In the firing line with the ruck rovers

When I started watching footy in 1964 you knew who the ruck rovers were, but today the term ruck rover is no longer used in favour of the generic term on-ballers. Whatever they’re called, ruck rovers are potent attacking and defensive weapons in a well-equipped team, so here goes with my thoughts on the best or the worst ruck rovers over the years, and what sort of weapon they might be. The Macquarie Dictionary defines a weapon as ‘any instrument for use in attack or defence’ or ‘anything used to gain a strategic or material or mental advantage’. So it doesn’t mean that we’re going to be talking about a bunch of thugs, fortunately, because I follow in the footsteps of my pacifist father, and because these ruck rovers are no doubt, terrific people. Bear in mind that many ruck rovers have had other roles as well, so we have met some of them before in other positions, and will encounter others down the track in their more regular positions.

There is no separate chapter on ruck rovers in my well-thumbed second edition of High Mark edited by Jack Pollard (Sydney: Murray Publishing, 1967), but Footscray’s John Schultz (who presented the Premiership cup to the Doggies last year) wrote the chapter on ‘Dictating from the rucks.’ He said that ‘The ruck comprises two followers, a follower who is called ruck-rover and a rover. They are a team within a team, always in the game. You hear a lot these days about ruck-rovers, a method of increasing a side’s speed. But talk to veteran players from the 1920s and 1930s and you will soon discover that the ruck-rover idea is far from new. It is a technique which depends on whether a side has a durable big man who can do all the rucking and allow the second follower to work mainly as a rover, only filling in as a follower to spell the big fellow.’

More usefully, John Warren in Australian Football Fundamentals (Frenchs Forest: Reed, 1982) wrote ‘Ruck rovers have become increasingly important as the game evolved into one featuring ever-moving link players. They are usually strong, robust, medium-sized players within the 180cm to 188cm range who possess enough accompanying weight to open up packs and generally create opportunities for smaller, faster team mates. Good ruck rovers have to be jacks-of-all-trades. They need to have the capacity to handball fast and accurately, especially from congested packs. Additionally they need to be accurate kicks over any reasonable distance and to be at least average marks. It is also an added advantage to be able to kick accurately at goal as almost without exception, they rest in the forward line when off the ball. Perhaps most importantly, the modern ruck rover needs to be tough, versatile and to have a big heart and plenty of stamina. Many ruck rovers are the unsung heroes of their teams.  Perhaps more than any other player they are in a position to incur knocks, bruises and general injuries. It is a happy coach who has a couple of top ruck rovers in his line-up.’

When I think of ruck rovers I think of Ron Barassi and Sergio Silvagni playing for Carlton. My abiding memory of Barass is of him wresting his way free of a tackler out of a pack and dashing off at full pace with his face grimacing with effort, which is how he played, all out effort all the time. A member of Melbourne and AFL teams of the century he is the classic timeless Beretta which has been produced in Italy since the 1500s and was famously James Bond’s firearm of choice. Another of Italian heritage, Serge was in Carlton’s team of the century, and although not as glamorous as Barassi was as effective as the Magnum which was Dirty Harry’s firearm of choice.

Let’s tackle the heavy artillery first.

There was no subtlety about East Perth and Richmond’s sometime ruck rover Mal Brown on or off the field, being something of a Blunderbuss. Essendon’s Paul van der Haar was as hard and tough as they come and you could imagine him in a game of Russian Roulette where you wouldn’t fancy your chances against him. West Adelaide, Glenelg and South Adelaide’s Neil Kerley played footy the hard way, and his nickname suggests that he would be a Knuckleduster. Norwood’s Phil Carman went on to play in four AFL teams as an unpredictable Loose Cannon but what a magnificent player in whatever position he played. I recently saw an interview with Rene Kink who reckoned that Fabulous Phil was the best player he’d ever seen. Geelong’s Garry Hocking was like of one of those Whizz Bang shells of World War Two which you heard before they hit you. How could a Buddha bring such aggression as ruck-rover to Geelong’s team of the century?

The fiery red-headed Des Tuddenham was in Collingwood’s team of the century and was an irritating nuisance factor for all opposition teams. Hailing from Ballarat, Tuddy would be one of the 1842 Pattern muskets used at the Eureka Stockade that I saw when visiting the National Museum of Australia in Canberra recently.  Number 22 for Collingwood was the flamboyant John Greening from Burnie who ran close to the ground, was well balanced, and dazzled you with a burst of speed and action like a Hand Grenade that would arrive out of nowhere.

Malcolm Blight of Woodville and North Melbourne has a bronze statue outside Adelaide Oval befitting a Magarey and Brownlow Medallist and coaching legend. An explosive but cunning ruck rover, Blighty’s 70 metre plus torpedo after the siren travelled like an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. Ruck-rover in the Kangaroos team of the century, Anthony Stevens was just about the worker of the century, never complaining never shirking, just getting the job done, but as quietly as the pocket Derringer with its built in silencer, so you didn’t hear the boy from Shepparton until he was upon you.

Sydney Swans ruck rovers have been handily sized. Daryn Cresswell was a Pocket Rocket, Jude Bolton was a Mr Versatile Swiss Army pocket knife, while Tadhg Kennelly was a discreetly useful Shillelagh (an Irish walking stick) handy in a tight spot.

St Kilda’s champions are the stuff of legend. Its team of the century ruck-rover and dual Brownlow Medallist, the modest Robert Harvey, was always at the right spot at the right time doing the right thing in a magnificent and hardworking career. Wearing the red white and black he’s like the Men in Black whose harmless looking little gun launches an Orb of Energy against aliens. Lenny Hayes cleanly despatched opponents with grace over many years like the Misericorde which could strike through gaps in armour to deliver the coup de grace to a seriously wounded knight in medieval times.

West Adelaide, Western Bulldogs and Essendon’s Brownlow Medallist Adam Cooney is an earnest strawberry blond who featured in some AFL publicity as a bullfighter, so I guess he would need to be equipped with a Cape. Carlton’s Anthony Koutoufides is a one-of-a-kind athletic Greek God, so Kouta would hold the Thunderbolt of Zeus.

Geelong has plenty of Cats-of-nine-lives ruck rovers. Brownlow Medallist Jimmy Bartel would find Zeus’ brother Poseidon’s Trident handy down at Corio Bay. Cameron Ling’s slight chubbiness and flying strawberry blond hair seemed innocuous, but off the Corio Jetty he would be a mean hombre spear fishing. While we’re in a pugilistic mode with the Friday night action in Adelaide, you could imagine Paul Chapman as clean and efficient with the Boxing Gloves as he is with a footy. Nev Bruns was a terrific servant of Geelong and could have done with an impenetrable Suit of Armour after that infamous clash in 1985. Ian Nankervis was neat and accurate as a Bow and Arrow while Andrew Bews the tagger and talker would be the Sticks and Stones your mother told you not to worry about, or at least the Words.

The longevity of Hawthorn’s team of the century ruck rover Michael Tuck is matched by the ‘Royal gunmaker’ Holland and Holland, whose shotgun can be traced back to 1876. The effervescent Shane Crawford, the Hawks joker, might be the Pop-Gun that your brother used to frighten the life out of you as a kid. Essendon is known as the Bombers, but I reckon its team of the century ruck rover Tim Watson would be the bulky Bazooka, and son Jobe is a chip off the old block. Essendon’s indigenous star from Darwin Michael Long was potent and determined wherever he played and is my hunting Boomerang, reaching the heights as a Norm Smith Medallist.

Brisbane’s team of the century swashbuckling ruck-rover, Brownlow Medallist Michael Voss, cut through defences like a Cutlass, while his partner-in-crime Simon Black, a former 800 and 1500 metre runner, was like the Javelin thrown to disable enemy shields. From the Wild West, Don Pyke was named as ruck-rover in West Coast’s team of the decade in 1996 and Matthew Pavlich was named as that position in Fremantle’s team of the decade in 2003. There are firearms known as ‘the gun that won the West,’ both from 1873, the Colt handgun and the Winchester rifle, spot on for these two reliable players respectively, who were both effective and smart. Adelaide Crows supporters are delighted to have Pykey as their coach.

Glenelg’s Chris McDermott is ruck-rover in Adelaide’s team of the decade and is a classic example of the position. His single-minded attacks on the ball were like those of the Gatling Gun that would go all day on behalf of its company. The rugged blond dasher from Woodville-West Torrens Wayne Weidemann was a no frills player beloved of Adelaide supporters. He looked like a Viking but was known as the Weed, which is enough of a destructive element for the gardeners among us.

Two terrific Adelaide football families. Glenelg’s Graham Cornes OAM was a something of a sharpshooter and served in Vietnam as an infantryman. Interestingly, around the world’s infantry, the sharpest shooter is issued with a Designated Marksman Rifle. And then there is his Port Power son of a gun Kane (I’ve talked about Chad before) who won the Peter Badcoe VC medal for his Anzac Day efforts, but these days Kane would only be armed with a Fire Hose. North Adelaide’s Thring boys, George and Max, are my favourite players, so entertaining as a double act, who might be a pair of Duelling Pistols except they get on so well together. Let’s hope that that 2017 is indeed the Year of the Rooster!

Looking back at the SANFL, what a contrast in Sturt’s premiership ruck rovers in the 1960s, John Murphy and Keith Chessell. The one burly and dark like a Cloak and Dagger, the other slim and fair like a young curate whose only ammunition against you would be Admonishing Words. Another old fashioned ruck-rover was Norwood’s high-marking Graham Molloy, who had a week of fame when he won the Tassie Medal at the 1969 Carnival (I loved those Carnivals) but didn’t regain that form when he went to Melbourne, like a Cannonball that has to come down to earth.

Who were the ruck rovers in the SANFL in the 1960s, 70s and 80s? The teams used to be shown in playing positions in the Friday Advertiser and this is a round in July 1966. For Sturt the ruck rovers were: Murphy and Bagshaw, South: Kerley and Rivers, Glenelg: Blackburn and Staite, Norwood: Woolford and Haines, Port: Spiers and Clayton, West: McInerney and Llewellyn, North: Hank Lindner and Wilkinson, Centrals: Barron and Haylock and Woodville: Braidwood and Tee, West Torrens: Bills and Jackson. What a contrast in the Torrens ruck-rovers, Fred Bills and Wayne Jackson. The sandy-haired wholehearted Fred Bills was humble and workmanlike but also a fiery customer, so he would be the Firecracker of your choice. Remember Guy Fawkes night with the lovely sparklers, the Catherine Wheels fixed to the side of the shed, the Roman Candles, the rockets, the penny bungers and the squibs that jumped after you. By contrast, the dark haired sophisticated Wayne Jackson went on to be CEO at West Torrens and the AFL, and then at Thomas Hardy Wines and the SA Brewing Company, so his secret weapon in the world of management was probably a well-stocked Excel Spreadsheet.

In June 1976 the ‘Tiser listed South: McInnes and Cock, Port: Porplycia and G Phillips, Westies: Meuret and Stevenson, North: R Robran and Jaworskyj, Woodville: Girardi and Carlaw, West Torrens: Faletic and Noonan, Glenelg: Cornes and Caldwell, Sturt: Bagshaw and Casey, Centrals: Skinner and McKay, Norwood: Wynne and Dillon. Norwood’s ruck rovers are a nice contrast in styles. John Wynne was ruck rover in its team of the century, so he could play, as well as being a hard man and a rugged individualist. He was like the Dambuster that went where no-one thought it could go, famously into the opposition coaches box where he shook up the usually unflappable Jack Oatey. When he was at Melbourne the handsome clean cut Ross Dillon was chosen to sit with Princess Anne when she visited the MCG to watch a match. Being the sophisticate he would be the Walking Stick that John Steed, the epitome of debonair, wielded to corral his prey in The Avengers television series in the 1960s and early 1970s. Wasn’t that a great show, with Diana Rigg as Steed’s sidekick Emma Peel succeeded by Joanna Lumley as Purdey, of which more later.

By June 1986 only the first ruck was shown in the ‘Tiser, so for Norwood: M Aish, North: D Jarman, Glenelg: McDermott, Torrens: B Lindsay, Port: R Smith, South: D Kappler, West: D Herbert , Centrals: unplaced, but maybe Rene van Dommele, Woodville: C McDonald and Sturt: Craig. A few huge names in that lineup. The much loved and long playing Magarey Medallist Michael Aish was ruck-rover in the Redlegs team of the century. Aishy was lean and strong and brave like the Runestaff which preserves the cosmic balance in the Dorian Hawkmoon fantasy series. Darren Jarman went on to be a Tank of a powerhouse at Hawthorn and Adelaide, while Neil Craig went on to be an academic fitness guru, no doubt formidable with a Medicine Ball, and an AFL coach.

I’ve dodged a bullet by not having to talk about the Women’s AFL players as yet, but the legendary Annie Oakley was a great shot with a whole bunch of firearms. Annie Get Your Gun was a popular musical from 1946, and the State Library of South Australia has ten theatre programs for South Australian performances, the earliest dating from 1948, as well as two posters, a 45” record and a DVD of a Pulteney Grammar performance in 2008.

So, who are the standout ruck rovers in the current crop of AFL players?

Four of them embody all the strong things about ruck rovers and are rarely beaten. The silky skills and indigenous craft of Hawthorn’s Sean Burgoyne evoke the glamorous image of the Purdey shotgun, whose customers included Queen Victoria. Luke Hodge is the Hawthorn general with the Lee Enfield rifle which was the main firearm of the British army from 1895 to 1957. The estimable Brendon Goddard for St Kilda and Essendon is the epitome of a modern player, professional, renewing himself like the latest piece of technology—maybe that makes him one of the functioning 3D printed guns they’re making these days. There’s a plastic one, and a metal replica 1911 Browning, for which the printer alone cost a million bucks. Melbourne’s indomitable Nathan Jones with his shaven head and tattoos looks a fearsome sight like a BL 60 pounder.

From guns to roses. Carlton’s Bryce Gibbs is as clean cut as Frodo’s blade which glows with a blue and white flame when Orcs are near. Greater Western Sydney’s resourceful Callum Ward evokes Thor’s Hammer which returns to his hand after it is thrown, but you need to prove worthy of its immense power. The Western Bulldogs’ Bob Murphy is a wonderfully skilled player who despite his light frame never shirks the issue. He comes across as a sensitive new age guy so I think he would call to hand the Sword of Gryffindor which reveals itself to a worthy person in their time of need.

Former Crow and now Geelong player Patrick Dangerfield is the ruck-rover in the current All-Australian team. Paddy embodies all the qualities we’ve been talking about and his nickname embodies the concept of the ruck-rover as a weapon, so Danger would be the legendary Excalibur which makes its holder unbeatable, which he was in winning last year’s Brownlow Medal.

So the ruck rovers cause mayhem as they run amok all around the ground. It’s a fun exercise to think who you would like to have as a ruck-rover in the team you would want to watch in a well-armed heaven.



  1. Shane John Backx says

    Fabulous article, although I would say Paul Van Der Haar was a CHF cum CHB, not a ruck rover.

  2. Good work Carolyn. Sorry i must be a pedant.

    Re Geelong Ian Nankervis and Andrew Bews were both rovers who finished up in the back pocket. Ian’s brother Bruce had a spell in the mid 70’s ruck roving prior to reverting to the half back flank. Paul Chapman,and Neville Bruns were both rovers.

    Ken Newland was a top ruck rover for over a decade whilst in the blue and white hoops. Ditto Gareth Andrews played the role well for a period, prior to going to Richmond.


  3. charlie brown says

    Enjoyed the article thanks Carolyn. I reckon B.C. Robran was a fair ruck rover. I concur with your comments about the mighty Roosters for 2017!!

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