Rugby's crazy cousins

Fast paced and action packed, Gaelic football is enjoyed by players of all ages as an amateur sport across Ireland

I HAD always considered rugby to be the toughest team sport in the world. With the rough tackling that goes on every minute on the pitch, you would need to be really hard to stand up after being bowled over by a 90kg athlete.

Well, I realised I was wrong when I finally watched a game of Aussie Rules Football. This is a game that has roots in rugby but is way faster and in my opinion more dangerous. It is more fun too.

Rugby union games can sometimes be a tactical battle where each side concentrates on defending, especially when it involves two sides of the similar strength. But in Aussie Rules, the games are almost always high-scoring.

Aussie Rules is usually played on a modified cricket oval. There are four goal posts altogether – two central tall goal posts and two shorter posts, also known as the behind posts.

Each team has 18 players on the field with the main aim being kicking the ball (similar to rugby) between the two central goal posts. Sound easy?

It’s not when you have tons of players breathing down your neck. In fact there are times when it looks like players punt the ball in the air and wrestle each other while waiting for it to come down.

Each goal is worth six points and if you boot the ball between the behind posts, you get one point. In rugby, a similar drop field goal is worth three points.

It is the most watched sport in Australia, even more than the mainstream rugby union league. It even made it to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, albeit as a demonstration sport.

There are some similarities to rugby where you can run with the ball, although you will have to bounce it every 15metres. It’s just like basketball, but the frequency of bouncing is less.  This requires a lot of coordination and skill, especially when you are running at a really high speed. Unlike rugby though, you can pass the ball in any direction.

The league in Australia consists of 18 teams from five states, although most teams are based in Victoria (Melbourne is in this state). The teams slug it out in a league system before the top eight teams compete in a finals series that climaxes with a Grand Final. There is only a single league, with no promotion and relegation at the top level. Teams like Essendon and Carlton are traditional giants and there are some cute rules like the father-son rule allowing a club first choice of signing a player if his father spent the bulk of his career with them.

Similarly, there is Gaelic Football in Ireland- which is really a combination of football and rugby. There are 15 players on the field and it is played on a rectangular field. There is a goal, similar to football and there is a goalkeeper guarding it. The ball used is similar to a volleyball.

Sounds confusing right? It isn’t. Just imagine a regular football goal that has extended posts, just like rugby. If you kick ball below the crossbar you get three points.

If you put it above (either by kicking or hand fisting), you get one point. So basically you can run into the box holding the ball in your hands and kick it past the goalkeeper for a goal. Yes, this sport really does exist!

It is the most popular sport in Ireland in terms of attendance. It is an amateur sport, and players or coaches are not allowed to get any payment. They play for the love of the sport. I was told about this sport by an Irish traveller I met. While he is a passionate Arsenal supporter, Gaelic football is still the number one sport for him and many other Irish he said.

I wouldn’t have believed it until I watched clips on Youtube. The crowd goes crazy whenever a goal is scored, similar to a football game. It is less physical than rugby or Aussie Rules but more physical than football.

It would be nice if these sports could go mainstream, but I suppose the quirkiness and niche audiences are part of the charm.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.
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