Is Australian Football Really “Aerial Ping Pong”?

Growing up in Queensland after World War Two, I only became aware of “Aussie Rules” when I was at primary school in grade four. My school offered both Rugby League and Aussie Rules as winter sports. I chose to play our Australian game. I soon learnt it was called “Aerial Ping Pong” by the supporters of the other game which was by far the most popular football played in the state.

In hindsight, back in the mid-twentieth century, I can see the justification for this belief. The football was often dropkicked high in the air to be caught above the head or knocked away from the marking player. Each mark or free kick often resulted in a stoppage where the attacking player kicked the football from behind a mark indicated by the umpire. So the game was somewhat static.

After every scrimmage/stoppage, the football was bounced in the air for a rucking contest like a tip off in basketball. The football could be handballed or knocked forward; kicked off the ground and the team scored by kicking the football through the four goals posts. There was tackling but within certain rules. All in all, the football spent a lot of time in the air.

However, the term, “Ping Pong” implies a soft game. Here is where the nickname of our national game was so misleading. Australian football is a 360 degree game. There is no off side. Players can be tackled, pushed or bumped from any direction. In those other football games, the tackler is in front of the player. So the players see the tackler coming. Added to that point, there are 18 opposition players ready to tackle, push or bump as opposed to 13 or 15 in those Rugby games.

The modern game of Australian Football ridicules that nickname.

It is the game that has

  • The largest oval;
  • It has the most players involved of any football game actually on the oval playing;
  • It is played for the longest time.

The modern version sees players running constantly from end of the field to the other. (The oval is an ellipse about 160 metres long with a width of 120 metres at the centre of the oval. The Rugby game ovals are rectangular and only 100 metres long.)

Tackling has become a feature of the game. The tackling seen in the game is as strong as is seen in the Rugby games except it tends to be one on one tackles. The aim of the tackler is to dispossess the player of the football and put them on the ground.

Because the game is so fast with lots of running and fierce tackling as well as high marking, the injury toll has increased from basically soft tissue injuries to knee reconstructions, concussion, broken bones to name just a few injuries.

The game has become so quick, that it is now umpired by two or three or even four field umpires depending on the particular competition at open level.

A player of our Australian game must master many more skills than in the Rugby games. The player must be able to kick both feet with a variety of kicking styles; handball different ways with both hands; spoil a mark; be able to bump and shepherd an opponent; dodge around players; run swiftly bouncing a ball; pick a ball up off the ground running at pace and kick goals from all angles.

Finally, the game at the highest level has become professional with almost daily training and playing taking up all but 4 weeks of the year.

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