Interchange (Australian rules football)

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The Carlton interchange bench in a match against St Kilda, 2011. Carlton interchange bench.jpg
The Carlton interchange bench in a match against St Kilda, 2011.

Interchange (or, colloquially, the bench or interchange bench) is a team position in Australian rules football, consisting of players who are part of the selected team but are not currently on the field of play.


Interchange numbers


As of the 2021 season, at AFL level, each team is permitted four interchange players, and a maximum of seventy-five total player interchanges during a game; [1] players have no limit to the number of times they may individually be changed, and an interchange can occur at any time during the game, including during gameplay. Additionally, a fifth bench player is designated a medical substitute, allowed to take the field only to permanently replace a player deemed medically unfit to continue; except with permission from the AFL Medical Officer, a player thus substituted off would be ineligible to play again until at least twelve days later. [2]

The players named on the interchange bench and as the substitute in the teamsheet, which is submitted ninety minutes before the commencement of the game, must be the interchange players who start on the bench, however they may be substituted immediately if the coach wishes.

Other leagues

Interchange rules are not uniform across all leagues. In the major state leagues, as of 2016, following interchange numbers are permitted:

In AFL Women's, in which each side has 16 players on the field instead of the 18 of the men's game, five interchange players are allowed, with no limit on the number of rotations. The AFL, which operates the women's league, decided not to impose a limit on the number of rotations, as that league is contested during the men's AFL offseason in the southern summer. [5]

Representative teams (such as State of Origin teams), practice and exhibition matches often feature an extended interchange bench of up to six or eight players.


At different times during the history of the sport, there have been substitute players (also known as reserves) serving a function distinct from interchange players. A player who begins the game as a substitute may take no part in the game until he is substituted for another player, the latter of whom permanently leaves the field.

The substitute rule was resisted for many years, with the prevailing view in the 1910s and 1920s being that a team should be permitted only to substitute a player in the event of an injury, but that there was no practical way to rule against a team making a tactical substitution. [6] A single substitute was finally introduced by the Australian National Football Council for the 1930 season, with no restrictions on whether the substitution be used for injury or tactical reasons. [7] A second substitute was introduced in 1946, [8] before the substitutes were replaced by interchange in the 1970s. Additionally, in the AFL between 2011 and 2015, a hybrid interchange–substitution arrangement existed in which there were three interchange players and one substitute; under those rules, the substitute was required to wear a green vest until activated, and the player substituted out of the game donned a red vest. [9] A true medical substitute - again wearing a green vest - was introduced in 2021, which for the first time placed a formal restriction on using the substitute for medical reasons only, by restricting the return date of the player substituted off. [2]

Interchange protocol

In front of the interchange benches is the interchange area (sometimes called the interchange gate), which is a 15-metre stretch of the boundary line, roughly centred between the two teams' benches, through which all players must enter and exit the ground when being interchanged. It is marked on the boundary line with two short lines, perpendicular to the boundary, and sometimes with a slanted end. A player who interchanges outside of this area is not permitted to return for the rest of the game. [10]

Where a player leaves the ground on a stretcher, he is permitted to take the most direct route to the changerooms for medical treatment, and is still permitted to return later in the game; however, where he leaves on a stretcher, the player must wait for 20 minutes of playing time (the length of one regulation quarter) before returning. If a stretcher is brought onto the ground but the player ultimately does not need to use it, he must still wait for 20 minutes before returning. [11]

Due to new AFL concussion rules, effective from 2011 onwards, any player suspected of suffering a concussion must come off the ground and undergo a concussion test; if found to be concussed, he is not allowed to return to the field for the remainder of the game.

A player may be forced to make an interchange by the umpire under the blood rule. If an umpire sees a player bleeding, he will call time-on at the next appropriate time, stopping play until the player has left the field and been replaced.

Where the league has a provision to do so, an interchange steward is provided to monitor interchanges.

Policing interchanges

Head count

The primary means for controlling interchanges in most leagues (but not in the AFL) is via a Head Count, currently detailed in Law 5.5 of the game. To initiate this procedure, a team captain must request a head count from the umpire. The umpire, at the opportunity, will call time on, and all players from both teams line will line-up in the centre of the ground to be counted by the umpires.

If either team has more players on the ground than it should, the general rule, according to the 2019 Laws of the Game, is that any points the team had scored up to that point during the quarter of the head count are deducted from the score and a free kick and 50-metre penalty are paid to the opposing captain from the centre of the ground or the spot of the ball. The league may impose additional sanctions, including reversal of a match result, as appropriate. Leagues will not necessarily deduct scores during the match; in some cases, the quarter's progress score at the time of the head count is recorded, and league officials meet after the game to assess whether or not to retrospectively cancel that score. [12] [13] Provisions also exist in the rules for a league to review, identify and impose a penalty (including reversal of the match result) for having too many players on the ground in a post match video review, without a head count having been executed during the match. [14]

If both teams have the correct number of players, a free kick and 50-metre penalty are paid against the captain who initiated the head count; that captain may also be reported for time-wasting and ordered off (should the rules of the league permit) if the umpire believes the captain's primary reason for calling the head count was to waste time. [11]

Up until the 2018 Laws of the Game, the penalty for having too many players on the ground was cancellation of the team's entire score at the time of the head count, rather than just the score in the quarter of the head count; and there was no formal allowance for a post-match review and reversal of the result if no head count had occurred. [15] This immense penalty, which predated the interchange bench or even reserve players, was long known to be one of the great curiosities in the game's laws, and was seen so rarely that decades would usually pass without a league seeing it invoked. The rules were modernized at the end of 2018 after two high-profile incidents which, by incredible coincidence, affected separate state league finals on the exact same day: the 2018 SANFL preliminary final, when the league had no recourse to change the result of a game won by a North Adelaide team which fielded 19 men for several crucial final quarter minutes without a head count; and the 2018 NEAFL grand final (described below) when premier Southport was caught with 19 men on the field in a head count in the opening seconds of the final quarter. In recent years, the majority of incidents of extra players on the field have been an error by a player who was meant to go to the bench after an interval, hence the shift in rules from cancelling the team's entire score to just cancelling the score for that quarter, but with the provision for further penalty as appropriate.

Famous head counts

The most famous head-count request occurred in the SANFL in Round 15, 1975. West Torrens' champion Fred Bills, playing the last of his 313 league games (having announced his retirement earlier that week) entered the field of play before John Cassin, who was injured and lying on a stretcher, had left it. This prompted West Adelaide, trailing 11.7 (73) to 12.10 (82) in the final quarter, to request a head count. [16] West Torrens players ran for the boundary line, while West Adelaide players wrestled with them to keep them in bounds; in the chaos, one player, identified in the match report published in The Advertiser as Norm Dare, Note 1 [16] managed to leap the fence and hide under a supporter's coat to avoid detection from the umpire. Ultimately, the count was abandoned when it became impossible to vouch for who was on the field at the time of the request, and West Torrens went on to win by three goals. The incident was celebrated as one of the sport's 150 greatest moments in the 150th year celebrations in 2008. [17]

The other most famous head count occurred during the Grand Final of the 2018 North East Australian Football League season between Southport and Sydney reserves. Southport was leading by ten goals at three-quarter time, but accidentally sent nineteen men onto the field to start the final quarter; Sydney called for a head count twenty seconds later, and Southport's extra man was discovered. Sydney received a free kick and fifty metre penalty, and play continued with nobody sure whether or not Southport's score would stand. Only a few minutes before the end of the game, NEAFL officials decided not to annul Southport's score, using an existing provision within the laws of the game which allowed the full penalty not to be applied if the breach had no material impact on the game. Southport won the game by 55 points. [18]

There have been only three head counts, all unsuccessful, in the history of the VFL/AFL:

Notable successful head counts around the country which resulted in the cancellation of a team's score are listed in the table below. Where scores are given, the team which suffered the head count penalty is listed first.

LeagueClub penalisedOpponentMatchScore at countCount timeFinal scoreReport
VFA Richmond Essendon Round 9, 1896 3.3 – 2.43rd quarter1.4 – 9.9 [20]
Reporter District Football League Burwood Camberwell 1911 Final16 – 101st quarter30 – 32 [21]
VFA North Melbourne Preston 1911 season47 – 132nd quarter69 – 48 [22]
VFA Prahran Brighton Round 10, 1921 26 – 171st quarter34 – 34 [23]
VFA Northcote Yarraville Centenary Cup, 1977 89 – ??4th quarter20 – 154 [24]
O&KFL MoyhuWhorouly2008 First Semi-Final15–222nd quarter9–81
BL&GFA Barossa DistrictWillaston2011 First Semi-Final59–594th quarter6–81
VFL Frankston North Ballarat Round 14, 2013 38 – ??3rd quarter23 – 64 [12]

Interchange infringement penalties

In Round 6, 2008, North Melbourne and Sydney played a controversial drawn match, in which a bungled interchange late in the game left Sydney with 19 men on the field for about a minute, during which time the Swans scored the game-tying behind. Although the AFL's laws allowed for each of the Sydney players to be fined $2500 for the error, there could be no change to the match result because North Melbourne had not called for a head count. This highlighted the impracticality of the head count rule in a modern professional league with its rapid use of interchanges for fatigue management. [25]

A few weeks after this incident, the AFL introduced a new rule allowing the interchange steward to inform the umpires of interchange errors: specifically, when a player enters the field before the player he is replacing has left the field, or when a player is interchanged without using the interchange gate. In each case, the penalty is a free kick in the centre of the ground or at the spot of the ball at the time, whichever is the greater penalty against the offending team. If the offending team is not in possession of the ball, the umpire shall impose an additional 50-metre penalty against them. Any score or free kicks given to the opposition when an interchange infringement has occurred are cancelled.

This process is seen only at the professional AFL level; lower levels of the sport still rely on the head count rule to police interchanges. AFL captains retain the right to call for a head count if they believe an interchange infringement has not been detected by the interchange steward (which would most likely be after an interval), but this has not yet been exercised under the new rules. [26]

Historical interchange rules and tactics

The number of interchanges allowed has followed the following time-line under Australian National Football Council (ANFC) rules:

Following the disbandment of the ANFC, the following timeline indicates changes to interchange rules in the AFL. Other leagues have not followed this timeline:

Historically, the interchange bench was used sparingly, and mostly to take poor-performing or players who were injured and unable to continue out of the game. There was a marked change in this at the top level as professionalism grew in the sport between 2000 and 2010, and the interchange bench began to be used much more frequently as a means of rotating players to manage player fatigue through the game and offer rest periods for hard working players and game time for young/old players. The average number of interchanges in the AFL doubled between 2007 (56 changes per team per game) and 2010 (113 changes per team per game) as coaches sought to give frequent rests to their running players. [28] Rule changes in the 2010s and 2020s placed restrictions on the number of interchanges, on the theory that lower fatigue levels were enabling a more defensive play style which was stifling open play and scoring, and that restricting rotations and increasing fatigue could reverse that trend. [29]

Positions on the Australian rules football field
B: Back Pocket Full back Back Pocket
HB: Half-Back Flank Centre Half-Back Half-Back Flank
C: Wing Centre Wing
HF: Half-Forward Flank Centre Half-Forward Half-Forward Flank
F: Forward Pocket Full Forward Forward Pocket
Foll: Ruckman Ruck rover Rover
Int: Interchange Interchange Interchange
Interchange Medical substitute
Coach: coach


1. ^ In the AFL's own account of the incident, as published on its website as part of the 150th-anniversary celebrations, the leap over the fence was credited not to Norm Dare, but to Gerry Noonan – who, like Dare, was a former Fitzroy player in the VFL who transferred to West Torrens in 1975. Additionally, the AFL's account of the incident had one other significant factual difference to the account in The Advertiser: the AFL's account indicated that the match was Fred Bills' 300th match, but the account in The Advertiser makes it unequivocally clear that it was Bills' 313th and final match.

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