John “Bones” O’Mahoney was a great servant of the Hawks between 1950 and 1960. Injuries ruined him, and his shot at Hawthorn’s first flag in ‘61. It’s a shame. You meet him and think he deserved more than that.

When we talked for my book, An Oral History of AFL/VFL Footy, he said one thing that painted such a grand picture it will be with me to my grave.

“Oh, it was something to be on the oval watching John Kennedy Sr. in the ruck, take this huge run-up, charging through the mud straight at Butch Gale, who would be doing the exact same at him.”

Sorry, you can take your flashy forwards, I can’t relate to them. You can have your snazzy on-ballers, handy, but interchangeable. Nothing beats a good ruckman.

I spoke to Stan Alves about the 1997 Grand Final. It was a good chat. I found him a great man. Yet I couldn’t help but ask about the frustration of coaching against a genius like Norm Smith medallist McLeod, seeing him take the game away from the Sainters?

“Feh,” Stan brushed off all genius talk. “It was his supply that was the problem. Watch the replay. We had Spider and Lazar out. Rhen was hitting it down McLeod’s throat.”

Talking in a café opposite his Real Estate office, Denis Pagan told me: “Hawthorn were the team of the 80s. All they were lacking to be one of the truly best teams of all time was great ruckman.”

In a Gold Coast café Malcolm Blight said, with a wry, knowing grin: “Notice how all the people saying ruckmen are overrated are back-pockets?” Mick Malthouse came to mind, for some reason. “Even if you take away the strategy of it, if, as a ruck-rover, you’re having a bad day, all it takes is one or two taps into your lap to get you up and firing again.”

“Confidence,” I said.


How important was Jolly to the Swans first flag in 70-odd years? Remember the Prelim against Geelong, that tap, perfect, to Nick Davis in the goal square? In that moment the flag was won.

It’s a shame the game’s evolved the way it has. All that running, whole teams flooding back. Defenders brilliant on the punch. It’s true the ruckman’s lot has slipped a bit. Nothing in the history of the game has given me more pleasure than watching a big man dominate. Strong pack marks, feeding runners, throwing his weight about. Len Thompson must have, at times, seemed like a one-man wall. Cox was often everywhere – up high, spreading wide. Ottens won Grand Finals with his strength.

But they’re still important. Vital. For presence, leadership. For ruckwork. Richmond couldn’t catch a fart in a lift when Maric was out. Not a whiff. Look what’s happened since he got back. They started winning in packs. They all toughened up. How much better are the Giants when Mumford’s up and about?

With Jolly gone, when Grundy slipped away this year so did the Pies.


If you don’t believe me, check out some real football. The grass roots stuff. From down in the hack leagues, to semi-pro juniors in Statewide Cup squads, to school and college footy, to the pros from Dover, in the GFL and Essendon League and Diamond Valley.

Have a look come finals time. Ruckmen still dominate. They feed the rovers. They hold up and turn games. They count.

I still remember the best coach I ever had. I said, after my first game under him: “You probably don’t remember me, 22 new faces, but if you do, any tips?”

He said: “You’re Matty Zurbo, you play in the ruck.” He told me what I did right, what I did wrong and how to correct it. Then gave me two examples of blokes in the AFL I should watch. “Mark Lee’s slow, like you, but never stops moving. He’s always thinking where the ball will be in two kicks, rather than where it is.”

Col Pekins, a great ruckman from down the coast, told me a decade later: “Watch most ruckmen. They have to cover more ground than anyone, so drag themselves to ball-ups. I always made a point of getting there early and taking that one second to inhale deep and solidify.

Another bush great, Pistol Pete, told me years after Col, that structures are great, but there are so many variables. “Everything shifts as you watch the ball go up. The plan is the gist, sure, but get the players to call as the ball’s hitting your hand. The rest is reflex. Everything.”

Time and again players would tell me: “I’ll be on your left” The ball would go up, not quite straight, my opponent and I would knock each other off our lines, rovers would shift and cut, and the player on my left would sprint by, anywhere within a 20 meter stretch. My eyes on the ball, I’d miss him by a foot and he’d crack the shits.

A voice would have sucked the ball into him.

Having a sip just down the road from Windy Hill, in my 40s, Simon Madden advised me on how to leap early. And how to negate when the bloke’s just too big. And pointed out, anywhere forward of centre, no matter your ruck hand, always be goal-side of the other bloke.

How often, at any level outside AFL, even the better standards, is an on-baller the Coach? They think it all starts from them. That they made themselves. That good ruckmen simply are, or aren’t.

They never, ever practise the nuances of good ruckwork. They don’t know there are any. The most they do, is, maybe, on-ball set-ups, with a ruckman and a tackle-bag. These on-ball set-ups never, ever improve the ruckman, and in that, the team, because they are not taken by former ruckmen. It’s like a back flanker giving specialist training to a full-forward.

If I was the full-forward, I’d be insulted.

The Beard knows this. Remember him? Haha! Ben Hudson was one of them old school blokes ploughing though the modern game. He took on Cox and Jolly and Ottens and Sandilands and Spider, gobbing off the whole way. He never shut up, without, apparently, ever saying anything deep. Yapperty, yap, yap, yap!

“Did it put you off?” I asked Steven King.

“Nah, a little. I think he did it more-so to fire himself up.”

“But what did he say?”

“Who knows? Anything about your looks, the way you play, your fans. Anything to get under your skin. One time I asked him how the hell he could play without sucking in air!”

Good stuff!

I loved watching the Beard. He became a cult hero by the time he made the Dogs. Blue collar, undersized, just a likeable ratbag with a broad chest, fierce competitive streak, some red pubes on his chin, and, something few picked up on, great technique.

He was my favourite, by a mile. I met him in Brisbane, we became mates. I watched him retire twice. His wings clipped him this time. Surely this is it. But they said that before, so who knows? He won’t be lost to footy, though. He’s started something just bloody brilliant. AFL standard ruck coaching clinics. To be done with him, or at player’s clubs club.

Jesus, imagine it with your mob? That extra 20% where it all starts, in the guts, at the stoppages, when it counts. I’m gutted I’m older than the hairy prick! I gleamed what I could, in dribs and drabs, off who I could, when I could, over 30 years. How much more useful might I have been if I’d learned the nuances from the start?

Imagine how much better my on-ballers would have looked. How much more “Confidence!” I could have given them along the way. How much better a leader I would have been.


Stretching, diet, training drills, sometimes footy at its lower levels is so much further behind the Big League than it has to be, even at State level, it makes me sick.

Ruck coaching should be taken by ruckmen.

I asked Don Scott about today’s game. He grumbled, rightly, about that day Peter Moore and Garry Dempsey wrestled so much the VFL brought a center-line in. I remember watching that game. Damn, it looked ugly! But it was nothing an umpire with backbone couldn’t fix. The kneejerk decision was either taken by people who aren’t ruckmen, or were going to bring in the line anyway, or both.

I think the game would have evolved to where it is now without the line, anyway. Ruckmen, even down at my lowly level, just keep getting taller.

But that doesn’t mean they know jack shit.

Thank Christ for my first coach, Sid, the great one. They’re the ones who know they don’t know everything. He taught me via Mark Lee.


And as for the center-line, it didn’t stop an undersized bloke like Andy Goodwin carving out a career. Literally. Damn he was tough! I remember watching him running through the mud to bash into James Manson, time and again, who was bashing into him. Both of them growling, spitting, throwing backhanders all day long. Like Kennedy Sr. and Butch Gale before them. Like ruckmen will for all time.

Neither Goodwin or Manson were the best ruckmen in the league, but so what? To me they, and Butch and Kennedy and the Beard, are what footy’s about.


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  1. Andrew Starkie says

    Zurbs, have always agreed with Blacky’s mum in ‘Deadly Unna’, a novel about footy and race relations in rural SA, ‘It’s all about the ruckman’. Still the most important player in the team because play starts with him.

  2. Andrew Starkie says

    Simon Madden’s efforts in GFs during the 80s sold me on ruckmen.

  3. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Totally agree , Matt will Pyke we good enough as a replacement for , Mummy in the crunch ? Maric definitely improved the tigers but is he good enough to get them to have a real crack at the holy grail ? No better example than , Rehn up and about so were the crows injured and the crows were also rans yep ruckman are vital !

  4. Matt I just love reading your pieces. Can’t wait for the book.

  5. I think it was Lethal Leigh who recently said ruckmen were overrated – in particular Aaron Sandilands.
    I disagreed at the time.
    Rehn destroyed North in the second half of the 1998 GF.
    I’ve never needed to be sold on ruckmen.

  6. In the U16s final last weekend, two fairly even teams were separated by a four goals, in otwher words a goal a quarter, essentially by winning the centre clearances 60% of the time. Yes, there were good plays made by halfbacks intercepting and rebounding, but both teams were doing that. It really came down to who got the ball into the forwards the most.

    The best ruck men are the ones that also contribute at ground level when required. To be a link through midfield, make a lead with no other intention than to create space for someone with run and chop out another player to prevent the third man up. Physical presence is always good too. Love seeing a yappy little rover getting uppity about something and thinking about having a swing when he gets a tap on the shoulder to remind him that the real power resides elsewhere.

    Viva la ruck monsters!

  7. Spot on Matt. Have been actively considering this very issue all season during the SANFL. Two teams: Port Adelaide and Woodville West Torrens have effectively played without a decent sized ruckman while all other clubs have a ruck division ranging from passable to dominant. The reason the WWT Eagles are on their holidays is, despite their strong midfield group, there were too many periods where the opposition ruckman would get on top and they’d leak goals in succession. Port’s AFL listed quality made them top of the ladder but it will be interesting to see if Sam Baulderstone can be the game changer for Norwood this weekend.

    Got it in one on the 98 GF Matt Watson. Ben Hart saved the game in the 1st half and Rehn won it in the 2nd. Rehn, Brendon Lade and Clark Keating for Brisbane in the finals (who knew that if you set up for it someone whacking the ball 30m towards your goal could be an advantage?) my favourite ruckmen of recent times.

  8. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Browny Spot on and it is where I don’t get , Mathews comment , Mr September
    Clark Keating was vital for the lions

  9. Matty Clarke, Keating, Jamie Charman. Soon as they dropped in form/moved on/retired, Lions didn’t go so well…

  10. Brilliant piece, Zurbs. The way you weave your interviews with the good and the great through the prose is absolutely unique. It’s your lived experience and worth so much more than just citing a quotable quote.

    AFL ruckmen are probably right to feel hard done by. The limited spots available mean even the best young ruckmen can spend half a career playing the waiting game. The conversion of our footy teams into homogenous lists of pleasantly groomed and statuesque ‘athaletes’ has threatened to render the grunting draughthorse irrelevant. Freaks like Cox and Natanui have set new standards. Now we expect ex-basketball players who can dodge and weave and chase and snap goals on the run, as well as the usual jump and bash and knock and clunk. All this has distracted us from the vanishing art of the precision tap ruckman. Modern statistics don’t help. A hit-to-advantage should require more than landing in the general vicinity of a team-mate.

    I will personally be a life-long spruiker for the Ruckman’s Benevolent Fund, on account of a debt of gratitude owed to several beanpole team-mates who kept me in the game and extended my career.

    For the majority of my senior games I was a follower, now more commonly referred to as a mid-fielder, to the great impoverishment of our unique sporting dialect.

    In the latter half of my playing days, almost precisely the time I surrendered my wayward youth to take a desk job, the paunch emerged and began to spread and the hammies grew taut and frayed. Whatever genuine zip I ever had to offer disappeared, and suddenly. With a run-up and a head of steam I could still break a tackle or split a pack, and occasionally my feet left the ground in a marking contest. But nimble evasion became something other people did. And with comical ease, if I happened to be the one chasing them. Which was rare.

    The last bastions of my competitiveness became the throw up, the throw in, and the centre bounce. With a good ruckman, I could win the footy, or at least lock it up and start again, through little more than positioning, strong hands and a bit of aggression. If the game was hard and tight, I could still be useful. It was the saving grace that gifted me a few precious extra years. Thanks to an accommodating coach, by the very end I spent most of each game resting on the bench, inserted into the fray for a centre bounce, followed by five minutes of chasing the footy.

    There was nothing very flash or complicated about any of this. The method was simple: get to every stoppage; hatch a plan with the ruckman; stand in front of my opponent (ignoring the niggle but thumping in hard); be square in the ruck’s vision when the ball arrived; and demand the ball with all my burning lungs could muster. If the ball came my way, the rest was up to me. I had one chance to take it clean and dish it out, before my slow-mo reel would kick in again.

    I was blessed with some graceful giants in my time. On the days they were on song they could bring a weary old hack back into the game.

    Dependency has a dark-side of course. Get thrashed in the ruck, and I’d hardly get a touch.

  11. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Tommy brilliant and brutal honesty of your last few years , I have been lucky enough in my life to have met , done coaching clinics etc with a lot of sportsmen from the elite level , Tom with , Ian Chappell are the best leaders I have come across .
    TM in that the great man , Chocka considers you our best ever leader there is , NO greater praise than that

  12. Tom Martin pound for pound the best player I have seen at Adelaide Uni in my time and a great leader of men.

  13. Steve Hodder says

    What was it that Jack Dyer mused one morning, on World of Sport, after yet another provocation from Lou Richards ? Oh yeah; any big man could belt a good small man into the ground. To all the indefatigable steadfast big fellas that have played the game; I salute you.


  14. Great article and couldn’t agree more. A good ruckman is essential to winning the flag. A ruckman doesn’t have to dominate he just has to make sure the opposition ruckman doesn’t dominate. Breaking even is good enough.

    Shaun Rehn is the prime example. In 95 and 96 he played half dozen games, had two knee reconstructions and the Crows finished bottom of the ladder. In 97 and 98 he had full seasons and the Crows went back to back. Rehn was the real Norm Smith medallist in 97.

    In Port’s early years of the AFL they stocked up on Ruckmen. They kept Primus, Lade and Brogan and traded out Fabian Deluca, Barnaby French and Cain Ackland. It was a policy that delivered our most successful period. We flogged Lade and Brogan for too long as we didn’t have a decent replacement. Giles didn’t come good on time and Hugh Minson’s career ending injury before he even played a game cost us dearly. This lead to us trading in B-graders like Cameron Cloke and Brent Renouf. Port’s recent poor period conincides with lack of ruck strength. It’s no surprise our improvement has coincided with the rise of Matthew Lobbe, who right now is our most important player by a long way.

    I remember Robert Walls pointing out that ruckmen are the most traded players as a percentage of total numbers. They also take a long time to develop. With the advent of the substitute rule clubs can only play one ruckman and then use a pinch-hitter to give him a break on game day. Or they can play two ruckman but one has to double as a key forward (a la Tippett). No club can have three A-graders on their list. Clubs like the West Coast are lucky to have two. If you have three on your list you can be guaranteed that one of them will be poached.

    This leads to the new dilemma for recruiters and list managers. Should they poach or draft and develop ruckmen. And if they decide to draft, what draft pick do they use? An early round or a late round?

    I’m all for drafting lots of ruckmen and trading the ones that don’t become A-graders. There may be some short term pain but the long term gain may give you the edge.

  15. If ever there was an example of the influence of a big bloke it was last night. The Kangas ruckman turned a 16 -2 clearance defiict to total dominance in the second half, The Kangas midfiled started getting first use of the pill and that’s all she wrote. Barry Round owes me his Brownlow as I taught him to kick during hours of kicking drills when he was still at Footscray. That’s my take on it anyway
    Cheers Matt

  16. Don Meadows says

    Terrific read Matt. I’m a Sydney member and a convert from the rugby codes, so I’m still catching up with the legends and the oral history of the game. My thanks and admiration.
    We’re nervous about only having MikePyke (Tippo does a bit in the forward half) and we miss our Mummy. We do have two in waiting who are looking pretty good: Nankervis (who inevitably is tagged as Nanny) and Naismith who had his first outing in the firsts against Richmond and got a bath from Big Ivan before he picked up a bit in the second half. Both are still pretty young and raw, but they have potential.
    One small correction. Yes, the tap down to Davo in the final against Geelong back in ’05 was a work of the ruckman’s art, but it was done by Jason Ball, not Jolls.

  17. The AFL should have a policy for Ruckman like some Rugby Union Comps have for the biggest men in their game, Props and Hookers.
    That allows, in the case of injury, the recruiting of players from outside a squad, to play in these crucial, specialised positions.
    It would allow for the development of Ruckman across a range of comps
    and it would help save inexperience, undersized and unsuited players being wrecked/sacrificed in the ruck.
    It would reflect the oft quoted idea, that big men take longer to develope
    and keep big blokes in the game.

    AND: it would allow Geelong to bring in a Ruckman this week!

  18. Ern, That made me laugh. JTH

  19. Thanks heaps everyone!

    Mal, Brownie, I agree on Leigh. What’s he thinking to say that? Keating smashed it.

    Steve, in regard for what Jack Dyer said, Don Scott told me John Kennedy told him: “A rover will be loved for what he is best at, a ruckman will be loathed for what he is best at.” The implication was obvious. Hurt them rovers if they’re doing too well. Hmm.

    Dan, spot on, very thorough. You’ve hit the nail with Port, I reckon.

    Don, yeah, I realised as it was going to print I stuffed up on that one. Nanny, as you call him had better do well! I used to be his junior coach (and eventual teammate!) We’d stay back and practice competing for marks and stuff. He is a ripper bloke.

  20. Tom Martin, you should cut and paste your comment as its own article. Brilliant mate.

  21. P.S. Did anyone see how Sandilands single-handedly brought Freo back into the game with his ruckwork a few days ago? That whole smash into them early, land and push doesn’t work on him. If both ruckmen are on the ground he has an extra three inches on the reach!

  22. P.S. Don, Toby’s nickname is actually Big Rig. Or Rig for short.

  23. Lovely stuff, Matt. No doubt the Beard was an influence on Big Will and many of his tap-outs last year, his All Australian year, were enough to get struggling Bulldogs going again -straight down their throat and they are away.

  24. Malby Dangles says

    Cool piece Matty. I wonder sometimes about the effectiveness of some rucks. Many Carlton supporters doubt if our big No. 11 Robbie Warnock is worth his place in the side. He’s great in the tapouts, but he doesn’t impose himself around the ground as much as one hopes.

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