For those who are unsatisfied with modern footy and crave a return to a simpler time, the ruck is the last bastion of what was once holy.
Across every line on the field, the one-on-one contest has been mostly replaced by sophisticated but arguably sterile team defences. Rarely will you see two players go head to head as they did in the good old days, back when it was Carey v Jakovich and not Carey v the entire West Coast backline, a few midfielders and a resting ruck.
But offering solace from those weekly — currently nightly, how fun! — complaints are the ruckmen, their craft relatively untouched and in some ways protected from the evolution that has gone on around them.
Two ruckmen enter, only one can win. The position still carries the old-fashioned mystique, which is why we habitually refer to it as a prominent make-or-break factor in any game.
It also helps that we are genuinely in a golden era of AFL ruckmen.
It’s hard to remember a time when there was so much quality and so much diversity in the position across the entire league. It’s not a stretch to suggest at least five ruckmen could be leading their respective club’s best-and-fairest counts at this point in the season, and the All Australian arguments are well and truly underway.
But, as it turns out, the very same things that so enamour us with ruckmen and their duels make it tremendously difficult for us to properly rate them, and may lead us to overrate the position entirely.
A few weeks ago, Max Gawn — many people’s pick for King of Ruck Mountain — made this point far more effectively on The Phil Davis Podcast.
“It is a hard position to play, because you look at the stats and you literally go ‘ruck v ruck, who’s had more numbers?’,” Gawn said.
“And if you don’t watch the game, you go ‘Mumford 15 disposals, Gawn 10 disposals. Mumford 30 hit outs, Gawn 25 hit outs — Mumford won that battle’.
“It’s the only position you can do that on.”
Does a great ruckman make a team great?
Gawn is right. We take for granted the mano e mano nature of the ruck and generally rely on strict statistical parameters to proclaim winners and losers, great players and poor ones.
It ignores the fact that a good Gawn game looks completely different to a good Brodie Grundy game, which looks completely different to a good Nic Naitanui game, which looks completely different to a good Todd Goldstein game and so on.
And it also oversimplifies what “winning the ruck battle” means in terms of team success, giving arguably a false impression of how important a ruckman is to a team.
Let’s try an exercise to demonstrate this — off the top of your head, can you pick the last time the All Australian ruckman won a premiership in the same year?
You can have a second to think about it.
Did you guess 1996? North Melbourne’s Corey McKernan? It’s been a while, hey.
Without reading too much into it, that does tend to suggest that having an elite ruckman isn’t a precursor to or requirement for ultimate team success.
Gawn himself recognises that a ruckman is too often viewed in isolation and not part of an overall team setup, arguing that “the more we’re looked at as part of an 18-man team, I find it puts us more at ease”.
It’s quite possible, likely even, that streak will continue this year. Currently Gawn and Goldstein are the two favourites for the All Australian spot — their teams are 15th and 14th, respectively.
Grundy will always be in the conversation, but even Collingwood has slipped to 10th and is plagued with issues on and off the field. You’d be mad to rule the Pies out of 2020 entirely, but they and Grundy are both some way back at the moment.
But the missing name in this conversation is Naitanui’s, which is fitting — he more than any other ruckman sums up the divide between our comfortable analysis of the ruck role and a ruckman’s true value to a team.
The Naitanui conundrum
The irony is this might be the year the Naitanui debate, tortured and ridiculous it has always been, is ended for good.
In some ways it’s easy to see why it has persisted. Naitanui has been injured for almost all of his peak years, reappearing in dominant fits and starts but then succumbing once again.
More commonly quoted though are the many statistical holes in his game. Naitanui doesn’t take marks like Gawn, he doesn’t rack up the touches like Grundy, he can’t be an ever-present midfield extension like Goldstein.
By just about every statistical measure we have come to rely upon for judging one ruckman against another, he comes up short. And then you watch him play. And you see what he does for his team. And none of that other stuff matters any more.
His ruckwork and connection with his midfielders creates more pure opportunity for scores than any of his contemporaries, and his presence influences stoppage situations like few others. You can’t appreciate the little things unless you watch them, the stats sheet just can’t capture it.
It’s why Naitanui is currently fifth overall and the highest-ranked ruckman in the voting for the AFL Coaches Association’s player of the year award, having polled votes in six out of his nine matches — only Jack Steele and Lachie Neale have polled more often.
It’s why those same coaches said he was one of the three most influential players on the ground in the round six game against Adelaide, despite his opponent Riley O’Brien taking nine marks to Naitanui’s zero and having 19 disposals to his seven.
And, quite frankly, it’s why West Coast beat Geelong on Saturday night.
But instead of viewing him as a complete outlier, Naitanui’s unique form of influence can become a new standard with which to judge ruckmen. As mentioned at the top, every other position on the field has undergone evolution and, while belated, perhaps the ruck finally is too.
Dustin Martin became a better player when his priority stopped being possessions and became impact, and that switch has inspired two Richmond premierships. Defenders are no longer just fists with bodies attached, they are required to intercept and rebound and marshal an entire team.
It’s worth emphasising that this isn’t about downplaying the ability or impact of the likes of Gawn and Grundy, but rather to suggest that their teams could still be getting so much more out of their immense talents.
Gawn has taken one mark inside 50 all season, and is yet to kick a goal. That’s not because he can’t do those things, but because that is not currently his role.
Brodie Grundy has more hit outs to advantage than any player in the AFL this season, but his team is ninth overall in clearances. That is not maximising his significant ability.
West Coast has a clear plan to get the most out of Naitanui. St Kilda has a clear plan to get the most out of both Rowan Marshall and Paddy Ryder. In all cases, it’s making a difference.
It wouldn’t take a whole of tweaking for Melbourne and Collingwood to start getting real bang for their buck out of the undisputed champions they have at their disposal.
It might not always show up on the stats sheet, but one day soon it’s going to make a difference in the destination of a premiership.