Ahh, the great ruck debate.
I don’t even know if it’s a real thing, but let’s roll with it for the sake of today’s analysis.
For something a little different, let me start off by answering the question up front.
No. Ruckmen are not the most important players in Aussie rules.
Considering it’s a team sport, I honestly don’t think you really can pinpoint one position that is most important.
However, the way a side can be transformed with an elite ruckman is undervalued.
And what about those sides who are in a premiership window but are without a strong ruckman? Is that the difference between glory and defeat?
The discussion that surrounds the game’s big men is fascinating and it’s one I want to unpack.
Let’s start with the best.
Max Gawn and Todd Goldstein are both having sensational seasons and are easily the best rucks in the competition at the moment.
They are almost certainly leading the way in their club’s best and fairest counts so far and both men have been in Brownlow discussions at some point so far this season as well.
What makes both Gawn and Goldstein so dangerous is their influence around the ground and in the general play, as well as in the ruck contests.
Coming into Round 9, Todd Goldstein is the #1 clearance player in the comp. He is ahead of Carlton star Patrick Cripps and Collingwood’s Taylor Adams. Half the time he’s tapping to his own advantage and the other times he’s just grabbing the ball straight out of the contest.
As for Max Gawn, he’s just about unstoppable in the air and around the ground and has really been Melbourne’s key playmaker so far this season.
While these men play in sides sitting 14th and 15th on the ladder (going into Round 9), they are undoubtedly in their teams’ top three most important players, if not #1.
They create opportunities and they are reliable; consistently performing week in and week out.
You have to wonder how things would look if their teams as a whole were playing better football. Or how they’d look in side that are hovering closer around that premiership window, but we’ll get to that a bit later.
When speaking about the elite ruckmen in the competition, there is often a third man that is part of the Gawn and Goldstein conversation.
It’s Collingwood’s Brodie Grundy, who has had a good year but hasn’t managed to reach those lofty standards we have come to expect of him.
Going into Round 9, he is leading the competition hitouts and averaging 15 touches a game.
That looks good on paper and don’t get me wrong, it is. But in the flesh it just isn’t “wow”. There’s nothing overly special about it. We have come to expect much more from the Collingwood ruckman, who is known for dominating games week in and week out.
And there’s no doubt it’s having an impact on Collingwood as well. With key players missing from the Pies’ line up, he isn’t quite stepping up the way the Pies really need him to. It seems like a lot of pressure to put on a player but we know what his capable of and it’s a lot more than what we are getting at the moment.
Obviously some of the game’s best ruckmen have the ability to significantly impact their sides over the course of the season; be it keeping them competitive, providing some positivity or really being the difference between a side being good and great.
But what about a ruckman’s ability to turn a game on its head in just a matter of minutes?
Does that come down to them being a good ruckman, or just being a damn good player?
Probably a bit a both.
Let’s take a look at West Coast’s Nic Natinui.
Against Geelong last Saturday night, he was the one who completely turned the game around in West Coast’s favour.
And miraculously, he only needed ten touches over a game of football to make a difference and to be the difference.
His ten touches were combined with 34 hitouts, four clearances, three tackles and seven insides 50s to produce one of the best quarters of any player this season.
That’s the thing about ruckmen: they only need a little bit of time and space to have an enormous impact… with this flawless tap the perfect example.
— 7AFL (@7AFL) August 1, 2020
So we know what one brilliant ruckman can do, but what about a couple combined?
Now I’m not sure if I would call Rowan Marshall and Paddy Ryder and “elite ruck duo” but I would certainly call them lethal and credit their partnership as a big part of St Kilda’s 2020 success.
I have said previously that I was sceptical about St Kilda’s play for Paddy Ryder at the end of 2019, but since the 32-year-old has come across from Port Adelaide and combined with Marshall, it has proved a winning combo.
They compliment each other well, with each player alternating between main ruck duties and a backup, with a bit of freedom to roam free around the ground and impact the play where possible.
But what about when the ruck stocks just don’t work in your favour?
It’s all well and good to talk up the importance of quality ruckmen in our game by throwing around examples of elite players and power combos, but the real proof of their value is with the teams who are without.
Geelong is a prime example of a side that has been floating around the premiership window for some time now, but have failed to find their ruckman… a position many believe could be the missing premiership piece.
They tried to lure Todd Goldstein across to the Cattery at the end of 2019 but failed. Imagine the difference he could’ve made.
Instead, Geelong ruckman Darcy Fort is sitting 19th (at the end of Round 9) in the competition for total hitouts with 106 from five games. The club’s next best is Esava Ratugolea (54 hitouts) with the pair combining for a total 160 hitouts for the season.
The top eight-ranked ruckman in the competition have all had more than that on their own.
It’s not that Geelong are playing badly without a dominant ruckman, but it’s how much better they could be with one.
Just to re-iterate: Ruckmen aren’t the most important players in the competition.
But they may very well be the most influential and they could even be the difference.