Have you seen the movie Highlander? You know the one – Christopher Lambert runs around chopping off the heads of some other immortal blokes in order to be the last immortal standing. It’s a bit of a cult classic, but if you haven’t seen it, perhaps you heard it referenced in Talladega Nights? Whilst Ricky Bobby may have been a fan, his nemesis, Jean Girard thought it was pretty ordinary.
Like it or not, the premise of the movie was simple – there can be only one.
Whilst our ruckmen in 2018 are not decapitating each other… yet, the premise of Highlander rings true. There can be only one All-Australian ruckman at year’s end, and right now we have four men capable of donning a blazer and tie and standing with other champions of the game to be honoured at the conclusion of the season.
Basic mathematical skills teach us that four does not go into one, and over the next 13 weeks, one will separate himself from the pack and claim that All-Australian mantle. As it stands now, after ten games, you could make the argument for any of them, and make it convincingly.
We've had a bit of a conundrum when compiling out Rolling All Australian Team after Round 7, and Round 9. Separating them has been line-ball, and with Grundy's Round 10 performance, it will most likely change again.
So, if the team was picked right now, who would sit atop the bunch? Who is the ruckman that not only had the most hit outs, but has meant the most to his team? Who has had the biggest impact on the competition to this point of the year? Who is the front runner for the All-Australian ruck position? Let’s take a look at the contenders.
Brodie Grundy has surpassed all expectations this season, and his game against Adelaide afforded him a rare honour; placing him alongside the great Gary Dempsey as the only man to ever have 30 disposals, 40 hit outs and a goal.
He is garnering midfield kind of numbers and his second efforts have put many other players – not just ruckmen, to shame. Grundy’s numbers have jumped significantly this year. He has eclipsed the 20-disposals per game mark for the first time, sitting right at 22 touches per game, and is adding career high numbers for tackles, inside 50s, contested marks and clearances. His contested possession numbers are off the charts for a ruckman.
Standout Game – vs Adelaide in Round 5. This was a statement game by the Magpies. In wet weather, they employed a slick handball game, and moved the ball quickly in the conditions. Grundy was front and centre, picking up 33 touches (23 of which were contested) and punctuated his performance with a running 50 metre goal. Ruckman aren’t supposed to do that.
Key Stat – Grundy averages 13.4 contested possessions per game. This is 3.3 contested touches more than Stefan Martin, and blows the other contenders away.
Contested Disposals 2018
Unless you watch him play, it's hard to fathom the impact Nic Naitanui has had on the West Coast Eagles since his return. He is the best tap ruckman in the game when he gets a run at it, feeding the Eagles’ midfield with some silver service when he contests the centre bounce.
The amazing thing about NicNat is that he is still playing limited minutes, yet he is being spoken about as a possible AA ruckman due to the level of his influence he has when he is on the ground.
Standout Game – vs Geelong in Round 3. Naitanui was a force of nature in this one, and it was his ruck work that paved the way for the Eagles to run over the Cats. Though he only had nine disposals, it was his heavy work that caught the eye. Six tackles, including a punishing effort against Brandon Parfitt emphasized that the Eagles meant business in 2018. Seven weeks later, they sit on top of the ladder. Naitanui added 13 hit outs to advantage, most of which came in the pivotal last quarter.
Key Stat – Naitanui averages 4.33 1%ers per game. For the uninitiated (like me before I looked it up), this stat captures knock-ons, smothers, spoils and shepherds. Even in limited minutes, Naitanui’s endeavor, and willingness to sacrifice for his team are highlighted here.
Martin is flying under the radar due mainly to playing on a poor team, and also due to playing in a state that does not receive a lot of football attention. You can argue that he has been less prominent than Gawn or Grundy, but numbers do not lie, and neither of those two has been able to get the absolute best of Martin in their head to head match ups.
According to all reports, Martin had a huge pre-season, and it is evident in both his play and his appearance - he looks like an absolute monster at the moment. The hard work has definitely paid off.
Key Game – v Port Adelaide in Round 3. Martin dominated the ruck, and made the Power pay around the ground as well, accumulating 30 touches for the fourth time in his career. He added seven marks and 11 effective hit outs straight down the throat of his midfielders.
Key Stat – His 19.5 disposals per game has him sitting second only to Brodie Grundy at the position, and with that comes 10.1 contested disposals per game. Again, that is second to Grundy, yet in their head to head clash, it was Martin taking the chocolates, so with quality opposition standing across from him, Martin was at his best.
Big Max is the dominant big man when it comes to getting first hands on the ball. He has had more hit outs than anyone else in the league this season, and can float forward and hurt ion the scoreboard more often than any of the other three mentioned.
Though he may be remembered this season for his horrid kick in Round One, costing Melbourne their chance to win, he leads all named here when hitting the scoreboard.
Key Game – vs Essendon Round 6. Gawn’s ruckwork was sublime in this game, notching 42 hit outs, of which 23 fed the Demon on-ballers. He added two goals from banana kicks and six marks to his stat line as well. It was a three vote game.
Key Stat – The ruck contests are what Gawn is paid to win, and he’s winning them. Of his 47.7 hit outs per game, 17.5 of them are going straight to a Demon.
Hit outs to advantage 2018
HEAD TO HEAD
The structure of this season’s fixture means we have only a very small sample size in regard to head to head clashes between the league’s best big men.
Grundy v Martin in Round 7
In a tough battle, it was Martin beating Grundy at his own game around the ground, despite Grundy having the better of him in the ruck duels. Martin had 28 touches to go along with his 7 hit outs to advantage. Grundy had 16 touches and 13 hit outs to advantage, but also laid 11 tackles to lead his team.
Martin v Gawn in Round 2.
Both players had a hard time getting their hands on the ball other than in ruck contests. Martin had 9 disposals and 8 hit outs to advantage whilst Gawn had 10 disposals and 17 hit outs to advantage. Gotta give the nod to big Max here, but it was by no means a clear win.
ROUND 12 Collingwood v Melbourne
ROUND 17 Collingwood v West Coast
ROUND 21 Collingwood v Brisbane
ROUND 22 West Coast v Melbourne
ROUND 23 Brisbane v West Coast
There’s a bit to consider here. The Queen’s Birthday clash may go a long way to determining who of Grundy and Gawn get the All-Australian nod this year. If they’re locked together in the minds of the panel at year's end, they may revert to their one on one battle and allow the result in that game to determine the selection.
Stefan Martin and Brodie Grundy are the only ones that will get two cracks at each other. They met in Round 2, and will butt heads again in Round 21. Martin was superb in their initial clash, but many speculated that Grundy carried an injury into the game. You can't hold that against Martin. If Grundy was healthy, he was great against him. If he was carrying an injury, Martin smelled blood and went after him.
If the competition is still tight going into the last three weeks, the head to head match ups should go a long way to determining the panels’ decision. Martin v Grundy, Naitanui v Gawn, and Martin v Naitanui all headline matches in the last three weeks of the season.
Both Grundy and Naitanui have three games upcoming against other contenders. If they win these match-ups, it's a huge advantage. If they lose...
This is where the NicNat factor comes in. Numbers are one thing, and stats are nice on reflection, but the eye-test wields significant influence as well. You can’t watch a game featuring Naitanui and not be drawn to the way he impacts contests.
Like Cyril Rioli, Naitanui does not require huge numbers to be influential. You would expect his game time to increase as the season goes on and with that, increased output. If his influence remains the same, and his numbers increase in the second half, he may start encroaching on the minds of selectors. Of course, there's also the drastic improvement of the Eagles despite losing seasoned midfield performers. How much of that is due to Naitanui's return from long-term injury?