The Rennaissance of the Ruck

From the violent use of shepherding second ruckmen in the early part of the 20th century to the handball-driven innovation of Polly Farmer and more forgettable times in-between, the ruck has almost always (literally) been at the at the centre of play in Australian Football.

However, no position has waxed and waned in importance the history of Australian Football more, and it seems the ruck may be rising in value once again – thanks to some advantageous rule changes to the favour of the biggest players.

Does PAV overvalue rucks?

A couple of weeks ago we received a comment asking if PAV was perhaps too skewed towards rucks:

Looking at 2018, this is a valid query. Seven rucks currently sit inside the top 30 for league-wide Player Approximate Value (PAV), including Brodie Grundy and Max Gawn inside the top five and some much more unheralded rucks in Jarrod Witts, Callum Sinclair and Toby Nankervis a little further back.

This number of rucks at the top is quite unusual, historically. Within the top 600 seasons of PAV (roughly the top 3% of player-seasons since 1988), just 57 would be considered ruckmen and five of those seasons are occurring this year. That means, on average, 1.7 of the top 20 players for Player Approximate Value in a year have been a ruck, but 2018 has produced around three times this level.

In 2017 only Ryder and Kreuzer were in the PAV top 20, and in 2016 only Max Gawn. Between 2012 and 2015, there were only four such player-seasons across the sample, one each from Todd Goldstein, Nic Naitanui, Dean Cox and Paddy Ryder. This is less than there will likely be in 2018 alone.

At face value, PAV appears to be indicating that we are slowly entering another golden age of ruck work, but it is worth a look at why this the case and how this shift may be manifesting in other measures.

Rule changes

As we outlined last week, rule changes are becoming increasingly common A number of rule changes have impacted on ruck play in recent years. These include:

  • 2011 – substitute rule reduces bench rotation availability
  • 2013 – ball thrown up at all stoppages other than centre bounces
  • 2013 – rucks must remain separated until the ball leaves umpire’s hands
  • 2014 – interchange cap of 120 per game introduced
  • 2016 – substitute abolished but interchange cap reduced to 90
  • 2017 – rucks must nominate to contest, no more “third-man up”

These fall in two categories. Fatigue-promoting restrictions are rule changes that impinge on interchange freedom, indirectly placing more pressure on rucks to spend more time onfield so that other players, principally midfielders, can take precious breaks to maintain running power and mental clarity. These rules have made it harder to play two genuine rucks in the one side without sacrificing rotations for more running players, critical to a side’s running power.

A key example of this occurred in the very first round after the substitute rule was introduced.

In round 1 in 2011, the Sydney Swans led Melbourne by 14 points at three quarter time in the first round of matches in the first year featuring the much hated substitute rule. The Swans had Shane Mumford rucking all day, and had chosen to start the previous year’s trade acquisition, premiership ruckman Mark Seaby, in the substitute vest while Melbourne had Ricky Petterd in the role.

It is safe to say the Swans’ gambit of attempting to terrorise the indefatigable Mark Jamar with a fresh ruck in the fourth quarter did not pay off. The Dees rallied for a draw and probably should have won with the extra chances they created. Petterd set up a goal and took two contested marks after being substituted on and generally had a good impact. Meanwhile, poor Mark Seaby’s last quarter cameo yielded one hitout, four disposals (two from free kicks) and no scoreboard involvement or marks, plus presumably a sense of impending doom.

The Swans should have realised at the time that the chief benefit of the substitute was fresh legs with pace, or fielding a versatile utility to cover possible injuries. Clubs rarely ever started a ruck in the substitute vest after that point. Most clubs started to find they could no longer carry two genuine old school rucks with only 3 bench players. Seaby played 11 more games after the substitute debacle and was delisted the following season.

Ruck contest reforms, meanwhile, are those that seek to enhance the value of a single ruck v ruck contest in order to stop a perceived devaluation of the craft of rucking (pre-2011 this decline is observable in data). Recalled bounces and around-the-ground throw ups reduce the randomness of umpire bounces, eliminating some of the occasions where rucks formerly weren’t even able to compete for a hitout.

It is interesting to note that the latter of these changes, around-the-ground throw ups, were originally foreseen to help smaller rucks, and second rucks, by speeding up the play and tiring out the hulking monsters. As the numbers above and below show, this did not happen.

The one metre separation rule prior to the ruck contest sought to reduce the effectiveness of pre-bounce bodying and impediment. Jumping can’t be so easily impaired, and ordinary but overly physical rucks find it harder to compete just by making early body contact to impede and nullify a superior ruck from getting an advantage.

More recently, the AFL has outright banned “third men up” beginning in 2017. Those were jumpers, often a midfielder, trying to steal a tap or at least impede a superior ruck. Without those players contesting, no longer can players like Marcus Bontempelli or Jordan Lewis jump in on a gun ruck from their blindside. This has had a dramatic effect on the number of players who register at least one hitout each year, plummeting from 277 in 2016 to 127 in 2016.

We’ll call back to these rules as we look at year-on-year changes.

The value add

Rather intuitively, rucks are being asked to do more as stoppages increase, which should suggest their value is higher than it used to be.

Across our PAV sample years from 1988 to 2018, hitouts per team per game have more than doubled, from around 18 per team to nearly 39. The most dramatic leap happened in 1997, where the average increased by 50% from 20 hitouts per team per game to around 31.6. After that, there was a gradual rise to the recent high water mark of 2015 and then a flattening or decline.

However, notably, this flattening in recent hitout numbers means the number of contests alone doesn’t explain 2018’s level of ruck value.

How has ruckwork changed?

To analyse rucks as a cohort we’ve defined them as players in 2018 who average 10 hitouts per game, and then across history, as players averaging the adjusted number of hitouts per game which are equivalent to 10 per game in 2018. This captures most secondary or part time rucks across the years.

Player Approximate Value for rucks has indeed increased markedly in 2018, to the highest average PAV we have on record. This is a seasonal value measure, showing the share of total value a player has contributed to a team in a given year.

It is specifically 2018 where this rise has occurred, which we discussed above, with Gawn, Grundy, Nankervis, Witts and Sinclair all featuring prominently. However, when we look at the marginal PAV (mPAV) or per game value of rucks, we can see that an increase in ruck output also occurred earlier.

PAV (the red chart above) shows us that rucks always had a reasonable baseline of contribution, and as a gross count of accumulated value, the 2011 increase in that graph is relatively small. By contrast, mPAV is a marginal measure which shows us how far above or below average players were in their value contribution. The difference in the two charts is mostly a matter of vertical scale, with the green mPAV chart eliminating the baseline “expected” level of output most players provide, to focus on marginal differences between good and bad and great players.

The green chart of mPAV shows that 2011 is the point where rucks, in the aggregate, moved into the minority of AFL players who are better than the “average” mark of 0. Let us explain why only a minority of the league are better than average. The “0.00” mPAV average is not actual mean player output but an average if value were evenly distributed to all players. There’s a lot of temporary fringe players who play a few AFL games, and that bulks up the count of below-average players in the lower reaches of the league. There’s only one Tom Mitchell and he is way above 0 mPAV, and he plays every week. Meanwhile, there’s a bunch of below-average players at his club, such as Teia Miles, Mitch Lewis, Conor Glass, James Cousins and Jonathan O’Rourke who have all played 3 games or less and are all well below the average mark.

In 2011, rucks started moving up in the world. The introduction of the substitute rule in 2011 coincided with a large increase in the per-game value of the average ruck in the league. This is the point at which ruck loads started falling more heavily on fewer players, who were increasingly expected to contribute in other ways as well.

What goes into PAV

It is here we need to go back to method a little. You can read the full details here, but briefly, PAV was designed to use basic, publicly available statistics from to produce a long time series of valuations that are largely consistent with other measures of quality such as Champion Data Official Player Ratings, All-Australian selections, Brownlow votes, and club best and fairests. We tweaked the weightings and the mix of statistics incorporated until we achieved results that passed these sorts of sniff tests.

PAV is a distributional system. Better teams get more points and players get shares calculated by their contributions over a season. Each player gets a “score” for each area of the ground. The formulae are follows:

Offensive Score = Total Points + 0.25 x Hit Outs + 3 x Goal Assists + Inside 50s + Marks Inside 50 + Free Kick Differential

Defensive Score = 20 x Rebound 50s + 12 x One Percenters + (Marks – 4 x Marks Inside 50 + 2 x Free Kick Differential) – 2/3 x HitOuts

Midfield Score = 15 x Inside 50s + 20 x Clearances + 3 x Tackles + 1.5 x Hit Outs + Free Kick Differential

The scores are used to distribute the team’s stock of PAV. For example, if a player contributed 10% of a team’s midfield score from the midfield formula, they would have 10 PAV for midfield if their side was average, or perhaps 11 or 12 if they were in a top side.

Rucks are doing more

Looking back at the basis of these PAV calculations, we can see a few statistics across each part of the ground to which rucks contribute. Hitouts factor into all three areas at different rates, which is a method we used to smear rucks across each line to reflect their wide ranging roles and so that they didn’t just dominate midfield ratings. However, there’s also clearances, marks, scoring, and 1%ers which rucks often contribute to. Let’s see how some of these statistics are tracking for the ruck cohort.

As a cohort, rucks are now producing more inside 50s per game than at any point since 2000, 1.77 per game per ruck. Clearances from rucks have also dramatically increased, increasing from an average of 2.25 per player per game in 2015 to 2.7 this year – which is the highest mark since 1999.

One Percenters (1%ers) have increased dramatically as well. This is a grab bag of things, including spoils, knock-ons, shepherds and smothers. The increase here suggests rucks are doing a lot more of these things, most likely knock-ons and shepherding, but probably also spoils on each other as well.

In general, these categories increased in 2011 with the substitute rule, and started rising further in 2017 with the abolition of the “third man up”. These increases are being translated into higher PAV and mPAV values for rucks. The flip side to this is that scoring has gently declined, and so has uncontested marking. Rucks are spending less time forward and scoring less.

Rucks are followers once more

We’ve returned to a situation where more and more of the actual effective ruck work for each team is being done by a single dominant ruck. An especially notable change beginning in 2016 (the year the interchange cap dropped to 90) and continuing after 2017 (the year that the third man up was banned), towards each side having a solo ruck carrying upwards of 70% of the hitout load:

Increased hitout concentration shows two things. Firstly, without third men up and pre-contest wrestling, the genuine rucks are winning more taps against part timers, free of interference. Secondly, more rucks are spending most of their time around ruck contests and following the ball.

More ruck contests for real rucks means more chances for them to contribute around those contests at ground level. They are providing more clearances and kicks inside 50, as well as more 1%ers.

Less marks and scoring, coupled with an increase in clearances, inside 50s and 1%ers suggests that the game has largely eliminated the second ruck and the ruck-forward hybrid from the game in recent years. With the trend towards sole “follower” rucks, clubs have largely sacrificed the old “ruck-forward”, a second ruck who was competent in contests but also represented a goal scoring threat. No ruck in 2018 is averaging both a goal a game and ten hitouts per game, and only Mason Cox has achieved this since 2015.

The players on this list who still play have specialised one way or the other. Ryder and Bellchambers now basically just ruck, while Mason Cox and Charlie Dixon are pretty purely forwards. If any players are still functioning as ruck/forward hybrid players within single games, in 2018 they’re no longer genuinely contributing and threatening in one of the two roles.

Earlier this year the always excellent Ryan Buckland took a look at the ruck situation in 2018, and it still mostly holds up today. Ryan pointed out that in 2018 GWS and the Bulldogs have tried a number of combinations due to personnel and form issues. For GWS, that has included Lobb and Patton or Keeffe, Simpson rucking solo, or a combination thereof in tandem in limited situations. The Bulldogs started the year running all of Boyd, English and Trengove at the same time, and have also run English solo, Boyd solo, Roughhead and Boyd, and more recently, Trengove and Roughhead. These two clubs are the biggest outliers in 2018.

As Buckland did in his piece, taking a look at AFL StatsPro shows a count of ruck contests attended per game. At most clubs other than GWS and the Bulldogs, there’s only a small number of players who could be described as real second ruckmen. Chief among these is probably the supremely versatile Justin Westhoff who exemplifies the mandate to have other strings to one’s bow – and for which rucking is probably at the bottom of his value list. There’s also Jonathan Ceglar who has both rucked beside Ben McEvoy and done it solo. Oscar McInerney at Brisbane is one of the few others doing even 1/3rd of the ruckwork of their club’s primary ruck, with Levi Casboult and Shaun McKernan are somewhere just little below that mark.

The sole other example of maintaining the two ruck role is the West Coast Eagles, who happen to have a plethora of talented, versatile rucks and a number of ways to deploy them. Even with the injury to Nic Naitanui, Nathan Vardy is a capable enough player in other parts of the game to justify selection alongside Lycett at this point – and he already fits the existing game plan.

Far more common is the use of “relief” rucks, where a pinch hitting midfielder or other designated player takes a small number of taps just to give the sole ruck a breather. As Buckland outlined in his May piece, most clubs have a solitary ruck attending more than 80% of all ruck contests. Think Shaun Grigg’s 9.5 ruck contests per game at Richmond, or Tom McDonald’s 6.1 per game at Melbourne. They’re mostly just there to give Gawn and Nankervis a break.

The Class of 2018

Overall, here’s how the cream of the 2018 ruck class looks, and it should show why we think PAV is simply demonstrating that a lot of rucks are giving their sides a lot of value right now. 

Remember that PAV is a distributional measure, apportioning value to players based on their shares of overall team output, in a way that historically matches other measures, scaled by the quality of those teams. That is to say, the best rucks are doing things that have long been valuable.

Most of these rucks are among the top few in their clubs for clearances and one percenters in particular, as well as contributing the traditional contested marks.

In 2018, not many players do as much for their sides onfield as a solo ruckman who takes 80% of the ruck contests and provides plenty of follow-up work around the contested ball afterwards. We as the football watching public generally recognise certain rucks such as Gawn and Grundy as elite tap rucks who also do plenty else, but by applying historically-linked standards of valuation, PAV is also telling us that we should really also be looking at the rest of the rucks, including those who aren’t so good in tapwork, for their often similar levels of around-the-ground work.

History repeating

The ruck contest reform rules all push towards a defined platonic ideal. Two genuine rucks, trained for the purpose, should have a real chance to compete against each other for an advantageous hitout at nearly every stoppage. At the expense of this, the back-up ruckman, much like the second ruck of the early days of Australian Football, appears to be increasingly headed towards the dustbin of footballing tactics.

Back then, every player had to play the entire game, and sides often fielded two rucks – one to win the contest, the other (the “shepherd”) to violently obstruct the opponent’s first ruck. South Australian great Tom Leahy was noted for his stoicism in face of such attacks, however in 1914 he struck one of the rival shepherds, who were called “jackals” by the press of the time. Despite consistent calls to reform of the rules around rucking, the position (and the tactics associated with it) was only outlawed in 1938, opening up a new generation of creative rucks.

Similarly, the modern rule changes, including an eerily similar third man up rule, has emboldened a new set of rucks to dominate – both in the contest and around the ground. Rucks no longer have to be jacks of all trades, they have to be masters of one.

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