Complete... Dean Cox is the quintessential modern ruckman. Photo: Getty Images
As absurd as it may sound, Australia’s tallest teenagers - in fact, teens from around the world if they’re any sort of decent athlete - should be clamouring over one another to get in the door of the AFL.
Our game has evolved so much in the last 20 years that pure football ability is no longer the No. 1 pre-requisite. And of all the positions up for grabs for wannabe AFL players, it’s the position of ruckman which is there for the taking like none other.
The skill set of a ruckman has changed dramatically. Up until the mid-1990s, the ruckman was always the enforcer. He was the guy who weighed 20-30 kilograms more than his teammates, and he threw that size around.
He might not have had great foot skills, but he had a great pair of hands and could take a strong mark. He was also a good reader of the player, with the ability to drop back in front of the forwards and stymie opposition attacks.
Barry Round with South Melbourne and Scott Wynd (Footscray) won a Brownlow Medal playing that role. Other ruckmen, such as Essendon pair Simon Madden and Paul Salmon could dominate in the ruck then go forward and kick goals.
In the 1990s, we saw the emergence of a different type, players such as Jim Stynes, Corey McKernan, Luke Darcy, Shaun Rehn and Peter Everitt, and then a few years after that, Dean Cox. They had the athleticism that few of their predecessors possessed and used their running ability to rack up possessions around the ground.
While Stynes’ story is well documented, it was the athletic levels of McKernan, Darcy and Cox that set them apart. They were regular 20-plus possession players, their impact around the ground more akin to that of a ruck-rover.
West Coast’s Cox, who announced this week that he was retiring at the end of the year, will on Friday night come up against Richmond ruckman Ivan Maric. While Maric is the old-school bullocking type ruckman, Cox is the genuine footballer.
Cox had some unbelievable ball-getters around him at the Eagles, but didn’t settle for just feeding them. Instead, just like Chris Judd, Daniel Kerr and Ben Cousins, he used his skill and knowledge of the game to rack up 25 possessions himself. That’s why the Eagles’ midfield brigade were so feared.
Which brings me to where the ruckman stands in the game now. Like Maric, there are other workhorses in the competition. The Western Bulldogs have Will Minson, the Giants have Shane Mumford and at Melbourne there’s Mark Jamar. These are players who generally try to open up a path for teammates and are all reasonably solid overhead, but lacking in other areas.
Essendon’s Paddy Ryder, meanwhile, has the ability to be as damaging as Cox on a good day because he has agility and athleticism, and can also go forward and kick goals. I’d throw Cox’s teammate Nic Naitanui and Fremantle’s Zac Clarke in the same boat. Both are unbelievable athletes, but are still learning to be consistent footballers.
Then there’s the new breed of super-talls, such as Carlton’s Robbie Warnock, Richmond’s Shaun Hampson, along with Collingwood’s newest recruit, American college basketballer Mason Cox, who has joined the Magpies as a category B rookie. The question has to be asked, though: Were these guys recruited only for their height?
The tallest player in the AFL is Fremantle’s Aaron Sandilands. When he’s marking the ball, he’s also close to the most dominant. But what about when he isn’t taking marks?
I tend to agree with what Leigh Matthews said earlier this year, which was that Sandilands can be overrated simply in terms of hitouts, which for years, Fremantle never capitalised on anyway.
Warnock and Hampson have height on their side, but what else? They’re not aggressive, nor do they have great running capacity. So exactly what is it about these super-tall players that attracts clubs?
Now we’re starting to see AFL clubs looking the world over for gun super-tall athletes. Whether their backgrounds are volleyball, basketball, Gaelic football or athletics, they’re all a chance to make a good buck in the AFL if they’re willing to give it a try. But what is their true value?
Every single one of them will take time - often many years - to develop their games, and there’s no guarantee they’ll make it at all. And if they can’t read the game, struggle to get a kick and are average with their hands, then what are they really contributing, and at what cost to their club?
Wouldn’t you prefer someone who’s half-a-foot shorter but grew up with the game, who knows where to be on the ground, who can go forward, take marks and kick bags of goals, or who can be equally as good at the other end of the ground getting in the way of rival forwards?
Where’s it all headed? Are we saying that the game is just about athleticism? After all, many of our on-ballers are now 190 centimetres. Is there a popular belief ruckmen have to tower over them?
I’d argue there’s much better value in a smaller footballer who actually knows how to play.