Young giants square up for ruck rumble
It is not yet akin to the Thrilla in Manila, but the second “Patersons Battle” between two of the AFL’s new-age ruckman on Sunday will give a rising contender the chance to land a blow on a rival being hailed as a future heavyweight champion of the competition.
In the purple corner for Fremantle is gangly, but growing, former basketball prospect Zac Clarke. In the gold, white and blue corner for West Coast is flying Fijian Nic Naitanui.
WA coaching great Tony Micale hailed their first WAFL bout more than two years ago as “the first round of the Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier rivalry”, an epic stand-off which culminated in the famous Thrilla in Manila nearly 15 years before either Clarke or Naitanui were born.
Their first AFL face-off came later that 2009 season when they were both in their fifth senior game and Fremantle snatched a thrilling five-point win over West Coast. Clarke had just six possessions and four hit-outs, while Naitanui produced a mildly more significant 10 possessions, 10 hit-outs and four tackles in that round-17 battle.
Back then, though, both were little more than willing seconds. Now, the athletic Eagle has developed a clean punching power that prompted dual North Melbourne premiership player David King, now a respected media commentator, to this week dub him as the AFL’s “Iron Mike Tyson”.
“He’s a one-punch specialist, but it’s always a different type of punch,” King said.
“He doesn’t just have the right hook, he’s also got the uppercut, the straight right and the hard left, he’s got everything. He can beat you at a clearance, he can tackle you, he can kick the freakish goal and he can lay the big smother.
“He’s the fast-track answer to revolutionising ruck work, he’s the ultimate athlete who happens to be playing ruck because he’s so tall. He could be a wingman, a half-forward or a centre half-forward. The more he learns, the better he will be.
“His 13 possessions a week are of supreme quality – if he ever had a 30-possession game, it would be the best game of all time. He’s incomparable.”
Micale, too, is in awe of Naitanui’s raw ability. In 2008, his last season as an assistant coach to John Worsfold at West Coast, he brazenly offered his belief to Eagles recruiters, who would draft the Swan Districts product later that year, that the spring-heeled teenager was capable of having the same impact on the club as 2006 premiership captain Chris Judd.
It is a belief he still holds today.
But the four-times WAFL premiership coach also warned against dismissing Clarke, the project player he chose to play for East Perth in 2009 via the AFL player allocation, as just another chump with a glass jaw.
He said he took him in the allocation after being seduced by the thought that the former Oakleigh product could one day repeat the success of Dean Cox, who played under him to win the Simpson Medal in the Royals’ 2000 premiership.
Micale said he spoke to Clarke at a coaching clinic earlier this week and believed the young ruckman would take a vastly-enhanced confidence into the derby after playing the past six consecutive games for Fremantle.
“A close mate of mine in recruiting told me whatever I did not to take Zac Clarke,” Micale said.
“But I went down and watched (Dockers) training one day when they were doing some specialist ruck work and he was manned up against Aaron Sandilands. He was like a matchstick, but I just saw something in him and thought he might develop.
“He just reminded me a bit of Coxy’s story, more so with his mobility. Even now, he’s still probably another year away from maturing physically, but he’s just grown in confidence by being given the opportunity and I could tell by talking to him that he’s excited.
“Zac’s not a natural ruckman, but no doubt he’s improved his technique by working with Sandilands. I think Nic’s awesome and he’s already a freak, but Zac’s starting to really flourish and I think he might have more upside.”
Clarke is just 37 days older than Naitanui. According to this year’s AFL Season Guide, he is 2cm taller, but 9kg lighter. His first stoush with West Coast’s new cult hero was his last in his debut season. He has crawled through the first 14 games of his senior career, while Naitanui has sped to 46.
The Victorian Docker’s season-high ruck-tap count in six games this season was just 14 against Brisbane in round 14. The Sydney-born Eagle has won at least 17 in 11 of his 14 games in 2011 and had 28 against Sydney in round three. But Fremantle do not believe Clarke will be fighting out of his division on Sunday.
Naitanui’s natural hunting passion already has him well on the way to proving himself as an accomplished inside fighter. He routinely leads with his chin, but has the power to wear the pack punishment that follows.
Fremantle coach Mark Harvey hinted on Melbourne radio station 3AW this week that although Clarke could go the distance in matches because of his elite aerobic capacity, he needed to throw more punches.
“We do tend to use Zac as a running player,” Harvey said. “He’s got as good an engine as any of the running players on our list, so he can travel. It’s just a matter of him being involved in the play as a running player and not a ruckman.”
Interestingly, dual premiership ruckman Darren Jolly said the revelation of athletic ruck combinations meant he would rather toil all day against a player like Geelong’s 2001 All-Australian Brad Ottens than try to encounter West Coast’s pairing of Cox and Naitanui.
Retired Sydney premiership coach Paul Roos gave a further push to that theory’s worth when he claimed on Fox Sports this week that Cox’s presence and stunning form was a major factor behind Naitanui’s improvement.
Roos said he had watched Cox’s apprentice before he was drafted and did not believe he had added significantly to his knowledge of the game in his three seasons to date.
“What gets lost, because Naitanui is such a spectacular player, is the form of Cox,” Roos said.
“That combination allows Naitanui to do what he does. I think the real test for Naitanui is going to come when Cox is finished. (Then) what sort of ruckman is he going to be?
“Naitanui has got great hands, he can hit it and he’s exciting around (the ground), he just doesn’t really know (the game). He’s a 13-possession player at the moment.
“He is what he is, which is fantastic. But if you are going to replace Cox, I don’t think you’re going to make Naitanui into Cox, you probably need to get someone who is going to complement what he does well now.”
Roos also said watching the 203cm Clarke line up on a wing against a 182cm Daniel Hannebery at the SCG last Sunday had revealed a clever Harvey ploy in the absence of Sandilands.
“It’s interesting because what Clarke’s been doing is that third man up and it is hard to stop,” he said. “It’s probably the first time that they’ve come up with a really good strategy without Sandilands, and a number of times over the last four or five weeks we’ve seen Clarke go up as third man in coming off the wing.
“He’s quite mobile. That effectiveness means you don’t have to change your structures with Sandilands there.”
Four-times premiership coach David Parkin said despite a change in the dynamic of modern ruckmen such as Clarke and Naitanui, he hoped the purity of their position’s art would always be a constant in the game.
Parkin coached some of the all-time great ruckmen such as dual Hawthorn premiership captain Don Scott, dual Carlton premiership captain Mike Fitzpatrick and former Blues giant Justin Madden.
Parkin said Naitanui and Clarke both appeared to have much to learn about the game, but their second-string ruck credibility heightened the chances for their respective clubs to win a premiership.
“Justin dominated the actual hit-work, he’s the best I’ve ever seen at that,” Parkin said. “We kicked more goals directly from centre bounces with Justin in there than any other team in the history of the game. Scott was a wonderful athlete, passionate about his game and as his career wore on, his football work got better and better.
“People forget Fitzpatrick was a State 800m record holder in WA and a great endurance athlete. He could play centre half-forward with equal dexterity.
“But all three would have contributed in the modern game. And while the game is evolving with the change in interchange rules, the person who does the part-time work has to be capable of fulfilling other roles.
“The teams who have got them, like Naitanui, they can play significant roles in their relief work without the team losing too much in their structure.
“I hope we never reduce the role of the ruckman because it’s a unique element of our game. Those with a good one and a good backup are more likely to win the premiership.”