Eagles and Hawks’ reaction to ruck losses part of the riddle

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Nanjing Night Net

It seems like every year for a long time we’ve continued to debate the importance or otherwise of ruckmen to modern football. Perhaps 2016 will be the season that settles the argument.

Certainly, in terms of that discussion, there’s been no more critical five minutes this season than the period during the third quarter at Domain Stadium on Friday night in which both West Coast’s Nic Naitanui and Hawthorn’s Jonathon Ceglar seriously injured knees.

The Eagles played arguably their best football of the season, but the mood in their rooms post-match when West Coast midfielder Matt Priddis was interviewed was sombre indeed, even before scans had confirmed Naitanui would require a reconstruction.

Ceglar, in contrast, might be a blip on the AFL profile radar compared to “Nic Nat”, but Hawthorn at least would instantly have been aware of the potential ramifications of his loss, too.

The critics haven’t held back on that front, either, several commentators immediately pronouncing both teams’ premiership aspirations finished off the back of the injuries.

A day later, almost rubbing it in for the Eagles and Hawks, Sydney were getting the job done against North Melbourne with Kurt Tippett back in harness after more than two months out with a hamstring injury. He made a pretty good fist of his ruck responsibilities with Sam Naismith, and his work up forward was good.

Here, also, was some interesting evidence for the ruck debate, the Swans’ ruck pair up against reigning All-Australian ruckman Todd Goldstein, and having the better of him in the hit-outs and, as a tandem, around the ground.

Goldstein hasn’t been nearly the same force since injuring his knee against Sydney first time around this season in round 10. Is it merely coincidence that the Roos have lost nine of their 12 games since that injury?

But then, if you’re looking for evidence that ruckmen don’t necessarily have to provide the answer to this season’s premiership puzzle, the Western Bulldogs are happy to help you out.

Their most technically adept ruckman, Will Minson, can’t even get a spot in the 22, playing just one game this season. Instead, the Dogs have gone essentially with pinch-hitters in Jordan Roughead and a combination of Tom Campbell and, more recently, Tom Boyd.

In pure hitout terms, the Dogs average fewer than all bar two other clubs. But the Dogs’ young goers have a capacity to physically grind down their ruck opponents and reduce their effectiveness. Testament to the strategy is clearance numbers which have the Bulldogs ranked No. 1 on the differentials.

So does the loss of Naitanui and Ceglar have to prove fatal for West Coast and Hawthorn? Interestingly, when West Coast were without Naitanui from rounds 13-19, they nevertheless won five of those six games. How good those wins were, however, is debatable.

They smashed stragglers Brisbane and Essendon, had an impressive home victory against North Melbourne, scraped home against Carlton and Melbourne, and lost to Collingwood.,

In every one of those games bar one, they lost both the hitouts and clearances. Intriguingly, the one exception was the Eagles winning the stoppages against Melbourne in round 18. Up against the AFL’s best in Max Gawn, West Coast, for the only time in that period, went with a double-pronged ruck set-up with Scott Lycett and Jonathan Giles.

The Eagles were only narrowly beaten for hitouts (44-46) and won the clearances (42-38). That may be a pointer to what is to come, with a potential pinch-hitter in Jeremy McGovern badly needed in defence, particularly this week against Adelaide’s forward height.

The longer-term indicators, though, aren’t good. West Coast were ranked No.1 for hitouts and fifth for clearances in 12 games before Naitanui hurt his Achilles, and 17th and 18th respectively when he was absent.

They’ve also depended heavily upon stoppage work for their scoring, ranked third in the AFL on differentials for scoring from clearances.

Ceglar and Hawthorn? Well, he and Ben McEvoy form not only a ruck pairing, but have also been important contributors up forward. Ceglar had booted 14 goals in his 19 games, and like McEvoy when off the ball, at the least help create a contest.

And yet, in that sense, the Hawks do at least have options in back-up ruckmen Jack Fitzpatrick, who has had four games back at VFL level after missing six weeks with concussion, and the far-less-experienced Marc Pittonet.

They also have another forward option in Ryan Schoenmakers, who has played two VFL games after returning from a groin injury. The Hawks could conceivably bring in both a ruckman and the forward.

And while lack of senior game time might be an issue, there’s at least some comfort in knowing that Hawthorn create the vast bulk of their scores from pressure turnovers rather than stoppage work, the Hawks ranking only 13th for scores from stoppages.

That’s a different approach to West Coast, whose modus operandi is different again from Sydney, Adelaide and the Shane Mumford-led ruck presence of Greater Western Sydney. All totally different from the Bulldogs, who continue to prosper despite in traditional ruck terms, not having a lot.

And it seems pretty likely that whichever team ends up prevailing this finals series will also go a long way to resolving the perennial ruck debate. Photo: Michael Dodge

So we’ve been denied that last round fight for a spot in the final eight, Melbourne failing to keep their end of the bargain, losing to Carlton and rendering North Melbourne safe. Like St Kilda, the Demons fall just short. Yet, in the cold light of day, like the Saints, missing out may actually have done Melbourne a favour. When you’ve been as deprived of finals action for as long as the Demons, falling into a spot in the eight can be viewed more favourably than perhaps it should. Who knows whether either club’s younger brigade might have sub-consciously been too satisfied with that minor achievement? Now, at least, there’s no false economy, and no excuse for either St Kilda or Melbourne not to attack next pre-season with everything.

THE RULE

Intent scrutiny: Umpires turned mind-readers during the St Kilda Richmond clash. Photo: Adam Trafford/AFL Media

There’s barely been a week this season that hasn’t featured either controversy or at least some spirited debate about the harsher interpretation of the deliberate out-of- bounds rule, umpires having to become mind-readers about players’ intent, players more than occasionally penalised simply because of a crooked bounce. There were several more examples at the weekend, and a good point, too, raised by Fox Footy commentator Brad Johnson at the Richmond-St Kilda game as a kick which could have been kept alive was allowed to dribble out in the hope of drawing a free kick. If the spirit of the rule is about keeping the ball in play, how is allowing it to cross the boundary line when there’s plenty of time to pick it up any less deliberate?

THE BANNER

Faint praise: David Mundy’s banner ‘celebrating’ his 250th game. Photo: Fremantle Dockers/Twitter

We know cheer squads love their clubs and work hard to offer them support. We know making the run-throughs takes time and effort. But to say Fremantle damned their captain David Mundy with faint praise on the occasion of his 250 th AFL game would be an understatement. “Well done David Mundy 250 solid games” might have been underselling the Dockers’ skipper a tad given he’s now behind only Matthew Pavlich on Freo’s all-time games list, leads the club, and is a best and fairest winner and an All-Australian. If that’s merely solid, Freo fans certainly have high expectations. It makes you wonder what Pavlich can expect in his farewell game next weekend. We hope it’s something a little more enthusiastic than his successor as captain got for a significant milestone.

THE SHOCKERS ​

Want-away forward Hayden Ballantyne looks on as coach Ross Lyon addresses the team. Photo: Paul Kane

While we’re on the subject of Freo, another week, another insipid performance. We’ve written it several times already, but even allowing for injuries, the Dockers’ 2016 has been little short of disgraceful. Let’s recap. From a preliminary final, to 10 successive losses, just three wins, and now another eight straight losses, the last four by a ridiculous average of 75 points. And again, Saturday’s pathetic 92-point belting at the hands of GWS featured a team containing 14 of those same players who lined up against Hawthorn last September for a spot in a grand final. Coach Ross Lyon can dress it up anyway he wants, but no team as well-performed as the Dockers were one season ago should be as hopeless as they are now.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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