AFL Round 13: North Melbourne vs. St Kilda
Friday Night, 16th June 2017 at Etihad Stadium
St Kilda has caused a stir by sacking ruckman Matthew Capuano midway through the AFL season. Capuano's contract was terminated this morning, with the Saints paying out the final few months of his contract. St Kilda coach Grant Thomas says the decision was made because Capuano's opportunities with the club were limited. He says it is in the best interests of both parties.
ABC News, 27th May 2003 
Fourteen years after the fact, the Matthew Capuano sacking still leaves a bitter taste, and certainly the statement in the best interests of both parties has always sounded a little incredulous. It was an abrupt end to the career of Capuano, who was a dual Premiership player after all, being part of the victorious Kangaroos sides of 1996 and 1999, before crossing over to St Kilda for the 2001 season. And it could be argued that it was not in the best interests of St Kilda either given they were not overly blessed with ruckmen in that 2003 season. But sack him they did, with St Kilda coach Grant Thomas summarising his meeting with Capuano :
"The pursuant discussion with Matthew confirmed with us that it was the right decision. He accepted it manfully. He understood it. He was half expecting it, so to that extent he's got a bear off his own back as well."
Thomas certainly tried to put a positive spin on it, almost making it sound like a mutual decision. But subsequent developments make it sound anything but. Firstly, Matthew’s father, Max Capuano, responded in disgust a few days later :
"It is pretty hard to say, but I am absolutely disgusted with the way it was handled [by Grant Thomas] and the way it was done. I think he [Thomas] has done the wrong thing and I think they [the club] are regretting it.
But it is fair to say that the disappointment in the way the Saints handled the situation was widespread, and head office certainly took notice. Within a matter of weeks the AFL had put in place (as part of the newly negotiated collective bargaining agreement) a requirement that clubs could no longer delist players during the season without the permission of the AFL’s general manager of football operations, and will need exceptional circumstances for it to be approved. And exceptional circumstances did not include poor form. And Capuano, in acknowledging his approval of the new ban on mid-season delistings, provided an insight into his original opinion of the sacking :
"It's obviously too late for it to have any effect for me, but the good thing is that it won't be able to happen to anybody else again. So that's a good thing to come out of it."
So what do we make of Grant Thomas then. Well, former St Kilda player Jason Cripps (and notably an employee of the club at the time of the quote) provided the following assessment of one of Thomas’ notable traits :
“Honesty is one of his strengths. You look at the Matthew Capuano situation. Once he’d made up his mind that was it, he wasn’t going to leave him playing for Springy for the rest of the year and keep feeding him crap about how he’s close to getting a game. He’s honest and a player appreciates that. We didn’t always have that before.”
Honesty is one thing; public humiliation via a mid-season sacking is an entirely different matter. But then again Grant Thomas never did seem to care what people outside of the St Kilda Football Club thought of him. And he wasn’t a big fan of ruckmen either, but in that regard he’s not the only one. One of the greatest footballers (and 4-time premiership coach) the game has ever seen, Leigh Matthews, shares this dim view of the specialist tap ruckman. In 2014 he made the following bold statement on Melbourne Radio station 3AW :
"They [Dockers] lose the clearances every week. Hit-outs are useless, it's only what they contribute to the clearance, running the ball away from the pack. So I'm going to make a statement: Aaron Sandilands is therefore the most overrated player in footy, because hit-outs is all he does."
With the changing landscape of the ruck rules in 2017 due the no third-man up rule, the questionable importance of the specialist tap ruckman has been a hot topic again. Some teams (Melbourne and the Bulldogs the most notable examples), have due to injury of their first choice ruckman employed the no ruckman philosophy to mixed success. But taking Matthews' advice, lets look at the relationship between hit-outs won and clearances won by all teams in 2017 to see how important the ruckman is.
Table-1 presents the current hit-outs and clearance rankings for 2017. The rankings are based on the average percentage hit-outs/clearances won per game. For the hit-outs, data on hit-outs to advantage are difficult to obtain, so they refer to only the raw number of hit-outs won per game. However, interestingly the three top clearance teams are also in the top-4 for hit-outs, indicating a definite link between ruck dominance and the ability to win clearances. The anomalies in the top-4 of both rankings are Fremantle (1st for hit-outs, 8th for clearances) and Melbourne (18th for hit-outs, 4th for clearances), both of which warrant closer analysis.
Fremantle are an interesting case due to their over-reliance on Aaron Sandilands. As alluded to earlier, over the years there has been much debate about his true worth to the team. However, as Sandilands has missed the last three games through injury, a real insight into how important Sandilands is to their current team can be found. In the games Sandilands has played, they absolutely dominated the ruck battle, and as a result won the clearance count on 6 out of 9 occasions. In the three games Sandilands has missed they have lost the clearance count comfortably, and on the weekend they were absolutely smashed by the bottom of the table Brisbane Lions in that department. If Sandilands can alone so dramatically affect the ability of Fremantle to win clearances, then his contribution outside of the stoppages does not need to be as damaging as some of the more mobile ruckmen in the AFL. No wonder Fremantle were keen to extend his contract this week for another year.
Max Gawn jokingly described himself as the difference early this year when Melbourne suffered a form slump after his untimely injury. But the stats don’t necessarily back this up. Although unquestionably Max Gawn is an important player for Melbourne they have adjusted to life without a ruckman extremely well. As discussed earlier, Melbourne sit 4th in the clearance rankings despite being 18th in the hit-outs rankings. Perhaps, having no ruckman at all is better than having a mediocre ruckman that you are hoping to win the hit-outs. By completely focusing on how to win the clearances without a ruckman the Demons have mastered the art of winning the clearance regardless of who the two big men are that go up for the contest. It will be interesting to see how Melbourne adjust once Gawn returns, as presumably their whole set-up will change when they have the dominant ruckman on their side. Or will the Demons raise themselves to an even higher level and challenge GWS to be the best clearance team in the AFL in the second half of the season with the assistance of Gawn?
North Melbourne and St Kilda:
Returning to the main subject teams, Figure-3 presents the detailed clearance/hit-outs statistics for both North Melbourne and St Kilda in 2017. Both teams are in interesting situations regarding their ruckmen. North Melbourne has the luxury of having two quality ruckmen; the established star in Todd Goldstein and the new upstart in Brayden Preuss. Both are of AFL quality, but as Brad Scott admitted a few weeks ago, there is simply no room in the team for two ruckmen. And the stats support him. On the three occasions that North Melbourne won 60% or more hit-outs in a game, one was against Melbourne, and the other two were when both Goldstein and Preuss played together in rounds 1 and 2. But in only one of those games did the Kangaroos marginally win the clearances. Hence, having both ruckman in the side is not providing the reward worthy of the experiment. St Kilda are in the opposite scenario, they have two mid-level ruckmen, Billy Longer and Tom Hickey. Tom Hickey played the first 4 games, averaging 12 disposals and 30 hit-outs per game. However, Hickey was replaced in the side by Billy Longer in Round 5, who has proceeded to play the next 7 games, averaging 9 disposals and 39 hit-outs. Clearly Longer is getting less of the ball around the ground, but his contribution in the stoppages is telling. The trendline for St Kilda clearly shows a significant increase in the number of clearances they win when they win the ruck battle. In the 6 games St Kilda won the hit-outs they won the clearances, in the 5 games they lost the hit-outs they won the clearances only once.
So can St Kilda get a strangle hold of the stoppages against North Melbourne this week? Goldstein’s form has been below his high standards this year, but Chris Scott has been backing his man this week, predicting that he is on the verge of a breakout performance. However, Goldstein’s strength is his mobility around the ground, an asset that may not help with the Kangaroos winning the clearances. So with Longer in the side leading them in the ruck and helping the team win the clearances, this unglamorous ruckman may just be the most important contributor for the Saints this week. The difference maybe. I wonder what Grant Thomas will think of that?
St Kilda to win by 5 points
 “Saints give Capuano his marching orders”, ABC News, 27th May 2003:
 “Max seething over his son’s sacking by Saints”, The Courier, 30th May 2003:
 “Axed ruckman welcomes the ‘Capuano rule’”, The Age, 17th June 2003:
 “Thomas, an Outsider Within’”, By Greg Baum, as published in: Cometti, D. & Pierik, J. (2012) “The Game”. Fairfax Books, Allen & Unwin, NSW, Australia
 “AFL ruckmen: overrated players, or overrated position?”, The Age, 1st May 2014: