Almanac Football: AFLX – Something old, nothing new?

Some of the rules of the new AFLX competition are not as ground-breaking as they may first appear, as Robert Allen muses.

The initial verdicts on the AFL’s bold AFLX experiment are in. Some critics have been blistering: ABC Offsiders’ Richard Hinds declared it “a nothing of a game”, a “hollow, unappealing, pressure-free, atmosphere-deficient, oval-in-a-rectangle hole yawn-fest.” Others have praised the experimental format for its free-flowing action and play-on-at-all-costs mantra.

While the pundits and the twitterati continue to have their say, it is worth reviewing some of the rules of this novel hybrid / bastard chimera (choose your own preferred term!) from a historical perspective. Five examples spring to mind:

  1. Rectangle field

AFLX’s rectangle field seems radical at first, but in reality it is a throwback to Australian Football’s origins. Before moving to oval grounds from the late 1870s, early games were usually played on open parklands or rugby fields. The oblong shape of these grounds often made goal kicking difficult and led to new tactics, such as the advent of the “little mark” as a way for a chain of players to centre the ball from the ground’s deep pockets to allow a more direct shot on goal.

  1. Ground size

Modern AFL grounds have minimum mandatedsizes for a reason: the first few AFLX games suggest the smaller ground has made scoring much, much easier. Some of the scores call to mind the 1982 VFL exhibition game between Carlton and Richmond held at the old Gabba, which then included a dog track. Goals kicked from the centre square were common and the two sides kicked a combined 350 points. Despite the shorter time format, its already evident that some AFLX games will deliver similar cricket-like scores.

  1. Number of players

AFLX’s use of seven players (with three reserves) is common sense, given the smaller ground and obvious intent to enable a free-flowing game. Again, however, this is not a novel idea. Team size has always been a pragmatic matter of ‘horses for courses’. The earliest games of Australian Rules were played on large areas of open ground, so the rules did not bother to stipulate a maximum number of players per side.

The game has continued to adapt: up until the late 1800s large rucks of up to four followers and two rovers per team were common, but these were eventually scaled back to three ruckmen per side in order to overcome continued congestion at stoppages. By the turn of the twentieth century, the number of players in both the VFL and VFA had been reduced from 20 to 18.  Between 1959 and 1992 the VFA went even further by dropping the two wingers in order to speed up the game.

  1. Goal posts

The AFL’s retention of the goal and point posts in AFLX is interesting.  The game’s early rules included all four posts, but behinds were not officially counted in the final score tallies until 1897. There were various attempts during the first part of the twentieth century to simplify the game’s scoring rules. Roy Cazaly even thought too many goals were being kicked: in 1919 he advocated that a cross bar be introduced between the goal posts, “nothing to count unless the ball went over it, while behinds could, in his opinion, be advantageously ignored in the scoring.”

The rugby-style cross bar idea was revived by NSW delegates at the Australasian Football Council’s (AFC) 1924 meeting as a way of developing a new hybrid version of the game. It was defeated then but were the AFL brains trust tempted to drop the behind posts and introduce a cross bar to broaden AFLX’s appeal to rugby audiences?!

  1. Out of bounds rule

Under AFLX rules, the team which last touches the ball before it goes out of bounds is penalised with the other side given possession. Again, this is not a new innovation as there was a period in the game’s history when a similar rule applied.

Until 1924, a player could deliberately kick or punch the ball over the boundary line as often as they liked without fear of penalty. The 1924 AFC meeting decided to change the out of bounds rule. As with the new AFLX rule, the boundary throw in was scrapped and a free kick awarded against the team which last touched the ball, regardless of whether the action was deliberate or not. It is no coincidence that the inter-war years witnessed an explosion in the number of goals kicked by full forwards, as players avoided the wings and made greater use of the central corridor. Despite many protests, this out of bounds rule remained in place until 1938.

So, five quick examples of AFLX rules that – intended or not – owe something to the long history of our great game. No doubt there are further parallels that others may wish to discuss …

About Robert Allen

Robert is a football history tragic who lives in Brisbane with his three children and a ginger cat named Thomas O'Malley. He recently completed a biography of Roy Cazaly, in which he endeavoured to avoid what Gideon Haigh has called the two facets of most Australian sports biographies: cut-and-paste and tongue-in-bum.


  1. AFLX is nothing but a version of Receeation Football or Footy 9’s which has been around for around 10 years. It is indeed nothing new and what it has been is where it should remain – a mixed social version of footy for 30-40 something’s to keep fit. To bastardise the premium product for dubious territorial and media driven purposes is just another demonstration of the pathetic lengths the AFL will go. They didn’t even have the wherewithal to test if people could see a silver ball against a night sky and grey backdrop. And these people are on big bucks…

  2. AFLX was a glorified training drill.
    The players weren’t interested (and rightly so) in going in too hard and getting injured.

    Why not just televise the AFL clubs’ open training sessions?

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