Welcome back to the 2021 ruck rankings as we take a look at what went down during the opening fortnight of the new season.
The new rules implemented by the AFL have created much discussion over the effectiveness of the ruckman in 2021. The new man on the mark rule has resulted in faster ball movement around the ground, creating less stoppages, subsequently lowering the opportunity for the ruckman to have an impact between contests. Furthermore, given the reduced number of interchanges, it was interesting to see how coaches formulated a successful ruck setup early on, as we take a look at who’s hot, who’s cold, and analyse some fresh faces from rounds one and two.
BRODIE GRUNDY (+3)
It didn’t take long for Grundy to re-discover his mojo after a poor 2020 season by his standards, leading all comers in average hitouts, hitouts to advantage, and tackles. This included a mammoth 51 hitouts against Carlton, surprisingly after Nathan Buckley expressed that Grundy needed more support in the ruck. However, Grundy’s disposal numbers have once again plummeted following a slight recession in 2020. An average of 13.5 disposals places him equal 9th in the competition, and equal 12th for contested possessions, after being ranked 3rd and 4th respectively for these categories in 2020.
Grundy is known for his ability to find the ball around the ground, having been ranked 1st among ruckman in disposals from 2017-2019. It’s safe to say that Grundy is a dominant force in the air, but it’s his ability to play as an extra midfielder, which complements Collingwood’s talented midfield, which is his greatest weapon. If he can get his disposal numbers up, it would go a long way in helping Collingwood make a hot start to the year
MAX GAWN (-1)
At the expense of Grundy’s brilliant start, Gawn slips to two despite maintaining consistent stats across the board. He sits behind Grundy in hitouts (35) and hitouts to advantage (12.5), and is second amongst ruckman for intercept possessions, highlighting his ability to play behind the ball while protégé Luke Jackson attends the ruck contests forward of centre. However, like Grundy, Gawn’s disposal numbers have taken a slight hit, falling from 1st in 2020 to 8th so far in 2021.
Gawn, himself, admitted at half-time against Fremantle in round one that he needed to find a role for himself in the match, with general play stoppages significantly down. It appeared that Gawn found this role in the backline in round two where he racked up 17 disposals, a figure which Gawn should be around the mark at for the rest of the season.
NIC NAITANUI (-1)
Despite the reduced stoppages, NicNat continues to be a dominant force at the contest, whether it be in the air or on the ground. He sits 3rd in the competition for hitouts and hitouts to advantage, leads all ruckman in contested possessions and total clearances, and is second amongst ruckman for score involvements. In fact, he sits 5th in the competition for total clearances, behind midfielders Taylor Adams, Dom Sheed, Zac Williams, and Clayton Oliver.
With regular length quarters and fewer interchanges, NicNat still has the least time on ground out of all the ruckman with 69%, the same as his 2020 figure.
JARROD WITTS (+3)
The ever-consistent Witts is back to his best following a disappointing 2020 season. So far, he is averaging 30.5 hitouts (4th in the competition), 15.5 disposals (5th), 4 tackles (equal 2nd), 1.5 contested marks (3rd), 8.5 contested possessions (6th) and 4.5 total clearances (3rd).
With Sam Day going down with a knee injury, Witts will have to shoulder the ruck-load alone given the lack of available second-tier ruckman at Gold Coast. This should see a bump in his time of ground of 77.7%, which currently has him ranked 15th in the competition.
TODD GOLDSTEIN (-2)
Goldy slips down to 5th as Witts just pips him in most statistical areas, including hitouts (Witts 4th vs Goldy 5th), disposals (5th vs 6th) and total clearances (3rd vs 4th). However, following North’s lacklustre start to the season, Goldy’s numbers have somewhat declined following his amazing 2020 season. He has fallen from 1st to 5th in contested possessions, as well as 2nd to 6th for disposals.
It will be interesting to who finishes on top out of Witts and Goldstein by the end of the season, two underrated ruckmen with plenty of footy left in them.
SCOTT LYCETT (+3)
As a result of a strong start to the year, Lycett has made the jump into the top six ruckmen of the competition. Over the opening fortnight, he has averaged 27 hitouts (equal 6th in the competition), 9.5 hitouts to advantage (6th), 17 disposals (2nd), 4 marks (6th), 9.5 contested possessions (4th), 7.5 score involvements (1st) and 2.5 tackles (6th).
Port are still utilising Peter Ladhams as the second ruckman, but this did not seem to affect Lycett’s blistering start.
BEN MCEVOY/JONATHON CEGLAR (+3)
All the talk in the preseason was that McEvoy would resume duties as Hawthorn’s number one ruckman. Whilst this was somewhat the case, the numbers reveal that Jon Ceglar has still had a significant influence in the ruck to be considered as another main ruckman, as it appears they are splitting the ruck duties almost evenly to start the year. McEvoy has attended an average of 35.5 ruck contests and 15.5 centre bounce attendances, while Ceglar has attended 27.5 ruck contests and 10 centre bounce attendances, so it was difficult to neglect Ceglar’s influence and statistics.
Combined, the two Hawthorn big men average 26.5 hitouts, 9 hitouts to advantage, 28 disposals and 6 intercept possessions. Individually, Ceglar averages an impressive 16 disposals (equal 3rd in the competition for ruckman) as he works around the ground while McEvoy shoulders the ruck load, while both ruckmen lead the rucks in marks, Ceglar with 6 (1st) followed by McEvoy 5 (2nd).
It appears that the Hawthorn coaches have finally worked out the best formula for these two to play together, being the only team in the competition to deploy a legitimate dual ruck set up.
TOM HICKEY (NEW)
I got it awfully wrong in the preseason when I predicted that Callum Sinclair would lead Sydney’s ruck department in 2021. I would’ve thought that if Sinclair wasn’t the number one ruckman, then he would be another tall forward marking an option and chop out ruckman. But given the rise of young gun Logan McDonald, a healthy Sam Reid and the return of Buddy Franklin, Sinclair finds himself on the outer as Hickey embraces the solo ruck role to great effect. In my pre-season article, I mentioned that in Hickey’s previous best seasons he averaged 13 disposals, 3 marks, 24 hitouts, and 4 clearances.
The way he is playing at the moment, he is on track to have a career-best season, averaging 16 disposals, 3 marks, 25 hitouts and 5.5 clearances. That clearance figure ranks him second amongst ruckman behind NicNat, whilst he also ranks 3rd for contested possessions and 3rd for intercept possessions. These numbers have remarkably pushed him into the top eight for rucks. Hopefully, he stays on the park for most of 2021 because I don’t see how couldn’t improve even more.
MARC PITTONET (+3)
Pittonet continues to develop his ruck craft and his hitout numbers prove just why. He is averaging the same amount of hitouts as Lycett (27) and beats him in hitouts to advantage (11), a significant rise from his 22 hitouts and 6.8 hitouts to advantage in 2020. However, for Pittonet to keep this position I want to see a rise in disposal numbers and other stats around the ground, as he is ranked second last in the competition for ruckman for disposals, third last in contested possessions and 9th in total clearances.
I’m loving the improvement in the air, but there are few players ranked below him who trump him in other statistical areas who are knocking on the door of his position.
MATT FLYNN (NEW)
In my pre-season article, I expected to see Braydon Preuss make a charge up the rankings. Now, Preuss wouldn’t even get a game next week given the amazing form of Matt Flynn in the opening rounds of the season. To open his debut season, Flynn has so far averaged 26 hitouts (8th in the competition), 7.5 hitouts to advantage (more than Goldstein), 14.5 disposals (more than Gawn and Grundy) and 4 marks (5th). Astoundingly, he leads all ruckman in intercept possessions, contested marks, and ranks second behind NicNat for contested possessions.
I was tempted to rank him a bit higher, but I had to factor in the difficulty of his opposition, having played two other rookie ruckmen in Paul Hunter and Lloyd Meek. It will be interesting to see how he fares against an established ruckman in Max Gawn this round, but so far, he has proved that he is more than capable of sustaining the number one ruck mantle for GWS.
TOBY NANKERVIS (-3)
Nankervis has been solid without being outstanding to open the season. He has dipped in ranking a little bit following the rise of some new ruckmen, posting modest averages of 23.5 hitouts, 11.5 hitouts to advantage (4th in the competition), 12 disposals, 3.5 intercept possessions (equal 5th in the competition) and 3.5 total clearances (5th).
His work around the ground remains ever-reliable, and his hitouts are effective, but he needs to up his disposal and hitouts numbers if he wants to make a rise up the rankings.
Rhys Stanley (+4)
Stanley has made the equal most improvement out of all the ruckman I analysed in the pre- season. Whilst his hitout numbers need some work, averaging 22.5 hitouts with only 4.5 of them being advantageous to Geelong, it’s his work around the ground that has propelled him up the rankings. He leads all ruckman in disposals, ranks 4th in marks and 5th in score involvements.
Perhaps that disposal average may be slightly inflated given that his opposition in round two, Oscar McInerney, played the game mostly injured and then subbed out, but it is promising to see that Stanley is following up ineffective ruck contests with his ability to get around the ground.
REILLY O’BRIEN (-8)
The most dramatic and surprising downfall of the ruckmen so far. Following a career-best 2020 season, I and many others, thought that ROB was a chance to push into the top four ruckmen of the competition. Last year, he was ranked 6th for hitouts, 5th in hitouts to advantage, 3rd for intercept possessions and 2nd in contested marks. This year so far in the same areas, he is ranked 11th, 16th, 14th, and equal 12th, respectively.
He still sees plenty of time on ground with 89%, third most in the competition. ROB thrives around stoppages, but given the Crows’ slicker ball movement in the opening rounds, it appears that the new rules have not suited ROB. I’m backing him to find a new gear and turn this dismal form around.
SAM DRAPER (+4)
I was given a bit of heat by some Essendon supporters following Draper’s rank in my pre-season article (18th), so I hope they’ll be glad to see that he has made a significant rise up the rankings. However, don’t expect to see Draper in this article for the good part of the next 10 weeks as he has suffered an ankle injury, a major blow for Essendon. But the numbers he has put up so far are quite promising, given that he only played 65% of one of the games when he got injured.
Draper has averaged 20.5 hitouts with 5.5 of these to advantage and ranks equal second in the competition for tackles. Watching his full game in round one, he definitely moves a lot better than he did last year and provides an imposing figure at stoppages. Let’s hope he continues this form when he returns from injury.
OSCAR MCINERNEY (-2)
In a similar vein to Draper, McInerney’s numbers have also taken a slight hit given that he played injured for most of the game against Geelong before being subbed out. However, has improved on his 2020 averages for hitouts, hitouts to advantage, disposals, and contested possessions, seeing an increase of 1.2 hitouts, 0.2 hitouts to advantage, 0.3 disposals and 1.3 contested possessions.
Whilst the improvements aren’t overly significant, he does lead the ruckman in contested marks along with Matt Flynn.
STEFAN MARTIN (NEW)
Ranking Martin at 16 felt like an absolute crime, but the numbers are there to back it up. Martin is clearly the number one ruck at the Dogs, attending an average of 61 ruck contests in the opening rounds in comparison to English’s 25.5, with both seeing similar time on ground (80%) as English plays as a tall forward option. Martin was lauded by many after his efforts to quell Brodie Grundy in round one, with his strong physical presence in the middle making life difficult for Grundy. Funnily enough, Grundy still had 39 hitouts for that match but his game was not as influential as it normally was. Martin himself appears to be struggling in the air early on, compounded by the fact that he was punished by Naitanui in round two.
He ranks in the bottom three ruckman for hitouts and hitouts to advantage, but his follow up work is a little bit better, averaging 12.5 disposals, 3.5 intercept possessions, 8.5 contested possessions and 3 total clearances. While it doesn’t look like Martin has lost his ability to find the ball, the Dogs incredibly stacked midfield will benefit from Martin’s tap work if it were to improve.
LLOYD MEEK (NEW)
A pre-season injury to Sean Darcy saw 22-year-old Lloyd Meek take the reigns as Fremantle’s number one ruckman, and who better to start your career against than All Australian ruckman Max Gawn? In the opening rounds, Meek has averaged 16 hitouts with 5.5 of them to advantage, 9.5 disposals and 7 contested possessions, not bad for a first-year ruckman.
However, with Darcy making his return in round two as a forward/ruck, expect Meek to be slowly pushed out as a number of Fremantle’s tall forwards return, despite his promising start.
PAUL HUNTER (NEW)
Have we ever seen this amount of rookie ruckmen to make their debut in the opening round of a season? With Marshall suffering a pre-season injury and Ryder on personal leave, 28-year-old Hunter, who was only just signed by St Kilda in the pre-season supplemental selection period, was thrust into the prime ruck role after previously spending four years on Adelaide’s rookie list without making a senior appearance.
Opening his account in wet and soggy conditions in Canberra, followed by the daunting task of facing Max Gawn in round two (Gawn must be having the time of his life playing against these rookies early on), Hunter posted an average of 16 hitouts with only 2.5 of them to advantage, 9.5 disposals and 2.5 total clearances. However, like Meek, with Marshall due to return in the upcoming weeks, we probably won’t be seeing Hunter in this article for a long time, but he was certainly an interesting story to write about.
So there it is! Which rucks impressed you the most in the opening two rounds? Was I too harsh on anyone or too generous? How do you think the new rules have affected the big boys? Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you again in a couple of weeks time.
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