In the traditions of Aussie Rules football there is an almost mythical air attached to ruckmen. The biggest kids in the yard, their imposing natures define them as game changers.
It has always left me in stunned awe how lumbering giants could hover several feet off the ground whilst under considerable physical duress from another giant, or several, but still manage to remain in perfect sync with a team mate and flick the football backwards into their lap, all whilst running at full pace. Such is the sublime artistry of their craft, not only do they use their sheer mass to hold sway in contested marking but they can use their right or left hand to tap the ball in a 360 degree gamut, evoking a fear of the unknown with each and every tap.
The role of ruckmen has been redefined in the modern age. There is still a heavy emphasis on the contested elements of play, but the dexterity in taps has become more and more an afterthought. The main focus now is on breaking even in the taps, with ruckmen cast in more of a ruck roving role as they represent a crucial link in transitional play.
Dean Cox, who played as ruckman for the West Coast Eagles in the early to mid 2000’s became a prototype, lauded for his reputation as ‘the fifth mid’ in that strong team. He changed the way ruckmen play the modern game by marrying his intimidating stature with his athleticism, racking up the kilometres as a quasi midfielder.
A more recent example of this hybrid kind of player, is Melbourne’s ruckman Max Gawn. With the unprecedented evenness of the 2017 premiership competition, Gawn, the All-Australian ruckman from 2016 looms large, particularly considering his Demons are sitting just outside the top four despite being without their centre pin for most of 2017.
His return game against the Eagles in Perth showed glimpses of his brilliance and this prowess was again on display in their match against Port Adelaide where he outshone his opponent, Patrick Ryder. In doing this, Gawn addressed one of the main doubts about the Demons being genuine flag contenders. The calibre of their mids is often questioned when matched up against other top teams. Jack Viney aside, they lack the star power of their rivals, but this problem is more then compensated for by Gawn, who gives them an arm chair ride with his majestic tap work.
With the example of Ryder being laid waste, it raises the question of who can limit, let alone match Gawn in finals time. Only Collingwood’s Brodie Grundy, also a talented tap technician with similar athletic abilities, can be mentioned in the same stratosphere as Gawn, but barring a Lazarus-like miracle, the Pies will not come up against the Demons in the finals. The likes of Sam Jacobs from the Crows or Shane Mumford from the Giants can impact physically on Gawn, but they cannot match his rucking abilities.
The recent change in the ruck rules, outlawing third men up, left all wide-eyed and further facilitated Gawn’s dominance; a dominance he is yet to fully exploit due to injury. In response to this rule change, many teams have opted to forego two experienced rucks in preference to playing undersized players who can better exert their presence when the ball hits the ground. One can see Gawn taking full advantage of this on a bright Spring day in finals when he is pitted against undersized and ill-equipped opponents and the effect this will have on clearances.
On returning from injury, Gawn used this racing analogy;
“I like to see it [myself] as a good old staying horse, that needs maybe four or five to get up and going.”
In keeping with the racing theme, at season’s end, I think we might be viewing him and the effect he had on his Demons as being similar to Kiwi from the 1983 Melbourne Cup.