The AFL ruck contest is dead, long live the AFL ruck contest

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By , Ryan Buckland is a Roar Expert

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    Two weeks into the 2017 AFL season, it has become increasingly clear ruckmen are on the verge of being placed on the endangered species list. Innovative teams are playing with stoppages in a way no-one saw coming.

    The AFL’s big off season move was the banishment of the third man up tactic from the toolset of coaches across the land. At the time, HQ told us the tactic did little to improve congestion, was an injury risk for traditional ruckmen, and was becoming so prevalent amongst some teams they felt it was threatening the long term viability of the position.

    What they didn’t tell you, but what we did, was it was a very handy tactic for those who could exploit it effectively.

    They didn’t tell you it was the first step towards a slippery slope of weakening one of Australian football’s fundamental tenants: the free movement of players.

    A few preseason games and two rounds of the season proper in, and the changes to ruck play and stoppages have been profound.

    With two great ruckmen contesting one-on-one, free of the anxiety of another player coming over the top, stoppages have re-emerged as a strategic battleground. Tap work and structures are in vogue once more, with teams that have a two metre tall artist on their books able to leverage it to their advantage.

    Max Gawn of the Demons and Stefan Martin of the Lions

    Stoppages look cleaner; particularly true around the ground, where teams are setting up to attack and move forward rather than defend and play negatively.

    Stoppages inside the 50 metre arc still look like a giant vomited up a lunch, but that’s understandable, given the incentives of both teams.

    The age-old refrain of football geeks everywhere – that winning more hit outs than your opponent does not translate to a real win – still holds. And direct scores from stoppages remain the poor cousin of scores from turnovers: so far this year, teams have scored points from turnovers at twice the rate of stoppages – about the same as last year.

    But simmering in the background are some unintended consequences.

    As is always the case when rules are changed and lines are shifted, gaming begins. While Round 1 saw a handful of free kicks paid for unlawful ruck contact – I guess that’s what it’s called when a non-designated ruckman touches the ball – Round 2 revealed a more tactical approach to the big man position.

    An approach which could very well be a harbinger for the end of ruckmen as we know them today.

    Have you been paying attention?
    Geelong’s win against North Melbourne was notable for many reasons.

    First and foremost, Geelong were trailing North Melbourne by more than four goals on multiple occasions, including at the three quarter time break. That’s after the Cats were fortunate to run into a rapidly cratering Fremantle team, who couldn’t take advantage of a decisive midfield win, in Round 1. That’s notable. Really notable. We’ll get to what it means soon enough.

    It was notable because it was a game that was genuinely won in the final moments. Joel Selwood’s quarter-long heroics, enabled by the fact he is made of granite wrapped in a soft membrane resembling human skin, were topped off by a text book Patrick Dangerfield hard ball get. The AFL reportedly checked Dangerfield’s cleats after the game to make sure he hadn’t strapped rockets to them while no one was looking.

    Robbie Tarrant is still staring at the Etihad turf, wondering where the ball went.

    It was notable because once more, North Melbourne took it right up to a more fancied opponent. The ‘Roos have a brutal two weeks on the way, and could end up travelling to Fremantle in Round Five with a grossly misleading 0-4 record.

    Those closing stages are important, because they revealed the most obvious signs yet that AFL coaches are three steps ahead of the game. Needing a goal, with the ball to be thrown in from their right forward pocket, Chris Scott’s Geelong threw convention out the window.

    When asked to nominate a ruckman, Geelong’s players looked at their shoes. A confused Braydon Preuss and his racehorse quads contested the ruck against a ghost, and the Cats almost sharked his eventual tap to perfection. The play unfolds, North’s Ben Cunnington eeking out a handball with two Geelong players draped over him, George Horlin-Smith goes for the groundball, a high tackle is laid and that’s the game.

    When faced with a do-or-die situation, the Cats innovated within the new bounds of the ruck position. They punted the opportunity to win a hit out for what they felt was a better opportunity to score from the stoppage. Where last year the Cats might have tried to manufacture a clearing third man up hit out, they chose instead to roll with an extra midfielder.

    They weren’t the only team playing silly-buggers with tradition. Adelaide’s win over Hawthorn saw both teams throw a completely bonkers look at their opponents.

    Here, Adelaide’s Rory Sloane contests a centre bounce against the Hawks’ Ben McEvoy, losing the hit out but winning the clearance with ease.

    Earlier in the quarter, the Hawks appeared to have hatched a set play using Cyril Rioli as a ruckman in their forward left pocket. Adelaide’s Sam Jacobs looked for contact against Ty Vickery, who’d been Hawthorn’s ruckman inside 50 for most of the day, either missing or ignoring Rioli’s nomination for the duel. He’s out position, leaving Rioli to tap the ball with relative ease. Fortunately for the Crows, Sloane read the play and won the clearance.

    If you look closely you can see two Hawks, Jack Gunston and Tom Mitchell, shape to run goal side from the back of the stoppage. The play doesn’t eventuate this time, but the intent was clearly there.

    What do we take out of this? Third man up, and its abolition, might end up accelerating a trend that AFL House is keen to ward off: the death of the traditional ruckman.

    A long term trend
    An extinction spiral has already swept up the genuine second ruckman in most team’s best 22.

    In 2007 and 2008, the league-wide, season-long total hit outs executed by the second highest hit out winner at each team totalled just shy of 28 per cent of total ruck hit outs across the competition. That figure has waned significantly, and hit 19.5 per cent in 2016.

    Over that time, the share of league-wide, season-long hit outs attributable to each team’s number one hit out winner has grown from 50 per cent to 58 per cent – a near-straight transfer.

    We know anecdotally that most teams go to market with one primary ruckman and a secondary option who is more forward than traditional big man. We can count the teams that tend to play two ruckmen on one hand: West Coast, Sydney, Fremantle, and Collingwood (if you want to call Mason Cox a ruckman).

    Last year, Hawthorn played Ben McEvoy and Jonathon Ceglar plenty, but with Ceglar out for the season with a knee injury, McEvoy has been left to his own devices.

    The Western Bulldogs play Jordan Roughead as a notional ruckman, but demand the rest of their tall forward group play significant time through the middle. Even Geelong, who had designs on playing half their team as rotating ruck forwards last season, ended up settling on a unit helmed by Zac Smith.

    Otherwise, the one man unit is well and truly in vogue. 17 of the game’s individual top 20 season-long hit out totals have happened since Collingwood last won the premiership.

    This year, the trend has taken accelerated faster than Dangerfield accelerated for that groundball get on the weekend. A truly stunning 79 per cent of hitouts generated in the first two rounds of 2017 have been credited to the top hit out winner of each team, a 20 percentage point increase year on year.

    By contrast, the share of hit outs credited to players not in the top two for hit outs by team has plummeted to four per cent – an 18 percentage point decline. That’s to be expected: with only one player from each team legally permitted to contest each stoppage, hit out tallies for non-ruckmen were always going to plummet. Still, the scale of the change is jarring.

    Interestingly, the proportion of hit outs won by ruckmen ranked second on their team for hit outs has also eroded, to a sample low of 17.8 per cent.

    If we remove the influence of the Western Bulldogs and North Melbourne, who have had their main ruckman (Roughead and Todd Goldstein, respectively) play in one of their two games, the figure drops to 15 per cent, with the number one ruckman use rising to 81 per cent. It is a large shift, and it is very real.

    AFL Rucks Chart

    The use of two ruckmen in a single game was already on the wane. Are teams responding to the new third man up rules by trusting their primary ruckmen to do all the heavy lifting? It’s possible – even probable – that the second ruckman position will dead before the decade is out.

    What happens next?
    That’s a hypothetical, of course. Some teams will still feel like their structure is best when playing two guys taller than 200cm who can hold their own in the ruck.

    West Coast stick out as an obvious case; Nic Naitanui has almost never played a game as the lone ruckman. Sydney also have a clear preference for two big men, enabled by Kurt Tippett’s under-rated positional flexibility.

    Hawthorn liked to use Ben McEvoy as a stand-and-deliver full forward for much of last year, although this season he’s been relegated to a full-time ruck role given the return of Jarryd Roughead and Ty Vickery trade.

    But what about teams that don’t have an out-and-out dominant ruckman?

    Geelong are an interesting case here. The Cats have played Rhys Stanley and Mark Blicavs as what I’d term a utility pairing in their opening two games. Between them, they are probably the equivalent of three quarters of a genuine AFL ruckman in 2017. In their first two games, the Cats have been out-rucked (in a hit out sense) 63 to 18 and 54 to 21. Geelong also employed the tactical concession of the ruck in the dying stages of their win over the weekend.

    While hit outs aren’t a material statistic, scores source statistics are. Geelong have scored 90 points from stoppages (equal fourth highest) and conceded 101 points from stoppages (ranked second highest) in the opening two rounds of the competition.

    Getting creamed in the ruck has led the Cats to record far and away the highest aggregate scores from stoppages tally in the opening two rounds – with more than double the scores from stoppages in Geelong’s two games as have been registered in Melbourne’s two games (90 – ranked 18th).

    The Cats look set to regain Zac Smith from a delayed preseason start this weekend, just in time to face Melbourne. And Max Gawn. Watch this space.

    The Western Bulldogs used Tom Boyd and Travis Cloke as ruckmen in Round One, with Jordan Roughead and Tom Campbell unavailable due to injury. Campbell returned as the lead ruckman besides Boyd, comfortably beating Sydney’s two Sams (Naismith and Reid, who was called up due to an injury to Tippett).

    Does tactical concession become a more usual ploy for the Dogs? Head coach Luke Beveridge is nothing if not an innovator, and has already talked publicly about the future of big men in his system.

    When asked by Fairfax Media’s Rohan Connolly about the list management implications of the abolition of the third man up, and particularly whether there was now a premium on great big men, Beveridge responded that there’s a chance the opposite is actually the case.

    “No I don’t think so. Potentially it could go the other way, where you’re just prepared to give that up and take a bigger mid there, or you have a different approach to the game and you have your list devoid of ruckmen”, Beveridge answered.

    “That’s what you could choose to do, that’s the other extreme, because we know the game isn’t played only around hit outs.” Beveridge was probably being churlish, but his comments aren’t that far off the mark.

    What to do about ruckmen and stoppages is an emerging issue already occupying the minds of many in AFL club land. I posed the “tactical concession” question, whether clubs would consider adding it to their arsenal, to a handful of team analysts.

    The general response was surprise at the way some teams had approached the contest in the first two weekends of the new ruck era, with the majority saying they’d look at it if they thought it could help their team win. Indeed, one of the most significant barriers could be to convince more traditional coaches of the tactic’s merits.

    There’s little doubt what we witnessed over the weekend was the start of a new kind of tactical play in set pieces at the professional level of Australian rules football. As with any time the AFL changes a rule, the brains trust of clubs across the land shifts into savant mode, looking for ways to exploit any regulatory advantages.

    Clubs without a Max Gawn or Nic Naitanui or Todd Goldstein figure had previously turned to the surprise tactic of a third man up to help counter their dominance. The future might see tactical concessions emerge as the change up. Clubs will certainly look to tactical concession in do-or-die situations like the Cats found themselves in over the weekend.

    Where does that leave ruckmen in the hierarchy of players in the game going forward? In the short term, the big bodies will command the big dollars – ruckmen who can be relied upon to take 80 per cent of the workload and beat down on smaller opponents. Most teams will adjust their list management strategies, to invest more resources into fewer ruckmen. Forwards who can take it to the big guys will become more valuable, too.

    What will AFL House make of this development? It is too soon to say. The regulators of Australian rules football were swift to act when they felt the third man up tactic posed a mortal threat to the traditional ruckman.

    I’m not sure how they respond to teams that chose to selectively concede the ruck contest, or whether they can. It would be a ludicrous notion to mandate the employ of a ruckman, by imposing a rule that says clubs must, just for tradition’s sake. We know ludicrous notions are no barrier to decision making.

    This could all be nothing. But with the professionalism of AFL clubs growing by the week, and the best teams breaking traditions as a means to victory, ruck play looks set to be on the verge of another revolution.

    The AFL ruck contest is dead, long live the AFL ruck contest.

    Ryan Buckland
    Ryan Buckland

    As an economist, Ryan seeks to fix the world's economic troubles one graph at a time. As a sports fan, he's always looking one or two layers beneath the surface to search for meaning, on and off the field. You can follow Ryan here.