The Roar
The Roar


AFL ruckmen strike back

25th June, 2015

Isn’t it great to see ruckmen returning to the AFL’s centre stage?

Derided in recent times by the media and in some instances even the coaches themselves, the true big men of the competition made a statement last weekend that echoed loudly across our game’s elite battlegrounds – “We are not dinosaurs and we are definitely not extinct.”

The performances of West Coast’s Nic Naitunui, North Melbourne’s Todd Goldstein and Melbourne’s Max Gawn brought back memories of days gone by when ruckmen were respected and their contribution to the game considered invaluable.

Ruckmen won as many Brownlow medals as medium-sized, dime-a-dozen midfielders throughout the 1970s, 80s and early 90s.

Len Thompson, Gary Dempsey, Graeme Moss, Graham Teasdale, Peter Moore (twice), Barry Round, Jim Stynes and Scott Wynd all won the prestigious medal during that time. They were all worthy winners, performing a specialist role within their teams that not only took courage but also the ability to absorb the tremendous amount of physical punishment that came with the job.

Remember, in those days there was no restrictive outer circle to limit the violence of their clashes. If he wanted, a ruckman could have a 20-metre run up and hit the centre bounce at top pace. The contests were spectacular. But for all of that, ruckmen were still durable, with many of them going on to play over 300 games.

The awe in which the giants of our favourite sport were held was summed up in a cartoon that appeared in one of the Melbourne newspapers in the late 80s. It was included in a preview to an Essendon versus West Coast game and featured the opposing ruckmen, Simon Madden and Alex Ishchenko.

Both were drawn as supermen, with massively barrelled chests and billowing capes. Speech bubble’s above the pair carried the masculine challenges, “I’m waiting, Madden,” and, “I’m ready Ishchenko.”


It was a great cartoon and I remember cutting it out. It’s probably still in a cupboard somewhere at my parents’ house.

But that was a long time ago and the respect that ruckmen used to demand from those who followed or reported on our game has become so diminished that many have even questioned the worth of having a ruckman in the first place.

Popular opinion among some circles is that they are overrated at best!

But oh how the disbelievers have been silenced this week.

It started earlier in the year of course, with everybody recognising just how important Shane Mumford was to the developing Greater Western Sydney team. As well as providing a physical presence he also gave his young midfielders a better-than-even chance at getting first use of the ball at stoppages.

His absence on the weekend proved fatal, with the Giants putting up little resistance against a North Melbourne rucking onslaught led by Goldstein. The Big Roo ran riot, getting his hand to not only a record number of hitouts, but a record number of hitouts to advantage as well.

A day earlier Naitanui put on a rucking display for the ages. Tapping the ball to all points of the compass with deadly accuracy, the big Eagle gave his small men an armchair ride. It was pure artwork. That he was up against Richmond’s Ivan Maric, who is no slouch in the ruck himself, made Naitanui’s performance even more admirable.


Nic Nat doesn’t take marks like a traditional ruckman would, but so what? When he delivers dominant performances such as the one against the Tigers last week his value is instantly obvious.

Someone who did take marks though, and contested ones at that was Gawn.

The dominant Demon was instrumental in getting Melbourne off to a good start against Geelong last Sunday and if it wasn’t for his efforts, especially in the first half, the match result may have been different.

At 208 centimetres tall and weighing in at 111 kilograms, Gawn is a monster of a man. If he can continue to affect games the way he did against Geelong last week, he will be of immeasurable value to Melbourne.

So the ruckman is not dead after all. Yes, they often nullify each other at ball ups, and the opposition can shark their hitouts, but you are still better off with one than without. This week proves that big men can still have a profound influence on modern football.