Why The AFL's Dinosaurs Are Still Thriving
It’s incredible that no matter how much the game changes, our sport’s biggest, relatively slowest and often most overlooked players still wield tremendous influence.
St Kilda’s Friday night shock win over Richmond was yet another reminder about the primacy of ruckmen, and a warning siren to those singing the position to shipwreck.
With Rowan Marshall and Paddy Ryder in the team, the Saints are quite clearly a vastly different proposition for opponents. In fact, when Marshall has played this season, the Saints have beaten both the Eagles and now Richmond, and look more like the team which was able to out-body and ultimately remove the Western Bulldogs from last year’s finals.
This year, the Saints are 4-2 with Marshall in the team, yet 2-6 without him. That’s the difference between being a finals team or a bottom-four outfit. And all around the league it’s a similar story.
If, heaven forbid, Nic Natanui’s season were to end this week, there’d be little doubt West Coast’s already diminishing premiership prospects would be completely kaput. And while Luke Jackson is a phenomenal prospect, does Melbourne have a more singularly important player than Max Gawn?
The Marshall-Ryder battering ram approach is so pivotal to what the Saints want to do. They’re neither a fast nor particularly pretty side, ranking 16th for total disposal efficiency and 13th for uncontested possession differential, yet when they’re on song they’re able to use their bulky ruckmen to pulverise their way through, and are able to win the lion’s share of inside-50 and scoring opportunities in the process.
For St Kilda, it’s a strategy that helped it break an eight-season September drought last year, and one it hopes could even provide a ticket back into this year’s finals race.
At this point, let’s bring in the bedraggled figure of hit-outs before the jury, the characteristic most often associated with ruckmen, but which these days plays a largely meaningless role when evaluating the position – yet also providing valuable insight into how the position has evolved in recent years.
Last season, of the eight teams who posted the league’s best hit-out differential, only four actually played finals. This season, only three of the league’s current top-10 for hit-outs (Melbourne, West Coast and Port) are occupying a finals spot. A reminder that last year’s grand final pitted the league’s 10 and 11th best from a hit-out differential point of view, while the losing preliminary finalists were ranked 9th and 12th.
In 2021, we’re seeing the likes of Collingwood and North Melbourne blitz the hit-out numbers, yet languish elsewhere, while Carlton is posting its first positive hit-out differential number in four years, yet is once again just battling.
The Western Bulldogs could talk your ear off about the diminishing importance of raw hit-out numbers, set for their fifth September campaign in seven seasons under Luke Beveridge, yet once again located near the bottom of the table where hit-outs are concerned.
The Bulldogs have been ahead of the trend, caring a lot less about the actual hit-out itself, and a heap more in regards to what happens next, and this is where Stef Martin has played such a huge role in a team with serious premiership credentials.
As mentioned earlier, the Saints roughed the Bulldogs up in last year’s elimination final, with the Dogs’ lack of a physical presence in the ruck costing them dearly. In short time, Martin has helped remedy a serious shortcoming.
Last season, the Dogs ranked dead last for hit-outs, and a lack of a physical follow-up presence meant they also ranked just 10th for clearances and inside-50 differential. With Martin in the side they’re 6-1 this season, and while they still rank 17th for hit-out differential, they’ve become the league’s number one clearance and inside-50 outfit as well as the league’s highest scoring team.
Hit-outs don’t matter, but a ruckmen’s influence still certainly does.
Richmond has changed the sport in so many ways over the past few years, yet it’s been the Tigers’ approach to overwhelming the opposition in territory that’s been most profound.
They indeed remain an underwhelming team when it comes to hit-outs, with rankings of 18th, 17th, 15th, 10th and 13th since 2017, yet have continued to maintain such a physical and intimidating presence around the ground. Ask a Richmond fan about Toby Nankervis and you’ll notice tears forming in their eyes owing to the role he’s played in the Tiger dynasty.
While the big Tasmanian offers little in the way of speed or general athleticism, he’s still able to exert a major influence on games. And it’s the same with Naitanui, Martin and Marshall, while the strides Sydney and Fremantle are making this season wouldn’t have been possible without Tom Hickey and Sean Darcy getting down and dirty, both ranked in the top-three at their clubs for clearances per game.
We’ve actually seen this play out continually over the last 20 years, and during a time we’ve been told to prepare for life after ruckmen, with so many pointing to the increased speed and athleticism of the game apparently making for a hostile environment for the big men in which to thrive.
Yet this simply hasn’t been the case.
Readers will remember just how vital Clark Keating was to Brisbane’s early-millennium “three-peat”. He and his six-feet-six, 100 kilogram-plus body would often rock up just on the eve of finals and positively bulldoze his way through opponents, functioning more like an NFL offensive linemen, clearing the way for the phenomenal Brisbane midfield to strut its stuff.
You could argue that despite how incredibly talented and decorated the Geelong premiership teams were, it was Brad Ottens who was just as pivotal to their success. You could even go a step forward and suggest Geelong has stopped winning consistently in September precisely because it no longer has a hulking presence like Ottens paving the way.
When Hawthorn collected its four premierships in eight seasons, its run was built on other-worldly skill and precision, and capped off by the likes of Lance Franklin, Jarryd Roughead and Cyril Rioli, yet the Hawks, too, preferred to employ more warhorse, robust ruckmen like Robert Campbell, David Hale and Ben McEvoy. They lost the hit-out count in all four of those winning grand finals, and by a combined 73 to boot.
Last decade, Sydney and the Bulldogs won premierships with the likes of Mike Pyke, Shane Mumford and Jordan Roughead plodding around, yet smashing into the opposition. This year the Lions are shaping as a bona-fide premiership threat, yet have won the hit-out count in just three of their 14 matches. That said, Oscar McInerneyis one of only two Lions averaging at least 3.5 one percent acts and ground ball gets per game.
These big, predominantly slow, and not overly skilful giants of our game are often overlooked at draft time and routinely require the rookie draft to find their way in, yet their effect on winning teams, and indeed premierships, remains significant.
When looking for our best premiership prospects each season, we usually pour over a team’s midfield prowess, pull apart its capacity to score, and evaluate its ability to stifle opponents in defence.
Perhaps we should be paying just as much attention to a club’s biggest and least fashionable, as these big guys continue to prevail as the barometer to just how far your team might go.
* This article first appeared on Rohan Connolly's FOOTYOLOGY website
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