If you’re a foreigner visiting or living in Australia, you’ve probably noticed rugby is a big deal here. Millions of residents are invested in the sport, either cheering for their favorite teams or competing on the pitch themselves.

But it’s difficult to appreciate rugby if you’re not familiar with the rules of the game. This includes knowing the variants played Down Under. The National Rugby League (NRL) and Australian Football League (AFL) represent vastly different forms of the sport.

In a nutshell, the NRL plays traditional rugby league and the AFL is a rugby derivative native to Australia.

Let’s take a deeper look at the differences.


In the AFL, each team places 18 players on the field with four substitutes. Players can be rotated up to 90 times per game.

NRL teams place 13 players on the pitch and are permitted four substitutes who can interchange up to eight times per game.


In the AFL, a goal–kicking the ball between the middle goalposts–is worth 6 points. A behind–kicking the ball between the outer goalposts–is worth 1 point.

In the NRL, a try–touching the ball with downward pressure between the opponent’s in-goal area–is worth four points. A penalty goal results in two points, and a field goal scores one point.

Match Length

The duration of an AFL game is four 20 minute quarters, and time is added for stoppages.

NRL games are played for two 40 minute halves, and extra time is called if the score is tied at the end of regulation.


There are no offsides in the AFL. Players may stand or pass in any direction.

Offsides are enforced in the NRL. The attacking team is required to stay behind “play of the ball” while the defensive team provides a 10m distance. The teams face off in attacking and defensive lines, and players cannot pass the ball forward.  

Photo by pxhere / CC0 1.0

Ball Possession

There are also no thrown passes in the AFL. The ball must be transferred between players via kick passes or handoffs. The player in possession of the ball is required to bounce it once per every ten strides.

When the ball travels out-of-bounds, an umpire throws it back onto the field and the teams battle for possession. However, if one team kicks the ball out-of-bounds, the opposing team is awarded possession.

The NRL uses the six tackle rule which states attacking teams must score within six chances or control of the ball is given to the opposing side.  


In the AFL, tackling opponents is somewhat restricted–players cannot be tackled above the shoulders nor attempts made at their feet while in possession of the ball.

The NRL provides penalties for a number of reasons including offsides, illegal tackles, and disrespect to a referee. A penalty on the attacking team results in a kick for touch. A penalty on the defensive team results in loss of possession and a kick for touch.


The AFL Grand Final is played on the last Sunday in September at the Melbourne Cricket Ground with the winner taking the premiership cup and premiership flag.

The best and fairest player of the year as voted by the league’s field umpires receives the AFL’s Brownlow Medal. In 2019, Oddschecker positions last year’s Brownlow recipient Tom Mitchell of Hawthorn as the frontrunner to win the award again.

The annual championship team of the NRL is decided by the NRL Grand Final game at Sydney’s Stadium Australia. It’s one of the nation’s most anticipated sports events and attended by over 100,000 spectators. The winner is presented the Provan-Summons Trophy.

The Dally M Medal is given to the NRL’s player of the year, an award most recently claimed by Roger Tuivasa-Sheck of the New Zealand Warriors.

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