Australian Rules Football is an evolving sport. From rectangle fields to ovals. Fifty metre line, centre square, centre circle, and the ever shrinking oval ball. Defences have risen and 100 goals a season forwards have come and gone. Perhaps we are currently looking at the change of another part of the game. The Ruck.
Ruckmen. Those two big guys who flying at each other when the umpire bounces the ball. Tall players who leap or stand tall enough to be able to get to the ball before the other ruck at the opening bounce. That the bounce itself is endangered gets more press. But is it possible that a specialist ruckman is not needed?
When Carlton played Fremantle in round 17 the opposing rucks were Sean Darcy and Jack Silvangi. At the end of the game Darcy had fifty eight hit outs and Silvangi had 2. The Fremantle duo of Darcy and Jackson won this statistic outright 70 Hitouts to 18.
Carlton won the game 98 – 45. Almost every other statistic was won by Carlton on that day. There was no need to combat Fremantle in that department. If this game said anything it was why do you need the best ruckman. Especially when you do not need the best ruckman to win a Grand Final.
Premierships and Ruckmen
Go back and pick a Premiership team and more often than not the best ruckman of that era was not part of the Premiership. Todd Goldstein, Arron Sandilands no Premierships. Even the last Premiership team for the West Coast Eagles did not have Nic Natanui.
Natanui was injured. Replaced by Scott Lycett, who is looking at another Grand Final appearance at Port Adelaide this year. The best ruckman of most AFL eras is often in the teams outside the finals. Rarely, like Melbourne with Max Gawn in 2021, does the best Ruckman play and win a Premiership.
If you look at the lists of best ruckman of the modern era only six have premierships. Darren Jolly has two with Sydney and Collingwood, Max Gawn, Bard Ottens, Brendon Lade, Dean Cox and Shane Mumford.
Aaron Sandilands made the Grand Final in 2013 but did not win. Jeff White never made the Grand final. Neither have Todd Goldstein, Paddy Ryder, Stefan Martin, Sam Jacobs and Ben McEvoy. In the light of that and round 17 Carlton v Fremantle in 2023 do you really need a ruck at all?
When you look at the Hitout stats for 2023 it looks much the same, or does it? Reily O’Brien (Crows) leads Jarrod Witts (Suns) and Oscar McInerrney (Lions). That is one final contender to two. After this is Sean Darcy (Freo), Tim English (Bulldogs), Bailey Williams (Eagles), Rowan Marshall (Saints), Todd Goldstein (Kangaroos), Ned Reeves (Hawks) and Toby Nankervis (Tigers).
Only three teams in the finals with ruckmen in the top ten for 2023. If the Tigers sneak into the finals that might make four. But can you see the flaw in this argument. If we only look at Hitouts; is that really giving us the full picture?
For the big picture we need to consider the list of top rucks on more than just Hitouts. Because just one statistic does not truly show the impact of certain players. The dynamic ruckman is common place in 2023. In fact, most teams, like Melbourne with Max Gawn and Brodie Grundy, have multiple players who take turns in this role.
The old resting ruckman in the forward line is no longer the norm. The heights of players are growing, as is their fitness and all over athletic abilities. There are players who due to their size would have been rucks but now they are played across the ground. There will always be an attraction to tall players however the impact of a tall target is more the ideal than a Hitout to advantage.
Of course you have to mention the elusive unicorn Jake Kolodjashnij. Teams are already searching for that player who is a fit anywhere on the ground. Forward, back, midfield and defence. Tall, mobile and skilled. No just a dinosaur of T-Rex proportions but a giant Raptor prowling the ground. While still being that marking target across the ground.
Once again the game moves on. While some may blame the umpires for not being able to bounce the ball. These people should read the history of the game. Australian Rules Football has always been shifting and changing. Until the game no longer begins with the ball aloft where the big men fly, there will always be those who have the skills to get that first touch to advantage their teammates.
Phillip Hall has been too long in Melbourne to see AFL in the same light as those back in Fremantle. East Fremantle born and bred, he would love to see the Dockers back in the eight. But would settle for just beating West Coast twice a year.