A tall story – should ruckmen bother turning up to draft night?

In the lead up to the 2014 draft, the AFL news division has reported that it is likely that only one ruckman would be drafted this year – clubs, instead, looking to restock the talls through the rookie and pre-season drafts. Now, we love our big fellas – lumbering from contest to contest, unsteady by hand and foot but taking that mark at centre half back exactly when it is needed. The disproportionately loud cheer the ruckman gets as he climbs the stairs to collect a premiership medallion is sufficient to demonstrate that they have a special place in our hearts.

There has been a belief around for some time that it takes longer to develop big men. The logic goes that because of their big frames the coordination, strength and fitness necessary to play at the highest level is a slower burn for the longer of limb. As a result, are AFL clubs seeing it as too great a risk to use a decent draft pick on a big fella that is a couple of years off playing rather than a smaller bloke who will see game time in his first year? Particularly in the age of free agency where a player can walk just as a club’s investment in him is about to provide returns.

Is this fair on the larger men in our game? Are they doomed to slog away as semi-pros in state leagues until their mid 20’s to then get rookie listed and only get a look in if the number one ruckman gets injured? Is this a real issue? Let’s look at the data.

How tall is tall?

Comparing the height distribution of AFL footballers to the general population (in his case Australian males aged 18-24) shows that the footballers are substantially taller than their un-AFL peers. While only 4% of young Australian men are 190cm or taller, 40% of AFL footballers are. From that perspective it is not the big guys that miss out in the AFL, rather it is those in the ‘normal’ height range. While nearly 50% of males in the 18-24 cohort are between 170cm and 179cm, only 10% of AFL footballers are this vertically challenged (writes he, towering over them with all of his 183cm).

In the 2014 AFL season there were 16,953 hit outs recorded. 83% of those hit outs were made by 39 players. The height range for those players was from 197cm (Ryder) to 211cm (Sandilands). In the wash-up between season 2014 and the draft (post trades and delistings), of the 691 players still on lists there were 104 players within that height range – just over one in seven. Of those, 11% are rookie listed.

What should you expect the height distribution in the draft to look like? The various phantom drafts doing the rounds at the moment have three of their 30 over 197cm (depending on how tall Sam Durdin actually is – Callum Twomey’s first phantom draft has him at 196cm while his revised edition has him at 198cm). Wright, Moore and Durdin are the three in that height range likely to be picked in the top 30. This is not too far off the mark as, based upon current representation, you would expect 4 players in that height range to get picked.

Of greater interest is that of the three of them only Wright at 203cm is ever described as a ruckman. Even he is seen more as a key position player that pinch hits, while Moore and Durdin are only ever described as key position players.


Perhaps the issue is less that AFL clubs are unwilling to pick big men and more that those big men that 10 years ago would have played in ruck are now key position forwards and backs. So, given that height only tells half the story in how a player will be used, it’s time (sorry Gough) to Introduce DDTBCS (Dave’s Dodgy Tall Bloke Classification System – note it’s the system that is dodgy, although I can’t vouch for the tall blokes either). This is based upon 2014 output to get some idea of how they are being used. The basic structure is: 2-5 hit-outs per game = pinch hitter, 5-10 hit outs = minor ruck role, more than 10 hit outs = ruckman. 0.5-1 goal per game = pinch hitter, more than 1 goal = forward. Players that classify neither as a forward nor ruckman are defenders (a reductive definition, to be sure).

Of the 66 currently listed uber tall players to have played at least five games in 2014, DDTBCS identifies 27 pure ruckmen, 8 pure defenders, 6 pure forwards and 24 players with mixed roles (a third as forwards that spend some time in ruck, a third as truly multi-position players and a third as rucks that play forward or defenders that play ruck). According to this classification system the players that fully qualify for more than one position are Ryder, Hale and Lycett who all averaged more than 10 hit outs per game and more than one goal. Based upon this analysis it remains clear that about half have playing in the ruck as their first role, while the other half play a variety of roles either in key positions or as utilities of some description. As a result, the pool of genuine ruckmen that needs replenishing is understandably small.

A new Cold War

For years we have laboured to under the expectation that ruckmen should become increasingly skilful, flexible and aerobically fit. The trouble is that if they tick all those boxes clubs can’t resist the temptation to play them in a key position. Forward lines and defences have become a height based arms (and legs) race where each new increase in the height of the key forward must be matched by an increase in height of the key defender. In this AFL Cold War perhaps the ruckman’s importance is diminishing.

Perhaps, also, it is an admission of failure on the part of AFL clubs and recruiting staff in being able to identify a gun ruckman at 17 years old. Kreuzer, Longer and Gorringe have, to date, not fulfilled their promise while Carlton picked up Sam Jacobs at pick 72 and then traded him to Adelaide for picks 33 and 67. Dean Cox, Aaron Sandilands and Shane Mumford were all rookie elevations. Despite his ability to influence the result, the game breaking ruckman is just too difficult to identify young so, maybe, clubs won’t take the risk anymore.

Nonetheless, given their comparative rarity in the general population, I think the big blokes will be just fine… except on planes, cheap hotel rooms and when passed out in the back seats of cars (true story – I once had the pleasure of cramming an overly watered West Adelaide reserves ruckman into the back seat of a car to get him home. He was too long).

About Dave Brown

Upholding the honour of the colony. "Play up Norwoods!"


  1. Dave- lots of interesting insights here into how the game is changed, or more strictly evolving, if its viewed as Darwinian. The job and person specifications are so different now to what they once were. And they just keep getting bigger.

    Years ago, when he just started with Collingwood I met Nathan Buckley in Kapunda at the footy club (he has a connection), and beyond him making a great impression by having a kick with some kids, and being a “good bloke,” I was struck by how tall he is. Based on this alone, there wasn’t a country or suburban footy club I’d seen in which he couldn’t have rucked, based on his height.

    Will a backman or a ruckman ever again win a Brownlow or major award?

    Good stuff Dave.

  2. Ben Footner says

    I think my club Adelaide have certainly taken the strategy of rookie listing, or alternatively raiding other clubs of the 2nd or 3rd string talls. You mentioned the obvious in Sam Jacobs, but Josh Jenkins is another example of a tall forward/ruck of reasonable talent who was snaffled off Essendon’s rookie list. They’ve traded for another from Hawthorn in the most recent draft period.

  3. Thanks Mickey – I think a ruckman could win one, still. That’s where this baffles me a bit – the difference between having a good ruckman and not is often the difference between winning and losing. Yet, through their actions (and often the results of B&Fs) clubs don’t seem to value it as highly as they should.

    Absolutely Ben. Been a while since the Crows played a ruckman they actually drafted. Maric maybe? Got lucky with Sauce. They’ll probably rookie list an experienced ruckman as insurance and leave it at that.

  4. Guru Gus - Singapore says

    Impressed with the stats herein – 16,973 hitouts for the entire season. Who knew?

  5. Neil Anderson says

    Tried to listen to the draft (I don’t think it was telecasted ) hoping upon hope the Bulldogs would recruit tall, key-position players and ruckmen.
    One of their first picks was the shortest player listed in the draft and the shortest at the Bulldogs since Tony Liberatore.
    But as they say in the classics, ‘What would I know”. I hope Will Minson doesn’t mind running himself into the ground again next year and Dale Morris can hold up the back-line once again.

  6. NicNait is a shoo-in for the Brownlow as soon as he learns to mark and kick. After all he is a 208cm rover – who takes the taps.
    Thought provoking piece Dave.

  7. I’ve seen a fair bit of Caleb Daniel, Neil. A top little player. Nonetheless an interesting draft group. Perhaps they will go tall next week.

    NicNait – interesting thought, Peter…

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