Earlier this month, I wrote of the growing importance of half back line contests in deciding AFL games in 2013.
This article is about another trend in 2013 – the rise of ruckmen who also work at ground level.
From 2005-2011, the most successful ruckmen were ruckmen who didn’t do much at ground level.
Darren Jolly, Brad Ottens and Dean Cox won six premierships (and played in an additional five other grand finals) between them, almost without getting their knees dirty.
The Port Adelaide and Brisbane Lions rucks who preceded them were equally unwilling to get under packs.
It was exasperating for the other 34 players on the ground, being crunched under one pack after another, while watching their prima donna rucks ease back into jogging mode each time the ball fell below knee level.
Now, times they are a changing. As the game gets faster and defensive pressure becomes paramount, the prima donna ruck style is dying out, replaced by grunt rucking.
These are the rucks you can truly admire.
In most AFL teams this year, we’re seeing this evolution, as coaches favour rucks who can also impact after the ball hits the ground.
Leading the pack of young grunt rucks is Nick Naitanui, whose average tackles per game since he debuted in 2009 has never fallen below 3.4.
If there were stats for other aspects of grunt work, like knock-ons and handballs while on one’s knees, and like smothers and shepherds, Naitanui’s figures for these would also be impressive.
Two of the most promising rucks to debut in 2013 have been Brodie Grundy and Mark Blicavs.
Both are averaging three tackles per game. Both have the fitness to get to contest after contest, and the agility to work below their knees. One is a champion steeple-chaser and the other an ex-basketballer.
As Grundy won the first ruck slot against Jolly last week, Collingwood Hall of Famer Barry Price observed “so far his second efforts when the ball is on the ground are mighty.”
Grundy’s former AFL-AIS high performance manager, Michael O’Loughlin, similarly noted, “he just reminded me a fair bit of Shane Mumford, with his follow-up work and his attack on the ball.”
Essendon’s number one ruck in 2013 has been Paddy Ryder – not Tom Bellchambers or David Hille.
There’s a pattern beginning to emerge: Naitanui ahead of Cox, Grundy ahead of Jolly, Biclavs ahead of Trent West, and Ryder ahead of Bellchambers and Hille.
When Ross Lyon was asked last weekend about up-and-coming ruckman Zac Clarke, the first thing he mentioned was Clarke’s work at ground level. Meanwhile, less mobile Docker Aaron Sandilands may have played his last game.
Minsen’s average for marks per game in 2013 is only 1.9, well below his average of 3.2 – 3.6 for the years 2008 -2011, so his rising status in 2013 is not due to marking power.
It’s due to increased hit-outs and – there’s that key indicator again – an increased tackle count.
Not far behind Minsen are Shane Mumford and Ivan Maric, who play a very similar game to Minsen.
That’s a grunt ruckman game. Not a lot of marks, but plenty of tackling, space-clearing and knock-ons at ground level.
It’s instructive to look at which of the prima donna rucks have adapted their style to the new era. Brad Ottens’ tackling average ranged from 0.4 to 1 per game in his first three seasons, then from 1.8 to 2.8 in the next six seasons.
In each of his final five seasons, the Geelong powerhouse seasons from 2007-2011, Ottens averaged above three tackles per game.
A similar patter emerges with Darren Jolly.
He averaged below one tackle per game while with Melbourne from 2001-2004, then 1.8 tackles per game in each of his grand final seasons with the Swans in 2005-2006, then 2-2.8 tackles per game in the next four seasons, then above three tackles per game since 2011.
Tackles are only one component of grunt work, but these suggest Ottens’ and Jolly’s games adapted.
Dean Cox started in the same year as Jolly (2001) but only in 2013 is he averaging more than two tackles per game. This may suggest he has been less adaptable.
As the grunt rucks reach their hey day, the rucks that can’t work at ground level are going the way of the dinosaur.
Trent West, David Hille, Aaron Sandilands and maybe even Dean Cox are all on the way out.
Expect 2014 to be the year of the grunt ruckman!