The Essence of the Game

During the recent discussion about the claim that the substitution rule has saved the game and that the Almanackery (aided by some bountiful Heathcote vines) influenced this development, JTH challenged us to identify the Essence of the Game.  I thought I’d open the bowling.

There’s potentially a PhD thesis in this, and God knows, it’s a much more appealing topic than most PhDs!   However, I’ll save 99,000 words by narrowing down the whole heap of rules, characteristics and actions that we could use to illustrate the essence of our game to four unique features.

  1. Attack is the primary focus. The object of every football code is to score, yet all codes except Australian Rules make this maddeningly difficult to do.  Off-side rules, positional formations that stack the defence, rules against forward passing etc conspire against scoring.  By contrast, the intent behind our rules and structures is clearly that scoring is not only the object of the game but a feature that should be encouraged and enjoyed – regularly.  It’s like comparing a free love advocate with someone who thinks sex is only be for procreation! 

  1. Every position on the ground is contested man-on-man. Admittedly, a more theoretical notion these days than it once was, but as long as footy matches begin with the designated full back bumping shoulders with the designated full forward whilst two beanpole ruckmen contest the bounce, I’ll argue this as an essential feature.  Not only does the man-on-man positional structure assist the achievement of scoring (point 1) but it underlines the gladiatorial feature of the game – you may be part of a team, but you also clearly and unambiguously have an individual opponent to beat.  This sense of the individual contest within the team contest is, I believe, unique.

  1. It demands supreme athleticism but also a willingness to compete physically for the ball. No other football code is played for as long and on such a large arena as Aussie Rules.  When you see elite soccer players cramping and gasping their way through extra time, or rugby players barely walking between short bursts of exertion, you appreciate the supreme levels of fitness and athleticism that our game demands.  That said, the element of the contest is important here (see point 2).  We regard with suspicion the concept of “athlete as footballer”. It implies that while an athlete might run all day, he lacks the skill (and indeed the will) to compete for the disputed ball.  It’s why our game has positions for players of a greater variety of shapes and sizes than other codes – the contest for the ball happens at many levels and tests all physical capabilities.

  1. A maverick spirit. This is the tricky one.  It’s partly a random element, which we describe through the well-worn cliché about the oval ball and its unpredictable bounce. But it’s more than randomness.  The maverick spirit allows the possibility that, for all the structures, discipline and rules, something wickedly left-field can always happen.  The spirit inpires freakish, game-defining pieces of play.  Think Tim Watson’s leapfrog or Wayne Harmes, chasing his own kick and smashing the ball back into play from (outside?) the boundary.  The spirit creates controversial umpiring decisions.  Sure, most codes have plenty of potential for referee influence. But, the prolific grey areas in our rules allow this more than most, not to mention the really unexpected ones like Mike Fitzpatrick being pinged for wasting time or Doug Wade and the shorts-pulling incident.  The spirit sparks surprise packet performances by otherwise unsung individuals (think Ted Hopkins or Shane Ellen).  And it can prompt the employment of a bit of biffo in an effort to halt the dominance of players or teams (Cowboy Neale and Peter Hudson). For all its slipperiness, I reckon the maverick spirit is about the most important ingredient to the essence of the game and the other three features I’ve described previously are really just manifestations of it.

Codified sport, by definition, seeks to control the activity undertaken. In this highly professional era, coaches, officials and the players themselves strive to refine and control their actions to ensure (cue “management-speak”) optimal outcomes with the least risk of error or injury.  The trade-off that often results is highly polished but sterile, emotionless games.

One of the best games I’ve seen was the 2009 Grand Final.  It was a superb display of controlled skill in very difficult conditions by highly conditioned athletes.  In short, they played like the professionals they are.  But the game also encapsulated a willingness to attack, sometimes riskily, plenty of great man-on-man contests and a couple of game-changing rogue incidents that proved that the maverick spirit is alive and well.  It stirred a deep emotion in me, and I wasn’t even supporting either side.

There have always been and will always be poor games. This doesn’t matter if the essential principles – attack, contest, persist – are present.  But the worst games for me are those soulless affairs where coaches and players seem intent on playing safe, avoiding contests or creating congestion, (which is very different to creating a contest).  In effect, they are seeking to suck the life out of the maverick spirit.

There will always be a “chaos versus control” tension between the custodians of the game and those seeking to employ tactical advantage.  But for Aussie Rules to retain the maverick spirit in the modern environment, is, I believe, its greatest challenge, because it is this element that appeals to the inner maverick in all of us and keeps us coming back for more.

About Sam Steele

50 years a Richmond supporter. Enjoying a bounteous time after 37 years of drought. Should've been a farmer!


  1. Ian Syson says

    As someone who doesn’t think that football codes have essences — they are human constructs and processes — I still think you’ve made a pretty good fist of a beginning. Though I’d take you up on the questions of fitness and Mavericks.

    But if you are trying to extract an essence then the comparisons, especially the parodic ones, should be avoided. All you needed to add was soccer players rolling around like sooks, and bum sniffers having a gasper between scrums to do the job properly! Footy’s essence should be identifiable by examining footy alone.

    The first question asked by anyone trying to approach this topic should be: how did a low scoring game (with 0-0 draws being common) become so popular even before it became a freewheeling, high scoring game.

    The fundamental point is that footy is popular because it’s ours (or yours) and not because of any essence. It’s Melbourne’s game and it’s a vital part of Melbourne’s history and culture. The idea that its popular because it’s a better game is ultimately solipsitic.

    I watch elite soccer with a sense of relief after watching elite footy. I think it’s more skilful, less clumsy, more entertaining and capable of generating far more drama. But that’s just my opinion. And I’m not going to insult anybody’s intelligence by turning my subjective opinion into an objective fact.

    The way to fix footy up (if indeed it is broken) would be to get back to its social ‘essence’, the idea of teams representing communities and places (not “states of mind”! — I had to laugh at Eddie at the MCG on Friday night, “Welcome to Collingwood!”) and stop farting around with the rules.

  2. johnharms says

    So much in both your words Sam, and your comment Ian. The notion of essence is indeed an issue of language. What are the words that describes the game. Best jsut go and see the game. But the need to know and understand is a deep need. I certainly harbour it. And hene we write specualtively, trying to capture what is in the game, why it means so much. I think the nature of the game, and the nature of the community, historical circumstances etc is not a one-or-the-other situation. It’s an ‘and’ situation. I am a complicating factor in this: the locl culture, tribal support element has never been the game’s appeal to my. I didn’t understand the geography of Melbourne and its influence on the game until I was in my early 20s! I didn’t know Geelong was a town, and a separate town at that, until I was in my mid-teens. Family has been an important part of the game for me, and especially THE WAY THE GAME IS PLAYED. The game itself. I have spent too much time thinking about what it menas – but it taps in to some very deep-seated human elements which I have tried to write about in the past. The agon. The aesthetic. The performing of skills under the threat of physical violence. The competition. Victory/loss. Action/inaction. The essence of the game does give it more appeal for me. Again my experience tests your thesis Ian. Why didn’t I fall for rugby league the same way when I went to live in Qld? I opened myself to the possibility. These issues are all raised in Loose Men Everyhwere.

    Sam thanks for taking the first bounce. I look forward to further contributions.

  3. To me it can be brought back to one point – the fact that in footy the player can pick up the ball and then execute one of a number of skills, including simply running with it. This is not like any other sport. Yes I know in rugby they can pick it up but not with the same freedom (ie the ball going in a forward motion) or with the same unpredictability. Footy is random – more random than other games. This gives everyone access to it; tall, small, fat, thin. Its therefore a community game more than most.

  4. Ian Syson says

    John, you ask “Why didn’t I fall for rugby league the same way when I went to live in Qld?” Maybe you answered it a few sentences earlier — family.

    However. I have made the point elsewhere that you actually did fall for rugby league (at least you write like you did) but not as much as you did for footy.

    I think my point is that you won’t get to answer the question of what is footy by appealing to characteristics that make it different from (and better than) other codes. Other football codes involve a lot of the characteristics that are assumed to be unique to footy. When differences are drawn they are often drawn badly. Comparisons flounder because one side of the contrast is usually based on a stereotype or ignorance. Often there’s a clear lack of familiarity with the code being used as a point of comparison.

    I’m reminded here of Daffey’s claim a couple of years ago that soccer ground were of a set size compared with footy grounds — the point being that the game’s character was limited by that uniformity. Of course there are many differently sized soccer grounds because the rules allow a great difference. (Check out how narrow Stoke’s ground is — which may have something to do with the fact that long-throw expert Rory DeLap plays for them.)

    You list some characteristics of footy that you focus on: “The agon. The aesthetic. The performing of skills under the threat of physical violence. The competition. Victory/loss. Action/inaction.” Yet these are all applicable to soccer and the rugby codes and many other games. You asked me in a recent post if I’ve ever felt the joy of running into space and receiving a 45 metre pass. Have you ever felt the joy of wrong-footing a whole backline with a dummy and touching down unmolested (unbelievably I have!)? Have you ever got on to a cross from the winger and volleyed it into the roof of the net? Snap, I reckon.

    Sam talked about the match ups in his piece as if match ups aren’t a significant part of other games. Not every position in rugby union has a match up to be sure — but many do. Props and hookers compete against their direct opponents, for example. A lot of the discussion in the build up to big soccer matches is about who is going to mark the star strikers and midfielders. And maybe I’m wrong surely footy never had a moment when it was specific man on specific man in every position. None of the games I’ve ever seen seemed to have that.

    Sam also talked about the maverick spirit and I know what he means. But that also is observable in other games and codes. A lot is made of footy being an anarchic game. Having heard this when I first went to see footy in Melbourne I was struck by how un-anarchic it really was. In fact it seemed over-officiated with far too many stoppages. What other football game gives the ball to one of the team of umpires with as much frequency as footy?

    I’m not trying to be difficult here (oh, well maybe a little) but sometimes people love footy/soccer/rugby league because that’s what they love, their parents loved and all their mates love and the ‘essence’ of the game is (paradoxically) secondary or not even important at all.

  5. johnharms says

    Yes, it’s a sound argument.

    And yes, I did fall for rugby league. I still think it’s a pretty good game, although I think there are key issues that I would deal with differently. eg there are very few contests for the ball.

    Comparisons don’t work well, but good critical discussion has th epotential to.

    If you think footy is un-anarchic then I’m happy to take you to a game where the argument holds. IT is about imposing your will on the chaos. Just go to a Fitzroy seconds game and observe the anarchy, and the failure to overcmoe the anarchy.

  6. Peter Schumacher says

    I like any of the codes played at top level, indeed dare I admit it, I think that a Queensland win in the State of Origin is as good as it gets.

    The one problem with Rules as compared to other codes is that an early blow out can ruin the game for the rest of the match. Having said this, in recent years, it seems to me, teams have been coming back from bigger deficits, nevertheless I think that my point stands.

    Having said that I don’t like the lack of scoring in soccer although I must concede that this lack of scoring can be a cause of uncertainty and excitement because a goal can always be scored against the run of play. I don’t like diving either.

    My main beef about League is the pointlessness of feeding the scrum. On very rare occasions does possession go against the feed so that the whole thing is a waste of time.

    I reckon that the whole issue can be compared to religious adherence, at least for some. One grows up with a particular set of beliefs but on being exposed to other views one realises that previously long held views are open to scrutiny and debate and most likely a change of mind set.

    I was brought up, like John actually, in a Lutheran Aussie Rules Household in South Australia. My dad was a Lutheran pastor also. (We hated the idea that Victorian teams or players were in any way superior to our own. Now I accept that there are many views about religious adherence or otherwise just as I accept that all codes have something to offer.

    I am not sure about my religious views these days although I am still a practicing Lutheran. Similarly when push comes to shove I like Rules above all else because I think that across the board it is a faster more exciting game, (except when St Kilda is playing) which needs more skills to be able to execute aspects of the game properly. Whether this can be considered a objective or subjective point of view is the question.

    I must say that Ian Syson’s contributions are most interesting.

  7. Adam Muyt says

    The place you grow up in, its dominant culture, shapes so many responses, explains why this person prefers this code or that. Admittedly, the cultural walls and divides, those ‘Barassi Lines’, have tumbled down in recent years, exposing the open-minded and the curious to new codes, new experiences, new cultures. I grew up in a NSW that, north of the Riverina, paid minimal attention to what those southerners with their aerial ping-pong did. Sydney was very comfortable with its own cultures, rugby league, rugby union and soccer – it didn’t need Rules for identity or involvement or whatever you get from a game of football (any code). Of course, like John growing up in Queensland, there were people north of the BLine who loved Rules first and foremost, though from my experience, most usually had some southern Australian or family connection.

    Arguments over ‘we’ve got the better code’ have the ring of the one that’s been raging over the centuries between Islam, Christianity, Judaism and other faiths about the ‘one true path’. Brought up in a faith shapes your perspective, your world view. Doesn’t make it the ‘right’ one of course.

    I admit, I struggle sometimes to find a positive spin with rugby union – 38 seperate rules for a scrum, 18 rules for a ruck / maul, 3 points for a penalty goal…the list of stultifying moments in the game can drive you mad. But to a private school boy / girl from Queensland or NSW, a Kiwi, someone from Wales, a toff from England…well, ra-ra is GOD.

  8. So, this is clearly a topic where an opinion will provoke more argument than agreement. I didn’t really expect otherwise.

    A few quick responses to some of the points raised, though.

    Football codes are human constructs and therefore have no essences: I guess it’s pretty easy to reduce any game to a code of rules and, therefore, dismiss any idea of its “essence”. But if you reduce it to that level, it’s only a short step to dismissing football as a complete nonsense of make-believe rules and grown men pointlessly chasing a bladder. In which case, I’m not sure why we bother watching it at all.

    You cannot define the essence of a game by comparing it to others: I’m not seeking to claim that Aussie Rules is better than any other code, but I do believe that a good starting point in exploring its essence is to explore its fundamental differences from other codes. I deliberately avoided any of the clichéd comparisons that Ian alluded to as I agree that they aren’t relevant to this discussion. For example, the rights and wrongs of high scoring and low scoring are, I suppose, a matter of personal taste. My point is simply that Aussie Rules enables high scoring in a way that other codes don’t. I do maintain, however, that superior all-round fitness and stamina is required to play Aussie Rules than other football codes, and my comparisons on this count are, I think, valid. The early halting experiences of Karmichael Hunt and Israel Folau in making the switch from League to Rules are illustrative here. Sure, they’re learning a totally different style of game, but I reckon they would be the first to acknowledge the fitness levels that they have needed to reach in order to last a game.

    Preferred football code as religion: I can certainly relate to this. My love of Aussie Rules stems from childhood and a thorough captivation with the magic of the game that only happens to the young and innocent. Coming from a family that generally despised football, this was indeed like a religious conversion, but a heretical one, which gave it an even more dangerous fascination. By contrast, I have become a relatively late convert to other football codes and therefore tend to analyse them critically and objectively, seeing both their strengths and faults. I enjoy all of them but I cannot unconditionally love them in the way I did Aussie Rules. As I grow older, I am increasingly taking a critical view of Aussie Rules but I can never entirely eradicate that early indoctrination.

    Finally, I took a quick straw poll this evening of two young men (my son and a good friend of his) who have played both footy and soccer as to their views of the essence of the game. Their immediate reactions?

    1. Contests of all types, but particularly the direct man-on-man; and,
    2. The randomness of the game, especially compared with the very tactical nature of soccer.

    Sounds like a pretty good endorsement of my original views, albeit from a small sample.

  9. Alovesupreme says

    Ian – “And maybe I’m wrong surely footy never had a moment when it was specific man on specific man in every position. None of the games I’ve ever seen seemed to have that.”

    Your observation is accurate for the contemporary game, but as it was played for most of the previous century, until about the 1970s, the set positions were a matter of strict protocol. Only ruckmen, ruck-rovers and rovers were encouraged to move all over the field. A half-back flanker stood/marked a half-forward flanker, and neither strayed further up or down the ground than wing or forward pocket, and they did so in company, with one chasing the other if either made a move. You may note that the way the team lists appear, especially in the Football Record still conforms to this obsolete format.
    More recent developments – floods, forwards joining the defence, midfielders joining the attack – reminds me of Ajax and the Netherlands concept of “total football”. Aussie Rules has progressively incorporated tactics from other games – not just the football codes, but also basketball (and though I don’t know enough about the game, Gerard Neesham’s Fremantle was said by some to be influenced by water polo!)
    I’d also note that Aussie Rules is inherently conservative. There’s very rarely a change in tactical approach which isn’t a variant on what the most recent Premiership winner employed. I think it’s unfortunate that the national competition has tended to impose a conformity on what were historically distinctive characteristics of Adelaide or Perth football. In order to succeed there’s been an assumption that a Victorian coach (or some-one exposed to the Victorian rigidities) was needed to impose greater discipline on Adelaide, West Coast, Port or Fremantle.

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