Last night had Essendon disposing of the Blues in a pretty clinical performance at the MCG. From the scoreline, or just watching general play, you would not have thought Carlton won any area of the game. Essendon had more disposals, contested possessions and inside 50s by a long way. However, Carlton had a few more clearances than the Bombers (42-40).
As you can see in the figure below, winning clearances doesn’t correlate to winning the game. In fact, teams often win by more than 10 goals while only breaking even or losing in clearances.
This looks a little counter-intuitive. Looking even closer, none of the big wins (>100 points) came from games where the winning team dominated in clearances. Actually, most 100+ point beltings are delivered by teams getting less clearances than their opponents! The game last night is not an outlier at all.
What does seem strange about last night’s game, though, was that Carlton dominated the hitouts. Warnock had more hitouts than Carlisle and Daniher combined, and Carlton more than doubled Essendon’s count (58-28). But the clearance count was pretty close. What is the good of a ruckman if hitouts don’t lead to clearances?
The same thing happened on Friday, where Hawthorn easily disposed of Fremantle by 58 points. Sandilands dominated in the ruck against Hale and Ceglar, bettering their combined number of hitouts. Yet Hawthorn won the clearances 41-36. And on Saturday night, Dean Cox, Nic Naitanui and Callum Sinclair dominated Rhys Stanley and Tom Hickey in the ruck as West Coast won the hitouts 60-29, yet St. Kilda won the clearances 43-36.
GWS v Melbourne proved the exception, as GWS dominated hitouts 79-37 and clearances 61-36 (and won the game). However, the only stat Melbourne won was free kicks, and were probably saved from another humiliation by the weather.
The figure below shows number of hitouts plotted against number of clearances for the past 3 years.
There is nothing unusual about these numbers (except that the GWS game must be some sort of record!). It just so happens that hitouts don’t correlate at all with clearances! Sometimes teams get a lot of hitouts and a lot of clearances, but just as often teams will get just as many hitouts and very few clearances. Notice the fewest clearances of any team in the sample – 12, by Fremantle when they beat Brisbane in 2012 – came from a game where Freo had many more hitouts than average (60).
And now, as you expect, we can see that the hitout differential between teams doesn’t correlate at all with margin. Here are a few of this round’s games plotted against past data.
So what is the purpose of a ruckman? I would hesitate to say that their role is completely meaningless. Hitouts to advantage would be an interesting statistic to investigate. It could just be that in the data available, a hitout is awarded to one ruckman or the other although most of them are largely ineffective. Really good hitouts are in there, but the signal is drowned out by most of the other hitouts.
So perhaps just having a tall player there to make it difficult enough for the opposing ruckman to get a clear and accurate hitout is enough to nullify their effect. So that David Hale, who gives up 10cm to Aaron Sandilands, could create enough of a contest that Sandilands would win the hitout, but not as easily as otherwise. Then the rest is up to Hawthorn’s superior midfield.
Another possibility is that a small advantage in the quality of rovers is much more important in winning a clearance than the quality of the hitout.
Either that, or ruckmen just don’t know what they’re doing.