IT’S the position that has created the most consistent headaches for Nathan Buckley over his tenure as Collingwood coach.
Since the retirement of Leigh Brown following the 2011 Grand Final, Collingwood have tried and failed in their many attempts to fill the task creatively dubbed ‘the Leigh Brown role’.
Spending around 80% of game time at Centre Half Forward, Brown throughout the 2010 and 2011 AFL seasons spent the other 20% in the ruck, allowing main ruckman Darren Jolly to rest.
The concept of a ruckman resting forward was not new, however top teams at the time usually played two ruckman; St Kilda’s 2010 drawn Grand Final team consisted of Ben McEvoy and Michael Gardiner while Geelong played Brad Ottens and Mark Blake together for the majority of the 2010 season.
Leigh Brown was not a ruckman.
Sure, he had pinch-hit here and there for North Melbourne, but at 194cm he was undersized and would usually line up inside 50, be it as a key forward or back.
Discarded by North Melbourne, Brown was drafted to the Lexus Centre in 2009 much to the chagrin of Magpies fans, who didn’t see the need for Brown following a career best season by Josh Fraser, and a young Cameron Wood waiting in the wings.
However, the versatility and aggression of the former number four draft pick meant Mick Malthouse opted to retain Brown in the starting line-up ahead of Fraser following the acquisition of Darren Jolly in 2010.
While not the most gifted athlete fitness or skills wise, Malthouse could always depend on the ever-belligerent Brown to throw his weight around and create contests, more often than not winning them.
He was the required physical presence in a team perhaps lacking grunt, with the slight Ben Reid and young Nathan Brown and Travis Cloke filling the other key positions.
So how and why have Collingwood failed to replace the unexpected general in the Buckley era?
Some may argue much of the blame rests on the shoulders of list and recruiting manager Derek Hine; in the last 10 years the Magpies have only drafted two key forwards with picks in the first or second round.
One of those was father/son selection Darcy Moore. The other was Chris Dawes, who was Buckley’s first in a long line of replacements for Brown.
Dawes started the 2011 season in career-best form, kicking 21 goals in 13 games before breaking his knuckle in round 15. It’s wouldn’t be unfair to say Dawes was never the same player following his injury; his plight for form not helped when he was tasked with the unfamiliar forward/ruck role in 2012.
The big man only kicked 16 goals in 23 games and struggled to make an impact in the ruck, his season perhaps best summed up in one moment; a late-season game against North Melbourne when what should’ve been a simple chest mark from a 15 metre kick bounced violently off his chest.
Dawes and Collingwood agreed to part ways at the end of 2012 as Buckley made a move for Eagle Quinten Lynch.
Lynch had experience with the forward/ruck role, pinch-hitting over his career and taking on the permanent second ruck position in the second half of the 2009 season with Nic Naitanui injured.
There was one problem: Lynch was well past his best, and only 11 months younger than the 2-years retired Leigh Brown himself.
The West Coast premiership player was certainly an upgrade in the ruck (in a season where Collingwood played Darren Jolly, Ben Hudson, Brodie Grundy and Jarrod Witts at different times), but had next to no presence up forward, kicking only nine goals for the year.
Lynch had a large tank like Brown but at the core was still an old style, stay at home, largely immobile forward. Football was moving in a different direction. To Nathan Buckley and the Collingwood list management team, that direction was Jesse White.
Tall and strong but agile and fit.
The expectation that White would successfully fill Leigh Brown’s big boots was a linchpin to Buckley’s Collingwood rebuild, with CEO Gary Pert even stating he projected White to be a member of the next Collingwood premiership side.
“We are literally looking at it going, ‘A Jesse White and a Taylor Adams are going to be in our next premiership team’.”
White never lived up to the expectations of the club or supporters, but perhaps they were unfair from the start.
White couldn’t be faulted on effort, and he was consistent, averaging about a goal a game. However, he was never going to be an above average contributor despite having the modern-day prototype body of a footballer.
Fundamentally he was a limited footballer. White lacked the football nous and aggression that made Brown such a success, making it hard for him to find and win the ball.
Since 2015, the ruck/forward role at Collingwood has been a revolving door.
White has had countless opportunities while Buckley experimented, unsuccessfully, playing Brodie Grundy and Jarrod Witts in the same side.
Ben Reid has been moved forward sporadically, allowing Darcy Moore to assist Grundy in the ruck. This has worked to some extent, with Moore a sound presence around the ground, however it would be in Collingwood’s best interests to develop Moore solely as a power forward, given the lack of key forward depth on the list.
The return of Mason Cox to the senior line up at the end of 2017 gave hope to the theory that Collingwood can play two genuine ruckmen in the same side. While there’s little doubt Cox is better suited to first ruck (like Witts), he was instrumental in the Pies late season form revival, giving their midfielders another tall option to kick to.
Cox’s future at the club is far from secure however, with strong rumours linking him to a move up north to Brisbane. Collingwood on the other hand are understood to be interested in forgotten Lions forward Michael Close, who also rucked at under 18 level.
With Nathan Buckley gifted a new two-year deal, it is imperative that he makes serious steps towards solving the long-lasting dilemma this off-season, whether it be chasing an established tall or drafting a tall with their first round pick.
Stop-gap options can no longer be accepted. Any future success depends on it.