The Roar
The Roar


AFL is hard, but is it as tough as rugby?

Roar Pro
26th March, 2012
15641 Reads

I once had an American friend who, upon seeing his first game of AFL, stated “Wow, they look like seagulls fighting over chips.” That pretty much sums it up to the uninitiated.

However, even as a rugby die hard from the small rural town of Nuhaka, New Zealand, I am starting to turn towards AFL and beginning to enjoy it, from both a playing and viewing perspective.

If I had to part with cash to watch either code, I am still going to the rugby, no doubt. But I have developed a new-found interest and appreciation for the other Australian code.

Annually I have an argument with my mate Brosie about the relative differences between the AFL and rugby in terms of athleticism, skills, physical impact, fitness, and so on.

This debate can rage for hours and I am sure even politicians would begin to tell us to wrap it up.

The issue is that the two sports are polar opposites and rely heavily on skills which are not comparable.

Rugby is more like a gratuitously violent chess match based on moving opponents around the field until you find that one gap, or get that one kick which was set up five plays prior.

AFL does not seem to have that inherent strategic intensity. Yes there is strategy, but it is not as complex or as in depth.

Having played rugby for 10 years and amateur AFL for five I can assure you the tactical battle isn’t even close. Too often play can be determined by a lucky bounce or a seemingly random act.


The athleticism debate is an interesting one, as rugby has a far greater range of body types. I doubt a 120kg prop will be making the AFL anytime soon, yet such a build serves a significant purpose on the rugby field. Tony “Plugger” Lockett is the only exception I can think of.

The size of rugby players is something to behold.

I remember a Scottish teacher on my gap year seeing Jerry Collins and saying that he was “the closest a human can get to having four legs”, such were the size of his biceps.

Sure, rugby now has Sonny Bill Williams, possibly the best example of a perfect human form. But when it coes to the athleticism from the AFL side, some of the things I have seen from the so-called seagulls have been breathtaking.

Players like Cyril Rioli and Chris Judd can leave you spellbound with their deft touches. In Cyril’s case it’s his seizure-like dodging, high-flying pack marks, obtuse shots on goal, and no-look handballs.

It leaves you wondering how they can concentrate on so much in a 360-degree game, convincing you they are aware of what is going on all around them.

Someone once told me that Aussie rules is an easy game to learn, impossible to master. Having played a few years I can appreciate this.

While I played number 10 at school for a few years and could kick well for rugby, it was completely different in an actual game of AFL. The level of precision with kicking is absurd, usually while running flat out.


The precise level of kicking in the AFL is not seen in rugby because generally only one or two players are required as kickers. Watching AFL players hit somebody on the lead from 50 yards is mighty impressive.

In terms of physical intensity there is no argument. Rugby dominates hands down.

The sheer size of the players and the regularity and severity of impact is so much more brutal in rugby. Just think of a rugby front rows’ shoulders supporting approximately 500kg each upon impact.

In rugby you can brace for the hit and you know its coming, but it is the constant pounding that wears you down.

The forwards are the real engine room and batter themselves relentlessly. Just look at Richie McCaw next time you see the All Blacks play.

Often at the end of a game he is bleeding from somewhere and there are noticeable bumps on his face like he has gone 12 rounds with Tyson.

From my own personal experience, I endured three shoulder reconstructions, a fractured jaw and a broken nose while playing rugby. In Aussie Rules, I tore a quad and had a badly rolled ankle.

I am not proposing that Aussie Rules is a game of tiddly-winks. There are still big one-off hits and a level of physicality, but the contact is less regular and severe. It seems the AFL are trying to take a lot of this out of the game anyway.


It is simply not as violent, much like rugby isn’t as violent as league, and league is slightly less violent than a knife fight.

However both do provide the opportunity to prove one’s courage and this is why I appreciate both codes.

In terms of fitness this is subjective.

AFL players are required to run a lot further for longer periods of time and thus rely more on aerobic fitness, which is possibly the highest of any sport played other than ice hockey.

It also explains why their frames are slighter. Look at Karmichael Hunt: he was incredibly fit, but was just not AFL-fit. His physique today is completely different. His rugby league frame was more comparable to a rugby union body.

Rugby relies more on anaerobic capacity due to the amounts of pushing and stationary force, which are exerted over short bursts.

I could never see a rugby “fat man” running a 10 minute, 3.2-kilometre time trial like Chris Judd. It is impossible. He might actually explode

What am I telling you? I am telling you that after six years of living in Australia I have enjoyed playing AFL. It is a great game full of skill, athleticism and courage.


But you haven’t converted me yet Australia, although if I watch any more Western Force games, you might.

I thank the Australian forefathers for inventing this fine game which has prolonged my urge for physical contact and borderline assualt.

I have enjoyed it thoroughly, however you are my second wife in this sports polygamist relationship.

I wish you well on your quest to become the all-conquering sport of this nation but I think there will always be a time and a place where 30 bullies are kept far away from the centre of the city thanks to this fine game we call rugby.