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In the sport of Australian rules football, each of the eighteen players in a team are assigned to a particular named position on the field of play. These positions describe both the player's main role and by implication their location on the ground. As the game has evolved, tactics and team formations have changed, and the names of the positions and the duties involved have evolved too. In total there are 18 positions in Australian rules football, not including 4 (sometimes 6 - 8) interchange players who may come onto the ground at any time during play to replace another player.
The fluid nature of the modern game means the positions in football are not as formally defined as in sports such as rugby or American football. Even so, most players will play in a limited range of positions throughout their career, as each position requires a particular set of skills. Footballers who are able to play comfortably in numerous positions are referred to as utility players.
The fullback position has traditionally been a purely defensive role, with the aim of preventing the full-forward from marking the ball and scoring. However, in recent times, where the ability to move the ball out of defense and down the field quickly has become a more important tactic, the fullback often starts a chain of passes up the ground. The defensive aspect of the position remains important, with the ability to accelerate and change direction quickly. Spoiling the ball is also of utmost importance. The fullback often kicks the ball back into play after a point has been scored, although some teams prefer a midfielder or the small back pockets for this role, freeing the (typically taller) fullback player to attempt to mark the kick in.
The back pocket refers to a position on the field deep in defence.
Back pocket players need to have good spoiling skills and usually, quality back-pockets are noted for their hardness. Back pockets generally play on the smaller, faster forward pockets and let the fullback play on the stronger full forward.
Some back-pockets are small, fast players, whose role is to clear a loose ball from defence or play on a forward of similar size and speed. Others are 'mid-sized' defenders, with enough height and strength to contest or spoil marks and enough mobility to fulfil the first role.
Back pocket is not an exclusive position. Tall defenders (i.e. full back/centre half-back) may play in the back pocket to match up effectively on a tall forward playing in the forward pocket.
The centre half-back ideally needs to be considerably strong, tall, fast and courageous. Centre half-back is considered a key position in defence. There are two main styles of centre half-back. The more defensive, one-on-one centre half-backs, stick to the centre half forwards and try to take them out of the game. Other teams use a more attacking and loose (i.e. not marking his man closely) player at CHB that will try and rebound the ball out of defence and make the transition into attack a lot quicker. A traditional centre half-back is a mixture of the two, however in the modern game there is not much difference between a centre half-back and a full-back. A full-back will often play against the centre half-forward if they suit their opponent.
The half-back flank is very similar to the back pocket position. However, a true half-back flanker is more attacking and concentrates on rebounding the ball out of the defensive 50. Sometimes half-back flankers even forgo their defensive duties in order to be more attacking. When a half-back flanker is attacking, they play like a wing-back in soccer (or an attacking full-back), and if they are more defensive then they play like a traditional full-back in soccer.
The midfield consists of the centre and the two wingmen. Centres are normally able to obtain the ball, be a link between defence and attack and possess very good kicking or hand-ball skills (usually on both sides of the body). They are also usually considered the "inside" midfielders, due to their responsibility in retrieving the football in close. Wingmen (of which there are two, on the left and right side) have a high level of stamina whilst having similar skills to that of a centre. They are usually considered the "outside" midfielders, due to the extra space and freedom they create for themselves. They often wait outside clearance situations for the ball to be 'fed' to them.
The Centre half-forward's role is usually the most demanding of any player on field, with a tall frame, good marking skills, strength and most importantly, athleticism, required.
A Centre half-forward that is strongly built and specialises in charging packs is often categorised as a power forward\
Standing wide of the Centre Half-forward, the Half-Forward flankers provide an alternate target for balls coming from the midfield.
Half-Forward flankers usually move the ball into the forward line along the flanks. They might kick the ball into the forward line, pass the ball to another running player, or have a shot at goal themselves. Nowadays, Half-Forward flankers usually push into the midfield, and rather than being a specialist position, Half-Forward flank can be played by centres, wingers, rovers/ruck rovers, or even attacking Half-Back flankers.
Full Forwards are good at one-on-one contests with the opposition and are the main target in the forward line when attacking. This means they can produce mass amounts of goals in a season or match. Contests in the goalsquare require the strength and weight to be able to jostle or wrestle opponents to front position and keep fullbacks at bay and not as much running is required as midfielders. As a result, full-forwards are typically both tall and powerfully built. A full-forward that is strongly built and specialises in charging packs is often categorised as a power forward.
As well as contesting marks with their strength, Full Forwards will try to run into space to shake off their defender and take an uncontested mark (this is known as 'leading', 'leading for the ball' or 'leading into space'). This means that the Full Forward needs to be fast, but only in short bursts. In modern times, some teams have experimented by playing a smaller, faster player (possibly a former forward pocket or flanker) at Full Forward, in order to beat the defender with speed rather than strength. In the case of Mark Williams (Hawthorn) and Brad Johnson (Western Bulldogs), this has been extremely successful.
The forward pocket is designed as either a role for a second full forward (also known as a third key forward) or for players who are smaller but faster and more agile and capable of kicking brilliantly on the run (this is the more traditional forward pocket). Many forward pockets, like rovers, are quick thinking and opportunistic crumbing players. This means that they need to be short enough to pick up after it hits the ground from a contest, think and move quickly to evade potential tackles, and kick or set up a goal.
Like Back Pockets, some Forward Pockets are like medium sized Full Forwards- tall and strong enough to contest marks, and mobile enough to crumb the ball. Some players in this mould, such as Russell Robertson, are capable of playing Full Forward outright.
Crumbing Forward Pockets don't exclusively crumb the ball. Sometimes, they lead for the ball like Full Forwards, so they have to be competent at marking the ball. Some Forward Pockets can even jump so high that they can contest marks, despite their lack of height.
The followers are 3 different roles, the ruck, rover and ruck-rover.
Also known as the on-ball division, the followers consist of three players - a ruckman, ruck rover, and rover. They are known as followers because they have traditionally been used as players that follow the ball all around the ground, as opposed to playing in a set position (although with modern Australian rules football, there is a decreased emphasis on set positions. That said, followers do cover much more ground than any other player on the field).
Ruckman - his role is to contest with the opposing ruckman at centre-bounces that take place at the start of each quarter or after each goal, and at stoppages (i.e., boundary throw ins, ball ups). The ruckman usually uses his height (typically players are over 195 cm tall) to palm/tap the ball down so that a ruck rover or rover can run onto it - similar to an NBA center at the tip-off. Traditionally, ruckman have simply been tall players with limited skill and speed, whose only job was to provide a contest in the ruck. However, in recent times ruckmen have become faster and more skilled, so they can play as an extra midfielder in between ruck contests.
The tallest AFL players ever are ruckmen Aaron Sandilands (Fremantle) and Peter Street (Western Bulldogs), who both measure in at 211cm. Before them, the record was held by Matthew 'Spider' Burton (Fremantle/North Melbourne) at 210cm.
Ruck-rover - his role is to be directly beneath the flight of the ball when a ruckman taps the ball down, allowing an easy take away, or clearance, from a stoppage. Typically, players are not as tall as the ruckman, ranging from 170-190cm in height.
Rover - his role is to lurk around centre bounces and stoppages to receive the ball from a ruckman or ruck rover and complete a clearance. Rovers are typically the smallest player on the ground. In modern football, the rover, ruck rover, centreman and wingmen are often grouped together as midfielders.
Taggers, also known as "run-with" players, are not as highly skilled as other players on the field, nor do they have any set position. Their role is to shut down, follow, run with, mark and sometimes 'scrag' (illegally hold) their chosen opponent. They are considered "negative" players, and are often used on players that are deemed to be the most dangerous and have the most impact in a game. Taggers have only really been used in recent years, and such players to have earned "tag" status include Ben Cousins, Chris Judd, James Hird, Nathan Buckley, Jason Akermanis, Gary Ablett, Jr., and Jimmy Bartel, all players who are capable of destruction if they are not tightly manned. Jason Akermanis has criticised one of his most frequent tagging opponents, Jared Crouch, for the negative influence he has, not so much on Akermanis' game, but the game of Australian rules football in general.
Taggers possess a high level of fitness and can run with such star players all day, and often players from an athletic background that do not possess silky skills will be assigned to tag a player. Some players, such as Cameron Ling, who made a name for themselves as taggers have 'stepped up' and become players who frequently get tagged themselves.
Interchange, also often known as "the bench". Players named on the interchange bench are not permitted to enter the field of play unless substituting for a player during the game.
Up to four players can be named on the bench, this number has steadily increased over the decades from a single player in the 1930s. Representative teams (such as State of Origin teams or honorific teams such as the AFL Team of the Century), practise and exhibition matches often feature an extended interchange bench of up to six or eight players.
Up until the 1970s, the single interchange player, known as the "nineteenth man" or the "reserve" acted only as a substitution for an injured or out of form player; the player substituted out of the game could take no further part. Since the 1970s, interchange has increased from two to three to four players, and substitutions may be made as often as the coach wishes, with players allowed to be moved onto and off from the ground for several rests during the game.
There are very few players in the AFL league who possess the skill and poise to be able to consistently perform to a very high standard in a number of various positions. Some of these players do not receive the recognition they deserve, while others, such as Matthew Pavlich and Adam Goodes, are praised for their versatility and ability to influence a game from any position.
Traditionally, a Utility player is an unheralded, but nonetheless important player. He doesn't dominate one position, instead, he is like a 'spare parts' player because he can fill in at a variety of positions and do a very good job in each.
Nowadays, the need for more versatility in players has resulted in many players 'doubling up' their roles. Practically every midfielder can play Forward Pocket, Back Pocket, Half-Forward Flank or Half-Back Flank. Most, if not all, starting ruckmen can play as tall forwards, or in rarer cases, tall defenders. Some tall defenders can play as tall forwards and vice-versa. This means that most AFL players have a specialist position and one or two 'fill-in' positions.
One exception to this would be a player who is actually a specialist at two positions, not just a fill-in (i.e. Adam Hunter, the Eagles' best Centre-Half Back, is also one of their most dominant Full Forwards). Another exception would be midfielders, such as James Hird and Anthony Koutoufides, who have the height and strength to play key positions. This requires an extremely rare blend of skills and abilities.
Below are a number of players who are notable for their ability to dominate various positions.
Alternate Position/Grouping Names
|Key Defenders or Tall Defenders||Full Back, Centre-Half Back|
|Rucks, On-Ballers, On-Ball Division|
|Ruckman, Ruck-Rover, Rover||See Followers above|
|Centreline||Wingers, Centre||Term nowadays obsolete, positions considered|
part of the Midfield
|Big Men||Ruckmen||(see "Tall Timber", below)|
|Key Forwards or Tall Forwards||Centre-Half Forward, Full Forward|
|Tall Timber||Ruckmen, Centre-Half Forward, Full Forward, Full Back, Centre-Half Back||This is a slang term, but it refers to all the players whose height may be more important than their speed|
|Crumber, Small Forward||Forward Pocket||Any small, fast Forward may sometimes called a 'crumber' or 'small forward'|
|Resting ruckman||Ruckmen||A ruckman playing in the forward line between stints in the ruck is a 'resting ruckman' (as in, he's taking a rest from ruck duties by playing up forward). Traditionally, as ruckmen couldn't be taken off (as they couldn't come back on), they may have rested in the back pocket instead. But in modern football, ruckmen are not as good as backmen and they don't need to "rest" in the backline as much anymore.|
|Rotating defender||Midfielder, defender||Midfielders and defenders who rotate through each other's positions. Often sees midfielders move to defense and play as creative defenders.|
|Rebounder, Mop-Up Player||Back Pocket, Half-Back Flank||A Back Pocket or Half-Back Flanker whose main job is to rebound the ball out of defence may be called a 'rebounder' or 'mop-up player'. A player who is really good at setting up attacks from defence, due to their quality ball skills and decision-making abilities, may be referred to as a Quarterback (this slang term is a reference to American Football).|
- AFL "Guide to Season 2005" (2004) p. 493