

Not all leagues chose to affiliate with the new body, which was seen by some to be increasingly swayed by the increasingly professional aspect of the sport. The Australian Amateur Football Council was formed in 1933. As a result, many amateur leagues interpret the laws of the game with subtle differences.

Although some leagues adopted the name, the rebranding using the name of "Australian National Football" was not entirely successful. The game had failed to grow substantially in New South Wales and Queensland, so to many it was not considered truly national. It was considered too wordy by some and by 1980, many leagues had dropped the name and the code was became informally known as "Australian Football".

The new body had direct jurisdiction over several state leagues. Rule changes in this era included:

  • 1922 - Free kick for forcing ball out of bounds introduced.
  • 1930 - One reserve player introduced.
  • 1939 - Boundary throw-ins re-introduced. Dropping the ball included in holding the ball.
  • 1946 - Number of reserve players increased to two.
  • 1969 - Free kick for kicking ball out of bounds on the full.
  • 1973 - Establishment of centre square and restrictions on positions at centre bounces.
  • 1976 - Second field umpire introduced.

Notable Hall of Fame administrators during this period included:

  • H. C. A. Harrison, president 1905 (also granted life membership to the ANFC)
  • Thomas Seymour Hill, secretary 1938-1947
  • Bruce Andrew, who acted as field director 1949-76 and secretary 1950-76

Australian Football Council

Around 1977, the ANFC made some structural changes. The word "national" was officially dropped from the name and the official name of "Australian Football" was formally adopted at this time. However the SANFL decided not change its name, remaining the only league to retain the "national" as part of its name. The body worked closer with the VFL to introduce a night representative series and remodel representative football and interstate carnivals.

  • 1977 - State of Origin rules introduced to interstate matches.
  • 1978 - Reserve players became interchange players (i.e. replaced players could later return to the game).
  • 1986 - 50 metre arc introduced.
  • 1988 - 15 metre penalty becomes 50 metre penalty in the VFL. Emergency umpires empowered to report players.

Australian Football of 1993

In 1993, 3 years after the VFL was rebranded as the AFL, the AFL Commission, under the control of AFL CEO Ross Oakley pushed for the Australian National Football Council to be disbanded. The league successfully argued that the council had become less relevant due to its increasingly successful national club competition. A memorandum of understanding was signed which effectively increased the league's power and cut red tape, allowing the AFL to gain control of the Laws of the Game (forming the official AFL Rules Committee). The AFL also gained control of the State of Origin series.

With control over the game, the AFL began a rush of new rules, many of which were aimed at cleaning up the game, reducing "thuggery" and making it more attractive to spectators. A player tribunal system was introduced to more effectively deliver penalties. The blood rule was introduced (players must be removed from ground when bleeding, also when having blood on their body/playing uniforms) to protect players from the transmission of blood-borne disease. The sin bin rule was discarded in favour of player reports and the allocation of free kicks against the aggrieved side.

In 1994, the AFL turned its focus to speeding up the game. To do this, the league increased the number of interchange players for their matches from 2 to 3 and increased the number of field umpires in the AFL from 2 to 3.[3]

In 1998, the number of interchange players for AFL matches was increased from 3 to 4 to further speed up the game.

In 1999, the AFL then cancelled the State of Origin series, due to a conflict of interest with its own national club competition, effectively putting an end to over 100 years of representative football.


Around 2000, the AFL commission sent a memorandum to its member leagues that it intended to co-brand the game at all levels. The aim was to use the strong brand of the professional league as well as to promote it further. It was argued that the "word" AFL was easier to remember and does not carry connotations of "Australian" so the game would be referred to as "AFL". This was first promoted heavily in its developing markets, in leagues and governing bodies which the AFL had bought into, and increasingly adopted by the media and at grassroots level. As the new governing body, the AFL began to enforce the brand on any newly affiliated leagues. Despite the brand change, the official name of the code remains "Australian Football". The move has attracted criticism, particularly from amateur leagues and bodies in Australia, which continue to use the formal name.

The league began using its pre-season competition as a test-bed for experimental new rules.

In 2003, the AFL forced the dissolution of the International Australian Football Council (formed in 1995) to become world governing body for the sport and in 1994 released its first official International Policy.

In 2005, the AFL branding strategy caused controversy when the Australian Soccer Association was rebranded as Football Federation Australia and began using the official name of "football" as well as pushing heavily for Association Football to be known by the informal name of "Australian Football". In the same year, the focus of the commission shifted to stemming an increase in serious knee injuries. As a result, the 10-metre centre circle was introduced for ruck contests.

In 2006, the AFL announced its intention to further speed up the game and reduce stoppages with the aim of enhancing the game as a spectacle, particularly aimed at television audience. It introduced a time limit for set shots, which was thought by some to be in response to players such as Matthew Lloyd and Brendan Fevola taking up to a minute to prepare for kicking their goals. The AFL made the interpretation of awarding 50 metre penalties for "scragging" (attempting to deliberately hold play up by grabbing the opposition player after they had taken a mark) and made it unnecessary for players to wait for the flag waved after a behind to kick the ball back into play. In AFL matches, a bucket with balls was introduced behind the goals. Many viewed this rule to be "borrowed" from International rules football, as members of the AFL committee expressed their fondness for this quicker brand of football. The AFL attracted wide criticism from these rule changes, particularly that it was losing touch with grassroots leagues by introducing rules that are increasingly costly to implement at lower levels. The situation of two balls on the field introduced the need to stop play when this occurs, which occurs with increasing frequency and actually slows down play.

In 2007, the AFL began introducing rules aimed at attracting more juniors by reducing the forceful contact and aggression in the game. Many attribute the AFL's recent spate of rule changes and interest in governing the game worldwide as a knee-jerk reaction to the rise of soccer in Australia, both in participation and the mainstream media following the Socceroos' qualification and subsequent 2006 FIFA World Cup campaign. Significant controversy was caused by the introduction of the "hands in the back" rule. Zero tolerance was given for players putting hands on the back of a player in a marking contest. The AFL rules committee argued that this was simply a stricter interpretation of a rule which had been relaxed over the decades. The league also attempted to reduce head injuries by introducing new rules on bumping, including severe penalties for forcible bumping of players from front-on when their head is over the ball. The AFL also attracted criticism from many fronts due to their increased meddling with the rules and that the game was becoming increasingly "soft".[8]

In 2008, despite vowing after 2007 not to change the rules, it continued to introduce new rules and interpretations. Reacting to an incident involving the Sydney Swans playing 19 men on the field, the AFL introduced a swathe of new interchange rules, introducing a holding area and stewards.[9] Also, through the AFL Tribunal, it began to outlaw tackles which pinned the arms of a player and drove their head into the ground.[10] Many believe this to be a knee jerk reaction to the uproar caused in Ireland when an Irish player was knocked unconscious with this kind of tackle in the 2006 International Rules Series. Towards the end of the season, the league also increased the number of boundary umpires from 2 to 4.[11]

See also

  • Category:Australian rules football terminology

External link


  1. ^ "NAB Cup match conditions altered". Australian Football League. Accessed 23 June 2010.
  2. ^ AAP (22 February 2006). "Chorus of complaints over new AFL rules". Melbourne: The Age. Retrieved 2008-12-10. 
  3. ^ a b Lane, Samantha (10 June 2009). "Rules committee sees merit in injury substitutes but warns coaches could abuse it". The Age (Melbourne). 
  4. ^ Gleeson, Michael (5 May 2007). "Buckley opts to leave rules committee". The Age. Retrieved 2008-12-10. 
  5. ^ "Leigh Matthews joins Laws committee - RFNews -". The Age (Melbourne). 24 June 2009. 
  6. ^ "OPENING OF THE FOOTBALL SEASON.". The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848-1954) (Melbourne, Vic.: National Library of Australia): p. 6. 3 May 1897. Retrieved 24 March 2011. 
  7. ^ The Herald 28 April 1899
  8. ^ Donovan, Samantha; PM – Renewed calls for AFL rule change; PM (ABC Radio); 5 June 2006
  9. ^ AAP; AFL interchange rules overhauled; Sydney Morning Herald; 13 May 2008
  10. ^ AFL to review dangerous tackle ruling; ABC News; 6 Aug 2008
  11. ^ Matthews, Bruce; More umpires mean fewer mistakes; Herald Sun; 15 September 2008

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