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The ruck is a tactical battleground: How is your team approaching it?

Nic Naitanui: one of the competition's best ruckmen. (Photo by Brett Hemmings/AFL Media/Getty Images)
Expert
30th May, 2018
51
3848 Reads

As I predicted last year, the ruck contest has become a tactical flash point in today’s AFL. And every team has its own little wrinkle at the position.

The abolition of the third man up rule in the 2016 offseason was destined to have an impact on the way teams approached the ruck. I wrote about the change when it occurred, and came back to the issue after two rounds of the 2017 season proclaiming the death of rucking as we knew it.

So the phrase ‘tactical ruck concession’ (or TRC for short) didn’t catch on as one may have hoped, but the predicted revolution in the way players and coaches would approach stoppages has come to pass.

As with any innovation, it has not necessarily gone as the designer of said innovation may have planned – or hoped. Outlawing the third man up was ostensibly a response to the AFL’s concern that ‘ruckman’ was dying as a position. This was a somewhat overblown concern at the time. Through almost one and a half seasons of operation under the new rule, not a great deal has changed.

We know this because thanks to another AFL innovation, we the public have the most sound handle on the quantitative side of ruck play we’ve ever had. AFL Stats Pro, a player statistics platform, has opened up a trove of new information about the quantitative performance of every current player in the AFL (so long as you can work out how to ask the platform the right questions).

Using some information obtained from the platform, we can examine how each team in the competition is attacking the ruck position as revealed by their preferences over the first ten rounds of the AFL season. We cannot, sadly, compare this to past years due to the limitations of the platform. But for now, this proves to be a revealing activity.

There are some broad trends that seem to carry across teams, but there are plenty of difference at the team level too.

Carrying the load
So far in 2018, there has been an average of 88 ruck contests per game – 22 per quarter, or one every roughly 90 seconds. Almost every team has been within one standard deviation of that average, with three exceptions: Greater Western Sydney (94 contests), St Kilda (78 contests) and Richmond (77 contests).

Based on their respective performances this season, there is no obvious correlation between the number of ruck contests and success.

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But this does give us some additional insight into the game plan of Richmond (and suggests St Kilda might be going for it too). We have long suspected the Tigers like to keep the ball in play as a way of both attacking and defending, preferring to improvise in the scramble than work within the structural bounds of stoppage football.

St Kilda have also exhibited this so far in 2018, albeit without the all-time defender that thrives in chaos and the attacking weapons to convert territory and possession to scores. The idea is fundamentally the same; the Saints want to create and quickly pounce on turnovers since Alan Richardson took over.

The Giants are an interesting outlier, having the most ruck contests (and therefore stoppages) per game in the league despite lacking a dominant ruckman. And it is perhaps one of the club’s biggest weaknesses in 2018: they are ranked 13th in stoppage scoring differential, after being one of the best stoppage scoring teams in the league in the past two years. GWS has a patchwork ruck unit this season which cannot be helping matters.

GWS is one of four teams that have not relied on a sole ruckman to do three-quarters of their team’s ruck work over the course of a season. The others are Port Adelaide, the West Coast Eagles, and the Western Bulldogs.

Gold Coast’s Jarrod Witts has carried the heaviest burden of all ruckmen in the league, contesting 91 per cent of the Suns’ ruck contests in 2018. Looking at raw ruck contests, Melbourne’s Max Gawn is the number one ruck contester in the competition on 75.7 contests, or around one more than Witts (the difference being Melbourne has been involved in 92 contests per game this year compared to 82 by Gold Coast).

Eight ruckmen have taken to 70 ruck contests or more per game, although two of them have been in and out of their respective teams (Rhys Stanley and Dawson Simpson). The workhorses of the league have been: Gawn (75.7 contests per game), Callum Sinclair (75), Witts (74.6), Sam Jacobs (74.4), Stefan Martin (70.8) and Todd Goldstein (70.4).

By contrast, the primary ruckmen at West Coast and the Western Bulldogs – Nic Naitanui and Tim English respectively – have taken just 49.1 contests and 46.6 ruck contests per game. That is a significant difference between the eight names above, and means the two teams have relied on a secondary ruckman significantly more often than other teams.

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For the Eagles, it has been a sole secondary ruckmen: Scott Lycett (44.5 contests per game). They have been the only team to regularly play a two-prong ruck set up, and have only had one non-ruckman take ruck contests this year: Jack Darling, who in line with the rest of his season has won both of the ruck battles he fought.

The Dogs are a different beast altogether.

Tim English acted as the primary ruckman in the first six rounds of the season, but with very different structures around him in almost every game. In Round 1, the Dogs had Jordan Roughead and Jackson Trengove take 31 ruck contests each to English’s 39 contests. English took a greater share over time, as Beveridge threw Marcus Bontempelli (11 contests in Round 3), Josh Dunkley (20 contests in Round 4) and Tom Boyd (19 contests in Round 5 and 27 in Round 6) as his partner.

Boyd became the dominant ruckman in Round 7 (41 contests, compared to 31 for English and 29 for Dunkley), and English was dropped in Round 8 (with Boyd partnering with Dunkley). Then, in Round 9, Roughead returned to the team as the lone partner to Boyd.

Finally, in Round 10, Roughead was the primary ruckman as Boyd played more time in the forward line, and Trengove took a handful of contests.

What a whirlwind. And that’s just one area of the Bulldogs’ game – fans in the know have suggested Beveridge has been flippant with his team’s structures across the ground.

Ruck effectiveness
Unfortunately, the Dogs are getting little out of the position this season.

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They have generated a hit-out to advantage on just 5.5 per cent of ruck contests this season, the lowest mark in the league. What’s more, they aren’t getting much out of their ruck group by way of work around the ground.

A ruckman’s primary responsibility is to generate a positive outcome from a stoppage. Under the new ruck rules, the nominated ruckman is the only player on the field who can affect a ruck contest until the ball hits the ground. So it holds that to be at their most influential in most situations a nominated ruckman should be generating hit-outs to advantage (which Champion Data defines as a hit out which goes to the intended teammate). That much of the stoppage is in the ruckman’s direct control. The average rate of hit-out to advantage this season is 12.3 per cent; for a team’s leading ruckman this rate is 14.6 per cent.

The league’s leading ruck unit this year has been Fremantle – driven by Aaron Sandilands – whose unit has generated a hit out to advantage from 23 per cent of ruck contests. This is a hair ahead of Melbourne (Gawn) on 22.9 per cent, but a full 34 per cent better than Collingwood (Brodie Grundy) in third.

At the bottom end of the table are the Dogs, Port Adelaide (9.5%), Geelong (9.5%) and Port Adelaide (9.8%). Unsurprisingly, these teams have had limited continuity at the position in 2018. For example, Paddy Ryder has a hit out to advantage rate of 13.3 per cent but he’s only taken 28 per cent of Port Adelaide’s ruck contests.

But this isn’t all a ruckman can do of course – they can be multidimensional. As a way of measuring this, I’ve taken three decidedly non-ruck statistical categories (ground ball gets, uncontested marks and defensive half pressure acts) and developed a standardised measure of how much or little of this additional work a team’s ruck unit does on average (when compared to the other ruck units). If you’d like a further explanation please advise, but trust me it’s boring as hell.

Plotting this on a matrix reveals there are some ruckmen units who excel at both primary ruck duties and in doing extra work across the ground.

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We have one complete unicorn: Collingwood, driven by Brodie Grundy, who is well above average at producing hit-outs to advantage, but also generates plenty of extra work for his team in the form of ground-ball gets and defensive half-pressure acts.

Brisbane’s unit, powered by Stefan Martin, does well in both categories too but not to the same extent at the Pies.

Below, these two units on the matrix are Richmond (Toby Nankervis) and Sydney (Callum Sinclair), who are below average in generating hit-outs to advantage but who do plenty of extra work around the ground. Nankervis himself brings plenty of defensive support, where Sinclair is more useful in attack.

Fremantle (Sandilands) and Melbourne (Gawn) are the clear standouts in hit-outs to advantage but are light on in terms of extra work. Then there are the units which sit to the bottom left-hand side of the matrix, who haven’t done much on either measure.

There’s often a debate that plays out among fans as to whether a ruckman should be focussed solely on the job of powering their team through stoppages or be contributing moreso in non-ruck ways. Collingwood, Brisbane, Richmond and Sydney suggest both are possible.

Odds and ends
There is not, however, a straight line to ruck dominance and scoring, at least by way of converting taps in the ruck to immediate scoring opportunities. Stats Pro has a measure called “score launches”, which indicates how many times a player’s creation of a possession chain (a hit out, intercept or kick in) results in a score.

This isn’t 100 per cent attributable to ruck work, because players who have played in the ruck will have also generated intercepts or been responsible for kick in duties, but it’s a useful proxy. Melbourne’s unit again leads the way, with 3.3 score launches from their ruck unit per game. Brisbane isn’t far behind, on 3.2, but as a share of their total scores that is significantly more than league average (15.9%, versus 7.8%).

At the bottom – again – are the Dogs, on 2.6 per cent. Other notable teams are Richmond (1.9 launches per game, or 6.6% of their total) and West Coast (2.2 launches per game, or 8.5% of their total) – the Tigers because it again reinforces their chaos preference, and the Eagles because it is a little counterintuitive.

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Finally, a word on the best non-ruck ruckmen in the competition. As far as midfielders go (players averaging 20 possessions or more per game), there is only one, and it’s not premiership ruckman Shaun Grigg. No, it’s two time Brownlow medallist Nat Fyfe.

The Fremantle captain has participated in 38 ruck contests so far in 2018, winning 42 per cent of them with a hit out, and generating a hit-out to advantage 15.8 per cent of the time. Those are full-time ruckman levels, albeit with a small sample size as far as more regular ruckmen go.

The rest of the midfield-ruckman class? They’ve won 15.2 per cent of their contests, and generated a hit out to advantage just 2.6 per cent of the time. Indeed, Fyfe’s number of hit outs to advantage (six) is the same as the rest of the midfield-ruckman class (six). This isn’t opponent adjusted of course, but anecdotally, Fyfe has done a decent share of his work against opposition full-time ruckmen. Is there anything he can’t do?

As for forwards who provide regular assistance to their full-time ruckman counterparts, there is another clear standout: North Melbourne’s Ben Brown.

The Coleman medal leader has won 48 per cent of the ruck contests he’s partaken in, about the rate of a full time ruckman, although his advantage rate is much lower (6.9%). The king of generating hit outs to advantage in this group is Levi Casboult: 10.2 per cent of his hitouts put a teammate in a quality position to create a clearance. Port Adelaide’s Charlie Dixon isn’t too far behind, on 9.9 per cent.

Contests Win % HTA %
Levi Casboult 177 38.4% 10.2%
Charlie Dixon 222 41.0% 9.9%
Jarrad Waite 33 30.3% 9.1%
Sam Day 89 37.1% 9.0%
Josh Jenkins 136 31.6% 8.8%
Tom Hawkins 64 29.7% 7.8%
Harry McKay 39 25.6% 7.7%
James Stewart 66 24.2% 7.6%
Jarryd Roughead 82 34.1% 7.3%
Ben Brown 58 48.3% 6.9%
Matthew Taberner 84 34.5% 6.0%
Joe Daniher 50 18.0% 4.0%
Jonathon Patton 222 20.3% 2.7%
Jack Riewoldt 38 7.9% 2.6%
Josh Caddy 32 15.6% 0.0%
Total 1392 31.4% 7.2%
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What’s clear from this analysis is there is no one way to play the ruck position in today’s AFL. Some teams are loading up a workhorse, with varying degrees of success. Others have a unicorn who can provide both superior ruck play and contribute across the ground. Others still are doing whatever it is the Western Bulldogs are doing.

What is also clear is the AFL’s move to abolish the third man up has delivered the league a renewed tactical battleground. And for that, they should be congratulated.