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The tall and tall of it: How AFL ruck strategy has evolved



Footy is different this year. Quarters are shorter, there are fewer games, and scoring is down.

But, despite predictions of its demise, the second ruck has somehow survived.

Extremely tall and marginally talented men were supposed to have been exorcised from the league by now, replaced by smaller, nimbler players.

With shorter quarters, the prevailing wisdom was that a single ruck could see out almost the entire game, with little to no relief from a specialist backup.

Instead, 2020 has increasingly seen teams use two or more rucks to share the load, often with great success.

So, is the strategy here to stay?

Rucking through the ages

Ruckwork has undergone several phases throughout the long and winding history of Australian Football. In the early years of the game, very little of the game was played above the heads of players.

It took more than a decade for a ball up to be introduced to start the second half, and it was the 20th year of the game that saw the ball up or bounce introduced to discourage scrimmages.

It was a full decade later, in 1887, that the bounce was brought in to start each quarter. Before then, multiple rucks were used, but their roles would be hardly recognisable from the rucks we see today.

For the early part of the 20th century, a critical role on the ground was the “second ruck” (or “ruck shepherd”).

The ruck shepherd’s job was not to compete for the ball but instead actively impede the opposing ruck, be it by holding or occasionally hacking and kicking.

Eventually, as football modernised and societal standards changed, the second ruck’s role did too.

The prototypical second ruck these days is often a ruck-forward, a template outlined by Paul Salmon, or two big men operating in shifts, such as Dean Cox and Nic Naitanui.

Good rucks help win games

With less-heralded rucks such as Toby Nankervis, Scott Lycett and Jordan Roughead leading their sides to premierships in recent years, some doubt has been cast on the idea that a dominant ruck is needed to win games.

But a quick look shows that the relationship is clear.

Over the past eight years, there is a direct link between how many AFL Player Rating points a ruck earns and the outcome of a match.

It isn’t just a nice highlight when Brodie Grundy makes something out of nothing — it’s a sign that his team is getting on top.

It isn’t always the tapwork of a ruck that matters to their output on the field either.

Winning a hitout is one thing — but directing it to a teammate who is in the position to receive it is another thing altogether.

Given the significant advancements in strategy and movement in the last decade, it is harder than ever for a ruck to direct the ball effectively to a teammate, despite rule changes helping them to do so.

It is important to remember that not all hitouts look like this.

Instead, far more look like this.

While some even look like this.

Instead, it’s the around-the-ground impact — the contested marks, the decisive spoils, the spacing — that gives rucks much of their value.

For every team that was able to get by with makeshift rucks, such as the Bulldogs in 2016, there are other successful teams that deploy top-class talls.

The importance of the second ruck

While having a good primary ruck is important, it is potentially more critical to have a valuable player in the second ruck position.

The reason for this lies in how to best maximise the 22 players in a squad.

Players aren’t completely interchangeable. Not all players are suited to every role and some are only able to be utilised in very narrow ways.

This is particularly the case for the biggest players. Some rucks can loiter up forward, play as a spare back or even as an extra linkman/tall marking target down the line. However, more get lost when asked to do anything outside their main role.

At the same time, the drastic increase in the number of interchanges in a game means the days of carrying a spare ruck on the bench to play 27 per cent of the game, as Stephen Doyle did in the 2003 Preliminary Final for Sydney against Brisbane, are firmly over.

A team’s second ruck has to play meaningful minutes in non-ruck roles, otherwise other teams will exploit them around the ground. It doesn’t even really matter if they win hitouts when forced into the ruck.

The data suggests a relieving ruck who can’t justify their place in the team with another role shouldn’t be selected.

This appears to be part of the thinking that the Bulldogs and Tigers have employed in recent years by deploying midfielders Josh Dunkley and Shaun Grigg as relieving rucks.

The very best secondary rucks are good players who happen to also be serving a ruck need. They can be critical difference makers.

The ability to serve multiple roles while only using one of 22 player selection slots is particularly precious.

To go with one or two?

Knowing all of this, clubs are often faced with a difficult dilemma.

In the current AFL landscape, one of the biggest tactical questions each team has to answer is: Should we go with one specialist ruck or two?

The wisdom in recent years has leaned towards one dominant ruck and a supporting tall who plays much of the game in another role.

The biggest change to ruck selection strategy occurred in 2017, when the rule banning the “third man up” was introduced. No longer could a side play a holding tall in a ruck contest while a teammate leapt over the top.

As Mark Evans from the AFL stated at the time: “Eliminating the ‘third man up’ at ruck contests will support the recruitment of tall players and ensure our game continues to be played at the elite level by players of various sizes and differing abilities.”

In the wake of the new rule, teams generally moved to fielding a primary ruck assisted by a pinch hitter.

However, one club stuck to its tried and tested formula.

Having both Dean Cox and Nic Naitanui fit into one team is a good problem for a club to have.

With two elite talls, West Coast became accustomed to playing two rucks in the same side — and they did so to great success.

Cox, with his ability to read the play, was often deployed a kick behind the ball, while the attacking skill of Naitanui often headed goal-side.

Cox’s retirement in 2014 left some temptation to return to a more traditional structure, but the Eagles doubled down — even when Naitanui got hurt. Players such as Nathan Vardy, Jonathan Giles, Scott Lycett, and Tom Hickey have rotated through the ruck spots, as the Eagles persevered down the dual ruck path.

The Eagles are leaning on a one-ruck strategy this year more than at any other time since 2012, with Naitanui taking the lion’s share of ruck contests. But West Coast may be bucking the league-wide trend.

Who is doing what in 2020?

Generally, most sides still use one ruck most of the time, with a part-timer filling in the gaps. But the circumstances of this strange, strange season have changed the narrative.

There was an early presumption that reduced total game time would mean sides with good rucks would rely as much as possible on them to ruck the entire game.

With the second wave of COVID-19 in Australia impacting fixtures further, the wall-to-wall blocks of games meant sides had as little as three days to recuperate between matches.

These intensive periods meant reduced football departments had to rework their strategy on the run — again. More clubs started using second rucks to rest their primary options to nurse them through the period, while others stuck to their solo guns.

Notably, a couple of rising finalist sides are exploring the dual ruck approach long taken by the Eagles.

St Kilda are justifying the acquisition of veteran recruit Paddy Ryder by pairing him with the rising Rowan Marshall. The pair combine solid ruck craft with two goals a game of output when combined.

Brisbane started the year with Oscar McInerney and Stefan Martin in a pretty even pairing, then, with Martin’s injury, smoothly adjusted McInerney into the more senior position paired with Archie Smith.

Other clubs, such as Melbourne (Max Gawn), North Melbourne (Todd Goldstein), Gold Coast (Jarrod Witts) and Collingwood (Brodie Grundy) have leaned heavily on a solo ruck as much as possible.

As the home-ish and mostly away season nears a close, fatigue and injury niggles may be a concern for these rucks if they get to play finals.



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Adelaide Crows’ Reilly O’Brien calls West Coast Eagles ruck opponent Nic Naitanui ‘lazy and unfit’ in accidental tweet


Adelaide Crows ruckman Reilly O’Brien says a broken phone is to blame for a tweet in which he called West Coast ruck Nic Naitanui “lazy and unfit”.

O’Brien, who is due to face All-Australian Naitanui on Saturday afternoon, swiftly deleted the tweet which featured his game notes for the fixture and released a follow-up video explaining the situation.

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“I’ve had an absolute mare on social media today,” O’Brien said.

“I tweeted some of my game notes on my iPhone. I take these notes every week to give myself a bit of confidence, and try to pump myself up going into the game.

O’Brien was quick to sing the praises of his upcoming opponent. Naitanui is yet to respond.

Adelaide Crows player Reilly O'Brien runs away from a pack of Carlton players.
Reilly O’Brien’s Crows are yet to win a game in 2020.(AAP: David Crosling)

“I’m coming up this week against who I think is probably the best ruck in the competition at the moment, NicNat.

“I was just trying to get some confidence and get going, so I’ve really put some pressure on myself now.

“I’ve got to walk the walk now and get a kick against the superstar that is NicNat, so we’ll see how I go.”

The notes suggested O’Brien will be looking to “run off [Naitanui] hard”, as he will be able to “have a field day getting ball and marking everything”.

The Adelaide Crows also tweeted their own light-hearted response.

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Adelaide is enduring a difficult season, and is winless after five games ahead of a clash with the Eagles at the Gabba.



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The NRL’s fastest at playing the ball revealed, but ruck mysteries remain


The wrestle is never far from controversy in the NRL, and statistics only tell half the story.

A mid-lockdown rule change to allow for an instant set restart from ruck infringements was designed to more heavily penalise teams trying to slow down the play the ball.

And for years, Melbourne Storm’s ability to control the ball carrier in defence has been cited as either the foundation of their brilliance or the enemy of the game.

Ball carriers that can overpower or outfox their tacklers help keep a defensive line on its heels.

A typical play the ball takes just under three-and-a-half seconds.

These players averaged much less than that last season.

Name Ave. (s) Pos. 2019 team
Matthew Lodge 2.98 Prop Brisbane
Jordan McLean 3.04 Prop North Qld
Josh Mansour 3.06 Wing Penrith
Felise Kaufusi 3.1 2nd Row Melbourne
Daniel Tupou 3.12 Wing Roosters
Jai Arrow 3.13 Lock Gold Coast
Shaun Kenny-Dowall 3.16 Wing Newcastle
Dane Gagai 3.18 Centre Souths
Corey Oates 3.19 Wing Brisbane
Jack Williams 3.2 2nd Row Cronulla

Source: NRL.com Stats, ABC analysis, minimum 200 play the balls

When you look at the 121kg giant Matthew Lodge, speed demon doesn’t spring to mind.

But equally, players like Josh Mansour and Jack Williams are hardly behemoths.

Matt Lodge lies on the ground after being tackled by St George Illawarra players.
This play the ball probably wasn’t one of Matthew Lodge’s fastest.(AAP: Craig Golding)

It’s an indication that there may be more to ruck effectiveness than simple statistics can measure.

The NRL clocks play the ball speed as the time it takes from the referee’s call for tacklers to release, to the ball being played through the legs.

Lodge’s art is to stay standing in the tackle or be held in a crouched position, allowing him to get the ball quickly through his legs to his dummy half when the ref calls for the players to release.

These were his two fastest play the balls last year, the stopwatch for each showing little more than a second.

Despite the endless brouhaha about Melbourne and their ability to extract advantage in the ruck, the direct link between on-field success and play the ball speed statistics has proven elusive.

In fact, NRL.com found no correlation between on-field success and play the ball speed two years ago.

Video reveals play the ball truth

There is some evidence fast play the balls do lead to line breaks, however.

Play the balls made in the 20 seconds before a line break last season were around a tenth of a second faster than others on average. The gap increases to about three tenths if the window is reduced to 10 seconds. In the short 2020 season so far, that pattern has been replicated.

Your eyes do not deceive. The quick play the ball in these plays helped slice open the line.

Video also shows how defenders can be in control even during play the balls marked as speedy.

During Canberra’s opening set against the Storm last week, they had four faster-than-average play the balls in a row, building momentum and earning great field position.

But on the fourth tackle in the video, even though the Raiders’ Joseph Tapine had penetrated the Melbourne line and recorded a quick play the ball, the Storm’s defensive line was already set for the following tackle.

Tapine’s play the ball was recorded at a rapid 1.96 seconds.

However, Cameron Munster had his hands on him for more than five seconds, holding him up during that time, and Cameron Smith was able to come in late to further delay the next play.

It meant that although Tapine had run close to 20 metres and delivered a statistically quick play the ball, Melbourne’s line was set for the next tackle.

Speed slows over time

A chart showing how play the balls speeds slowed over last season.
Play the ball speeds slowed over the course of last season.

While video helps document the nuance of the ruck, play the ball speed data by itself does deliver some inarguable truths.

There’s a consistent pattern showing a slowing of pace over the course of a season, and not just for teams out of the finals race.

That has implications for how the ruck and referee rule changes will affect the NRL this season.

There was a dramatic fall in play the ball speeds in round three following the changes, from around 3.6 seconds in the first two rounds to 3.4 in round three.

As players tire and teams adjust to the new rules, it’s likely that will be the quickest the ruck will be all season.

Got something to add? ABC wants to speak to sports analytics experts as part of upcoming investigations. Email jack.snape@abc.net.au to say hello.



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Champion Eagles ruck Dean Cox and SANFL icon Greg Phillips inducted into Australian Football Hall of Fame


Former West Coast champion Dean Cox and Port Adelaide great Greg Phillips have been added to the 2020 intake inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame.

A six-time All Australian, Cox is considered one of the greatest ruckmen of the modern era, having redefined the role with his elite skills and mobility.

“He changed what that ruck role looks like and he stood up in big games and in big moments, and he was able to do it for an extended period of time,” dual Brownlow medallist and former teammate Chris Judd said of Cox.

“In terms of ruckmen, you think of ‘Polly’ Farmer and the way he introduced handball and perfected that.

“I think of Dean Cox with his ability to kick the ball with both sides of his body, to cover the ground and really accumulate uncontested as well as contested possessions.”

Cox, now an assistant coach with the Sydney Swans, was elevated to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, having retired in 2014.

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The 38-year-old played a West Coast club-record 290 games and was a member of the 2006 premiership team in a star-studded on-ball division alongside the likes of Judd, Ben Cousins and Daniel Kerr.

Cox’s remarkable career unfolded after he was initially overlooked at the national draft and elevated off the rookie list.

Phillips meanwhile was an eight-time SANFL premiership player across two stints with Port Adelaide, either side of a four-year spell with Collingwood in the VFL.

The tough and quick defender played 343 games for Port Adelaide and 84 for Collingwood, as well as 20 representative matches for South Australia.

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Phillips was named Port Adelaide captain in 1991, holding the position for three seasons before his retirement, and capped his stellar career as the leader of the Magpies’ 1992 premiership side.

“From centre half-back, I cannot remember a time I had to change him because he was getting beaten, he was so good,” Port Adelaide father-figure John Cahill said.

“He was so strong, courageous, had the safest hands you’ve ever seen in your life.

“As soon as he got near the ball, the half-back flankers and the back pockets would just take off. He was so talented.”

A man comforts his daughter who is holding on to a crutch
Greg Phillips with his daughter Erin after she injured her ACL in the 2019 AFLW grand final.(AAP: David Mariuz)

Phillips is the father of AFLW star and former professional basketballer Erin Phillips.

Earlier this week, John Kennedy was named as the 29th Legend of Australian football, while modern-day greats Lenny Hayes, Simon Black and Jonathan Brown were all inducted into the Hall of Fame.

The final two inductees for the 2020 induction class will be named on Fox Footy on Thursday night.

AAP



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