Port Adelaide coach Ken Hinkley says two thoughts never crossed his mind this week.
Traditionally AFL club lists have been made up of players with significantly different heights, weights and playing styles in order to maximise all positions across the ground.
However, in 2019 club lists are beginning to flatten and differentiate from traditional roles in order to create a point of difference. For example, Patrick Cripps – a 195cm bulky midfielder – would historically be better suited as a centre half forward but is arguably the best inside midfielder in today’s modern game.
Despite there still being vast differences for player builds – for example, Western Bulldogs teammates Caleb Daniel at 168 cm and Tim English at 205 cm – the idea that size and weight defines a player’s role has begun to diminish.
However, one position that has had limited change in modern footy is in the ruck. There are many similarities between some of the all-time great ruckmen and the ruckmen today.
Dean Cox was viewed as one of the great ruckmen of the 2000s and has many of the same abilities of the great rucks in today’s game such as Max Gawn. Both these players were able to dominate the ruck contest, as well as make an impact in other areas such as marking contests around the ground.
Although ruckmen have got better in areas such as marking and contested footy, their basic role has remained the same – win the ruck and get the ball to their midfielders to use.
Aaron Sandilands is a perfect example of the role of a ruckman. Well over 210 cm tall, he is still considered a great ruckman in the modern game due to his hit-out ability and – even without any elite ability in other areas of the game – his impact is still felt.
Therefore, when looking back on previous seasons there is a perception that a good ruckman winning the ball out of the ruck directly correlates with team success. But reflecting on the 2019 home and away season, it’s hard to argue that this is still the case.
Looking at the stats, out of the top ten ranked ruckmen this year only three of them will be playing finals. Furthermore, the team with the top ranked hit out winner this season – Jarrod Witts, captain of the Gold Coast Suns – finished last with a dismal three wins.
Instantly, this gives indication that maybe the role of a ruckman is becoming less and less vital for team success.
However, maybe it isn’t the ruckmen that are to be blamed for this issue but the players around them. The All Australian team was announced this week and it is evident that there are two clear standouts when it comes to ruckmen currently in the league – Brodie Grundy and Max Gawn.
Both ruckmen are almost impossible to split but as I have written in an article before, I believe that Grundy’s team success and elite midfield around him has made him the better player.
This year Grundy’s Collingwood Magpies finished in fourth and will play finals, while Gawn’s Melbourne Demons finished the year in 17th after a terribly disappointing season. Both players are still putting up elite numbers, so it is difficult to see why there is such big differences between their team’s success.
My belief is that current teams are heavily investing time into building ruckmen in the hopes that it will bring success, however there is no substantial evidence that says that it will. Thus, making the ruck craft a double-edged sword.
So how can this be solved? We see many clubs are now looking towards less traditional strategies to maximise this area of the game. A perfect example of how this has already worked is the Richmond Tigers’ 2017 premiership year.
In 2016 Richmond used a two-ruckman system with players such as Ivan Maric and Ben Griffiths playing that role throughout the year. That season Richmond finished 13th on the ladder and did not look anything like a premiership team, thus bringing a distinct coaching change the following year.
In 2017, The Tigers recruited out of favour ruckman Toby Nankervis from the Swans and also utilised defender Shawn Grigg as the second ruck option. There was no doubting that Nankervis had some talent at the time, but he did not have as much of an impact as the elite ruckmen in Gawn and Grundy.
Shawn Grigg on the other hand showed no experience in the ruck and at 190 cm was significantly disadvantaged in height. But, if Grigg was able to break even and just create the contest, the Tigers were heavily advantaged.
Especially in the forward half, Grigg’s ruck work was significant as it meant that the team gained an extra number at the contest and was able to exploit this in the slingshot style of play. This added a variable style to their play as they could win the ruck battle in the middle with Nankervis or create a contest mismatch with Grigg in the ruck.
For a more modern example, the Sydney Swans’ 2019 season is an interesting case. Having struggled without a ruckman for most of the year – due to injuries to Callum Sinclair and Sam Naismith – the Swans opted for playing a non-traditional ruckman for the last six rounds of the year.
As seen by the results, this was not successful with the Swans finishing 15th on the ladder and missing the finals for the first time since 2009. Once again, adding confusion to the perception that ruckmen lead to team success.
There is a strong case that the Swans may have won some of those later games had they been playing a ruckman, specifically the games against Fremantle and Essendon. But their injury woes forced them to be creative when coming up with a game plan in the second half of the year.
Despite this tactic not always working for the Swans, their Round 22 encounter against Max Gawn’s Melbourne Demons is a prime example of how this tactic could work in the future.
On paper, the Swans should have been dominated through the middle but as the numbers show, they successfully managed to break even. This was mostly due to Allir Allir’s first quarter in the ruck where he was not only able to compete in the middle but dominate in other areas across the ground such as contested ball. From there, the Demons looked shocked and were just not able to catch up, eventually going down by 53 points.
There is no doubt that Allir is an exceptional athlete but is far from being an elite ruckman when compared to Max Gawn. Yet on this day, he was able to compete and lead to his team’s success.
Although other Swans were pivotal to the team’s success on the day – for example, Luke Parker’s tacking ability and Ollie Florent’s transition ball on the wing – I personally believe that Allir Allir was the player that allowed the blowout of the Demon’s midfield.
Modern footy is a constantly changing game which teams and coaches must adjust to. Due to this some teams have been open to change, and hopefully in the future teams will begin to experiment more with the role of a ruckman in the hopes of creating a point of difference.
As the 2019 finals series is about to begin next week it will be interesting to see if ruckmen will play a part in their team’s success, or if – similar to the Tigers in 2017 – a point of difference in the ruck will lead to success across the ground.