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AFL ruckmen: overrated players, or overrated position?

The big men fly ... Aaron Sandilands is high on the rankings.

The big men fly ... Aaron Sandilands is high on the rankings. Photo: Pat Scala

Aaron Sandilands might be the most overrated player in football. Or he might just play in the most overrated position.

Leigh Matthews, a man of detached reason about the game, recently observed that Sandilands was the most overrated player. It wasn't as personal an upbraiding as it sounds; it was a measured assessment of not just the player but the position.


"They [Dockers] lose the clearances every week," Matthews said recently on 3AW. "Hitouts are useless, it's only what they contribute to the clearance, running the ball away from the pack.

"So I'm going to make a statement: Aaron Sandilands is therefore the most overrated player in footy, because hitouts is all he does."

Gerard Healy, also from Fairfax radio, reckoned this assessment of the Docker underappreciated a significant element of Sandilands' game.


"Sandilands' imposing nature and the fact you know he is going to win most taps means the opposition almost always plays an extra man at the stoppage, which means [Freo] can use Michael Johnson as a loose man across half-back," Healy said.

"His hitouts to advantage always have to be seen in light of that - how often do they lose the clearance but Michael Johnson gets the ball at half-back and sends it forward for them to score?"

Sandilands' fault is in never becoming the all-dominating player he threatened to be when he burst onto the scene.

He needed to have been able to go forward, mark and goal more often. At his size, he should have been able to make a bigger impact forward - in the way Dean Cox and Nic Naitanui have.

Sandilands' arrival in the game might have sent a shiver through recruiters, who ferretted about in the forest of seven-foot athletes searching for their own Sandilands, but what they soon discovered was that finding another Cox was a more urgent search. The "ruck-follower", not the mountain ruck, was the "new black" in football.

"The around-the-ground stuff he has got better at, but the game has changed too, to make it harder for all rucks to take the number of marks around the ground they used to take," said an assistant coach.

The view of the worth of Sandilands, or Cox or Naitanui for that matter, will largely be informed by your philosophical view of ruckmen. What value is a ruck? Are they all overrated?

Some such as former St Kilda coach Grant Thomas have long argued the virtue of the ruck is tenuous and the praise they receive bloated.

Mark Thompson, in response to Matthews' recent comments on Sandilands, said he broadly agreed with the four-time premiership coach.

"I've never placed a great emphasis on ruckmen either," Thompson said. "But when you haven't got one and you're playing two young kids against someone like Sandilands it does make a difference."

One club's ruck coach said it was difficult to assess the value of ruckmen because people tried to distil their game to statistics that were inadequate and misleading, because the intangibles of a good ruck were unquantifiable.

"What value do you put on a big bloke having presence? What value do you put on a bloke who knocks midfielders over, blocks and puts the wind up them? None of those are stats.

"The ruck stats are basically bulls--t anyway. Hitouts are the most useless statistic ever. You can only look at hitouts to advantage and even then you have to look at clearances and scores from stoppages. You can be putting it down your midfield's throat but if they fumble, get tackled or don't clear it then that is not your fault.

"We never used hitout figures, they are a complete waste of time, they are nonsense. Hitting the ball first means nothing if your team doesn't clear it.

"Hitout to advantage figures are what we look at. If the ruck can hit to your advantage it is then up to the midfielder to clear the ball. We review the games and rank the ruck hitouts for every game and I am sure all clubs do the same.

"You have to look at every one and give it a grade and then you can get an idea of whether they were any good."

As another analyst observed, West Coast in 2012 didn't always win the centre clearances, but of the centre clearances it did win it scored at a significantly higher rate than any other team. When it got it right - which it did more than others - it scored heavily.

The modern game has evolved to militate against the impact of many rucks. The full-ground press and preference for holding possession with short kicks means rucks are taking fewer marks around the ground than before.

Typically, kicks to rucks are last resort options along the boundary. Rucks, then, who are mobile enough to get into space and run hard forward - Cox, Matthew Lobbe - are increasingly valuable.

The popular tactic of playing a loose player behind the ball has also meant clubs are reluctant to adopt the crude but successful tactic of Brisbane in the 2001-03 period under Matthews, when Clark Keating didn't try to palm the ball lightly to a midfielder at his feet but rather belted it forward as hard as he could for his ballistic midfield to run onto.

There was nothing subtle about it, but it was extremely effective. It is curious sides with a dominant ruck have not done that more often and manned up the opposition spare in defence, to offset the superior number that might otherwise gather the loose ball.

Thompson said he liked watching Sandilands play, accepted that he got a lot of hitouts to advantage and helped Fremantle win games, but that was not to say he would have him at any price.

"If I had a choice, if I'd want someone like that, I'd say yes," Thompson said. "But if you had to pick someone like Sandilands or [Matthew] Pavlich, I'd pick Pavlich every day of the week."

That prompts the list management question of how good a ruckman do you need? And how much is a good ruckman worth?

You definitely can't have a bad one or try to get by with no real ruck at all, but do you need to spend a large portion of your salary cap getting an exceptional one?

Are you, for instance, better to spend $400,000 on a ruck and have an extra $300,000 to spend on your midfield or a key forward than spend $700,000 on one ruck?

The answer it would seem depends on who you were getting for your $700,000, $800,000 or more. Would you pay top dollar for a Dean Cox? Yes. For a Sandilands? Maybe, maybe not.

"It's very tough, you can debate that for hours and still you won't find everyone agreeing," Carlton football manager Andrew McKay said.

"It depends on who is under [the ruckman]. You need an exceptional one when they are not quite as good underneath but if you have a ripping midfield you can get by with a lesser ruck.

"They are still hugely important. You see the ones who have the whole package, who have the size, can run up and down the ground, go forward and take a mark and kick a couple of goals a game, then they are hugely important. But they are extremely hard to find."

Rob Kerr, formerly Brisbane list manager and now the new head of list recruitment at Essendon, said a good ruckman was worth his money.

"A good ruckman is worth his weight in gold on grand final day," Kerr said. "And what is often underrated is whether they can take a mark around the ground or not.

"They are becoming harder to take in the modern game, so the value of the player who can take them is higher."

Another list manager said: "How much extra value does a good ruck bring over an adequate ruck compared to, say, getting a very good mid instead of a good mid or a very good key forward?

"You don't want to overspend on a ruck. They don't turn games like the other positions, in my opinion."

Where you find the ruck then is the equally vexing issue. Clubs have been increasingly reluctant to "waste" early picks on rucks because of the relative uncertainty of their development, preferring in many cases to trade for a proven commodity or find one off the rookie list or from a state league.

No other position on the ground considers an ability to play football as such a secondary consideration as when recruiters fish for rucks in the pool of tall athletes from other sports.

Rucks are football art where beauty is a subjective thing, and you can't define it or measure it statistically but you know the good one when you see him. The problem for the recruiter is finding the diamond in the ruck.

12 comments so far

  • An old lecturer of mine (Mark Stewart from RMIT) applied econometric/Moneyball theory to the AFL. One of the more surprising findings of his 2007 research paper was that ruck tap outs have little influence on game outcomes. I've been paying attention since and it's hard to argue against as opposition midfielders just intercept them half the time anyway.

    Date and time
    May 01, 2014, 10:27PM
    • I doubt it, but to conclude they have no value even if that was correct would be a mistake. I'm sure if one team played a genuine ruckman and the other had nobody, we would see quite a significant difference. Therefore both teams need to play ruckman, even if they nullify each other.

      Date and time
      May 02, 2014, 8:03AM
    • You lost it when you said "old lecturer" and "applied economic moneyball theory".

      Fair dinkum pal half the reason Aussie Rules is becoming a technical load of horse shite, is because of people in universities planting their studies on a game that doesn't need them.

      Watch a side without a Ruckman, against a side with one. Or better still, watch a game and learn the crux of it. Not through some stupid study or theory.

      Date and time
      May 02, 2014, 9:29AM
    • The key is to have quality midfielders to support the Ruck. I have fond memories of 95, Fitzpatrick palming the ball to our midfielders clearance, Goal. If Nic Nat meets his potential and has quality mids, watch the damage he will cause.

      Go Blues
      Date and time
      May 02, 2014, 5:13PM
  • I'm sorry, but when you put Sandilands down by suggesting that "he should have been able to make a bigger impact forward - in the way Dean Cox and Nic Naitanui have" you just lose me. Have you watched the Perth derbies in the Sandilands/ Cox/Naitanui era? How Sandilands has basically smashed the West Coast pairing? Forget the so-called "stats"; lift your eyes up to the one stat that matters - the scoreboard.
    Sandilands has his limitations - anyone who watches footy understands that. But people who REALLY watch footy also appreciate his strengths. And anyone who rates Naitanui ahead of Sandillands in ANY aspect of the game must believe media releases are encyclopedia entries.

    Tell you what. Let's auction off Sandiands's services to the other 17 AFL teams. Any NON-takers? I thought not.

    Date and time
    May 02, 2014, 2:41AM
    • one thing not taken into consideration with a bloke like sandilands or warnock is that onballers, forwards and defenders know where the ball is going to go and they can set up accordingly for this. So whether the team wins the clearance or not they can set up for each scenario. With Freo, even when they lose the clearance the opposition do not get a clear take-away.

      Date and time
      May 02, 2014, 8:32AM
      • The introduction of interchange has exacerbated the decline of Ruckman and larger bodies in the game. We better get use to a loss of these body types disappearing from our game as 190cm midfielders dominate. The game is effectively heading towards being just Soccer with marks and mauls.

        Date and time
        May 02, 2014, 8:51AM
        • Incredibly ill informed nonsense. And as far as Gilly's dipstick boffin mate above, has he ever heard the old adage "Lies, damned lies, and statistics".

          There's only three types of people in this world - those that count and those that don't.

          Mach 1
          Date and time
          May 02, 2014, 8:58AM
          • Back in the day the ruckmen played as a fourth midfielder once the ball hit the deck. Often a kick behind the play and always pushing back hard in defence to cut off the ball.
            However these days with the huge emphasis coaches put on stoppages and the amount of numbers they throw around the ball, it is not surprising their influence has dropped.
            Teams just smother the ball with huge numbers so how is a ruckman supposed to hit a ball to someone cleanly? The most useful ruckmen are those such as Mumford who through their bodies around, and cox who runs himself into the ground each game.
            Then there are the Sandilands/Warnock types, the giants who generally dominate taps.
            Last is you Naitanui types, who can't offer anything around the ground as a big player and would rather take the soft option of paddling a ball along the ground.

            Date and time
            May 02, 2014, 10:27AM
            • And yet, would Sydney (2005, Darren Jolly), West Coast (2006, Dean Cox), Geelong (2007, Brad Ottens), Collingwood (2010, Darren Jolly), Sydney (2012, Shane Mumford, Mike Pyke) have premierships without those ruckmen? And the clubs and other years I missed.

              I doubt it. They all played significant roles in getting their club to the grand final, and then the flag.I'm sure if you asked those clubs to replay the year without those players, they'd say "no freakin way!"

              Date and time
              May 02, 2014, 11:01AM

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