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.