In Formula 1, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are the clear number one drivers of their respective teams. They get the best car set ups and generally the team strategy will revolve around them. The team work together to support their main man winning. The second driver knows his place, and often relinquishes his own chances of winning for the greater good. He is the clear support act.
This is how the majority of AFL teams view their Ruck. There is a clear Premier Ruckman in most AFL squads. Then there is either a Junior Ruckman (learning their trade), an Old War Horse (supporting before being putting out to pasture), or a Nearly Man (the guy that never quite made it and is now a back-up or a second-string Utility). Whatever the situation, this player is the Valtteri Bottas to the Lewis Hamilton.
Then there will be the pack of part-timers that support the ruck during the season when the conditions require it. Maybe to allow their big man to rest, or to do their best when injury strikes. This can even include players like Patrick Dangerfield and Ollie Wines occasionally ‘nominating’ which I am sure the AFL did not envision when they banned the third-man up. It would be funny if it wasn’t embarrassing for all involved.
Lately, it has been refreshing to hear almost every Senior Coach use the phrase “ruckman are back in fashion these days” when only a few seasons ago they were an endangered species. Rule changes have no doubt influenced this, but who cares? It is great to watch the big men fly – its one of the unique elements of Aussie Rules Football and 2018 has showcased it in spades. Almost every week the names Brodie Grundy and Max Gawn get mentioned in relation to the Brownlow. Not since the age of the late great Jimmy Stynes, and Scott Wynd has there been such hype around ruckman winning ‘The Midfielder’s Medal’.
And this is all for good reason. Most AFL sides are living and dying off the back of the health and form of their Premier Ruckmen. They not only effect one of the most telling team stats in the game - clearances, but they also provide stability through contested marking around the ground. To leave it at that would be a disservice. They are the focal point off which the great ball winners, tacklers, line-breaking runners, and scrappers feed off. Hit outs are one thing, but ruckman provide incomparable influence on a game by their work around the ground. If you need any evidence to support this, then fill your boots with Ryan Buckland’s article The Ruck is a Tactical Battleground.
On the flip side, when ruckmen go down, their side tends to go with it. In HB Meyers piece on The Mongrel, The Nankervis Gamble, he writes about Hardwick’s cat-and-mouse tactics. Nankervis is rested during the third-quarter to overcome Collingwood in the final term. While Nankervis is rested Grundy makes hay and dominates play across the field to drive the Pies to within a kick of Richmond at the final break. In the final term, Nankervis (refreshed and energised) nullifies a tired Grundy to the periphery of the game. Richmond prevail. What I take from this is that Richmond struggle when Nankervis is rested. Collingwood grind to a halt when Grundy is spent. It’s like a millennial with less than 10% battery life on their phone – they are just not the same…
Take a trip to the perennial ‘Nearly Men’ of the AFL, Port Adelaide. You’ll come across the Ryder Effect. According to PAFC News, The Power have a win percentage of 78% when Paddy Ryder plays through 73 minutes of a game. When Ryder can’t do this (or doesn’t play at all), the percentage drops to 45%. This is a team that does not have a back up ruckman at all and it is their Kryptonite. Yes, Ryder is a very good player, but it also speaks to the drop off and disruption his absence causes the squad. Port Adelaide go from a top 4-side with him to a mid-table side at best without. And, keep in mind that Ryder carries multiple long-term injuries and crippling niggles into every game (just like every other ruckman). Max Gawn’s training last week consisted of walking a few laps as he nursed his body towards his team’s clash with the Swans on the weekend. Imagine if these guys were fit. Imagine if the premier ruckman didn’t have to shoulder 20 to 30 weeks of brutal workload. Imagine if you had two Lewis Hamilton’s…
In basketball it would be madness to not have at least two quality big men to compete in the front court. Think David Robinson and Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs. The backbone of one of the most successful playoffs runs in the NBA, and one of the most successful and enduring sporting teams in world sport. Without depth in the Centre and Power Forward positions there would be a lack of flexibility in the side, a lack of adaptability to in-game match ups, injuries, and foul situations. It would be tactically inept.
The West Coast Eagles are the current example that comes closest to having two Premier Ruckman in their list with Nic Naitanui and Scott Lycett. How is that going for them? They sit clear second on the ladder and have separated themselves from the pack with two weeks of the league proper remaining. Not bad for a side that scraped into the top eight last year and lost their midfield leaders to retirement. I have no doubt that having these two big men in their side has helped them tremendously amongst many other factors. But, the standout factor here is the saddening situation of Nic Nat’s knee injuries. It is with great relief and to huge effect that Adam Simpson has a top quality big man (Lycett) to call on and keep the Eagles moving upwards as we head into the pointy end of the season. At 25, Lycett is coming into his prime and will be getting a fat new contract with the Eagles, that is a certainty.
The question is… will the next tactical watershed of the AFL be constructing squads around two premier ruckman? A list that can utilise two ruckmen in a matchday 22, or a list that can limit a ruckman’s games to 10 or 15 so they are fresh, lean, and at the peak of their powers in September? A list that can hold strong and not be affected one bit by a shocking long term injury to their star ruckman (like the West Coast 2018)? And are there enough elite ruckmen to go around? If there is not, will there be five or six canny tacticians that horde the best and separate themselves from the rest?
There are rule changes afoot that may have something to say about this. There is also the Richmond phenomenon where ‘small is everything’. And, there is always the traditional thinking that says there is no room for two ruck stars in a list, or that the elite ruckman need to play every game to keep form (or to keep them happy!)
To this last point, I take a glance at other professional football codes. It is a well-known fact that it is almost impossible to win the English Premier League without 22 players (two for each position) that are good enough to be a part of a winning side. A football season is a slog, with harsh and varying conditions to navigate and ever-growing injury lists that turn contenders into also-rans. So for such a pivotal position, do list managers need to go to the trade table and the draft with the intension of gaining their own ‘Lycett’ to partner up with their current ‘Nic-Nat’?
I feel that this is the next evolution in the professionalism of the AFL. Especially as these 200cm+ athletes coming through will become more agile, better at ground level, and generally more skillful. We are already seeing it with the best big men in the game, and this will only get better and better.
We're hoping this will be the first of many articles from Paul on The Mongrel. You can see more of his work on his website paulfarina.com.au
*Not a guarantee