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

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By Ryan Buckland, 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.

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    The Crowd Says (32)

    • Roar Rookie

      April 5th 2017 @ 7:49am
      Seano said | April 5th 2017 @ 7:49am | ! Report

      Beautifuly written as always however I went to the gabba on Saturday night and let me tell you everyone wearing red and black wished we had a ruckman. When the lions came back hard in the third we had no answer, we couldn’t get our hands on the footy. Mackernan is a trier but that’s it. Not really AFL standard. Stef Martin is in the top 5 rucks in the comp and he took us to the cleaners! Luckily we had a much better side in the mids and forwards because it would have been a loss otherwise. Big Stef did the same thing to the suns the week before the saints should be very wary. The cats used there method because they don’t have anyone worth putting in the ruck, good luck trying that rubbish with Gawn this week.

      • Roar Guru

        April 5th 2017 @ 9:41am
        JamesH said | April 5th 2017 @ 9:41am | ! Report

        I think that has more to do with Stef’s skills as a midfielder, not his rucking ability. McEvoy beat McKernan in hitouts in round 1 too but McKernan beat him in general play. I’m not sure that adding Leuey or Belly will dramatically increase the number of clearances we win because neither of them will give us much when the ball hits the deck.

        Martin’s value as a ruckman will be highlighted this year because he isn’t just a lumbering big man. He can do what Rory Sloane did in that GIF above, but still have an actual chance of winning the ruck duel too. I suspect we’ll see teams gravitate to that kind of ruckman while this rule is in place – sacrificing a little bit of height for mobility and footy-winning smarts.

        • Roar Rookie

          April 5th 2017 @ 10:41am
          Seano said | April 5th 2017 @ 10:41am | ! Report

          I think round 1 is more to do with Shaun’s absolute dedication to be the fittest person in the AFL, he tries so hard and in round 1 he is the fittest person out there but as the season progresses every one else gets more match fit and catches up. He tries hard but there just isn’t a spot for him. Leuey is back this week, i think it will make a massive difference. Players like Stef are so rare, i agree with your comment about his skills, he is a big 198cm where as Shaun is a small lumbering 198cm. We need big or mobile, we don’t have mobile on the list so big it will have to be for 2017. You are probably right about where teams will go but i would take a Mummy or Goldy in a heart beat if they were available and they don’t fit the new mould. I have said previously i would take Kruzer but i take that back now, he is cooked.

    • April 5th 2017 @ 8:13am
      Bob said | April 5th 2017 @ 8:13am | ! Report

      A good ruckman is more valuable now than ever. If Nic Nat was playing he would be dominant. The ability to create hitouts to advantage will generate more clearances for teams with a quality ruck. If you don’t have one why not just go in with an extra mid

      • April 5th 2017 @ 10:37am
        Slane said | April 5th 2017 @ 10:37am | ! Report

        If a ruckman gets 50 hitouts in a game but only 20 are hitouts to advantage, what are the other 30 hitouts doing? Going to the opposition, creating another ruck contest or relying on your own midfielders to win a 50-50. Unless a ruckman is going at at least 50% hitouts to advantage they aren’t really adding anything to the game. Of course taking a few marks around the ground or roving their own hitout changes that whole dynamic.

        • Roar Rookie

          April 5th 2017 @ 11:21am
          BillyW said | April 5th 2017 @ 11:21am | ! Report

          Yeh sorry Slane 50% HTA is a pipe dream mate……….

          • April 5th 2017 @ 12:14pm
            Slane said | April 5th 2017 @ 12:14pm | ! Report

            I agree 100%, BillyW. That’s why I think ruckmen are over-rated. Now when we say Gawn, Martin, Grundy or Nic Nat are ‘good’ ruckman we really mean they can play a little bit like a midfielder when they have to.

            • Roar Rookie

              April 5th 2017 @ 1:29pm
              BillyW said | April 5th 2017 @ 1:29pm | ! Report

              So as a coach with no ruckmen going at 50%HTA (because there isn’t any) what do you do at stoppages Slane?
              Where do you rate clearances?

              Ruckmen and ruck contests are an important part of our game- and how well you go can influence results….sometimes under estimated and sometimes over an important part of the game none the less!

              • April 5th 2017 @ 2:55pm
                Slane said | April 5th 2017 @ 2:55pm | ! Report

                Clearances that hit a teammate are a net positive result, but clearances that hit an opposition are a net negative. How much influence does a ruckman have on where the teammate he palmed the ball down to is going to kick the ball?

                As far as I’m concerned all any team needs out of a ruckman is to provide a contest at the ball up(minimize the opposition ruck’s hitout to advantage), take a few ‘chop out’ marks coming out of defense and to be a target while resting forward. As we discussed earlier, even the best ruckmen in the AFL are providing little more than a 50-50 contest at a stoppage. The majority of their hitouts will go to nobody or straight to the opposition.

            • Columnist

              April 5th 2017 @ 6:00pm
              Ronan O'Connell said | April 5th 2017 @ 6:00pm | ! Report

              “I think ruckmen are over-rated”

              Gawn, Naitanui and Goldstein were three of the most valuable players in the AFL last season.

              A gun ruckman remains one of the most precious commodities in the game.

              I agree, though, that if your best ruckman is a lumbering log then you’re better off considering a smaller alternative who would add much more value around the ground.

              • Roar Guru

                April 5th 2017 @ 6:13pm
                Cat said | April 5th 2017 @ 6:13pm | ! Report

                So precious that those you named have a combined total 0 flags between them. I think a decent ruck is useful but a superstar ruck won’t actually take a team much further than an average one would.

              • April 5th 2017 @ 6:45pm
                Slane said | April 5th 2017 @ 6:45pm | ! Report

                Cat has hit the nail on the head with her comment.

              • Roar Guru

                April 5th 2017 @ 7:08pm
                Dalgety Carrington said | April 5th 2017 @ 7:08pm | ! Report

                The “0 flags” argument doesn’t mean much, you could say the same about Martin, Fyfe and Dangerfield.

              • April 5th 2017 @ 7:27pm
                Slane said | April 5th 2017 @ 7:27pm | ! Report

                Not the same at all, DC. All premiership teams have elite midfielders. Not all premiership teams have elite ruckmen.

              • Roar Guru

                April 5th 2017 @ 7:36pm
                Cat said | April 5th 2017 @ 7:36pm | ! Report

                Yes but when it comes to midfielders theres like 10 players that rotate through there in a game. Stars rucks generally go solo for the majority of the game. Plus they get special rules just for them.

              • Roar Guru

                April 5th 2017 @ 9:20pm
                Dalgety Carrington said | April 5th 2017 @ 9:20pm | ! Report

                They do tend to go solo a bit these days, but I see them more as part of the midfield, so it’s about the mix and chemistry the have with the rest of them.

                What makes that rule any special than any other rule? While it was brought in with ruckmen in mind, it’s a rule around a particular kind of contest, not unlike taking a ride on someone in a marking contest, which in any other contest would be a push in the back.

              • Roar Guru

                April 5th 2017 @ 10:00pm
                Cat said | April 5th 2017 @ 10:00pm | ! Report

                Are forwards guaranteed one on one contests? Nope. How about Midfielders? Nope. Only Ruckman need special rules so they can do it all by themselves.

    • April 5th 2017 @ 9:18am
      Arky said | April 5th 2017 @ 9:18am | ! Report

      Sharking a dominant ruckman’s taps has been going on for decades. As a North Melbourne fan, as our club has had a LOT of dominant ruckman over the decades, I’ve seen it all the time. It’s not new.

      Third man up had to go because teams were using their crap ruckman to just hold our dominant ruckman away from the ball while the third man got an unimpeded run at it.

      Teams with good ruckmen learn how to deal with sharking tactics. Geelong could get away with it this week because Preuss is in literally his 2nd game of AFL footy and may have never seen it before. Goldstein would have made them pay for it.

      As for the death of the 2nd ruck position, well, that’s been going on for a while. Endurance running has become the #1 AFL attribute, teams can’t afford to carry unathletic big men on the bench and reduce the number of midfielders to rotate through. #1 rucks have to be endurance machines, spelled for 5 minutes a quarter by a moonlighting tall forward. Nothing to do with the end of the 3rd man up rule.

      • Roar Rookie

        April 5th 2017 @ 10:12am
        BillyW said | April 5th 2017 @ 10:12am | ! Report

        Nailed it Arky….the ruck contest is not going any where!
        Even if there’s only enough 200cm modern ruck types for half the clubs the other other will need a big boy to try and counter.

    • Roar Rookie

      April 5th 2017 @ 10:03am
      BillyW said | April 5th 2017 @ 10:03am | ! Report

      Interesting, although a little contradictory going from this “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.” to this “The AFL ruck contest is dead, long live the AFL ruck contest.”
      I agree with the first statement more than the second however. And I’ll comment on each point you raised with my own thoughts:
      Geelongs “tactical concession” ploy may work from time to time and in this particular case it benefited from the opposition having an inexperienced ruckmen. More often than not I would expect the opposition ruck to either tap the ball away from the congestion and into the path of his midfielder or simply grab the ball and kick it long down the line….yes I know they can get pinged HTB easily when doing this but I would anticipate a relaxing of that rule in these circumstances. Either way I can’t see it becoming a mainstream tactic as I think it will fail more often than not.
      Using midfielders the ilk of Sloane for centre bounces…, just no…..Poor old Don must have had his heart in his mouth watching that……imagine if he’d knocked knees or got one in the ribs or worse…..leave it for the big boys!
      The next scenario requires ruckmen to just be smarter (a big ask I know!) it’s tough if you get there late and don’t hear the call but they need to know who they are up against.
      None of those trends are real surprising. Where a third man up was stealing 1st ruck taps before now they are going to their rightful home.
      I agree the days of 2 dedicated ruckmen are gone, although has been declining for a few years now anyway. Sides will look to have 1 ruckmen backed up by a capable key position player.
      I like the rule, I think the ruckmen do to and I think the clubs with a Gun ruckmen will also…..the old saying is as the game gets towards the end the talls don’t get shorter but to survive in the game they will definitely need to get smarter!

    • April 5th 2017 @ 10:28am
      Brendon the 1st said | April 5th 2017 @ 10:28am | ! Report

      A good ruckman is gold, just ask Boak, Ebert and Wines what difference a good ruckman makes.

      Coaches whinge and moan, but there’s no way they’re going into the game without a designated big man unless they really have to.
      The Geelong “tactical concession” that is mentioned won’t come off a lot once the players get their heads around the nomination rule, I’d say the big fellas will be coached to nominate and go at the ball regardless of who is nominated from the other team.

      The ball in the North game could easily have been cleared and sent down the other end for a North win, it would be excessively dangerous for a team to use this tactic a lot.

    • April 5th 2017 @ 11:58am
      Craig Delaney said | April 5th 2017 @ 11:58am | ! Report

      It has always been possible to concede the hit out. It was not a good tactic in the days when players stuck to their position and their man. The number of players around the stoppage was fewer, so a successful tap would often lead to a successful clearance. The same holds true in the centre bounce today because of the exclusion of players by the square. Sloane’s clearance was lucky rather than inevitable. The big man in the centre is still the asset he always was, providing he and the mids are good enough. As we know, the stats tell us that a good set of mids well coached will shark a tap against lesser mids. Or at least nullify it and so setting up a ball-up in a now more congested contest.

      Sloane’s tap and clearance makes more sense at stoppages. Here the build of a third man up type might work better than the big man. Especially if he’s got a good jump on him. Natanui can rove his own ruck, and that’s what I’d be looking for, even in smaller players. If my mids were on top and of the calibre of Selwood and Danger I’d certainly not nominate on accasion. That could be countered by foreseeing the tactic and waiting for the other team to nominate first. The umpires have not been given a clear power to force nomination or a way to penalise it. I guess the game would come to a halt, and in the end neither team would want that. Nor would the paying fans and, after the media had dined out on the controversy, nor would they. Not good for ratings and other things to have no play at all!! Yes, this rule is getting us to ridiculous scenarios.

      I always thought the nomination should come before the start of the game, with two designated ruckmen, who could be replaced with other designated rucks only if one or both were off the ground. No one else could go up.

      Even so, third man up should still be allowed, and tactics would be developed to counter that. The taller player, or the one who can leap higher, still has the advantage when the ball is descending from a great height.