Matthew Leuenberger joined Essendon on a three-year deal as a restricted free agent after the Lions let him walk despite dissatisfaction with the AFL’s compensation.
Essendon was in desperate need of a ruckman after ranking 15th in the competition for clearances per game in 2015 and dead last for hit-outs per game and Leuenberger was on the outer at Brisbane after being told that Stefan Martin would assume the role of number one ruck.
What sort of player is he?
Leuenberger is a ruckman who fits into the old fashioned no-frills role better than the modern role of a ruckman who is expected to be competent as a forward as well as in the ruck. He has kicked just 27 goals in 108 games and never more than nine in a season which, for someone at his height, indicates an inability to rotate as a second or third tall forward; positions that Essendon also sorely missed in 2015. He isn’t particularly good winning clearances or gathering possessions as rucks increasingly are in today’s game nor is he a good mark of the footy. His lies almost entirely in his ability to provide his midfielders with first use of the footy.
Where will he play?
A key factor in Leuenberger choosing Essendon as his club of choice was that he was offered the number one ruck role and that’s the position he will assume from day one. His aforementioned deficiencies as a forward will mean that he will contest a vast majority of stoppages while either Tom Bellchambers or Shaun McKernan fill the role of second forward alongside Joe Daniher.
At his best…
It’s easy to forget that Leuenberger has the ability be one of the very best ruckmen in the competition afforded the opportunity to ruck solo and a clean bill of health, the former of which he will definitely have at Essendon. In 2013, the last season where he played at least 20 games he averaged 13.6 disposals and 30.4 hitouts per game and looked to be on the way to his ceiling as a player until injuries struck once again. Similarly in 2010 and 2011, the only other two seasons where he has managed more than 20 games, he averaged 15.2 disposals and 26.9 hitouts per game.
Will he be a success?
In a word, no. While Leuenberger may have the talent to be a force as a solo ruckman the unfortunate fact of the matter is that he can’t stay injury-free long enough to reach his sizeable potential, playing just 108 games for Brisbane in nine years.
Ruckmen who do all but nothing else around the ground are all but extinct in the AFL for good reason; playing such a player, of which Leuenberger certainly is, sacrifices considerable versatility in how Essendon will structure the rest of the team. Either Tom Bellchambers or Shaun McKernan, who showed promise at times in 2015, is going to miss out every week with Leuenberger seemingly guaranteed a spot.
Playing all three of Leuenberger, Daniher and Bellchambers seems as though it will be top-heavy and lack mobility while providing no guarantee that it will solve Essendon’s second forward woes unless Bellchambers can remain fit and re-capture his 2013 form as a forward. McKernan replacing Bellchambers could have potential; McKernan is considerably more adept around the ground than Bellchambers, averaging 18.3 disposals at 77.4% efficiency in his nine games in 2015 and having Leuenberger ahead of him will save him from the types of demolitions he suffered in the ruck at the hands of Todd Goldstein, though he does not have the contested marking prowess necessary for a good second forward.
Worsfold might also toy with the idea of having Daniher play as second ruck, as he often has, to Leuenberger and playing 18 year old Kyle Langford as the second forward and allowing him to develop in the role which the club hopes he will fill long-term. The best case scenario for Essendon out of this recruitment is that Leuenberger provides a short-term fix while the club searches for its next ruckman but the more likely outcome is that Essendon fans are left frustrated by his injuries and lack of versatility he brings to the team.