With just on two months to go before the start of the 2019 AFL season, coaches and players alike are coming to terms with the new rules, and interpretations foisted upon them in another knee-jerk reaction to a few poor games of footy.
Like it or not, we have a situation where, over the first four or five rounds, we could see whichever team is able to adapt best to the changes set up their entire season with a string of wins. A master coach, using a bold strategy to capitalise on the new kick-in rule (you know, the one where you don’t have to kick it to yourself after a behind is scored – you can just take off from the goal square) could see his team clear the defence before it has a chance to get set. Before you know it, the ball could be on the wing and you’ve got forwards in one-on-ones leading into space. The game should move faster than ever from defence to attack, and coaches will be ready. Or they should be, at least.
You’d have to think that the Dockers with Nathan Wilson, the Hawks with James Sicily, and the Tigers with Jayden Short would all be thinking that they’ve got the right weapons in place to make the most of any errant kick at goal. Master coaches like Clarkson, Hardwick and Lyon would be salivating at new strategies to play with, and the “play on from the goal square” rule makes accuracy when having a flying shot at goal just that little more important, doesn’t it? Take note, Dylan Shiel.
But the one rule change that is most intriguing to me at the moment is the one that allows a ruckman to take the ball from a stoppage and not automatically be pinged for holding the ball if he doesn’t dispose of it. The last few years have really seen the rucks make a comeback, and this season, they could take it to another level.
When the AFL got rid of the third man up rule, ruckmen rejoiced. Whilst the nomination process seems a little convoluted at times, the results have seen both Brodie Grundy and Max Gawn top 1000 hit outs in a season. Only one other bloke has done that since stats have been kept – Todd Goldstein in 2015. Even the great Gary Dempsey could only manage 952 in his best season. Two players in a season topping the 1K mark, with man-mountain Jarrod Witts third with 850+ gives an indication that ruckmen are revelling in their new-found importance in the modern game.
Remember when they were labelled dinosaurs? It wasn’t too long ago.
The new rule (which is basically reverting to the way it used to be before someone got upset that rucks were taking it out of the air too often) means that rucks can take the ball cleanly and get tackled without having a free kick paid against them should they fail to get a kick or handball away. The umpires, at the instruction of the AFL, have been red-hot on penalising the big men for doing this exact thing in years prior, but with the change in rules, I fully expect to see the big men not only getting a heap of taps, but a heap of individual clearances as well.
Brodie Grundy sat right at 21st in the league for average clearances at 5.3 per game in 2018 – the highest placed non-midfielder. Stefan Martin wasn’t far behind, with 4.9 (33rd), and believe it or not, Tom Hickey was the third highest rated ruckman for average clearances per game, with 4.5 (equal 41st).
With the ability to take the ball cleanly out of the ruck, and without fear of being penalised, we could expect these men to add to their impressive clearance stats in 2019, to the point where we could start to see ruckmen sitting comfortably in the top ten for clearances for the year.
As you’d expect, last season’s top clearance players were all midfielders. Tom Mitchell, Patrick Cripps, Jarryd Lyons, Jack Viney and Lachie Neale rounded out the top five. If Brodie Grundy decided to take it out of the ruck more often, and successfully shot out a handball or a kick a couple of times per game, he’d be right up with the leaders in clearances. Hell, with Mitchell sidelined, Grundy could very well be the number one clearance player in the league if he is able to work this new rule to his advantage. The AFL has really put the ball in the big men’s court with the second ruck rule change to their advantage in as many tries.
But there is another effect of this rule that has hardly been spoken about, and it impacts the game plans we saw employed over the past couple of years by clubs who went on to big things.
Shaun Grigg has been the back-up ruckman to Toby Nankervis in the powerful Richmond outfit for the past two seasons. Whilst Nank has taken his turn on the bench, Grigg has done all he can to hold the ruck-fort, but he is never going to be able to out-muscle some of the big dogs. We’ve watched at times as he hasn’t even bothered to contest against the Gawns and Grundys of the AFL world, relying on the hard work of his midfielders to win the ball from the tap, and positioning himself to tackle if his direct opponent opted to take the footy cleanly. The thing is, he knew his opponent had to tap the ball. If his opponent opted to take it out of the ruck, the rules as they were favoured Grigg. He knew that a free kick would likely come his way if he was able to lay an immediate tackle. Having him contest (or not contest) at stoppages wasn’t really a liability because the true ruckman’s options were limited.
But that’s not the case anymore.
This rule change creates an interesting dilemma for Damien Hardwick. Does he persist with his undersized second ruckman despite the probability that men much larger will likely be able to use their bulk to take clean possession and win the clearance? Does he wear it, and trade-off for more mobility once the ball hits the deck? Does he hope that some umpires will still penalise the ruckmen if they are deemed to have enough time to dispose of the ball once they do take possession, and are caught?
Or does Hardwick bite the bullet and play both Nankervis and Ivan Soldo to avoid being exposed when Nank has to take a seat? If so, how does that impact the Richmond game plan that drove them to a premiership and had them sitting atop the ladder for the majority of 2018? For the record, Grigg averaged 1.1 hit outs per game in 2018.
The Western Bulldogs are another interesting case. They’ve operated without a genuine, big-bodied ruckman for a while now. Tom Boyd averaged 17 hit outs per contest in 2018 but played just 12 games. Jordan Roughead has wandered off to Collingwood and taken his 12.3 taps per game with him, and then there’s Tim English with 13.7.
With Boyd struggling for the past two years, and English (who I think will be fantastic eventually) looking like a stick-figure, the Dogs are ripe for the picking at stoppages. How do they combat the likes of Gawn, Grundy, Martin and even Goldstein? Those blokes could have their way at stoppages now, without fear of being pinged.
Geelong are an interesting case study. Rhys Stanley is probably not the answer to any of the Cats’ long term ruck questions, but with Zac Smith spending most of 2018 in the seconds, and Esava Ratugolea injured, they had to use him as their primary tap man. Ryan Abbott was thrown in for a few games as well, but the Cats’ midfield was forced more often than not to have to read the tap of the opposition ruckman. Hardly the way to win a heap of clearances.
It puts the Cats in a bit of a bind. Stanley really should be used as a back-up ruck, but here he is as their number one option. He’s mobile, but lacks the power to match it with the monsters body-to-body. Matched up against Sam Jacobs last season, Stanley gave up 39 hitouts to big Sauce. The Crows ruck also had six clearances – now, factor in a few times he opts to take it out of the ruck… and things could have been messy.
So what do the Cats do? They opted for a more mobile ruck option when the rules suited that style. With the changes, it’s the power-rucks that seem to be ready to reap the rewards. I’d be hoping Ratugolea can start taking a bit of the heavy load sooner rather than later. He is a big body with a huge leap, and could not just hold his own, but get some solid wins around the ground with his big frame. Ryan Abbott needs to come on quickly, and he showed some really good signs in 2018. Dangerfield, Selwood and Ablett – as great as they are – still need a ruckman that can get them first use. Otherwise, their jobs become much more difficult, and at this stage, it looks like they may be difficult until at least next season.
And what of the other teams? Unless they have an iron-man in the ruck, capable of playing huge minutes, will they be forced to add a second big man to their best 22?
Adelaide’s second ruckman behind Sauce Jacobs was Josh Jenkins, who averaged 4.4 taps per game last year. At least he’s a strong body and can hold his own at a throw in when the pushing and shoving starts, but you’re really robbing the forward line to use him
Brisbane have a good back up to Stefan Martin in Oscar McInerney and also have Archie Smith waiting in the wings. McInerney can also drift forward, so they are well-placed to take advantage of this rule change.
The Blues have a nice combination of Kreuzer and Lobbe that could really work for them if Kreuzer can stay on the park. They also have the luxury of using Levi Casboult as a big body around the ground, which should prevent rucks from easily taking the ball from stoppages. Note, I said “should”.
Collingwood have Grundy and Cox, but Grundy tends to play a lot of game time, leaving Cox to work up forward. The recruitment of Jordan Roughead allows them a little more flexibility. They’ve actually recruited well to capitalise on this rule change.
The Bombers have bolstered their ruck division with the addition of Zac Clarke to back up Bellchambers. Again, intelligent recruiting to address this rule.
Freo have the giant Sandilands and now have the handy Rory Lobb to slot in with Sean Darcy. Injuries permitting, they’re set.
The Suns have Witts and youngster Brayden Crossley, who seems to have the body strength to match it with some of the league’s big men. Peter Wright could be used in a pinch, as well.
GWS have brought the big Mummy back, and you’d think he’d assume number one ruck duties, with Dawson Simpson called upon as a very handy back-up. Jon Patton, once he returns, is not a bad third option.
The Hawks have the Ben McEvoy and Jonathon Ceglar combination, and they tend to play both in the same side often (even in the wet against the Tigers… ugh!). Roughead can pinch hit in the ruck up forward, and Marc Pittonet is strong enough to hold his own body-to-body should one of the others go down.
Melbourne have picked up Brayden Preuss to backup Max Gawn in what could be a bit of a master stroke. People have criticised Preuss’ decision to move to Melbourne to play as a backup when he was leaving North as a backup, but it’s starting to make sense to me now. If the Dees are looking to rest Gawn without giving the opposition too much of an opening, Preuss’ presence is perfect for them.
If Todd Goldstein goes down, North could be in trouble, as they were quite reliant on Majak Daw as a back up in 2018. Tom Campbell coming on board helps a little, but with 22 games in the last four years, you wouldn’t expect him to be a reliable option. Keep Goldy healthy!
Paddy Ryder and Scott Lycett form a formidable pair at Port Adelaide, and both should split time between ruck and forward. Then they’ve got Charlie Dixon who can hold his own at stoppages in the forward half where required.
The Saints lost Hickey, but have Billy Longer, Rowan Marshall and Lewis Pearce all vying for time in the ruck. Personally, I’d love to see Marshall play forward – he has great hands.
Sydney may find themselves in a spot of bother should anything happen to Cal Sinclair. Their next best tap man in 2018 was Dean Towers, and following him was Gary Rohan. Sam Naismith should be able to give Sinclair the break when required if he can get himself right, and Darcy Cameron might see these rule changes afford him the chance to add to his one career game.
Finally, the Eagles pick up Hickey to compensate for losing Lycett, and have Vardy to fill the hole until Naitanui returns. All that said, you’d be hoping for a very speedy Nic Nat recovery this time round.
So who takes the gamble on playing one ruckman in 2019? Who looks at their opposition and starts thinking they’ll be fine to weather the storm? And who regrets it?
Can Grundy make the leap into the top clearance players in the game? Can Gawn turn the art of taking the ball cleanly in a ruck contest into his forte in 2019, as he did tap work in 2018? Can Stefan Martin use his power to launch the Lions into attack whenever confronted with a smaller secondary ruck opponent? Will Hardwick bite the bullet and do away with Grigg as the second ruck option? Or will the Tigers pay for not moving with the times?
The ruckman, a non-entity in the game as little as a few years ago, is now back with a vengeance. As we buckle in to see which coach has the best mind to work with the new rules, just as much could be reliant on selection committees.
And for those who don’t believe that a ruckman can completely dominate clearances by taking the ball cleanly out of the ruck, I’ll leave you with this.
Only one player has ever had 20 clearances in a game, and it happened before they started penalising ruckmen for taking the ball cleanly from ruck contests. It happened in 1998 as the Hawks beat North Melbourne by two points. That man was Paul Salmon. You think his 22 clearances may have had an impact on the result?
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