The tall and tall of it: How AFL ruck strategy has evolved

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.

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Karens of Australia fear name has evolved from light-hearted jab to form of discrimination

While Karens around Australia can sometimes see the funny side of their name’s use in popular culture, they are worried by the moniker’s increasingly negative connotations.

It’s a view shared by one of the country’s top linguistics experts, who believes the term has evolved to become derogatory and offensive.

Karen was thrust back into the spotlight at the weekend amid the response to a viral video filmed by a woman who confronted Bunnings staff who had asked her to wear a mask in one of the hardware chain’s Melbourne stores.

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‘Bunnings Karen’ condemned online for refusing to wear mask

Roly Sussex, emeritus professor of applied language studies at the University of Queensland, said Karen had been a common term in the United States for more than a decade.

Some say it originated with the “Oh my God, Karen, you can’t ask someone why they’re white” internet meme from the 2004 movie Mean Girls.

Others say it came from a meme in 2014 that depicted a woman’s blonde-streaked haircut with the caption: “Can I speak to the manager?”


Nowadays, the term is commonly used to describe women who supposedly complain a lot, those considered to have a sense of entitlement, or commit public acts perceived as racist, such as unjustly calling the police on black people.

Professor Sussex said the use of Karen had evolved to be sexist, ageist and racist.

“It has become a way of pigeonholing certain sorts of behaviour — and the behaviour itself is not admirable — but on the other hand if you are already called Karen, why should you have to bear the weight of accumulated public disapproval?”

A picture of a woman with with an odd haircut, with the caption: 'This is Karen. She'd like to speak to the manager.'
Karen memes first appeared as light-hearted content on social media.(Supplied)

Real Karens and fake Karens

For Karen Andrews, the federal member for the Gold Coast-based seat of McPherson, Karen memes have been a source of amusement, however she said she was uneasy with the newer pejorative usage.

“We do laugh about it, and even at home if I’m not happy about it, my kids will say, ‘Uh, oh, Karen is going to call the manager’,” she said.

Karen Andrews speaks to the media with a pink banner behind her
Karen Andrews says there are two types of ‘Karen’ in Australia.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

“A real Karen would have been wanting to see the manager at Bunnings and say, ‘No-one should be allowed in here if they are not wearing a mask’.

“But then there is the fake Karen who doesn’t want to play by the rules.

“The fake Karen is just appalling, not acceptable, and they should not be able to hide behind something that is pretty light-hearted and pretty much fun.”

What’s an Aussie alternative?

Karen Bishop from Mackay said she took no offence from the memes but believed Sharon would be a better fit for the stereotype in Australia.

A woman wearing red glasses poses with a blonde girl wearing a medal.
Mackay dance teacher Karen Bishop and student Aria Maddison-Stanton.(ABC Tropical North: Melissa Maddison)

“You have got to remember that it did start in America,” she said.

“It’s the photos that make me laugh the most, the haircut, because I actually had the haircut for a long time.”

What other Karens think

“It doesn’t feel great when you see your own name only ever used in a negative context now. I know the origins of the Karen meme was a pretty powerful challenge to racism, so I try not to take it personally.” — Karen Pickering, Wollongong

“The name Karen is supposed to mean versatile, humanitarian, protective … all these beautiful combinations, but I’ve never felt that. There were times [when I was younger] I wanted to change my name to Charlotte.” — Karen Phillips, Gold Coast

“I am 80 next week and I’m very, very happy that my mother gave me the name Karen. I’ve never had any trouble. My mother gave me Karen Mae, after Mae West.” — Karen Lafferty, Ingham

“I find the whole Karen thing quite upsetting. I go out of my way not to be a jerk and make sure it’s no harder for anyone to get from one end of the day to the other than it already is.” — Karen Hunkin, Canberra

“I think it’s funny, I love it. Where’s the Aussie spirit? Everyone used to take the micky out of everyone. It’s gone so politically correct, no-one is game enough to have fun anymore.” — Karen Moodie, Gold Coast

Are Karens an endangered species?

Karen dominated Australian lists of popular baby names in the early 1960s but has progressively slipped from favour.

There are fears the name could all but disappear because of its contemporary connotations.

“The term Karen is American and we imitate the Americans an awful lot.

“I am afraid that because of that, it would take someone almost super-human to nullify that negative overtone.”

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Video analysis of Penrith Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary and how he has evolved since James Maloney’s exit

On the gym walls of many Ivan Cleary-coached football teams has been a ladder.

Not your ordinary competition-points variety, but a ladder that measured his team against the 15 others based on the first and last seven minutes of each half in games.

Nathan Cleary is all smiles after a red-hot start to the 2020 season.

Nathan Cleary is all smiles after a red-hot start to the 2020 season.Credit:Penrith Panthers

They are the seven-minute periods that make or break football games.

The same periods broke Anthony Griffin when he coached a Panthers team that struggled out of the blocks. The same periods have made the current Panthers team a force to be reckoned with.

Only the Sydney Roosters have conceded less points in the first and last seven minutes of each half throughout the opening seven rounds of the season.

The Eels, Panthers, Storm and Roosters went into round seven as the top four teams on the NRL ladder. It’s no surprise they are the same four teams that have the best defensive record during the 28 minutes of the game that Cleary believes requires a greater level of concentration to win football games.

It’s the kind of attention to detail that has been ingrained in his son Nathan, who throughout his career has shown he can produce the goods in clutch moments.

Game of thrones

He was dubbed the prince of Penrith as a teenager. But following the departure of James Maloney, Nathan Cleary has taken his place on the throne at the foot of the mountains, leading a resurgence that has transformed the Panthers into title contenders in 2020.

“Nathan played second fiddle to Jimmy, for sure,” the Panthers coach said.

“And that was fair enough because Jimmy was the senior voice by a long way. Nat and Jimmy are probably a bit too similar. It doesn’t mean it can’t work, because I think they showed at various times together that it can work really well.

“But I guess for long-term success, we needed to make a change. It was good timing. Jimmy was at the end of his career looking for something else, and Nat’s starting to head towards the prime of his career.”

Nathan’s development over the past 12 months is highlighted in the below video analysis, which shows just how much he struggled to stamp his authority on the Panthers in 2019, and how much that has changed this season.

Video analysis 1: Cleary finds his voice without Maloney

“He was always developing, he always had a really good attitude,” Maloney said.

“The biggest thing was for all the hype and how much he had done by an early age, Nath had a really good self-awareness of where his game was at. He was never going to be a kid who thought he was killing it and believing in his own hype.

“He always had a fair assessment of where he’s at. At the end of the day, he’s only 22. He’s still a baby. There are plenty of more things he’ll learn and develop.”

Cleary never got frustrated being the understudy, despite Penrith struggling for form throughout 2019. The NSW halfback believes the two seasons under the now Catalans playmaker is a large reason for his success in 2020.

“Yeah, there was times where we didn’t quite gel because we were so similar,” Cleary said.

“But I learnt a lot off him; things that I wasn’t doing before he came to the club. He’s a pretty good person to learn off. He’s done everything in the game and is an outstanding player. I definitely take those years here under him as valuable and have been able to mould that into my game the best I can this year.”

Play-the-ball speed

Ivan Cleary has plenty of mantras and philosophies he bases his coaching around. His No.1 motto is “the star of the team is the team”. He also places emphasis on the play-the-ball speed of his halves. Jarome Luai and Nathan Cleary have two of the fastest play-the-ball speeds of any halves in the NRL. It has been the foundation of Penrith’s success in 2020.

Interestingly, four of the top eight fastest play-the-ball speeds of NRL halves are players who have been coached by Ivan Cleary throughout their careers (Luai, Nathan, Luke Brooks and Shaun Johnson)

The impact of the quick play-the-ball was highlighted in the below vision of Nathan Cleary’s running game against South Sydney last week.

Video analysis 2: The importance of a quick play-the-ball

“He’s spoken about it a number of times through the pre-season,” Nathan said.

“He always likes me and Jarome running the ball. He always tells us ‘if there’s nothing really on, try and get a quick play-the-ball so we can play off the back of that the next play. Jarome is doing that really well.”

Apisai Koroisau

Three things changed in the golden west over the summer. Maloney left and Trent Barrett came back. But the most significant factor in the rise of Nathan Cleary has been the return of hooker Apisai Koroisau.

His ability to attract markers and keep the defence second-guessing has given his halves more time and space to set up plays and inject themselves into the contest.

“He is probably in the prime of his career,” Ivan Cleary said.

“I reckon he manipulates markers as good as anyone in the comp. He’s also now become an 80-minute player consistently, which he possibly could have done at Manly but he wasn’t used that way. But on and off the field, he’s been good in terms of leadership. He’s had a great influence on and off the field through leadership and personality as well.”

When coaches talk about Koroisau’s strength as a dummy half, they talk about his tempo.It’s a quality that makes him a constant threat, as highlighted in the video below.

Video analysis 3: the impact of Api Koroisau

“I would describe tempo as being able to manipulate the defensive line to create space for other people,” Ivan Cleary said.

“If you’re playing with tempo, the defence is confused as to when they should go to you or should they not. You want to get the defensive line a little bit staggered because there are guys moving faster than someone else. It’s just deception, pretty much, and he’s one of the best at it.”

The influence of Trent Barrett

Manly fullback Tom Trbojevic gets deja vu watching the Panthers play in 2020. “Trent Barrett’s hands are all over that team,” Trbojevic said of his former coach, who is now Ivan Cleary’s assistant at Penrith.

“Baz did all the attack at Manly and you can see so many similarities with the way Penrith are playing. They look very similar. He’s a really good coach. He used Api well at Manly.

“Penrith’s middles and back-rowers generate a lot of quick play-the-balls and Api gets a roll on off the back of it and plays his deceptive style. That seems to be helping Nathan. Api’s released a lot of pressure off Nathan, because he is so good at holding people up, it makes Nathan’s job a lot easier.”

Panthers assistant Trent Barrett with halfback Nathan Cleary before last week's game against South Sydney.

Panthers assistant Trent Barrett with halfback Nathan Cleary before last week’s game against South Sydney.Credit:Getty

Barrett has helped transform the Panthers’ stuttering attack, working with the players he groomed during his last stint at the club. He once ran the club’s halves academy, helping develop Cleary, Luai and Tyrone May when they were coming through the system.


“Baz did attack for me the last time he was out here,” Ivan Cleary said.

“He’s got a certain way he likes to do it and he’s very good at it. He told me what he wanted to do, his ideas and plans, and I thought they were good and that’s what we’ve gone with.

“Trent uses Api’s strength as much as he can, which is what he did at Manly. He touches the ball first and the most, so naturally there’s similarities. And he also has a long-standing relationship with Jarome and Nat. The timing was perfect.”

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