A few years back people were calling the ruck contest a dying art, but as we sit here in 2013, nothing could be further from the truth. The modern day ruckman comes in many shapes and sizes from the 211 cm bullocking giant that is Aaron Sandilands, to Dean Cox whose work around the ground sees him receive All Australian nominations year after year. There are few roles more important than the ruckman.
The modern game does not allow for passengers. If you can’t win the ball, play forward and help defensively you’ll find it very hard to make it at the elite level and this can be incredibly difficult if you’re 204 cm. If you follow AFL passionately you’ll know that ruckmen are capable of some strange things on the field and if players can avoid giving it to them, they most often do. Watching North Melbourne play, they actively avoid giving the ball to Todd Goldstein in the middle of the ground.
The modern game has led to the death of the one dimensional second ruckman. The days where you could park a Dylan McLaren on the bench and only give him a run when Clark Keating was exhausted are gone, but that doesn’t mean the second ruck role has lost its importance; it’s just had a renovation. No longer is the second ruckman simply there to give number one ruck a chop out. Now it’s strategically used as a second or third tall up forward and they can have a real impact on the scoreboard.
Seeing ruckmen like Mark Blicavs whose primary function is to run his opponent into the ground and not necessarily win the tap is a clear example of where the game is at. Collingwood’s decision to recruit Leigh Brown from North Melbourne was a key reason why they were able to win the premiership in 2010. His ability to give Darren Jolly a chop out as well as kick a goal a game in a team with Cloke and Dawes was vital. These days the second ruckman must be able to play a key role up forward and this has given players like David Hale and Mike Pyke opportunities which they have grabbed with both hands.
A ruckman’s ability to compete is also very important. Before picking up Ivan Maric, Richmond relied upon Angus Graham who more often than not got monstered by the likes of Michael Gardiner and Brad Ottens. Now if you look at Richmond purely on stats, they’re second last in the competition for hitouts but the contest Maric gives and his ability to nullify the opposition is important to give the likes of Cotchin and Tuck the ability to shark the tap and win the clearance.
There are still a few of the old fashion style ruckmen around. Ruckmen like Todd Goldstein and Robert Warnock who win the tap and then get out of the way and let the midfielders do their job but their inability to influence the game in other facets is a problem and in Warnocks’ case is why Shaun Hampson and Levi Casboult usually get games ahead of him when Kreuzer is fit.
A few years ago the idea of not playing a ruckman, and instead playing a fourth midfielder to shark the tap of the opposition and run the ruckman into the ground was tossed around. Now this could be effective against a lesser ruckman but if you look at expert tap ruckmen such as Nic Naitanui and Matthew Kreuzer, letting them go up unopposed could leave you seriously far behind clearance wise. Getting your hands on the ball first and effectively is as important as it’s ever been. However, ruckmen must now contribute around the grounds and now if a ruck can’t impact the game like Dean Cox or kick goals like David Hale then their days are numbered.