The debate over who is the best ruckman in the AFL has been a two-man race for a very long time. Brodie Grundy vs Max Gawn is a narrative that spanned all of last year, including Brownlow night, and has continued into 2020. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that there are other rucks in the league, especially this season where stars like Stefan Martin and Matthew Kreuzer have missed time and veterans like Shane Mumford and Sauce Jacobs have moved past their prime. Thankfully, a fresh crop of ruckmen and a reemerging superstar have performed well enough in 2020 to make this conversation a bit more interesting. This list will rank the AFL’s big men based off current form alone.
10. Marc Pittonet – Carlton Football Club
A day in the life of Marc Pittonet
Here is where I list all of the injured ruckmen who would likely have competed for this spot and others had they been healthy. Stefan Martin, Toby Nankervis, Rhys Stanley, Sam Naismith, Sam Jacobs, Tom Bellchambers, Jonathon Ceglar and Pittonet’s teammate, Matthew Kreuzer, are all guys who would be in the conversation. Instead, younger guys like Pittonet have been given the chance to come in and impress and that is exactly what the former Hawk has done. Pittonet is more of an old-school ruck and doesn’t get around the ground particularly well. That being said, Pittonet is strong in the air and does the basics well. The man who describes himself as a, “bachelor of commerce,” has made the most of his opportunity and will provide good competition for Kreuzer when the veteran returns from a fractured metatarsal.
9. Rowan Marshall – St Kilda Football Club
Rowan Marshall would be a lot higher on this list had it not been for the off-season acquisition of Paddy Ryder. As it stands, Marshall is splitting his time between the stoppages and a role up forward. Garry Lyon believes that the situation is, “holding Marshall back,” and it’s hard to argue because the bloke is immensely talented. Marshall has been able to contribute up front and kick goals, but his ruckwork is what truly impresses. Ryder has missed three games this season through injury. In those games, Marshall averages 25.3 hitouts, 14 touches and three marks. That is a statline which, while not elite, is certainly above average and extremely versatile. Rowan Marshall was tipped to take great strides this year and he’s done exactly that despite not really getting the opportunities he deserves.
8. Reilly O’Brien – Adelaide Football Club
The next few places are very difficult to pick. At number eight comes Reilly O’Brien. O’Brien made some unfortunate headlines a few weeks ago when he called the beloved Nic Naitanui, “lazy and unfit,” in the lead up to a match between Adelaide and West Coast. The Victorian youngster blamed that particular faux pas on a broken phone but had no excuse when Nic Nat outclassed him on matchday. At least he got a new phone out of the whole exchange thanks to Naitanui’s goodwill. Rough headlines aside, Reilly O’Brien is a very good ruckman. The 24 year-old is a nice blend of the modern ruck-midfield hybrid and the old-school hitouts-focused big man. O’Brien does contribute around the ground but he also puts up a strong fight at stoppages. Neither aspect of his game is prolific just yet but his consistently good performances are very promising for a struggling Adelaide side.
7. Tim English – Western Bulldogs
Tim English’s Insta
The Western Bulldogs threw their young ruckman straight into the deep end last year. At times it truly looked like Tim English was drowning, he played 20 games for just 382 hitouts at 19 per game. It was brutal in round one this year as well when Brodie Grundy made him look like an absolute amateur. Fast forward to the reset, and Tim English is on top of the world. Suddenly, instead of being embarrassed by the Collingwood star, the media were comparing Tim English to Brodie Grundy and claiming that the Bulldogs had the next dominant ruckman on their list. The hype climaxed around his 22 disposal effort against Essendon as pundits insisted that English was already a top three ruck in the league. That might be a bit of a stretch but there is no question that the young bulldog makes a real impact around the ground. He racks up disposals for fun and takes important intercept marks for his club. In that sense, he perfectly embodies the modern, Brodie Grundy type mobile ruckman that has become so popular in the AFL. The problem for English is not his athleticism, nor is it his skill, nor is it his size anymore. The problem for Tim English is his actual ruckwork. The South Australian is out-worked in that regard almost every week. English was beaten by Ivan Soldo last night and even lost out to Essendon’s backup ruckman, Andrew Phillips, in the aforementioned coming of age game. There is absolutely no doubt that Tim English has immense potential and the way he impacts on games is truly special. Unfortunately, to be a truly elite ruckman, you need to be able to win a ruck contest.
6. Scott Lycett – Port Adelaide Football Club
For me, Scott Lycett is the pick of the mid-range elites. Before suffering a short term knee injury, Lycett was a key piece of Port Adelaide’s push for a top four spot. The 27 year old has enjoyed being the undisputed number one ruckman for the first time in his career after Paddy Ryder’s move to St Kilda. Lycett’s consistently solid ruckwork has earned him more player ranking points than his immediate competitors and the Power have sorely missed his presence at stoppages. The former West Coast man may not be amazingly mobile but he is extremely accurate with his ruckwork and is very strong in and around the contest . He also happens to have the best mo in the league.
5. Nic Naitanui – West Coast Eagles
Nic Nat’s Insta
2015 was the last time Nic Naitanui played a full season. Nic Nat may not be in the conversation for most exciting player in the league any more, but watching him play consistently good footy is a true blessing. Naitanui ruptured his left ACL towards the end of 2016 and ruptured his right ACL in 2018. Two rebuilt knees and an ageing body means that we are unlikely to see the high-flying highlight reel of yesteryear. Instead, the modern Nic Nat is a consistently above average ruckman who can, apparently, outperform Brodie Grundy on his night. The Goodwill Ambassador also remains one of the nice guys of the AFL. Naitanui has done everything from write a children’s book to buy a rival ruckman a mobile phone so as long he (fingers crossed) keeps playing, AFL fans should keep smiling.
4. Jarrod Witts – Gold Coast Football Club
Gold Coast’s Insta
Last season, Jarrod Witts was named co-captain of the Gold Coast Suns and he paid them back handsomely. The former Collingwood man was a rare ray of light for the suns, racking up over 1000 hitouts averaging 45 per game along with 15 disposals. The minutes restrictions this season has impacted on everybody, including Witts, but the big man remains one of the best pure ruckmen in the league. A lack of mobility at ground level prevents Jarrod Witts from being truly elite, but there is no doubt that he’s a best of the rest type guy.
3. Todd Goldstein – North Melbourne Football Club
North Melbourne’s Insta
One spot below Grundy on the AFL’s player rankings is the jewel in North Melbourne’s fairly rusty crown, Todd Goldstein. Before Grundy and Gawn were gallivanting around football fields picking up accolades for fun, Todd Goldstein and Sam Jacobs were the pick of the rucks. Jacobs has since been usurped by Reilly O’Brien and now has to compete with Shane Mumford for playing time. Todd Goldstein’s story is different. Since breaking the record for total hitouts in a season in 2015 with 1058 (Averaging 44 a game), Goldy has averaged 30+ hitouts every single year in a startling show of consistency. Todd Goldstein currently sits second all-time on the list of total career hitouts behind the legendary Aaron Sandilands. In 2021, Goldstein will likely leapfrog the retired Docker and take first place. Jacobs sits an impressive third on that list, but Goldstein has managed to evolve into a modern, accumulating ruckman whereas Jacobs remains a hitouts only guy. That evolution, and dominating performances like the 50-bomb he dropped on Jacobs and the Giants in round 2, could possibly earn Todd Goldstein his second ever All Australian invitation.
2. Brodie Grundy – Collingwood Football Club
It seems ridiculous that a guy with stats like this could be considered anything but the best ruckman in the game. Such is the competition this year. After watching him and his team get embarrassed by Nic Naitanui and the West Coast Eagles on Sunday you might even argue that Grundy should drop a spot lower. That would be a tad extreme though because the 26 year-old still dominates around the ground and had won every single ruck contest up until the game in Perth. There have been questions raised over his hitouts to advantage ratio and Tim Watson believes there is a ‘connectivity’ issue between him and his midfielders. Despite this chatter, Grundy still ranks above average for hitouts to advantage and the AFL player rankings has him as the fourth best player in the league. Brodie Grundy, along with Max Gawn, has effectively revolutionised ruckwork in recent years with his midfielder-like numbers. Scarily, he still has room to improve in 2020.
1. Max Gawn – Melbourne Football Club
Captain Gawn’s Insta
Max Gawn is the best ruckman in the competition right now. Fact.
Melbourne’s captain give it his all week in and week out. Gawn accumulates, dominates the contest, lays hard tackles and basically does everything in his power to lead an average team to as many wins as possible. Gawn has cracked 30 hitouts four times this season and dropped 41 against Brisbane last week. He also happens to lead all ruckmen in disposals per game but the thing that really sets Gawn apart from his major competitors is his consistency. The 28 year-old just does not get beaten and never has an off night. Technically, if you care about the AFL’s player rankings system, Max Gawn is the best player in the league full stop. If Gawn continues at this clip, and his competition fails to catch up, he’s a lock to win his fourth All Australian selection and third best and fairest award this year.