Despite the combatants being all smiles at the season-end awards in 2018, there is a professional tension brewing between two of the best big men in the game. The war is not over, and the ceasefire is about to end.
The league’s best two big men are about to go head to head again in the biggest ruck duel we’ve seen in the AFL in many years, and we’re set to see their battle go to another level.
Max Gawn set a new standard in 2018, breaking the all-time record for hit outs in a season. He finished with 1119 for the year, becoming just the third player to top the 1000-mark, and the first to ever reach the 1100-mark.
Joining him in the 1000 hit out club was Collingwood big man, Brodie Grundy, who put together a stellar season of his own, and where Gawn had Grundy covered in total taps, Grundy more than made up for it with his second efforts and individual clearance work.
There are those who sit firmly in the Gawn camp when asked who the best ruckman in the game is, currently. But those who plump for Grundy do so with just as much passion. Gawn supporters point to the fact that Gawn does what a ruckman is paid to do – win hit outs to the advantage of his teammates – and he does it better than anyone else. Grundy’s fans have to look a little more broadly to find their ammunition, but not too far. Tackle-counts, clearances and disposals per game see Grundy comfortably out in front of his nemesis.
So, how do we split these two? We can look at their head to head statistics, win-loss records when opposing each other, and so on, but that is an extremely inexact science (my favourite kind of science, if I’m being honest – I love a good bit of manipulation). In doing that, you’re not taking into account their respective ages. Gawn is 27 – a good 2+ years older than Grundy, and is now in his absolute peak years. After being a bit of a lad for a bit too long, Gawn put away the ciggies and beers (for the most part) and started concentrating on his football.
And just as he did, Grundy started coming into his own.
To be fair, the Grundy v Gawn ruck wars only really kicked into gear in 2018. With both men recording career-best seasons, and the ruck role itself becoming more important to team success, both were considered integral to their club’s success.
The teams had only one head-to-head clash in 2018, which saw the equivalent of a points-decision to Grundy due to the fact his team was victorious. He went for 38 hit outs in the Collingwood win, topping Gawn’s 33, though Gawn was probably better around the ground, collecting 17 touches and three marks to Grundy’s 13/1.
The Collingwood big man did manage to accrue seven tackles and 11 contested touches to go with his four clearances, whilst Gawn had just one tackle, 12 contested touches and two clearances.
So if this was Round One in the modern ruck wars, what can we expect when the two finally meet in 2019?
The Pies and Demons square off twice this year, and initially I thought we may even get a third contest in the finals, however Melbourne’s horrid season makes that highly unlikely.
The first bout will come on the traditional Queens Birthday clash, and the second bout will occur in Round 21. With both teams possessing quality ball-winning midfields, the advantage of first hands on the footy at stoppages could be the factor that sways the contest. Melbourne are coming off a heartbreaking loss to the Crows, and the Pies are still smarting about dropping a game to the traveling Dockers.
Despite both teams possessing high quality players all over the park, there is a strong argument that both Grundy and Gawn are the two most important players to their respective teams. A Collingwood team without Grundy becomes a team with a midfield that will be chasing tail instead of taking the initiative at centre bounces and with both Dayne Beams and Taylor Adams sidelined, the “greatest midfield ever assembled” is starting to look a little thinner. Likewise, the Melbourne midfield, so often afforded first use of the ball via Gawn, becomes a break-even group once Gawn is out of the side. Ask yourself – what would they be this season without Gawn?
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One of the big changes we’ve seen in 2019 is the option for ruckmen to take the ball cleanly from a stoppage without the automatic free kick against them if they’re immediately tackled.
In 2018, Grundy was already employing this tactic, and his clearance numbers reflect it. He averaged 5.3 clearances per game, which was good enough for 21st in the league. The overall leader was Tom Mitchell, with 8.0 per contest, but early in the season, Grundy sensed opportunity. He racked up 7.5 clearances per game over the first four weeks of the season before opposition coaches started waking up to it. Currently, Grundy has slipped back to 5.64 clearances per game, but this is still a career high.
Gawn was way down the list in 2018, with just 2.6 clearances per game, much preferring to palm the ball down to his mids. However, with the rule changes, Gawn’s clearance numbers have almost doubled to 5.18 per game.
While the Pies might be flying in 2019 and the Demons are unexpectedly nose-diving, the Gawn v Grundy battle will wage irrespective of ladder positions. There is a lot of personal pride at stake here – not just the four points. Pundits are already calling Grundy the best ruckman of 2019 – it must be sand in Gawn’s Vaseline to have been disregarded so quickly by those who sung his praises so loudly last season.
Gawn’s last four weeks reflect a man who has been stung into action. 18.75 disposals, 41.75 hit outs, and 5.25 clearances per game has seen him put his team on his back, willing them to come along with him. As though sensing Gawn’s form improving, Grundy has responded. His numbers over the past four weeks are phenomenal. 22 disposals, 5.5 clearances and a mammoth 52 hit outs per contest are as good as it gets.
Their dominance is reflected in The Mongrel’s own Player Power Rankings. Grundy has held the number one spot for four straight periods, whilst Gawn has slowly been climbing the ladder, and now sits in fourth place overall. If anyone can knock Grundy from his lofty perch, it’d be Gawn. And I reckon he’d relish doing it.
Today, June 10th is the second round in what will be an ongoing battle for individual supremacy between two of the league’s best big men.
For Grundy, a big win over Gawn would solidify his status in the current hive mind of the AFL media. He’s already been anointed as the All-Australian ruckman after just 11 games. For Gawn, it will serve as a tap on the shoulder of those same people, just to remind them that while he may not be the flavour of the month, he is still well and truly on the menu.
Regardless of how this plays out, in a competition where we simply do not get genuine head to head matchups, this one should be celebrated.
Two giants of the sport, at their absolute peaks, will lock horns for the first time this season. And The Mongrel will love every second of it.
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