Twelve months ago, AFL legend Leigh Matthews labelled hitouts as “useless” and questioned the ruck position. Grant Thomas and to a lesser extent Mark Thompson agreed with him.

This year has seen a number of performances by rucks highlighting the importance of the role and the way in which it can shape a game.

Perhaps it’s the sub rule, or maybe the evolving nature of tactics in the AFL: regardless, the better ruckmen this season appear to be smarter with their hitouts and their ability to impact the contest.

Todd Goldstein had 27 disposals, eight marks and 56 hitouts in round 16 against Essendon. North Melbourne dominated the centre clearances and had a clear advantage in stoppages around the ground as well. He played against Shaun McKernan – a player who needs to develop his ruck skills and body position in the contest.

By halfway through the third quarter, North Melbourne were comfortably on their way to winning. Goldstein’s dominance in the ruck contest gave his midfielders first use, and this overwhelmed Essendon’s centremen. James Hird’s tactic was to match Goldstein around the ground, rather than in the ruck.

It isn’t the first time this season we’ve seen a different tactic to try and prove ruck dominance means little. In round seven, Luke Beveridge decided to use a mix of Ayce Cordy, Tom Boyd and Jordan Roughead – none of who are strong, frontline rucks – to play against Aaron Sandilands and Zac Clarke.

Fremantle ran out 13-point victors, having dominated the hitouts 69-13 and winning the clearance count by five. The tactic was unsuccessful, not only because of the result or the statistical gulf, but due to the change in what it means to be a ruckman.

Geelong went with the Blicavs/Walker combination when playing Melbourne at home in round 12. It marked Max Gawn’s third game of 2015, but at 208 cm and 111 kgs, he was an imposing figure in solid form. Blicavs, who is a solid first choice ruckman when required, was trying to have an influence as the third man up: a tactic that had worked previously.

Gawn was supreme with 44 hitouts and 19 possessions. Melbourne clearly won the clearance count and upset Geelong at Simonds Stadium. Blicavs had an outstanding game himself, but didn’t play as a full-time ruckman, but rather a midfielder who tried to create a mismatch for Gawn at stoppages.

In the performances listed above, not only have hitouts been a major factor in the result, but they have increased confidence within ruckmen, giving players somewhat of a second wind in the second half of matches.

In an age where fitness is king, it is clear that the best ruck performances have combined hitouts with disposals, marks and tackles. Todd Goldstein’s performances this year have seen his always outstanding ruck work create an even higher work ethic – one that sees him as an extra, taller midfielder.

The athletic ruckmen of the competition are in a similar boat. Nic Naitanui, Tom Nicholls and Brodie Grundy have all played incredibly important matches. Naitanui in particular has had his critics, but his last five weeks have shown how his good ruck work and improving fitness is critical to West Coast’s form both now and in the future.

Dean Cox was the first ruckman to consistently average 17-18 possessions a game and 23+ hitouts, with 2008-2012 the period where Cox oversaw the Eagles’ progression from cellar dwellers to serious contenders. This was on the back of his ability to provide good service in stoppages to his midfielders, and to run and spread for his team.

We seemed to move away from that in recent years. Matthews’ and Thomas’ criticisms were warranted given the trend of stationary ruckmen, like Mark Jamar, an older Aaron Sandilands and Robert Warnock. In their coaching tenures, neither had particularly mobile ruckmen at their disposal (with perhaps Monkhorst an exception), and their opinions may well have been based on experience.

On their own, it’s true. Hitouts are a pretty bland statistic without knowing hitout-to-advantage numbers. Yet the increase in stoppages has almost by itself ‘resurrected’ the hitout and its importance.

In Dean Cox’s prime, less than a decade ago, it was work ethic that brought him those outstanding numbers. Same with Aaron Sandilands.

Now, the forced increase in hitout numbers are forcing ruckmen to work harder around the ground. It’s forcing them to make it to each contest. It’s forcing them to do more for the team.

Todd Goldstein is the best ruckman in the competition. He’s averaging three more disposals and 10 more hitouts a game this season. He has put North Melbourne in the box seat for a finals position over the past month.

Always one of the better ruckmen in terms of endurance, Goldstein is now a smarter runner around the ground, and a smarter tap ruckman.

This season has seen it become a trend among big men and changed the way in which ruckmen will be looked at forever.

They always say a year is a long time in football. It’s no different for this position, which was nearly superfluous to some just 12 months ago.

Now, the ruckman might well be the most important player on the field.