High and mighty
“He’s an outstanding player who doesn’t get the accolades over in the east, and it’s about time he did because he’s certainly as big an asset in the game as a lot of other players.”
The subject is Fremantle ruckman Aaron Sandilands. The quote could have come straight from the Dockers’ cheer squad. But it didn’t. It’s in fact Fremantle coach Mark Harvey talking, waxing lyrical about his greatest asset.
The comment indicates a couple of things. Firstly, that Harvey has been in Western Australia long enough to have adopted some favourite local, and slightly pejorative parlance, about “the east”.
More importantly, though, that despite more than 25 years’ involvement in football, having spent much of that time marvelling at the ruck prowess of former Essendon teammates Simon Madden and Paul Salmon, Harvey knows that in Sandilands, he has a “once in a lifetimer” on his hands.
Not only that, but one who has the capacity to shape an entire finals campaign. For it’s hard to think of another player whose performance will go as far to making or breaking his team’s September fortunes.
That’s not to decry the value of Gary Ablett to Geelong, Dane Swan to Collingwood or Nick Riewoldt to St Kilda. But Ablett and Swan have plenty of midfield cohorts to pick up the slack in the rare event of a downer. The Saints have managed OK without Riewoldt for much of the season.
If Sandilands has a poor game, the Dockers won’t have a finals prayer. Not that there seems much chance of that. Certainly, as the All-Australian selectors have been throwing around names for their team of the year over the past few weeks, Sandilands will have been one of, if not the first, picked, such is his dominance over his rucking peers. That will make it three gongs in as many years.
Sandilands finished the regular season with 43 more hitouts than his nearest rival, Melbourne’s Mark Jamar, and a massive 184 more than the next closest, West Coast’s Dean Cox, despite having played three fewer games than each.
And against the other ruckmen he might come up against this month, that advantage is even more pronounced.
Sandilands averages no fewer than 36.1 hitouts a game. The next best-performed finals ruckman, Sydney’s Shane Mumford, is light years away on 25.8. In the most critical area of hitouts to advantage, he’s going at 9.2. Mumford is again second, with 5.5.
Sandilands wins more clearances than other ruckmen, more disposals, and significantly more contested ball. These days he kicks more goals too.
No weapon this finals series looms quite as large, literally and metaphorically. How large? “I guess you’d get a better answer on that from the opposition,” says Harvey. “But certainly we understand how much he asserts himself and initiates play for us.”
Harvey still isn’t convinced nearly as many people outside the club understand. But that’s certainly not for the lack of evidence provided over the past month.
After Fremantle beat local rival West Coast in round 18, Sandilands was diagnosed with plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammation of the heel, missing the next three games.
“Sometimes, those injuries can just take a bit longer to mend than what you first think, and particularly in a guy with his frame, so we were more cautious about not bringing him back too early and that [injury] being a regular problem from here on in,” Harvey says.
The Dockers lost all three of those games, to North Melbourne, Sydney and Hawthorn. Sandilands had been involved in no fewer than 100 scoring chains over the first 18 games, and in the key area of scoring from stoppages, his work had his team ranked sixth. Without him, that ranking fell to 11th.
But the contrast seemed even starker upon his return last week against Carlton. Not only did his side lock up a home final with a win, but in a clear best-on-ground performance, Sandilands won 40 hitouts (the fifth time this season he’s had 40 or more), 22 disposals, a game-high 17 contested possessions, and 13 clearances — also a game-high — and nine more than any other teammate.
A gargantuan performance from a gargantuan man. But the latter probably goes some way to explaining why, incredibly, there’s still not as many plaudits for Sandilands as there might be.
At 211 centimetres, the tallest player in AFL history, and 122 kilograms, Sandilands was for far too long viewed more as freak show than footballer. Any dominance he had was dismissed too easily as that expected of one with such physical advantages, and his continual improvement over the course of eight seasons was largely overlooked.
There’s barely a statistical category in which Sandilands hasn’t picked up his numbers year by year. His hitout average is almost exactly double that of his first season in 2003. Hitouts to advantage, disposals and contested possession have more than doubled over the same period.
The consistent criticism has been that Fremantle hasn’t been able to capitalise enough on its big man’s dominance. But the Dockers do a lot more now. For that, Harvey credits not only Sandilands’s greater competitiveness, but the work of midfield coach Barry Mitchell and ruck coach Justin Longmuir. “They’ve made an enormous difference to how he changes up his rucking, and our [ruck] strategy has been a lot more effective,” he says.
“They’ve been able to change the predictability of what he does, and more importantly, they’ve got a lot more timing into his jumping and hitting. I think it helps if you’ve got five or six different areas where you can hit the ball now, rather than perhaps two.”
But, Harvey hastens to add, plenty of the improvement has come off Sandilands’s own bat, most conspicuously his efforts immediately after the ruck contest. “His next effort has been enormous, and you can see a huge boost in what he’s doing there.”
That’s certainly been noticed by his ruck peers, and even former ruck greats like Madden. “I thought he was OK about three years ago, but what I’ve really noticed since then is how much he’s improved below his knees, and with his speed,” Madden says.
“That’s modern football. He’s always had his hand on the ball more than anyone else, which is great, but it’s his follow-up, his work below the knees and his run which have really improved, and that’s a huge plus for Freo.”
Adds Harvey: “I think he’s a lot more imposing on the opposition ruckman now. If the ball’s in his vicinity, he’s a lot more authoritative in what he’s doing. He’ll make a decisive effort to impose himself on the opposition in terms of tackling or bodying. He’s really understood that times have changed, that there’s a lot more opponents that are concerned about him, not him being so concerned with them.”
And roving to Sandilands, as a score of opponents became pretty practised at doing in recent years, is a lot harder task for Fremantle’s rivals in 2010.
“There’s more variety and less picking up by the opposition what he’s doing,” Harvey says. “And if they do win it [the ball], it’s in areas where we want them to win it, not necessarily where they want to win it.”
That’s a major issue for Hawthorn today, which will be going up against the ruck colossus with the less-than-household-names of Brent Renouf and Wayde Skipper, placing more pressure on its stoppage specialists, Sam Mitchell and Shaun Burgoyne, to shark their share of Sandilands’ work.
With its ruck stocks far less imposing than its September rivals, Hawthorn has regularly deployed a “third man up”, often midfielder Luke Hodge, to some effect at ruck contests. Madden agrees that could be a good option today. “The other things they could think about are just getting a contest at the hitouts then roving to him, or play man-on-man and just try to negate his hitouts as much as possible, jump up and clumsily hit his arm and hand, make sure his hand doesn’t direct the ball properly,” Madden says.
But the mere fact the Hawks, like virtually everyone else who plays Fremantle this finals campaign, will have to go about their pre-game strategies on the premise of comprehensively losing the ruck duels, pretty much says it all about not just the massive size, but massive importance, of the biggest man in the game.