Test of strength: Tom Bellchambers (left) comes to grips with Carlton's Shaun Hampson. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
TOM Bellchambers has had to wait, be patient and be ready when problems have beset other Essendon players.
Save for the few games he has played alongside Patrick Ryder and David Hille, the 22-year-old has needed one of them to be missing from the Bombers' line-up to get a go. Bellchambers' 30 games have been played in 11 stints, some as short as one match, and the longest a six-game run early last season.
His stop-start career has been like that endured by many young ruckmen. But in his three games this season, Bellchambers has done more than simply fill in for the injured Hille and looks an improved player. Both he and Ryder are winning more of the ball than before, as well as more hitouts. Both have been hitting the ball to better spots.
Spending more time on the ground together has led to a greater understanding of each other and made them a better duo, says Essendon ruck coach Simon Madden.
''I think that goes for all players,'' the former champion ruckman said. ''The more time you're out there the more you can get to know your teammates. But it certainly goes for ruckmen, and that's something I experienced when I was playing as well.
''There's less words, more looks, maybe a bit of pointing. There's no doubt that comes with the more games you're getting to play together.''
Ryder has done most of his work in the ruck since Hille's injury, and Madden said he was learning quickly how to put his heavier body to good use.
Ryder's average of 16 possessions places him just behind Aaron Sandilands, Dean Cox, Ivan Maric and Nic Naitanui, but Madden believes he has become stronger in the ruck contests.
''Paddy's always going to be one of the lighter ruckmen, I think. But he's bigger, he's stronger and he's still got his great leap,'' he said.
''He's been able to put on a bit of weight and I think he could still be a few kilos heavier, but that's helped him combat the stronger blokes while not losing the leap. It's a nice balance.''
Bellchambers, in his fourth season, has lifted his disposals average to 12 a game and his hitouts to 23.9. His disposal efficiency of 63.9 per cent puts him in the second half of Champion Data's 24 top-ranked ruckmen, but he is winning more ruck contests than he loses, grabbing eight of his possessions in close and also learning how to better use his body.
''The funny thing about the ruck is the more you actually play in the ruck, the more you understand it,'' Madden said. ''You run into the big bodies, they beat you and you start to think: what if I do this, this and this?
''I just think that after a few games you start to get the concept of it. It's a body game, there's contact and as you get bigger you've got to understand how to use your weight and position your body. I think [Bellchambers] has improved … in the way he positions himself and uses his body, and he's only 22. He's only [played] 30 games.''
''We've been very happy,'' said coach James Hird. ''Darren Jolly probably had the best of us last week and Tommy and Paddy would be the first to say they want to improve on that game, but the week before against Carlton they played very well.
''As a ruck unit we think it's one of our strengths and certainly Tommy getting a lot more game time has been good for his development.''