Gawn or Grundy? Today’s ABC piece takes a look (and some bonus content)

Today’s HPN piece for the ABC took a look at the two prominent rucks in the game today and the differing styles that they represent. HPN can firmly recommend this product and/or service.

Are these the best two rucks in the game?


Both on HPN’s own player rating Player Approximate Value (PAV) and the AFL Player Ratings, Gawn and Grundy stand out as the best two current rucks in the game.

Last year, Grundy just shaded Gawn for both PAV and mPAV (PAV per game), finishing 3rd and 4th respectively, similar to their rankings in 2018. Currently on the AFL PRs, Gawn is rated as the best player in the game, with Grundy in fourth.

As mentioned in the piece, when fit and onfield enough, Nic Naitanui can be of the same class. Naitanui dominates offensive one on one contests (although with a low number) and his tapwork statistics are in the same class as Gawn or Grundy’s. Naitanui even gets hand to ball a higher percentage of the time than either of those two. He competes very well in the air AND on the ground. For mPAV last year, he finished one spot behind Gawn.

His issue recently has been gametime.

Naitanui’s counting statistics, such as goals, contested marks, hitouts or clearances, are still pretty good on a “per game” basis while on “per minute” terms they would be almost unmatched.

Unfortunately, his injury issues and the Eagles’ dual ruck strategy allowing him to hit the bench more often than most players, his aggregate impact is lower than Grundy or Gawn’s in recent years.

If you had to identify the top group of rucks, that would be those three.

Beneath that is a cluster including Matthew Kreuzer, Rowan Marshall, Todd Goldstein, Jarrod Witts and Scott Lycett. This is a rough ordering, and judgement may differ by person and rating method.

In HPN’s view, you could probably argue any one of these five ahead of the others, but probably not above any of the top two (NN’s health may allow you to downgrade him at times).

There’s been some discussion among North fans about Todd Goldstein’s worthiness for the top group, but he isn’t quite performing as good now as he was in 2015 compared to the rest of the competition.

As visible in the chart above, one notable aspect of Witts and Goldstein is their extreme endurance, letting them serve as nearly pure solitary rucks with minimal relief.

Goldstein’s time on ground is second only to Grundy’s, as he drives himself to exhaustion tracking play all over the field. Due to Gold Coast’s game style, the workmanlike Witts takes more ruck contests than anyone else, and consistently competes well.

The problem with Hitouts to Advantage

The piece relied on hitouts to advantage, and described the difficulty in sending the ball to a teammate directly. After crunching hours of video over the last week, HPN is of the opinion that the measure is good, definitely better than just counting hitouts, but still not infallible.

For those interested, the official definition of “hitout to advantage” is “a hit-out that reaches an intended teammate.”

Like all judgement based statistics, a call has to be made on what “reaches” means, and whether the player needs to gather the ball or merely have some opportunity to grab it. In short, it’s a gut call, and while it seems right more often than not, there’s fuzziness at the margins and it doesn’t tell the full picture.

Some hitouts to advantage are logged as such despite bouncing several times in unpredictable ways beforehand, others go the other way.

Gawn had several HTAs that followed this course, but bounced the right way then the wrong way.

It’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing. It could possibly be improved or added to by a more precise measure distinguishing a controlled tap from one that ends up being to advantage because of chaotic bounces.

With the movement of modern midfielders at stoppages, not to mention the crowding, it’s very hard to direct the ball to the incredibly small window of a teammate’s hands. It’s probably more important for a ruck to control the ball to a non-damaging situation than get a fluky win with a risky hit. At the very least, these are evidence of two different strategies.

A quick bit on ruck-forwards

There was no room to discuss ruck-forwards beyond a brief mention at the end, but they are a useful way to cover for the fact that you are short a top-level ruck.

Having two decent rucks who can contribute elsewhere can create mismatches from a height perspective, and give you an advantage in the everlasting bailout kick battle.

But, if you do go big, you run the risk of losing mobility across the ground, and getting exposed on quick turnovers and spreading runs. It’s a careful balance and works best with players who either serve as credible threats up forward or who are especially mobile.

In a year with shorter quarters, the amount of time that each primary ruck needs a rest is reduced, which changes the calculation for clubs and could well lead to fewer secondary rucks being selected in favour of non-specialists taking a small number of relieving contests a game.

There are still a few ruck-forward combinations to watch in 2020, however.

Lobb (with Darcy) and McInerney (with Martin) at Fremantle and Brisbane respectively are two ongoing examples of effective forward options who also ruck. The use of Vardy or Allan to cover Naitanui at the Eagles is a long standing arrangement. One new development to watch is the Marshall-Ryder combination at St Kilda, which at this early stage seems to at least potentially represent something like a dual ruck-forward arrangement with both being versatile players and credible forwards.

There will be piece coming later in the year on the more detailed mechanics of these variations once the “new normal” becomes clearer.

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