Round 4 – Essendon v Port Adelaide: The ruck stops here

Essendon v Port Adelaide

1:10PM April 15, 2018

Etihad Stadium, Melbourne



Having just scrapped over the line against Brisbane last week in Adelaide with no genuine ruckman, Port Adelaide pushed things one week too far yesterday and came well unstuck against a rejuvenated Essendon side smarting from their heavy loss in the previous round.



Port’s continued reliance on the likes of Justin Westhoff and Charlie Dixon to fill the void left by the injury to Paddy Ryder looks likely to end against Geelong in Adelaide this Saturday night with Port again out-tapped for most of the match. But just how important is the ruckman to a side?



Leaving aside Ryder’s well-known at times sublime ruck work, it’s really his around the ground work – strong, one-grab marking in the back or forward line and his accurate goal kicking that Port miss as much. There is no question Ryder’s in-tune play with the likes of Robbie Gray and Ollie Wines at stoppages gets Port moving, but the argument could be made that not having an established ruckman in your side doesn’t have to be the end of the world.



Yesterday against Essendon Port were well beaten in the centre and around the ground. And much of that can be put down to not matching Essendon’s intensity nor their fast ball movement. Port from the first bounce were slack, sloppy and slow. Essendon were away on the scoreboard while Port seemed stuck in first gear. By half-time the hole Port were in required more than one shovel, more than one genuine ruckman. They needed an influx of desperation and forward line pressure. The ball simply went end to end for Essendon too easily, too quickly and for much of the game Port Adelaide were unwilling, or unable to counter it. Port, to their credit didn’t give up (as they shouldn’t), but they could only really ever respond for minutes at a time, unable to lift to Essendon’s level for a sustained period of time to truly challenge for victory. The final margin of 22 points flattered Port, yet misses from Chad Wingard, Riley Bonner and Dixon would have given the Bombers some nervous moments had they been kicked truly. Every time Port Adelaide were able to get a goal or two back, Essendon would settle and find another clean, concise and fast avenue to goal. Chasing their tails was Port’s lot for the day. They battled manfully, but even with a more talented list couldn’t match the effort.



And that’s where things get complicated in the centre of the ground for the Power.



According to Ken Hinkley, Port’s industrious but stubborn coach, the back-up rucks playing SANFL simply aren’t ready for AFL standard football yet. That’s possibly true, but something must give in the next few weeks until Ryder’s return. A new strategy may be needed, but one that doesn’t necessarily involve bringing in an un-tried SANFL player. Westhoff is such a valuable player at Port, but perhaps a ruckman he is not. Dixon has bulk but not the rucking nous; having him spend time in ruck robs Port of his genuine match-winning ability in front of goal. Todd Marshall, concussed yesterday after a bright start is too raw, too thin to monster anyone in ruck and Dougal Howard suffers from a combination of all three.



Maybe it’s time Port set up at centre bounces conceding the ruck before the ball is bounced, but re-shuffle the midfield to counter that obvious disadvantage and make a positive out of it. Yesterday Gray, Wines, Polec and Watts were about all who truly stepped up for Port, so the upside on a muted performance is there if Port can dominate a talented Geelong midfield right from the start and read the ruck to their advantage.



It wasn’t too long ago that many were suggesting the days of a dominating ruckman being vital to success were over. Whether that’s still true, or ever was doesn’t matter, because a midfield that can set up well to the opposition ruckman and get on top of their counterparts around the ground can nullify any ruck deficiencies. Lose the taps, win the game. That should be Port’s aim this week and for as long as it takes for Ryder to recover.



Port’s reality check came yesterday, but it may have done more good than harm. They’ve now had two very poor weeks. But early in the season and sitting equal top with three wins from four games is a good start. Port can build on that this week, dedicated ruck or not. Yesterday Essendon were far too good, but there’s will be a performance measured against the real lack of spark and effort in Port’s play. It will be an interesting re-match come round 23 in Adelaide. Essendon and Port have always had some fierce battles, and a long-history of player swapping. Wanganeen to Essendon, Hardwick to Port. Yesterday, on and off the field, things were no different. There must be something about these two clubs’ supporters too that gets up each others’ noses. Bombers fans mocked Never Tear Us Apart, and Port responded with ‘jab, jab, jab’. I’ve seen near head-butts, Dean Rioli lumbered with the nickname Donut because of his weight issues, Matthew Lloyd’s free kick count cause grown men to fling themselves at the boundary fence and general mayhem at the Port cheer squad end of Etihad Stadium. But it is the battle on and off the field that makes this fixture year in year out one of the best to attend.



Yesterday it was Essendon’s turn to shine, and rightly so. But expect a solid response next week, ruck or no ruck, and pencil in round 23 at Adelaide Oval. Essendon fans please do the same.



ESSENDON       5.2   9.4    12.7   16.10   (106)
PORT ADELAIDE      2.2   4.6      8.8   12.12   (84)


Essendon: Stringer 4, Stewart 3, Daniher 2, Myers 2, Fantasia, Green, Goddard, Baguley, McDonald-Tipungwuti
Port Adelaide: Watts 3, Dixon, Marshall, Westhoff, Boak, S. Gray, Amon, Byrne-Jones, Rockliff, Bonner


Essendon: Hurley, Stringer, Merrett, Heppell, Zaharakis, Hartley, McDonald-Tipungwuti
Port Adelaide: R. Gray, Wines, Polec, Ebert

Crowd: 30,900


Twitter – @chrismwriter


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