By Ben Hudson
Ben Hudson is ruck coach at Collingwood and has played for four AFL clubs.
This article first appeared in Coaching Edge - June 2013.
A ruckmanís primary role is to provide a physical, aggressive contest at every stoppage Ė centre bounces, boundary throw-ins and ball-ups. The ruckman plays a vital role in a team establishing an advantage at stoppages and clearances, giving the team first use of the ball. Winning a hit-out is not enough; it must be a hit-out to the advantage of the teamís midfield.
The position has evolved and the modern ruckman is the keystone of the midfield and must provide second efforts and spread offensively and defensively from the contest.
The ruckman must have a close working relationship with the teamís other midfielders and understand the strengths and weaknesses of each of them to help the team gain advantage at stoppages and clearances.
The ruckman plays a leadership role in the midfield, directing others on positioning, after assessing the opposition, to ensure they get first use of the ball.
Ruckmen are responsible for providing a contest and trying to gain advantage at all stoppages. They provide vocal leadership and communication at these stoppages to ensure set-ups are clear to the midfield and played to advantage. It is also the role of ruckmen to push back and provide support to a teamís defensive players. A highly competitive workrate is required Ė offensively and defensively.
The characteristics of a successful ruckman are limitless, but the essentials are aggression and physical determination. Other key characteristics are a competitive nature, relentlessness, vocal leadership, and a preparedness to sacrifice for the benefit of the team Ė speed and agility are a bonus.
While some ruckmen will have grown up playing Australian Football, they can come from other sports with transferable skills such as basketball, rugby union and even soccer. Zac Smith came from a soccer background and Kurt Tippett and Todd Goldstein from basketball.
Ruckmen can find themselves in many different situations throughout a game.
One of the most important aspects today is that ruckmen understand their teamís specific midfield set-ups and structures at all stoppages. Not only must they understand their teamís hit zones but where the various other midfielders are in all stoppages, which can vary depending on where that stoppage is on the ground, the scoreline and the time remaining in the game.
Another key element is knowing the oppositionís structures and its ruckmanís favourite hit zones. As an example, itís time-on in the last quarter, with a minute or so remaining, and thereís a ball-up on the wing, with your team protecting a lead of just three points. In this situation the ruckmanís specific role is to keep the ball in close and at worst ensure another stoppage because, in all likelihood, the opposing team, needing to score a goal to win, will have a set play of its own. This would be likely to involve the opposition ruckman hitting long and wide to space. It may sound simple, but factors such as pressure can do strange things to players.
Successful ruckmen can come in all shapes and sizes Ė athletic, with great speed and agility, like Nic Naitanui and Paddy Ryder, workhorses like Brad Ottens and Shane Mumford, or attacking and mobile such as Dean Cox and David Hille. A ruckmanís ability to play a role as either a mobile tall option up forward or as a defender adds another dimension to a team Ė and another element the opposition team has to contend with. Regardless of shape or size, all ruckmen in the modern game must have endurance levels that match or, in some cases, exceed their midfield counterparts.
In coaching ruckwork it is important to keep things simple at training, focusing on the major objectives such as contesting at every opportunity, hit-outs to advantage, spread from contests and stoppage set-ups. Learning is achieved through repetition, practising centre-bounce work with a ruckbag and one-on-one contests for ball-ups and boundary throw-ins. Repetition enables fine-tuning of ruck technique Ė a very specific skill in an ever-changing game.
When coaching an inexperienced ruckman in positioning, the best way for them to learn is to watch more experienced ruckmen. The skill is hard to teach. The communication and leadership aspects can only be learnt by practising in a game or perhaps a simulated situation.
A coach should encourage a ruckman to review other ruckmen in the competition and draw on specific skills that may improve them.
Apart from team training and match practice, individual ruck training is paramount to develop the specific skills for this unique position. The more experience young ruckmen can get through repetitions and competitive drills the more skilful and successful they are likely to be. This training must be combined with a strength and weights-based program early in a ruckmanís career.
The ideal situation is to take all the ruckmen in a team or club aside and practise competitive ball-ups and boundary throw-ins, allowing them to work on their technique, positioning and strength through repetition of specific game-related situations.
The days leading up to a game should involve analysis of the opposition teamís structures and set-ups, the opposition ruckmanís favourite hit zones and your own teamís midfield set-ups and stoppage structures.
On game day only simple instructions and key focus points should be discussed Ė donít overload a ruckman before the match starts. As a pre-game warm-up, the ruckman should focus on jumping into the centre-bounce bag combined with semi-competitive ball-up and boundary throw-in work with the entire midfield group. It is vital during this time that the ruckman works on voice, leadership and instruction so that the group is ready to implement team plans as soon as the game begins. Other useful warm-up activity, if time permits, is competitive marking and working on ground balls and second efforts.
Ben Hudson is ruck coach at Collingwood and has played for four AFL clubs. This article was written as part of the requirements for the AFL/AFLPA Level 2 coaching course.