But the shorter quarters introduced as a result of the coronavirus pandemic quickly changed thinking, with ruckmen going from having a plus one to being just one.
With games lasting about 100 minutes, one ruckman can now ruck for 90 per cent of the shortened match so clubs want a specialist in another position to be the back-up, rather than rotating two specialist ruckmen on and off the bench.
That’s bad news for many of the 75 players on lists who stand 200 centimetres tall or above. They face a year of match simulation with little more than 18 spots up for grabs for genuine ruckman.
Former North Melbourne and Geelong ruckman Hamish McIntosh, who was Carlton’s part-time ruck coach until the COVID-19 shutdown, said it makes sense for clubs to go down the one ruckman path in shorter games, in the short-term.
But it will have an impact on how quickly young ruckmen develop.
“When you are a young ruckman you need that second ruck to feed off and play your first 30 or 40 games with someone else around you, to get used to playing against these bigger bodies and then you can adapt to holding up to playing 90 per cent of game time,” McIntosh said.
Playing one ruckman makes that impossible but McIntosh hopes it’s only a short-term shift, with young ruckmen forced to join a version of football’s JobKeeper program until longer games return in 2021.
“I think it is only a short-term thing. Next year everyone will go back to two,” McIntosh said.
St Kilda, which recruited Paddy Ryder from Port Adelaide to give emerging ruckman Rowan Marshall some respite, is bucking that trend in round two and playing the two genuine ruckmen against emerging Western Bulldog Tim English.
However, Saints coach Brett Ratten said that is not necessarily the path they will blindly continue down, admitting they weighed up whether or not to play two ruckmen now that games are shorter – so to speak – but felt they may get an advantage over English if they did.
“It has challenged us to say, ‘Do we need the two rucks?'” Ratten said.
“It will be different for us most weeks. I don’t think we will just go in and say, ‘It’s going to be Paddy and Rowan’. It might be just Rowan and something different.”
Both players are adept at playing forward, which gives them a chance of retaining their spot in the same team, however Ratten said there will be pressure on them to perform, particularly at stoppages, with their ability to give their midfielders first use of the ball certain to be assessed.
The Saints also recruited Ryan Abbott from Geelong and Ratten said he is in contention for a match too but he – like about 50 of the game’s big men – will need to make their case in practice matches.
The coach said it was simply a matter of “when you get your chance to ruck, put your best foot forward”.
McIntosh, who now works in business development after 126 AFL games, said opportunities for ruckmen were critical to ensure talented talls saw a good future in the game, which has always badged itself as a game for all shapes and sizes.
“Hopefully next season it all returns to business as usual and we see a lot more sides play the genuine ruckmen,” McIntosh said.
Peter Ryan is a sports reporter with The Age covering AFL, horse racing and other sports.