Australian Football, better known as Aussie Rules, footy, or football, is huge Down Under. First played in Melbourne in 1858, Australian Football is Australia’s most popular sport to watch and play with 1.1 million participants. Hawks vs Essendon (first AFL game I ever watched) was attended by a staggering 68,857 people but the Grand Final is the highest attender club Championship event in the world.
Before delving into the match, seeing as most of us aren’t familiar with the AFL, it’s probably best that I give a basic overview of the game. 22 players form a single team. 18 teams compete in the league. As there are no positions or offside rules, players have free range of the field. A disposal is legally getting rid of the ball while a touch refers to both possession and disposals. During the FIFA World Cup, we saw plenty of pushing in the back, but this is not allowed. Instead, players can legally climb their opposition in an attempt to catch the ball. Free kicks are awarded if a player cleanly catches the ball after it travels at least 15m without coming into contact with anything else apart from the player catching it. My ignorance during the match led me to dub this a ‘special catch’ but this is actually known as a mark. After taking a mark, the player has 30 seconds to score an unimpeded free kick into the goals. The scoring is as follows: If you kick the ball between the middle posts, you score a goal worth 6 points but if you kick the ball between the outer and middle posts, you score a behind worth a single point. With the game consisting of four 20 minute quarters each with approximately 10 minutes extra time, be sure to wrap up warm as the AFL season is during the Australian winter and it’s freezing here.
Given that the game lasted over 160 minutes, and a total score of 107-103, it’s difficult to cover every goal and behind scored. So, I’ll give the general atmosphere of the game.
Grey and cold at Melbourne Cricket Ground, the Hawthorn Hawks and Essendon Bombers braced the bitter weather in this crucial match to see which team would make it to the top eight and into the finals. Opening the game was Essendon scoring a goal two minutes in after a mark. In the first quarter, the Bombers scored 4 goals and 2 behinds, including a particularly spectacular goal from McKenna after a series of stunning disposals despite being put off by Hawks’ fans behind the goal posts. Essendon seemed to have the edge: they seemed stronger, faster, and played tactically. For instance, they deliberately pulled a Hawk off the pitch to gain ball possession. However, a behind, Gunston’s first goal, and Henderson’s goal 17 minutes in signalled that the Hawks were not giving up. With the Bombers adept at stealing the ball from the Hawks, Essendon had a 14 point lead with the first quarter ending with 19-33.
As the temperature dropped, we entered the second quarter, Essendon were quick to score goals with Bagley earning his first goal and McKenna and Stringer their second. However, man of the match Gunston’s goal marked the turning point for the Hawks. With the Hawks increasingly confident, the Bombers lost the ball to the Hawks and despite plenty of tackles on both sides to regain the ball, it resulted in a goal for the Hawks. Essendon soon stole the ball from the Hawks but with the Hawks quickly regaining it, the sequence culminated in a mark. With Bruest scoring, the Hawks were now trailing by two points. With the pressure mounting for Essendon, Brown missed a free kick. Undeterred by the video referee removing Henderson’s goal as the ball touched another player’s boots before entering the goal, the Hawks swiftly scored and took the lead for the first time with 43-39.
The issue for the Hawks was their spacing. In an advantageous position, a Hawk kicked the ball towards the goal but with no teammates present, the ball was lost to the opposition. However, by Smith’s goal 20 minutes in, the Hawks’ placing had somewhat improve and the denied the Bombers a number of potential goals. This was a critical match for Essendon and they remained resilient. They prevented a Hawk goal before proceeding to have their own bringing the score to 50-46. However, a behind and a goal from Gunston and Roughead placed the Hawks firmly in the lead at half-time with 57-46.
Entering the third quarter, Essendon again capitalised on those early goals with two in the first 6 minutes. Due to a marking infringement, Essendon lost the ball allowing the Hawks to gain a mark and score. The Bombers’ Baguley gained his third goal after a teammate kicked the ball towards the goal and he picked it up and kicked it in. Essendon nearly gained another goal after stealing the ball from the Hawks, but Smith missed the goal. The Hawks’ Gunston and Henderson also secured their third goals each despite a Hawk being held back by his face just before Henderson’s goal. The quarter ended with the Hawks still leading 82-77.
As the evening loomed, the tension during the final quarter intensified. With just 5 points between them, both teams were eager to cement their place in the finals. For the first time this match, the Hawks scored first, obtaining two behinds 4 minutes in. The quarter saw 8 behinds and 7 goals. Gunston scored a goal, a behind, and then a goal in succession in a space of 6 minutes. Trailing behind the Hawks by 21, the pressure was on for the Bombers. However, a succession of a goal, a behind, and a goal by Essendon closed the gap bringing the score to 101-97 with just mere minutes left of the game. With the pressure rising so did the tension in the MCG as fans were on the edge of their seats. Worpel scored a goal for the Hawks 31 minutes and in the final minute of the game, Essendon’s Colyer scored a goal. But it wasn’t enough as the klaxon signalled the win for the Hawks: 107-103.
Gunston was definitely the man of the match. His goal in the second half turned the tables and spurred on the Hawks and he scored an impressive 5 goals. Meanwhile, the unexpected stars of the show were the seagulls who decided they too wanted to play Australian Football.
A newbie to this sport, I will admit that this is a difficult game to follow. It took a while for me to get my head around the scoring because behinds were not celebrated by the crowd or advertised on the big screen even though they had the power to drastically impact the final score. Also, sitting right up in the fourth level of the ground made it difficult to see the match which meant that I relied on the big screen. However, that did mean that I had to flick between the screen and the field to see where on the field the ball was meaning I did miss some things. Also, the Aussies in the crowd would often applaud or groan and I didn’t have a clue why. But that doesn’t mean it detracted from the match. Yes, I was really confused at times but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. You don’t have to 100% understand the rules to be swept away with the momentum of the game.
So, if anyone is in Australia during the AFL season, go watch a match. You won’t regret it.