The game starts and resumes with the ruckman. Their service to midfielders in the centre of the ground is imperative to a team’s success, as well as their ability to find the ball around the ground, essentially acting as another midfielder.
Once the season begins, we will review how the rucks rank against each other, but to get the ball rolling, we’re starting with a pre-season edition. For this version, players are ranked on a number of criteria over a period of time, whereas the in-season version will solely be using 2021 data. With games reverting back to normal 20-minute quarters, it will be interesting to see how teams roll with their ruck setups, or if they remain unchanged as the season progresses.
But for now, let’s jump into the main ruckman from each team and where they sit in the preseason ruckman rankings.
18 – SAM DRAPER (ESS)
Someone had to be last and unfortunately, it’s young Draper who finds himself in this position simply due to lack of experience. Essendon played all of Bellchambers, Phillips and Draper in the ruck in 2020, but Draper is expected to lead the ruck department in 2021 following the retirement of Bellchambers and Phillips being overlooked.
Draper is a very exciting prospect, highlighted by the numbers he put up in his first 8 games: an average of 18.4 hitouts, five of which were effective and two intercept possessions per game. Watching his mullet flow through the skies is a sight to behold as he has shown to throw himself at every contest. At 22 years of age, the sky is the limit for Draper, and with another pre-season under his belt, I don’t expect to see him in 18th spot by the end of the year.
17 – SEAN DARCY (FREO)
2020 was Darcy’s first season as Freo’s sole ruckman following the retirement of mentor Aaron Sandilands at the end of 2019. In his short career thus far, Darcy has had an unlucky run with injuries, playing only 26 games in his first three seasons. But he was able to put together a consistent 2020 campaign, stringing together 15 games, averaging 22 hitouts, seven hitouts to advantage, nine disposals, and 6.2 contested possessions.
At 22 years of age, the signs are pointing in the right direction for Darcy to become a dominant ruckman in the future. For now, he has sufficient support in Rory Lobb, who leads not just the ruckman, but the entire competition in contested marks with 2.2 per game.
On the flip side, however, Lobb had the worst hitouts average of all notable ruckman with just 9.1 per game, showing that he is probably better off clunking balls inside 50 than being in the middle. Freo really need Darcy to be fit and firing in 2021, or else they are in a bit of strife if he goes down, with the uncapped Lloyd Meek waiting in the wings for a debut.
16 – RHYS STANLEY (GEE)
Trying to predict Geelong’s number one ruckman is always a bit of hit and miss. With Stanley, Fort, Blicavs, and Ratugolea at their disposal, the Cat’s best ruck setup has often been up for debate. Chris Scott shocked fans around the country in round one last year when he selected Darcy Fort as their sole ruckman. Fort played five games for the season and averaged a modest 21.2 hitouts, seven hitouts to advantage, 9.4 disposals, and ranked fourth in the competition for total clearances. However, he was then overlooked by the Cats who proceeded to play the injury-riddled Rhys Stanley as their sole ruckman.
Stanley loves to get around the ground, averaging 12.7 disposals and three clearances. But it was his ruck work that let him down, ranked 22nd in the competition for hitouts and 28th for hitouts to advantage. He has put up decent numbers in the past, however, averaging 28 hitouts across 2018 and 2019, furthered by a 29 hitout and 14 disposal effort against Toby Nankervis in the 2020 Grand Final.
Stanley’s ability to get around the ground as an extra midfielder does make him another weapon in the Cat’s extremely stacked arsenal; it’s whether he can keep himself on the park, having never played a full season before. Could this finally be the year where that happens, and Geelong go all the way? Only time will tell for Chris Scott and his crew.
15 – CALLUM SINCLAIR (SYD)
Discussion regarding the ruck department at the Swans is always intriguing. They began 2020 with the injury-riddled Sam Naismith, who posted very promising figures of 26.5 hitouts, eight hitouts to advantage, 9.5 disposals and three clearances in the first two games before unfortunately succumbing to another ACL injury. This saw the coaching staff revert back to their main ruckman in recent seasons, Callum Sinclair.
Sinclair averaged 22.4 hitouts, six hitouts to advantage, 9.2 touches and 2.5 tackles for the year. These numbers, when adjusted to normal length quarters, are actually quite consistent with the stats he’s put up in recent years. However, given his injury history, coupled with the fact that he has only played one full season (2018), the Swans bolstered their ruck department in the off season with the recruitment of journeyman Tom Hickey.
Hickey has only played a maximum of 20 games in a season at the Eagles (2019) and the Saints (2016), during which he averaged 13 disposals, three marks, 24 hitouts and four clearances. With Naismith not returning anytime soon, it will be interesting to see how the Swans utilise Hickey and Sinclair, as they often like to play Sinclair as a tall forward and chop out ruckman, especially with Buddy a no certainty to play round one.
14 – BRAYDEN PREUSS (GWS)
Probably higher than he should be considering he’s never played a full season in the ruck before, combined with the fact that he has been ruled out for 4-5 months after undergoing surgery. Barring any other injury, by the end of the year, I see Preuss being one of the most improved players in the AFL, and he’s got the stats to back it up.
In 2020 he played only three games and rucked solo in two of them, putting up modest numbers of 10 disposals, 27.5 hitouts, and six contested possessions. If we go back a year, he played seven games and rucked solo in just one of them. In this game, he had a monster 14 disposals, 44 hitouts, eight contested possessions, five marks, and four inside 50s, against the established Matty Kreuzer. The proof is in the pudding, and the opportunity is there for Preuss in 2020.
With Jacobs departing and Mumford probably not pushing for that main ruck berth, it’s Preuss’ spot to lose (when he isn’t injured). He has spent his entire career studying under the apprenticeship of Todd Goldstein and Max Gawn, training and battling against two of the top few ruckmen in the game, and all he has to do now is replicate that on his own. I’m no Giants fan but it’s clear to see I’m very bullish on Preuss in 2021. He’s ticked all the right boxes for a breakout year: opportunity, history, and age.
He’s about to hit his prime as a ruckman, and if he can get over his shoulder injury then I’m very keen to see what he can do this year.
13 – OSCAR MCINERNEY (BRIS)
Big O would’ve been licking his lips when he found out that Stef Martin was traded to the Dogs. For most of his three-year career, he has often been Stef’s second-hand man along with Archie Smith, but in 2020, the Big O cemented himself as the Lions’ number one ruckman.
With Martin often out of the side due to injury, McInerney seized the opportunity and played 19 games for the year, averaging 19.3 hitouts, 4.8 of which were to advantage, 8.7 disposals, 2.8 clearances, and 6.2 contested possessions; numbers which are extremely promising for a third-year ruckman playing his first solo season.
With further development this preseason and big minutes in the middle, I’m expecting Oscar to catapult up these rankings, as he fills out his massive frame a bit more and increases those hitout numbers.
12 – MARC PITTONET (CARL)
The former Hawk enjoyed a breakout year as a solo ruckman at the Blues. After Jon Ceglar (who was 29 years old at the time) put pen to paper at the end of 2019 and signed a three-year deal, Pittonet had no choice but to seek opportunity to play elsewhere, at risk of being stuck behind both McEvoy and Ceglar for the foreseeable future.
While it was looking like Pittonet was going to be stuck behind Carlton’s number one ruckman at the time, Matty Kreuzer, injury struck Kreuz in round one, which eventually finished off his injury-cruelled career. Pittonet was thus thrown straight into the deep end after the COVID break in Round Two and performed admirably.
Up against Max Gawn, Pittonet had 14 disposals and 23 hitouts, and backed this up the following week against Rhys Stanley with 36 hitouts, three tackles, and six contested possessions. He went on to average 22 hitouts, 6.8 hitouts to advantage, 8.4 disposals, and 1.1 contested marks for the season. At 24 years old, the signs look promising for Pittonet, but the pressure is on him to keep his spot, with youngster Tom de Koning breathing down his neck. TDK played seven games in 2020 as Carlton’s main ruckman whilst Pittonet was out of the side due to form or injury.
11 – TIM ENGLISH (WBD)
It was another year of development and improvement for English as he shouldered the main ruck mantle for the Dogs, supported by Jackson Trengove and elite ball-winner turned ruckman and small forward Josh Dunkley. English once again proved his wares around the ground, averaging the sixth-most disposals amongst all ruckman, fifth in intercept possessions, sixth in contested marks and fifth in shots on goal, highlighting his incredible work rate to help out at either end of the ground.
However, what English does around the ground makes up for his work at the ruck contest. The 207-centimetre specimen averaged only 15.9 hitouts per game in 2020, and 4.8 hitouts to advantage. But enter Stefan Martin.
The former Lion is the ideal recruit for the Dogs, who were in desperate need of a bigger ruckman around the contest and provide able support for their developing big man. From 2015 to 2019, Stef only missed four games, and averaged 18.2 disposals, 4.2 marks, 31.24 hitouts, and 4.6 clearances. 2020 was a horrid year for Stef however, as he was often cruelled by injury, combined with the rise of Oscar McInerney as the Lions main ruckman.
At 34 years old, I don’t believe Martin will be the Dogs number one ruck, but he will provide that physicality at the contest which English somewhat lacks. I’m sure we will soon see an article revealing that English has ‘put on some weight’ over the off season, but just to highlight the disparity in weight between the two: English 87kg vs Martin 103kg. These are subject to change, but 16kg goes a long way into shunning the likes of Gawn and NicNat out of the contest. English and Martin should complement each other perfectly, and along with the extremely talented midfield they have at their feet, I’m excited to see what the dogs dish up in the middle in 2021.
10 – BEN MCEVOY (HAW)
2020 was an interesting year for Big Boy McEvoy. After he was trialed in defence towards the end of 2019, the ever-experimental Clarko kept him there for most of the 2020 season due to his ability to take big-contested marks, adding another string to his bow. As a result, his ruck stats plummeted as he reinvented himself as a key back whilst chopping out in the ruck for Jon Ceglar.
McEvoy averaged 10.1 hitouts, 0.8 clearances, and 3.2 marks – numbers which are much less than his 2017-2019 average of 30.4 hitouts, 2.4 clearances, and 4.1 marks. However, when McEvoy was used in the ruck, he was still quite effective, with a hitout to advantage percentage of 41% – the best in the competition. He was also second in intercept possessions with 3.9, which is slightly inflated due to the disposals he got in the backline.
Ceglar didn’t have a bad year either, averaging 21.1 hitouts, 10.5 disposals, and three clearances. At this point in the analysis, the reader may be asking why I have not written about Ceglar as the number one ruckman? This is because McEvoy was recently appointed as the Hawks new captain and is expected to spend more time in his customary position as ruck as well as floating back in defence.
If the scratch matches are anything to go by, the Hawks used McEvoy as the number one ruck against the Dogs, with McEvoy attending 17 centre bounce attendances as a pure ruckman compared to Ceglar’s 12, who played more forward and jumped into the ruck when McEvoy was having a rest. It’s a small sample space to go by, but with the captaincy, I think McEvoy will command that number one ruck role and get back to his pre-2020 form by leading from the middle.
9 – SCOTT LYCETT (PTA)
Another consistent year for the former premiership Eagle, Lycett overcome a knee injury mid-year to play 13 out of a possible 17 games. In the four-game patch where Lycett was injured, young Peter Ladhams came into the side and shouldered the ruck load. His form proved he was more than capable of maintaining his spot in the 22, which created a problem for Hinkley with the return of his number one big man.
Ladhams consequently became a third tall forward and chop-out ruckman, as the two giants played the next six of the nine games together, including two finals. Ladhams’s development did not appear to hamper Lycett’s game, more so providing some valuable relief for the injury-prone Lycett. Scotty averaged the second most amount of hitouts of his entire career with 23.3, even with reduced quarters.
He supersedes all of the ruckman I’ve ranked above him in hitouts to advantage percentage (32.7). He tied with Max Gawn for clearances (3.4), placing him equal fifth in the competition. It is interesting to note that Ladhams trumps Lycett in disposals, intercept possessions, contested possessions and contested marks, demonstrating his ability to get around the ground and move as an extra midfielder. The dual ruck setup will provide a great benefit for the Power in 2021 as they look to back up a successful 2020 campaign.
8 – TOBY NANKERVIS (RICH)
2020 was a tricky year for the Nank the Tank. Further improvement in teammate Ivan Soldo’s game saw Dimma Hardwick play a dual ruck set up down at Tigerland. Nankervis only played 11 games for the year, as a syndesmosis ankle injury ruled him out from rounds 6-13 as Soldo shouldered the ruck load.
But the injury gods decided to play an uno reverse card, as Soldo then did his ACL in Round 18 on the eve of finals. This saw Nank resume full responsibility of the solo ruck role and he is more than capable of doing so again in 2021.
In 2020, Nank averaged a lowly 16.7 hitouts, 11.5 disposals and 2.5 clearances. If we go back to the last season Nank was the sole ruckman, that same stat line reads 25, 16.6 and 3.5 – a far cry from last year’s season.
It should be noted that Richmond love to use Nank behind the ball similar to the way the Dees utilise Max Gawn. Nank is rated elite in intercept possessions, tackles, pressure acts, and intercept marks, the same sort of statistical areas that one would see when comparing to a tall defender. In the last two finals, Nank was deployed behind the ball a lot more, spending 78% of these games in the back half of the ground. His best game came in the preliminary final, where he produced a monster game with 10 tackles, seven contested possessions, and six intercept possessions. Without Soldo in 2020, Nank should be producing these numbers on a more regular basis as the Tigers chase that elusive three-peat.
7 – JARROD WITTS (GC)
Not missing a game in the last three years, Witts’ consistency earned him a third-place finish in Gold Coast’s best and fairest. However, despite having the third most number of hitouts in the AFL, and third most hitouts to advantage, the Suns co-captain experienced a decline in most statistical areas compared to his 2019 season where he was club champion.
With the relevant shortened season adjustments, he saw a decrease in disposals, hitouts and clearances. His stoppage work remains strong, however, ranking elite for hitouts to advantage (8.5%) and above average in clearances, despite the drop. Although this review of Witts may not justify his ranking in the top third of the ruckman, at his best he is a force to be reckoned with. Don’t forget that in 2019 he amassed 1008 hitouts, breaking the record for the most amount of hitouts in a home and away season.
He is clearly Gold Coast’s main ruckman for the foreseeable future, with Sam Day lending a hand from time to time. I’m expecting Witts to get back to his best this season and take his leadership to a new level.
6 – ROWAN MARSHALL (STK)
Marshall took over the solo ruck role at the Saints in 2019 and had an incredible breakout year, averaging 17.8 disposals, 28.4 hitouts, and 5.5 clearances. However, with the recruitment of Paddy Ryder and the departure of Josh Bruce, Marshall split his game time between ruck and forward in 2020 to provide another tall marking target, protect Max King in the air and provide a relief ruck for Ryder.
With Ryder turning 32 this year and coming off a serious hamstring injury, I expect Marshall to take over the reigns once more as the number one ruck, as the Saints look to nurture Ryder’s injury prone body through another season for the veteran.
Looking at the numbers, Marshall has the ability to do it all. Up forward, he averaged just under a goal a game and ranked elite at shots on goal, indicating that he is a serious threat inside forward 50 when drifting forward. Around the ground, he averaged the fourth most number of disposals for all ruckman, despite playing as a second tall forward. He’s not afraid to get the ball into attack, leading his ruck cohort in metres gained (267.5), also ranking elite for inside 50s and effective kicks. His average of 14.9 hitouts is obviously hampered by the limited amount of time he spends as a forward, as he doubled this figure when he was the main man in 2019.
He can clunk marks too, averaging the most marks behind Gawn and the fourth-most contested marks across all ruckman. With Marshall under a cloud, we may have to wait a little while to see him take his rightful spot as the number one ruckman, but we won’t have to wait too long.
5 – REILLY O’BRIEN (ADEL)
ROB was a beacon of light in what was dark and disappointing season for the Crows in 2020. Playing what was really his second complete season and as a sole ruckman, ROB had an incredible breakout season, which resulted in him taking home Adelaide’s best and fairest.
He averaged the sixth most number of hitouts in the competition, and fifth in hitouts to advantage which is incredible considering it was only his second full season (he played just two games back in 2016). To add to this, he ranked third amongst the ruckman in intercept possessions and second in contested marks; two statistical areas that Max Gawn also excels in. In fact, he ranked fifth across the entire competition for contested marks, ahead of Coleman medallist Tom Hawkins, and Gawn himself.
We can’t forget about his aerobic work either, stunning the competition with a podium finish in the Crow’s 2019 pre-season time trial. Clearly, his apprenticeship under Sam Jacobs has paid off, with improved tap work and a safe pair of hands contributing to ROB’s staggering rise. At just 25 years old, ROB has an incredibly bright future and I’m predicting him to lead his young teammates up the ladder in 2021.
4 – BRODIE GRUNDY (COLL)
A bit stiff not to be at number three, but even Buckley admitted that his superstar struggled with life in the hub. After back-to-back All Australian seasons in 2018 and 2019, Grundy was not able to replicate that form in 2020.
Let’s rewind back to the elimination final. With just over a minute remaining on the clock, Grundy watched on from the bench as Darcy Cameron did battle with Nic Naitanui. Luckily, Collingwood won the centre clearance and subsequently the game itself. It was the fourth time that season that Collingwood chose to play all of Grundy, Cox, and Cameron, and understandably too. Cox became Collingwood’s primary tall target while Cameron become another tall option and chop-out ruckman, fulfilling Cox’s previous role.
Sir David Attenborough once said, ‘Ancient trees are precious.’ Grundy is Collingwood’s ancient tree, and Buckley must keep the faith in this tree amongst the forest at his disposal. In that same game, Grundy had 63% time on ground, a far cry from the 89% he had in 2019. Grundy is renowned for his dominant presence at ruck contests and also his work around the ground as another midfielder. Whilst he still had the most amount of hitouts only behind Gawn, and he hasn’t lost his effectiveness with the second most hitouts to advantage (also behind Gawn), his disposal and clearance numbers took a hit.
After ranking first among ruckman in disposals, uncontested possessions, and contested possessions from 2017-19, Grundy dropped to third, fifth and fourth respectively. Furthermore, his clearance ranking plummeted from first in that same time period to seventh, averaging a mere 3.3 per game. But at his best, Grundy is the complete package. If Collingwood can get their ruck set up fixed up, combined with no more hub life, then Grundy will be challenging Gawn for that number one ruck gong once more.
3 – TODD GOLDSTEIN (NM)
At age 32, the underrated big man is showing no signs of slowing down. His fourth-place finish in North’s best and fairest was not indicative of the incredible season he had. Despite the shortened quarters, Goldy managed to average the second most number of disposals in his entire career, as well as leading all ruckman in contested possessions (9.5).
His 59 stoppage clearances are not only the best of the ruckman, but also place him fifth in the AFL, behind Clayton Oliver, Jarryd Lyons, Lachie Neale and Jack Steele. Only Nic Nat managed to supersede him in total clearances, whilst he had the fifth-highest number of hitouts in the competition.
One thing that North could benefit from Goldy if they were to make a rise up the ladder in 2021 would be if he could clunk a few more marks. His 1.9 marks (ranked 20th among rucks) and 0.6 contested marks (24th) will need some sort of improvement following the departure of Ben Brown. But the evergreen giant has a lot more left in the tank than his age suggests.
2 – NIC NAITANUI (WCE)
In the last four years, NicNat’s highest number of games played in a year was 15. In 2020, NicNat was able to put his injury woes behind him as he mustered an honourable 16 out of 18 games, which is incredible considering it was a shortened season. With a full preseason and injury-free run, West Coast’s talismanic ruckman delivered one of the best seasons of his interrupted career to date.
Known for his imposing presence around stoppages, NicNat led the ruckmen in total clearances with 5.6 per game, averaged the second most contested possessions (9.4), ranked fourth in hitouts to advantage, and had the third-greatest number of hitouts (29). These incredible statistics earned him the starting ruck position in the All-Australian line up, ahead of Max Gawn.
The Eagles fitness team did a great job in keeping NicNat on the park in 2020 through understandably managing his game time. He was ranked 32nd of all ruckmen for time on ground with 69.5%, a far cry from Gawn’s 92.6%. Another smooth preseason for NicNat should see these minutes increase, which would allow him to work around the ground and impact aerial contests more, as he only averaged 0.5 contested marks in 2020.
1 – MAX GAWN (MELB)
And finally, the undisputed ruck king, Max Gawn. Unquestionably the premier ruckman of the competition and a great leader and ambassador for the Melbourne Football Club, Gawn battled through injury in the second half of the season to become a four-time All Australian.
Leading the competition in hitouts (32.71), hitouts to advantage (10.6), and averaging the most disposals (15.9) and intercept possessions (4.3) amongst all ruckmen, Gawn’s ability to expropriate the football from the opposition either in defence or on the wing proved to be one of Melbourne’s greatest assets.
13 Brownlow votes netted him a respectable 13th place in last year’s Brownlow, miles ahead of fellow All Australian ruckman Nic Naitanui, who polled a mere five votes. If Gawn can remain injury-free in 2021, there is every possibility of him finally bucking the trend of high-polling pure midfielders at this year’s Brownlow count.
And that’s a wrap! In conclusion, it’s clear to see that the best ruckman are those who are well into their prime and have a wealth of experience against the bigger bodies, putting together consistent campaigns year to year. I’m very curious to see who can make the jump and challenge the top echelon of rucks, and hopefully we’ll see all the rucks stay on the park to make these rankings harder to write each fortnight!
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