Rory Lobb, Darcy Fort and Mark Blicavs. Pictures: AFL Photos

JUST like a back-up goalkeeper or a second-string quarterback, clubs need a 'Plan B' ruckman on their list to provide coverage in the middle of winter.

The only problem is they can be hard to find. 

Melbourne had a dual All-Australian executing that role last year, but most clubs don't have the luxury of two proven stars, aside from Fremantle who signed Sean Darcy before Christmas until 2030, a year after luring Luke Jackson home on six-year deal.

Sean Darcy poses during Fremantle's official team photo day at Cockburn ARC on January 16, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Essendon made a unique play for a 35-year-old last trade period, adding Todd Goldstein to a squad that includes Sam Draper. 

Most clubs have journeymen ruckmen who have performed well at state league level, patiently waiting for a regular crack in the AFL. Think Darcy Fort at Brisbane, Tom Campbell at St Kilda or Braydon Preuss at Greater Western Sydney. 

Some clubs don't have a clear 'Plan A' just yet. 

Port Adelaide recruited Jordon Sweet and Ivan Soldo last October after a ruck cleanout at Alberton. West Coast added Matt Flynn after Bailey Williams produced a breakout season. Ned Reeves grabbed the No.1 ruck spot ahead of Lloyd Meek in 2023, but will he hold it in 2024?

With Tim English dealing with an interrupted pre-season, Rory Lobb has emerged as the back-up option at the Western Bulldogs following the departure of Sweet. assesses the back-up options at each club ahead of season 2024.

Reilly O'Brien has gone under the radar for years, but the 2020 Malcolm Blight Medallist has been the No.1 choice at West Lakes for the past five seasons. Matthew Nicks opted for Riley Thilthorpe and Elliott Himmelberg to provide coverage last year, but the Crows also have Kieran Strachan as a ready-to-go option if needed. The 28-year-old has played only five games since being selected at the age of 23 at the end of 2018, but the Victorian is a proven commodity at SANFL level, earning team of the year selection in three of his five seasons in South Australia, including last year. 

Kieran Strachan competes with Darcy Fort during the match between Adelaide and Brisbane at Adelaide Oval in round nine, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Oscar McInerney produced a career-best year in 2023, finishing top-10 in the Merrett-Murray Medal to help propel Brisbane to the Grand Final. Darcy Fort managed only seven appearances last year, with Chris Fagan using Joe Daniher to give his No.1 ruckman a break in games. But after playing 18 senior games in 2022, Fort is the perfect back-up option in Queensland, ready to step in and provide coverage in the event something happens to McInerney this year. The 30-year-old has played 33 AFL games since being drafted as a 25-year-old by Geelong.

Darcy Fort competes in a ruck contest with Luke Jackson during the match between Fremantle and Brisbane at Optus Stadium in round 21, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Unlike most clubs, Carlton used two ruckmen in the same team for most of 2023 with Tom De Koning and Marc Pittonet sharing the responsibility in a year where they both inked extensions to remain at Princes Park. One of De Koning's performances in September prompted Robbie Williams to produce that viral clip on Instagram from the other side of the world. Beyond those two, Michael Voss has Alex Mirkov waiting in the wings for a chance at AFL level. 

Alex Mirkov in action during Carlton's training session at Ikon Park on May 6, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Months before Collingwood went all the way, Craig McRae was forced to deal with a ruck crisis at the club. But by the final Saturday in September, Darcy Cameron and Mason Cox became premiership players after sharing the ruck duties across the second half of the season. Both are capable of leading the ruck one-out if required. Tall utility Billy Frampton also proved his value across a number of roles in 2023, including as a defensive forward in the Grand Final. 

Darcy Cameron and Mason Cox compete in the ruck during Collingwood's training session at Olympic Park Oval on September 5, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

Sam Draper is one of the most exciting ruckman in the game, but with the Essendon No.1 still recovering from off-season groin surgery, the acquisition of veteran Todd Goldstein will provide the Bombers with sufficient coverage in 2024. Brad Scott showed in his first season at The Hangar that he is more than happy to play two ruckmen in the same side, with Andrew Phillips producing a career-best season before calling time on his journeyman career. Nick Bryan added eight games in the second half of the season when Draper was sidelined and will be another option for the Dons this year.

Todd Goldstein in action during Essendon's training session at the NEC Hangar on January 22, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

No club has invested more financially in its ruck division than Fremantle. Justin Longmuir has two of the best ruckmen in the AFL at his disposal in Sean Darcy and Luke Jackson. Darcy ended speculation surrounding his future last month by signing a six-year extension that ties him to the club until 2030, one season more than Jackson's current deal. Jackson finished fourth in the Doig Medal and was named in the All-Australian squad following a successful first season back in Western Australia. It remains to be seen how the Dockers can get the most out of both stars in the same team, but they shouldn’t be found wanting in this area in 2024. 

Luke Jackson and Sean Darcy during Fremantle's official team photo day at Cockburn ARC on January 24, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Will the future arrive this year at GMHBA Stadium? Toby Conway made his highly anticipated debut in the final round of last season and will push to dethrone Rhys Stanley as Geelong's first choice ruckman in 2024. You never know exactly what Chris Scott has in store for veteran utility Mark Blicavs, but expect him to spend time in the ruck again this year as his late-starting career extends beyond 250 games. The Cats drafted Mitch Edwards last November and have high hopes for the West Australian, but will need to be patient with the 206cm teenager.

Toby Conway during Geelong's match against the Western Bulldogs in R24, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

If you don't know much about Ned Moyle, you will in the coming years. The 21-year-old has served a decent apprenticeship under Jarrod Witts at Gold Coast and has attracted plenty of interest from clubs around the competition. The 206cm ruckman played two games in 2023, amassing 35 hitouts in his debut against St Kilda. Witts finished fifth in the best and fairest and at 31 still has plenty left in the tank. Moyle is ready if required, while first-round pick Ethan Read is turning heads in his maiden pre-season in Carrara, rounding out a deep ruck department in that neck of the woods. 

Ned Moyle marks the ball during the round six VFL match between Richmond and Gold Coast at The Swinburne Centre on April 30, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

If Kieren Briggs wasn't the most improved player in the AFL last year, the ruckman was in the conversation. The 24-year-old rose from nowhere to emerge as one of the premier ruckmen in the game across the second half of last winter. That remarkable emergence forced Matt Flynn to move clubs when he didn't want to, heading to West Coast in search of greater opportunity. Braydon Preuss' stop-start career at Greater Western Sydney continued in 2023 – he has played 10 games, all in 2022, across three seasons – with the monster ruckman limited to just a couple of practice matches due to back surgery. The Giants have Nick Madden developing, but Preuss will provide the senior coverage as long as he can get his body right. Lachie Keeffe re-signed at the end of the trade period after Adelaide opted not to allow Elliott Himmelberg to move to the Giants.

Kieren Briggs and Luke Jackson during the round 14 match between Greater Western Sydney and Fremantle at Giants Stadium, June 17, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

This time last year, Hawthorn had just beaten more than a handful of clubs to secure Lloyd Meek's signature and the opportunity-starved Docker looked set to grab the No.1 ruck spot at Hawthorn. But Ned Reeves made that his own in 2023, emerging as a key part of the rebuild under Sam Mitchell. The Hawks were open to playing both in the same team last year – Reeves played 21 times, Meek featured in 16 games – and have depth in the position. Beyond those two, Max Ramsden broke through for two opportunities last year and has continued his development across the summer, showing he can perform as a key forward as well as a ruckman in the VFL. Will the Hawks persist with two ruckmen in the same 23 again in 2024, or will Reeves go one-out this year? Time will tell. 

Ned Reeves competes with Max Gawn during the match between Melbourne and Hawthorn at the MCG in round 23, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

Melbourne had the ultimate plan B in 2023 in the form of two-time All-Australian Brodie Grundy. The plan was to play the star ruckman in the same side as captain Max Gawn but it didn't work. Grundy requested a move in the off-season and landed at a third club in three years, but now the Demons don't have the same level of coverage they had last year. They went and got Tom Fullarton from Brisbane, but the 24-year-old is more of a key forward than a ruckman. He hasn't played at AFL level since 2022 but will be ready to step up if required. Jacob van Rooyen provided Gawn with relief last year, but beyond that, Simon Goodwin only has untried duo Will Verrall and Kyah Farris-White on the list. 

Tom Fullarton warms up ahead of the VFL preliminary final between Brisbane and Werribee at Avalon Airport Oval on September 16, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

The Alastair Clarkson era started last year, but this year is the start of the post-Todd Goldstein era. For the first time since the 35-year-old became the No.1 ruckman at the club in 2010, the Kangaroos will be led by someone else. Tristan Xerri was supposed to supplant him in 2023, but injuries prevented that from happening. Now the 24-year-old is poised to become the main man in 2024. Callum Coleman-Jones also spent time in the ruck last year around injury interruptions. The Kangaroos recruited Bigoa Nyuon from Richmond during the trade period and could deploy the key defender in the ruck if required, given the 22-year-old spent time in the position in the VFL last year. Hamish Free is the other option at Arden Street. 

Tristan Xerri handballs during the match between North Melbourne and Essendon at Marvel Stadium in round 22, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

Get your popcorn out. Of all the ruck spots around the AFL, none are as intriguing as the situation at Alberton. Port Adelaide moved on from Scott Lycett, Sam Hayes and Brynn Teakle last year, then lured two ruckmen hunting the No.1 spot in Ivan Soldo and Jordon Sweet. Both will face off across the match simulation block and practice matches to secure the gig after finding themselves stuck in the queue in recent years. Soldo won a premiership at Richmond in 2019 but has never played more than 14 AFL games in a season, with Toby Nankervis the No.1 ruckman at Punt Road. Sweet found himself stuck behind 2023 All-Australian Tim English at the Western Bulldogs and only managed 11 appearances across five years at the Whitten Oval, despite starring at VFL level where he was named in the team of the year last year. Dante Visentini is highly rated and can't be counted out either. 

Ivan Soldo in action at a Port Adelaide training session on the Gold Coast in December 2023. Picture: Isabel Gawel, Port Adelaide FC

When it comes to Plan B ruckmen, Sam Naismith is clearly the most interesting story. The 31-year-old has played only two games at AFL level since 2017 – both in 2020 – following a nightmare injury run at Sydney that included three knee reconstruction and more than a dozen other operations. But after proving his body can stand up to the rigours of state league football at Port Melbourne in 2023, Naismith secured a second shot at Richmond as a delisted free agent last November. Toby Nankervis left Sydney for Richmond for greater opportunity after Naismith's emergence and has become not only a three-time premiership player, but club captain. Now he will have to deal with Naismith breathing down his neck. After losing Ivan Soldo to Port Adelaide, Adem Yze has a strong back-up option in Naismith in 2024. 

Sam Naismith chats with coach Adem Yze during a Richmond training session in November 2023. Picture: Richmond FC

With 56 senior appearances across three stops in 12 seasons, Tom Campbell is the ultimate Plan B ruckman. Despite managing only two games during his first two seasons at RSEA Park – both were in 2022 – the 32-year-old will again provide coverage after signing a one-year extension, following the Saints' pursuit of Todd Goldstein. The former Western Bulldogs and North Melbourne back-up won the Robert Harvey best clubman award in 2023 and was regularly included in the 26-man squad during Ross Lyon's first season in charge. Max Heath is further down the queue but another option if the Saints are forced to deal with a ruck shortage this year. 

Tom Campbell in action during St Kilda's training session at RSEA Park on August 29, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

The Swans were one of the big players in the trade period and arguably exited October with the best haul. They addressed needs and landed one of the best ruckman in the land in Brodie Grundy after he was left to wither on the vine at Melbourne. It has been four years since the South Australian claimed his second All-Australian blazer and second Copeland Trophy, but at 29, Grundy still has plenty of time to recapture his best. Former Port Adelaide ruckman Peter Ladhams found himself behind Tom Hickey in his first two seasons and is expected to provide coverage again following the arrival of Grundy. Hayden McLean carried a lot of the load last year around his work in attack. 

Brodie Grundy and Peter Ladhams during Sydney's training session on January 19, 2024. Picture: Phil Hillyard

Much like the situation at Port Adelaide, it remains unclear right now who is the No.1 ruckman at West Coast. The Eagles landed Matt Flynn last October from Greater Western Sydney after Kieren Briggs grabbed his spot in the second half of 2023. Bailey Williams produced a breakout season last year, playing all 23 games for Adam Simpson's side after Nic Naitanui did his Achilles during the pre-season, ruling him out for the season. Flynn and Williams will fight for the spot, but the Eagles now have more ruck depth than they did this time last year.

Matt Flynn in action during Greater Western Sydney's clash against Collingwood in round nine, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Jordon Sweet was the perfect back-up option, but understandably, after years biding his time in the VFL, the South Australian opted for a fresh start and greater security at Port Adelaide. Tim English established himself as the best ruckman in the AFL in 2023, collecting his first All-Australian blazer, but an interrupted pre-season to date has put the Western Bulldogs' ruck depth under the microscope. Draftee Lachlan Smith is the only other pure ruckman on the list at the Whitten Oval, but Rory Lobb has spent time in the position across January and played in the ruck at AFL level across his career. Tall utility Sam Darcy has banked a full pre-season to date and is another option for Luke Beveridge if needed in 2024.

Rory Lobb is seen at a Western Bulldogs training session on January 15, 2024. Picture: Western Bulldogs FC