However, Ryder’s move to the Saints was viewed as curious in some circles because St Kilda had unearthed one of the AFL’s brightest ruck talents in years: Rowan Marshall.
Ryder faced the prospect of being an understudy, part of the reason he had left Alberton, where Scott Lycett had arrived just 12 months earlier and Peter Ladhams was coming on nicely.
St Kilda indicated there was room for Ryder and Marshall to play in the same 22, but others weren’t so sure. Garry Lyon (on SEN) and Nick Riewoldt (writing for News Corp) both questioned whether the pair could play together, and Ryder was dropped after the round three loss to Collingwood. But after the Saints’ round six capitulation to Fremantle, in which Rory Lobb outgunned Marshall, Ryder returned to stunning effect.
He was arguably best afield against both Adelaide and Port Adelaide in rounds seven and eight, respectively. More remarkably, the AFL’s official player ratings had Marshall as the No. 2 player on the ground against the Power. No. 1 was Ryder.
In an era of lone ruck dominance (think Max Gawn, Brodie Grundy and Todd Goldstein), the Saints have flipped the script. And there are added benefits of having both Ryder and Marshall in the side, which became all the more apparent when Ryder was rested from Monday night’s loss to Geelong, forcing Marshall back into the middle for the bulk of the game and making life tougher for Max King and the Saints’ band of small forwards, who live off the ball being brought to ground.
St Kilda midfield coach Adam Skrobalak said the Saints had been working to strike the right balance between the talls.
“We’ve now got the game times right and the rotations right. What a lot of guys struggle with is if they play forward, which is quite a dynamic type role – you’re leading and there’s a lot of bodywork – and then you go into the ruck and it’s more of a grinding, strength contest at times, and more endurance,” Skrobalak said.
“So if you come into the ruck after playing forward, it can be quite difficult at times. We’ve sort of changed that around a bit so they are nice and fresh when they go into the ruck. And just changing their role a little bit, they stay at home a little bit more when they’re forward.
“When you’re in the ruck, every ruckman likes to be the No. 1 man and they can grind their way into the game over time. To play in short stints is a lot harder because you don’t get that continuity. Even at the Gabba at the moment, the ball is bouncing really high at the centre bounce because it’s very hard in there. So if you’re going in there for a couple of centre bounces, it’s hard to get your rhythm. Whereas if you’re in there for most centre bounces, you can get your rhythm right up.
“Paddy’s taking more centre bounces and Rowan’s done more of the grunt work around the ground,” Skrobalak continued.
“Paddy’s follow-up work at centre bounce is really good, and Rowan has the ability to gain a lot of clearances from the boundary thrown-ins and ball-ups. We’ve sort of searched for the right combination with that and we think we’ve found it. They’re going to have their ups and downs but we think we’re starting to find that right combination of time and who’s doing what.”
Skrobalak added that Ryder had taken a club-first mindset, pointing to his work supporting raw ex-basketballer Sam Alabakis.
“He’s been very understanding [that] there are going to be times when it doesn’t suit [playing both Ryder and Marshall],” he said.
“He’s a quality person and a real family man as well, but the thing that I’ve loved about him is his ability to help with the young rucks.”
Friend and St Kilda teammate Jake Carlisle, reunited with Ryder after their days at Essendon, presented Ryder with his jumper ahead of the ruckman’s 250th game against Gold Coast.
“I felt like I got to play a small part in trying to help contribute to get him here,” Carlisle said.
“He’s always out doing extra recovery and obviously working hard for the family.”
As Essendon toil away with the likes of Tom Bellchambers, Andrew Phillips and Shaun McKernan, and brace for Joe Daniher’s possible exit, the question of what might have been will stare them straight in the face on Sunday.
Daniel is an Age sports reporter