History of the Laws of Aussie Rules Football

history of the rules

victoria 1858

Football became increasingly organised and ingrained in the colony of Victoria in 1858, particularly in the capital Melbourne and surrounds. There are reports of football clubs in Albert Park and Richmond.

The first written records regarding a football club in St Kilda date from April 1858. However, it was an informal version of the game.

Two months later on 15 June 1858 the earliest known record of a football match was reported, played between St Kilda Grammar and Melbourne Grammar on the St Kilda foreshore.

melbourne rules 1859

These rules, instituted by the Melbourne Football Club, were formulated by Tom Wills.

    The Rules of the Melbourne Football Club — May 1859
  1. The distance between the Goals and the Goal Posts shall be decided upon by the Captains of the sides playing.
  2. The Captains on each side shall toss for choice of Goal; the side losing the toss has the kick off from the centre point between the Goals.
  3. A Goal must be kicked fairly between the posts, without touching either of them, or a portion of the person of any player on either side.
  4. The game shall be played within a space of not more than 200 yards wide, the same to be measured equally on each side of a line drawn through the centres of the two Goals; and two posts to be called the “kick off posts” shall be erected at a distance of 20 yards on each side of the Goal posts at both ends, and in a straight line with them.
  5. In case the ball is kicked “behind” Goal, any one of the side behind whose Goal it is kicked may bring it 20 yards in front of any portion of the space between the “kick off” posts, and shall kick it as nearly as possible in line with the opposite Goal.
  6. Any player catching the ball “directly” from the foot may call “mark”. He then has a free kick; no player from the opposite side being allowed to come “inside” the spot marked.
  7. Tripping and pushing are both allowed (but no hacking) when any player is in rapid motion or in possession of the ball, except in the case provided for in Rule 6.
  8. The ball may be taken in hand “only” when caught from the foot, or on the hop. In “no case” shall it be “lifted” from the ground.
  9. When a ball goes out of bounds (the same being indicated by a row of posts) it shall be brought back to the point where it crossed the boundary-line, and thrown in at right angles with that line.
  10. The ball, while in play, may under no circumstances be thrown.

Although not explicitly mentioned in the rules, each captain was to umpire the game, and each team consisted of 20 per side. In the early days there were no set rules to decide the winner of a game, however it was most commonly the first side to kick 2 goals. In some circumstances this meant that games could draw out for long periods of time.

melbourne rules 1860

The first significant redrafting of the rules occurred in 1860 when the Melbourne Football Club met to refine the rules based on some input from other existing clubs.

    The following changes were made:
  • Rule 3: Added the provision “In case of the ball being forced between the goal posts in a scrimmage, a goal shall be awarded“.
  • Rule 7: Added that “Pushing with the body” is allowed.
  • Rule 8: Added that “It shall not be run with in any case”.
  • The most significant change was the provision for captains and umpiring:
  • Rule 11: In case of a deliberate infringement of any of the above rules, by either side, the captain of the opposite side may claim that any one of his party may have a free kick from the place where the breach of the rules was made; the two captains in all cases, save where umpires are appointed, to be the sole judges of “infringements”.

victorian rules 1866

Henry C. Harrison's committee redrafted the laws of the game in 1866, which was subsequently agreed upon by the major clubs playing the sport and widely adopted by several major leagues in Vic, SA, Tas, Qld and NZ.

    The major changes at this time were:
  1. Players must bounce the ball every 10 or 20 yards when carrying it (this had previously been adopted as one of the Geelong Football Club's compromise rules).
  2. Games must be officiated by umpires. Not one but two umpires (independent of the players) must control the match. The closest umpire to the play adjudicated all aspects of the game, including scoring and free kicks.
  3. Time limit established for matches.
  4. Behind posts used for first time.
  5. In 1869, a time limit — 100 minutes — was introduced to the game for the first time.

By 1877, state bodies began to govern their own leagues. The first of these was the South Australian Football Association, renamed the SANFL in 1907.

During this time, transfer of official governing body took place after the formation of the VFA in 1877, with leagues in Tas and Qld affiliating to the VFA.

By around 1884, Tasmanian goal umpires had begun to wave white flags to communicate with each other about the scoring of goals or behinds. This was adopted in the Victorian Rules in 1887.
In the same year, the umpire were required to bounce the ball instead of throwing it up in the air.

inaugural vfl 1897

The VFL's inaugural season occurred in 1897. It made several innovations early on to entice the public's interest, including an annual finals tournament, rather than awarding the premiership to the team with the best record through the season; and, the formal establishment of the modern scoring system, in which six points are awarded for a goal, and one point for a behind.

Essendon won the inaugural premiership by finishing on top of the round‑robin finals ladder. A new finals system was implemented during the 1898 season in order that a final match, or "Grand Final", determine the premiers.

Although the VFL and the VFA continued to compete for spectator interest for many years, the VFL quickly established itself as the premier competition in Victoria.

In 1908, the league expanded to ten teams, with Richmond crossing from the VFA and University Football Club from the Metropolitan Football Association.

University, after three promising seasons, finished last each year from 1911 until 1914, including losing 51 matches in a row; this was in part caused by its players' focus on their studies rather than football, particularly during examinations, and it was partly because the club operated on an amateur basis at a time when player payments were becoming common. As a result, the club withdrew from the VFL at the end of 1914.

In 1925, the VFL expanded from nine teams to twelve, with Footscray, Hawthorn and North Melbourne each crossing from the VFA.

australasian rules 1890

In 1890 the Australasian Football Council was formed to facilitate a growing number of intercolonial matches which at one point also included leagues and teams from NZ.

    Major rule changes during this time were:
  • 1891 — Centre bounce at start of quarters and after every goal.
  • 1891 — Players required to take up set field positions at start of play.
  • 1897 — 6 points for a goal, 1 for a behind – previously, only goals counted.
  • 1897 — Push in the back rule introduced to protect players jumping for the ball.
  • 1897 — VFA reduced number of players on the field from 20 to 18.
  • 1899 — VFL reduced number of players from 20 to 18, a number which remains today.
  • 1903 — Boundary umpires appointed at VFL level – 2 each game.

Not all leagues chose to affiliate with the new body, which was seen by some to be increasingly swayed by the increasingly professional aspect of the sport.

The Australian Amateur Football Council was formed in 1933. As a result, many amateur leagues interpret the laws of the game with subtle differences.

Although some leagues adopted the name, the rebranding using the name of "Australian National Football" was not entirely successful. The game had failed to grow substantially in New South Wales and Queensland, so to many it was not considered truly national.

By 1980, many leagues had dropped the name and the code became informally known as “Australian Football”.

australian football 1922 — 1993

The new body had direct jurisdiction over several state leagues.

    Rule changes in this era included:
  • 1922 — Free kick for forcing ball out of bounds introduced.
  • 1930 — One reserve player introduced.
  • 1939 — Boundary throw-ins re-introduced. Dropping the ball included in holding the ball.
  • 1946 — Number of reserve players increased to two.
  • 1969 — Free kick for kicking ball out of bounds on the full.
  • 1973 — Establishment of centre square and restrictions on positions at centre bounces.
  • 1976 — Second field umpire introduced.

In the early 1970s, the ANFC changed its name to the National Football League, but continued to operate in substantially the same way it had previously.

The body worked to introduce a night representative series in 1976 and remodel representative football and interstate carnivals.

In 1977, the VFL established a rival competition to the NFL's night series, called the Australian Football Championships (AFC), and by 1980 this competition had replaced the NFL's competition.

Through the 1980s, administration of the game increasingly shifted towards Victoria.

    Major rule changes during this time were:
  • 1977 — State of Origin rules introduced to interstate matches.
  • 1978 — Reserve players became interchange players (i.e. replaced players could later return to the game).
  • 1986 — 50 metre arc introduced.
  • 1988 — 15 metre penalty becomes 50 metre penalty in the VFL.
    Emergency umpires empowered to report players.

In 1993, three years after the VFL was rebranded as the AFL, the AFL Commission pushed for the Australian Football Council to be disbanded. The league successfully argued that the council had become less relevant due to its increasingly successful national club competition.

A memorandum of understanding was signed which effectively increased the league's power and cut red tape, allowing the AFL to gain control of the Laws of the Game (forming the official AFL Rules Committee).

With control over the game, the AFL began a rush of new rules, many of which were aimed at cleaning up the game by reducing “thuggery” and making it more attractive to spectators.

A player tribunal system was introduced to more effectively deliver penalties. The blood rule was introduced (players must be removed from ground when bleeding, also when having blood on their body/playing uniforms) to protect players from the transmission of blood-borne disease. The sin bin rule was discarded in favour of player reports and the allocation of free kicks against the aggrieved side.

    Rule changes 1993 — 2008
  • 1994 — Increased the number of interchange players for their matches from 2 to 3 and increased the number of field umpires in the AFL from 2 to 3.
  • 1998 — The number of interchange players for AFL matches was increased from 3 to 4 to further speed up the game.
  • 2003 — The AFL forced the dissolution of the International Australian Football Council (formed in 1995) to become world governing body for the sport.
  • 2004 — The AFL released its first official International Policy.
  • 2005 — The 10-metre centre circle was introduced for ruck contests, in response to an increasing number of posterior cruciate ligament injuries among ruckmen.
  • 2006 — Introduced a time limit for set shots, which was thought by some to be in response to players taking up to a minute to prepare for kicking their goals.
  • 2006 — The AFL made more stringent the interpretation of awarding 50 metre penalties for “scragging” (attempting to deliberately hold play up by grabbing the opposition player after they had taken a mark).
  • 2006 — The league made it unnecessary for players to wait for the flag waved after a behind to kick the ball back into play.
  • 2006 — Introduced a bucket of spare balls behind each goal to avoid the need to wait for the crowd to return the ball.
  • 2007 — Introduced the “hands in the back” rule.
  • 2007 — New rules on bumping, including severe penalties for forcible bumping of players from front-on when their head is over the ball.
  • 2008 — New interchange rules were introduced to supersede the head count.
  • 2008 — Outlawed tackles which pinned the arms of a player and drove their head into the ground.
  • 2008 — Increased the number of boundary umpires from 2 to 4.

    Rule Changes and Interpretations 2019 — 
    Traditional Playing Positions at Centre Bounce:
  • Implementation of a traditional set up at centre bounces – Clubs must have six Players inside both 50-Metre arcs, with one Player required to be inside the Goal Square. Four Midfield Players are positioned inside the Centre Square with the Wingmen required to be placed somewhere along the Wing.
  • Kick-Ins:
  • For Kick-Ins from a Behind, a Player will no longer need to kick to himself to Play On out of the Goal Square. Following a Behind, the man on The Mark will be positioned 10 metres from the top of the Goal Square (currently 5 metres).
  • Marks / Free Kicks:
  • For all Defenders who take a Mark or gain a Free Kick within 9 metres of their own Goal, the man on The Mark for the attacking team will be brought in line with the top of the Goal Square.
  • Runners and Water Carriers:
  • Team Runners may only enter the Playing Surface once a goal has been kicked and must exit the Playing Surface before play Recommences. Water Carriers are not permitted to enter the Playing Surface during live play.
  • Umpire Contact:
  • Players will be prohibited from setting up behind the Umpire at each Centre Bounce.
  • 50-Metre Penalty:
  • Stricter on the infringing player, allowing the Player with the ball to advance The Mark by 50 metres without the infringing player delaying the game. In addition, the Player with the Football will be able to play on during the advancement of the 50-Metre Penalty.
  • Kicking for Goal post-siren – Centre of Goal Line:
  • A Player who has been awarded a Mark or Free Kick once play has ended will now be able to Kick across their body using a Snap or Check-side Kick. The Player shall dispose of the Football directly in line with the man on The Mark and the Goal.
  • Marking Contest:
  • ‘Hands in the Back’ rule interpretation to be repealed, allowing a Player to place his hands on the back of his opponent to protect his position in a Marking contest but not to push the Player in the back.
  • Ruck Contests – Prior Opportunity:
  • A Ruck Player who takes possession of the Football while contesting a bounce or throw up by a field Umpire or a boundary throw in by a boundary Umpire, will not be regarded as having had Prior Opportunity.
    Where there is uncertainty over who is the designated Ruck, the Ruck for each Team will continue to nominate to the field Umpire.

glossary of terms

Australian Football has developed a unique and rich terminology.
This list is an alphabetical glossary of terms, jargon and slang.