Many people have noted the changes in how AFL clubs are drafting their ruckmen in recent years. These changes include fewer ruckmen being drafted in the first forty picks of the national draft. Since 2013, only five ruckmen have been drafted in the league’s top 40 national draft selections, the same amount in the 2004 draft alone. Since the likes of Nic Naitanui and Matthew Kreuzer were drafted with the first couple of picks in the draft, the league’s best ruck prospects have not seen early picks being used to acquire them – the likes of Brodie Grundy and Tim English, who, early in their respective draft years, were touted as top-5 selections, slipped significantly on draft day. Such a league-wide pivot means that questions have to be asked – why such a league wide change in draft strategy, and are the clubs correct in initiating such a strategy?
The position of a ruckman is unique in nature in various forms of analysis, through player development, the discrete nature of the role on the field and how rule changes and tactical development has changed their influence on the contest.
Young ruckmen, of all positions tend to take the longest to develop their bodies to an AFL standard due to their lack of physical conditioning. It may take 4-5 years before a club begins to reap the rewards of its time and effort in developing the player as they wait for them to physically mature. This could be due to several reasons – the physical nature of the position means its requirements are slanted toward to physical development relative to other positions, or the nature of reading the play, tapwork and around-the-ground influence requires the guile that only years of experience can provide. Whatever the reason, it has influence on how clubs understand ruckmen as part of their list management strategy.
The best example is clearly Max Gawn, currently the league’s premier ruckman. Drafted in 2009 at pick 34, he has only truly proved himself as being AFL standard during the 2015 season. Other of the league’s most prominent rucks – Stefan Martin, Aaron Sandilands, Shane Mumford and Patrick Ryder took significant years to cement themselves as the league’s best rucks. It can be interpreted that drafting a ruckman from the under 18s level can be seen as a significantly risky investment with a highly uncertain reward.
This investment in a young ruckman has also over time become more risky largely due to the increased player mobility of recent times. Players essentially allowing to name the club they want to move to has driven down the bargaining power of their team. Furthermore, the nature of opportunity within a team for their ruckmen, with essentially only one being played each week for most clubs means ruckmen find it easier to be recruited by other clubs. Talented ruckmen, who could easily find themselves among the best 15 in the competition, might struggle to get a game, whilst teams with a poor first ruck might have a large pool where other clubs have a ruckman, not playing, better than their current first ruck. This has led to the current status where clubs have traded in their ruckman cheaply. Out of 18 clubs, 10 have traded in their current first choice ruckman.
You could consider it like a form of labour market, whereby the demand for mature ruckmen has stayed relatively stable whilst the supply available to be selected or traded has increased over time with the increased fluidity of player movement. Given the increased availability of mature ruckmen over time there is less competition involved in trading for an individual player. Thereby this lowers the draft pick value clubs are willing to trade to obtain there players.
This drives their trade value down, whilst making them a more viable option for clubs, causing the demand for young ruckmen to fall and therefore cause them to be selected later in the AFL drafts. Furthermore, the risk of years of development into any given ruck being lost when they look for more opportunities elsewhere contributes, leading clubs drafting the types of players early, such as midfielders, where they are less likely to look for opportunities elsewhere.
The above graph assumes the demand by clubs for quality of U18 ruckman is exponential in nature toward lower draft pick value, due to assuming the demand for quality for player increases at an increasing rate with lesser value draft picks. The logic behind this is that due to the relatively long time ruckmen tend to take to develop and thus the costs involved, clubs require greater certainity around their future performance to justify their selection and thus become more likely to select them later in the draft. It also assumes supply is linearly negatively related with an increase in draft pick value, as less AFL quality young ruckmen will naturally be available later in the draft. The demand curves would shift with, for instance, the assessment of the exact quality of specific ruckmen, their likelihood of wanting to be traded later in their career and the current ruck stocks at the club and would this cause a shift in the equilibrium draft pick used on the player. Supply would shift with the draft classes assessed ruck depth and quality.
If the AFLPA are able to bargain successfully to reduce the restricted free agency requirements, the trade value of ruckmen will only lower and thus in effect lower the draft pick value required for an equivalently talented ruckman over time. This will result in interesting list management discussions for teams with aging ruck divisions: do they trade for a mature ruckman whom they are more certain of the quality of player, or do they risk it in the AFL draft, potentially requiring to give them playing time before they have fully matured to increase the likelihood they won’t end up being traded for relatively little? All the while, that club has to factor in the likelihood of that drafted ruckman leaving the club is ever changing – nobody really knows what the free agency rules will look like five years from now.
Perhaps Richmond’s Toby Nankervis best demonstrates what has been said in this piece. An All-Australian junior ruckman, Nankervis was the first ruckman selected in the 2013 national draft with the Sydney Swans utilising pick 35 to acquire him. As the best ruck talent, ten years earlier, he most likely would have been drafted in the top 20. Sydney invested three years of development, not to mention salary cap room and a list spot that could be utilised elsewhere (such as a recycled player with three years to give, that could have helped them win the 2014 and 2016 Grand Finals, of which Nankervis did not play). Out of contract at the end of 2016, Nankervis understood that he had minimal opportunities behind Kurt Tippett, Callum Sinclair and Sam Naismith, and agreed to a contract at Richmond and was traded at pick 46, a pick lower than what the Swans drafted him with. The fact that Naismith developed so effectively, the opportunity to move on the disappointing Lewis Jetta resulted in the acquisition of Sinclair and Tippett rucked more as his time at the Swans progressed, meant that pick 35 was effectively a wasted pick. This is counter-intuitive to the fact that the Swans might have thought, at the time, that they might have been landing a bargain – landing that particular draft class’ highest rated ruckman with a pick as late as 35. The longer development time means that more can change in regards to the ruck situation at any given club. The longer development time means that the ruck might be impatient to wait for first ruck opportunities. The example of Nankervis will be a lesson for many other clubs in how they value ruckmen on draft day.