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Games involve two teams of 22 players, with 18 from each team on the field at any one time. The game starts when a siren sounds and a field umpire bounces the ball in the centre of the ground. The ball is also bounced in the centre to start each quarter and after a goal has been scored.

Games are divided into four quarters of 20 minutes, plus extra time, and teams swap ends after each quarter. Teams try to gain possession of the football and then run, kick and handball it towards their goals, which are at opposite ends of the ground. Players can run with the ball as long as they bounce it once every 15 metres.

Players pass the ball to each other using a kick or handball. A handball involves holding the football in one hand and hitting it with the clenched fist of the other hand. If a player can mark the football (catch it from a kick that has travelled at least 15 metres provided the ball has not touched the ground or been touched by another player), he is entitled to a set kick and the opposition is not allowed to tackle him until he plays on.

A player can win possession of the ball by tackling an opponent. A legal tackle is performed by grabbing an opponent, who has the ball, below the shoulders and above the knees. Players are not allowed to push an opponent in the back while making a tackle and tackled players must correctly dispose of the ball within a reasonable time (one to two seconds). A player who is tackled illegally will be awarded a free kick. In some instances when a mark or free kick has been awarded, an additional 50-metre penalty will be awarded against the opposing team if a player unduly delays the play or abuses an umpire.

The aim of the game is to kick goals. That means kicking the ball through the tall inner posts (the goalposts) to score six points. If the ball goes between a goalpost and either of the smaller outer posts (the behind posts), a behind (worth one point) is scored. When it comes to reading or writing the scores, the goals go first, then the behinds, then the total points. For example, a score of 10 goals and six behinds is a total of 66 and is written 10.6 (66). The team that finishes with the highest total of goals and behinds is the winner.