By Jim • 

Sports Fan: In search of ARF: "Tie me kangaroo down, sport"

Because of the International Dateline and the ensuing jet lag problem from the long flight, we're arriving two days early to acclimate ourselves to the time change and the Sydney waterfront, where our hotel is located. But in that two-day period, instead of resting and trying out Australian brews, we'd like to attend a sporting event or two, whether they're amateur or professional in nature.

As most sports fans know, Australians are crazy about competitive events, and perhaps Australian Rules Football is one of those trademark "down under" sports that tests the mettle of the hardiest and most athletic. In this event, players integrate the skills of soccer, rugby and American football (and a little basketball) into one tough sport, and the aggressiveness of ARF play often is a magnet for the ardent Australian fans who like their sports rough and tumble. No helmets are worn, and padding, if it exists, is minimal, so the body is exposed.

While most Americans could watch the sport and decipher the scoring system after a few quarters, ARF is more complex than it at first appears. Sure, there are four 20-minute quarters, but with penalties and other facets of the game factoring in, games often take much longer than 80 minutes.

As in American football, the team with the highest score wins the game, and a successful kick between the tall goalposts results in six points while a "behind" is worth a single point. The "behind" is tallied when the oval ball passes between a goal post and a "behind" post at any height.

Since kicking is a major component of the game, Australian players have developed several types of kicks including a drop punt (similar to the old drop kicks in American football), a torpedo punt (spirals) and a checkside punt (kicked on the outside of the foot with the intention of curving the ball), plus several other modifications.

Tackles must be between the shoulders and knees, and a player must pass the ball before he contacts the ground. Offensively, players must bounce or touch the ball to the ground every 15 meters, so dribbling skills are important, too.

One interesting facet of the game is the timing system: time is kept on the field, and the players and fans are not informed of the time remaining in a quarter until the siren sounds. The siren is also utilized to begin a quarter, so while there are some similarities between ARF and American football, there are also many differences.

First of all, ARF teams have 18 players each (six forwards, six defenders and six midfielders) on the field during contest, compared to the 11 of American football squads. In addition, throwing is not allowed to advance the ball and a player must not get caught holding the ball, so it's always in motion, as are the players. Any part of the body may be used to move the ball.

Penalties occur when any type of dangerous physical contact occurs, resulting in penalties such as free kicks for the opposing team or distance penalties — and, like American football — a particularly naughty physical violation can result in suspensions from one to several games. However, while watching games on television, I've witnessed many head-ringing hits as players vie for a ball, either on the ground or in the air, resulting in a nasty collision.

Overall, the games are fast-paced and high scoring, and championship games can draw over 100,000 fans to one of Australia's large stadiums, where the fields – like the ball – are in the shape of an oval. However, even cricket fields serve as venues for ARF, and Australians are known for jumping at every opportunity to participate in some challenging physical activities.

It will be late fall in Australia when Molly and I are in Sydney, but somewhere near the RI Convention venue and our hotel a preseason Australian Football Rules game might be played. While the actual ARF season runs from late autumn through late winter in Australia, many amateur leagues will be competing while we're in the land down under. So I need to get online and check out the football schedules and facilities near the RI Convention venue.

Heck, if the opportunity presents itself, we might even search for a sports car race as Australians love auto racing of all persuasions, especially the V-8 Supercars which battle in close packs at the many racing venues throughout the continent. With decent weather in that portion of Australia, it shouldn't be too hard to track down a local race.

But most of all, I've always wanted to watch an Australian Rules Football game live; years ago, ESPN televised a number of games, and I always admired the players' skills and hardiness, getting back up after an especially hard tackle or bumping noggins on a leap for a loose ball.

I'm already starting to practice my "Australian": "G-day, mate!" And of course, "Tie me kangaroo down, sport," whatever that means to the Aussies.

Really, I think I'll love Australia.

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