Simplifying Football



I think a lot about the modern game. Its highlights, its lowlights. Too many people are keen to sink the boot in. Most of the old timers hate it.

When the game gets too complex, with its two-way forwards and presses and rolling zones and heavy rotations, I focus on things. Marking. Kicks. The way Jarrod Harbrow takes them on. I don’t know the bloke, not from a bar of soap, but to see him give Scarlett the big Don’t Ague, I want to be his mate. He plays with pride. You can see it.

I watch backmen.

It’s not a popular thing to do. It’s true, the media don’t have a clue. I blame stats. I blame their Patient X, Bruce McAvaney. To be fair on him, the race-caller found an in and milked it, replacing knowledge with kick counts and handball receives. It took the poetry out of the game. Every moron could win an argument.

Now, even learned commentators call their 3-2-1 with each player’s stats. The most touches always get the candy. Jobe Watson won the Brownlow with 24 votes, while Sydney’s entire Premiership backline got 1. An on-baller is apparently worth 144 Premiership defenders. The All Oz team, at one stage, had 12 midfielders and four backmen.

I don’t buy it. The backmen are brilliant.

Do they double team? Yes. Does the third man come over the top? When he can, bloody oath. Does flooding help? Too right.

But the speed of the modern footy!

Teams break lines, run hard, slice through zones, they kick with skill the game has never seen before, across perfect surfaces, to stupidly strong, fit, fast forwards on the tear.

Yet the defenders are there.

They are better at punching than ever. It’s not that no-one can take a pack mark or speckie anymore. That’s instinct. Born into generation after generation. Its that backmen are so bloody good at timing their leap and going with them. At keeping their eye on the ball. At keeping their feet. At timing.

Over the past decade, if I wanted to see an old school contest, week after week, I would watch Ben Rutten.

I’d see him take on Cloke, Hawkins, Fevola.

There it was, every seven bloody days, the stuff of legends! A truck of a man on monstrous opponent. Something timeless.

But, somehow, the commentators never saw it. If Cloke did well he was a Champion, the key to their success, “Oh, what a power forward!” If Rutten spanked him, the talk was all. “Cloke just can get into it today.” “Cloke has to assert himself on the game more.” “Cloke is having a down game.”


He was been beaten by a great, tough player. A power backman.


Stats danced and lied around Rutten all the time. They meant nothing. His strength, his talk, his physical influence on each game he played could not be measured.

Did Scarlett run off more? Of course. Good luck to the bloke, but he had insane midfield pressure and the best backline in modern history to cover for him.

Did Lake take more marks? Sure. Lake was my hero. But Truck was so damn solid. Truck was my inspiration.

Malcolm Blight once told me I was a student of the game. I took that as a mighty complement from a bloke I reckon is a great man. If that sounds like bragging, I guess in a totally fanboy way it is. But I do like the modern game. The complexities of its strategies fascinate me. Not its obviousness. I don’t care how many stats Dangerfield got, but their effect, and, more so, their time in the game, and, even more so, how he got them. What structures and teammates and opposition did or didn’t help him.

And when the game gets too complex I narrow my vision, watch Lake take them on in the air, Bob Murphy on the ground, I watch Harry Taylor control a game with his fist.

I would watch Ben Rutten tackle.

Playing with the grist of a true backman. CHUNK. He’d crunch them up. Head-to-toe. You could feel it from the grandstand, through the telly. He’d consume them.

You can teach a bloke how to tackle, but not how to tackle like that.

In the modern game, for me, there was no greater highlight, nothing so simple as a Ben Rutten tackle.

Now he’s retired I’ll miss his footy.


I hope he takes the same strength of purpose into his coaching.




  1. Agreed Matt. I also have a bit of respect for the tagger who, without the niggling/holding, manages to negate the influence of a gun mid while also getting bait f the footy themselves. In the GF, it was hard to tell if Hawthorn were playing taggers as much as playing harder at man on man.

    Many moons ago, in a Bali vs Jakarta grudge match, Jakarta had a pretty talented bloke running around for them. It was the only instance I can remember of our captain-coach nominating a tag. ‘Stiffy’ Jeismann, (probably a little unlucky the other Teutonic nicknames had been allocated), took the role. By halftime, their bloke had about three touches, Stiffy was up to about 8, running hard to be a kickout option, making the taggee work even harder.

    I’m pretty sure Stiffy was voted by the players as best player in that game, if not, he wasn’t far off. He played fair, just made it hard for the opponent to be effective. Like a good back man. We won that game after pulling away from what as a close tussle about halfway through the third quarter. Once they realised their best player wasn’t going to do it for them, they dropped their bundles.

    Don’t underestimate the influence of the defensive side of the game, but then again, don’t play like Ross Lyon wants either!

  2. Dave Brown says

    With you 100%, Matt. Some irony in that Truck may be remembered for the goals he kicked with his first (second & third?) and last kicks. Crows are lucky Rutten has been able to master the apprenticeship of golden fist Talia. Solace to be taken in that he heads into coaching and supporting those that do that which cannot be counted.

  3. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Totally agree Matt , ironic in this type of player is really only totally appreciated by that clubs supporters and the real footy person such as yourself . Also funny in that
    J Brown and Tredrea etc rate , Truck as there hardest opponent , might well be the most underrated player of the last decade thanks , Old dog

  4. Matt- nice piece. The obsession with glamour mid-fielders reflects the broader, superficial love of celebrity. It’s all a bit silly and misguided.

    Good on you for redressing the balance.

  5. That’s why on the old team sheets your first 3 positions written are back pocket, full back, back pocket. The most reliable 3 that sacrifice all the superficial stuff. Back men just know

  6. Matt Zurbo says

    Well spoken Mikey. Thanks all. Not much more to add. Backlines. Teams are built around them.

  7. Watching Darren Glass be at the contest before the forward realised there was one.Watching him stop them.Then beating them over and over. Couldn’t kick worth a sausage but just zoomed out of defence. Better than Rutten, I think.Captain,too, does say it

  8. Andrew Starkie says

    Zurbs, the way the game is played nowadays – presses, shifting zones etc – means chb and chf aren’t as important as in the past. A big forward just doesn’t have the space to run towards the ball these days because he’s 3/4s up the other end most of the time. he has to turn around and bolt back to chase the ball because it’s kicked over his head, like in primary school. And everyone is a defender now, which makes the chb’s job a bit easier. No offence, when I saw Rance named at chb in the AA team this year, I sighed. Can you think of other standout chbs in modern footy? An equivalent to Roos, Daniher, Jacovich or Glendenning? Can you recall when Jaco played on Carey or Knights on Vander? Those days are gone.

  9. Matt Zurbo says

    Stark, mate, obviously, where as I agree the chf is not as prominent as he was, needing to work both ways, with less stand-and-deliver, and charging half-backs regularly going right over their heads, a good one is still gold. (ask Buddy on a good day. or Goodes, Pav, etc… Imagine St Kilda without Nic) this piece is, talking predominately about a full back and the full-forwards, they are still a focal point. there is still a long bomb coming in. there are still mighty one-on-one contests. Rutten on Fev, Glass on Tippett, Lake on Cloke. That will change. There will eventually be the triangle. A three way lead between three talls, rotating between ff, hf and chf. but we are not quite there yet.

    And the chbs are still brilliant. a part of the reason they do not have the same aura attached to their name is a public failing, which is my point. Harry Taylor can dominate a game, and does regularly, making all the difference, but the on-baller from team A that got 35 touches will get the 3 votes ahead of the on-baller from team B that got 33.

    And as for the half-backs. To be able to run and set up like never before, yet still get back and mind your man, with or without help, they are just breathtaking. Just look at the Hawks.

  10. Matt Zurbo says

    Where as it could be argued the job of defending has been made easier by on-ballers helping, a defender must also now attack like he never has before. The judgement, effort and clinical precision with which they turn defence into attack is not acknowledged nearly enough. They run so hard, teaming to clear the ball, then deliver to on-ballers with such skill as to make the on-baller’s roll easier than it has ever been. It is why so many teams lose in the middle, but start their attack from the half-back-line. Look to stoppages, and line-breaking runs, for an on-baller’s true worth.

Leave a Comment