If you don’t know what a specky, a disposal, or a bag of goals is, now’s the time to learn.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic caused the shutdown of nearly all major sports around the world in mid-March, fans and bettors alike have sought out niche games and fringe leagues to attempt to fill the sporting void. From Burundi soccer, to Russian table tennis, to eSports, and even championship-level cornhole, we’ve seen a revolving door of once-irrelevant contests making their way to the top of the American sports consciousness.
Now, enter Aussie rules football. The Australian Football League (AFL) will resume its season June 11, with all 18 teams returning to action over the course of four days. Those nine games are already available for wagering at all of the notable online sportsbooks, but even if you’re just looking for live sports to watch without financial investment after so many weeks of baseball replays and golf exhibitions, the AFL has the potential to surprise and entertain the uninitiated.
“It’s one of the most exciting games to watch,” Alex Gershman, an accredited youth Aussie Rules coach who serves on the board of the Washington D.C. Junior Australian Football Club, tells NJ Online Gambling. “When you’re watching sports on TV, I believe you judge the action on two dimensions: the frequency of the action and the intensity of the action. Golf, for example, has high frequency because they cut from one shot to another to another, but the intensity is low. In baseball, the intensity can be high but the frequency is low. You can argue hockey is both. Bowling is probably neither. Aussie rules football is in the high-high box.
“The scoring is high — you’ve got about 200 points that will be scored in a game. There’s tons of action and it’s full contact, so guys are constantly hitting each other. And the plays are big, you have guys kicking the ball 40 or 50 yards to one another. And on top of that, you have things like referees throwing the ball in over their heads backward that are just very weird and quirky.”
Aussie Rules explained
The game features some elements of both of the more popular forms of football — American and soccer — but most closely resembles rugby.
Like soccer, it’s played with running time and time added. Like American football, games feature four quarters. The game is 18 on 18, with four bench players per team who can substitute in during live action. They play on a cricket pitch with an area much larger than a soccer or football field (exact dimensions can vary). The ball looks like a rugby ball — similar to an American football, but with rounded ends.
At each end of the field are four posts. The two in the middle are called “goal posts,” and the outer posts are called “behind posts” or “point posts.” If a player kicks the ball between the center goal posts, either in the air or bouncing or rolling in, and it is not touched by any opposing players, that’s a goal and is worth 6 points. If the goal is kicked between a goal post and a behind post, or goes through the goal posts after being touched by an opponent, that’s worth 1 point. If the ball is run across the goal line between any posts, that also scores 1 point.
There are three ways to advance the ball:
- Run it: Sounds straightforward, but it isn’t. Every 15 meters (give or take, as referees have to make a judgment call), the runner must dribble the ball, which isn’t so easy with an oblong ball.
- Kick it: If you kick the ball and it travels more than 15 meters in the air and is caught on the fly, that’s called a “mark,” and the player who catches it, whether it’s a reception or an interception, gets a free kick from that spot.
- Pass it: Specifically, players must advance the ball with what’s called a “hand pass,” which is essentially punching the ball.
If framed roughly as American football equivalents, kicking the ball is akin to an NFL offense’s passing game (big plays), while passing it is basically part of the running game and is used much more frequently.
A few other notes:
- If a player is tackled while holding the ball, the other team gets the ball. This is a full-contact sport without much in the way of pads (like rugby), and rules prohibit tackling below the knees or above the shoulders.
- In the men’s game, if the ball goes out of bounds on the fly, the ball is awarded to the other team. If the ball goes out of bounds after bouncing or rolling, the side referee turns his back to the field and throws the ball in over his head.
- You’re allowed to use another player for leverage when catching a mark, and when a player successfully scales another player and makes the grab, that “spectacular mark” is known as a “specky.” These are the plays you might see making SportsCenter’s top 10 when the AFL is one of the few leagues in action.
Fast, fit, strong, and skillful
If you’re a total Aussie rules newbie, this probably sounds like a bizarre game, and we couldn’t blame you for making Quidditch jokes and wondering if the game ends automatically when someone catches the golden snitch.
It’s OK to scratch your head and find it all a bit unusual. But don’t sleep on the athleticism and conditioning of the players.
“A good midfielder will run potentially eight miles per match, sometimes more,” Gershman said. “You have to be able to run and have the cardio to do it, you have to have the strength to tackle and break tackles, and you have to have the skill and coordination to be able to kick and hand pass. These guys are really superior athletes.”
As the game returns from a nearly three-month coronavirus interruption, there will be some rule tweaks. Games will be shorter: Rather than 20-minute quarters plus time added, the AFL is reducing them to 16 minutes plus time added. The breaks after each quarter will be extended. And the league is looking into increasing the number of substitutions allowed per team in each match.
Clearly, these tweaks are designed to compensate for potentially diminished conditioning due to the layoff and, in turn, to reduce the likelihood of injury.
The season was postponed after the first week of games. What is traditionally a 22-week regular season with a bye week will now, if all goes smoothly, finish after 17 regular-season games, leading into the standard four-week playoff.
How to bet Aussie rules football
The standard betting options you’ll find on every NFL game — spreads and moneylines — are available on Aussie rules football as well. But Gershman says, unlike American football, where spreads bets are typically the most popular, in a game as high-scoring and thus as hard to pinpoint as Aussie rules, the moneyline bet is by far the most commonly placed.
You can also bet point totals, make bets spanning just a single quarter or half, and buy points in either direction.
At DraftKings Sportsbook in New Jersey, all of next week’s games are listed, with spreads and moneyline pricing.
FanDuel Sportsbook is going much deeper at this stage, posting all games through early July and including player props and margins of victory (breaking it into long-shot “Big Win” bets on a team to win by 40 or more points and “Little Win” bets on 1-to-39-point margins).
Like first TD scorer in the NFL, first player to kick a goal is a popular AFL wager, according to Gershman, an AFL betting enthusiast. This is your classic low-risk, high-reward bet — with the books no doubt baking in a substantial vig.
In terms of player props, over/unders on goals scored and points scored are the most common, but not far behind is “disposals,” a stat tracking how many times a player handles the ball cleanly over the course of a game. At FanDuel, these range from “20 or more” (easily achieved for a good offensive player) to “35 or more” (even the best players are long shots on that one).
Only in Aussie Rules can you bet on a player to score a “bag of goals,” meaning five or more in a game. Most players are listed at 100/1 or beyond to pull this off.
When considering betting on the total score or a spread, you should be aware that scoring has generally been on the decline in recent years (though it did go up in 2019). Decades ago, Gershman says, 140-120 would have been a typical score. A few years ago, the average final was something like 85-65.
Four teams are clearly separated from the pack as favorites to win the 2020 title, with slight variations in their odds depending upon the book:
As we all know, U.S. sports networks are desperate for content at the moment, which could mean added TV exposure for Aussie rules. The league has a contract with FOX to air on its assorted stations (FS1, FS2, FOX Soccer Plus), and while nothing has been announced yet, it’s quite possible the American viewers will get to see more games this summer than has been the case in the past.
When the games start up again, however, there will be no paying fans in the stadiums.
Interestingly, AFL fans already know what that looks and sounds like. The first week of games took place as the pandemic was beginning to interrupt sports, and the league elected to let those opening games go on without crowds — before halting the league entirely.
“It was cool, because you could hear a lot of the players talking to each other, calling out positioning to one another,” Gershman notes.
“Any live sport misses a crowd. But nobody will complain — you’re just happy there’s a sport going on.”
Photo by Neal Cousland / Shutterstock.com
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