A look at the tactics behind one of footy's most consequential spots, the centre bounce. Design: Lucas Scott, AFL Digital

IT IS the four-by-four metre space home to eight players that can set up a win or loss. But for all the planning, for all the tactics, for all the match-ups, data and strategy, the role of luck can't be understated in one of footy's most consequential spots: the centre bounce.

"Still so much comes down to the bounce of the ball, or how many fingers the ruckman gets on his tap or how it trickles when it hits the ground," said one assistant coach. "You plan and plan and plan … and then hope luck is on your side."

The introduction of the 6-6-6 rule ahead of the 2019 season has increased the importance of the centre bounce – both getting it right and stopping the opposition from nailing its plan. The inability to send extra players behind the ball to stop a run-on means gun ball-getters bursting through the front of a centre bounce and taking the ball direct inside-50 is like footy's equivalent to the dam wall bursting. Over to you, midfielders.

But how much work goes into getting it right?

The ruckman starts it all.

"It depends on how much your ruckman can open up the circle," said one AFL coach. "We look at the right-handed ruckmen and the left-handed ruckmen and what the combination will be against each other. If it's a right-hander against a left-hander, then the hit spots are generally in the same spot," he said. "If it's the opposite, then the range is much wider."

Tim English and Rhys Stanley compete in a ruck contest during the match between the Western Bulldogs and Geelong at Adelaide Oval in R4, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Still, most clubs know where the taps are aimed. One assistant estimated 80 per cent of his ruckman's taps will be set for the same spot. Another said 75. Predictability to each other was preferred over trying to trick the opposition, with rucks generally going to their dominant side with a hit backwards or in a favoured slice of the pie chart (the circle of options each ruck can find).

"You have to back yourself with probability," he said. "We're OK with the opposition knowing that."

Ahead of round six, Champion Data showed that Collingwood's Darcy Cameron has the best centre-bounce hitout rate in the competition (58 per cent) but Adelaide's Reilly O'Brien leads the League for centre bounce hitout to advantage rate (23 per cent).

Often clubs take in different tactics, such as planning to rove to dominant big men even if they're the opposition, like Melbourne champion Max Gawn. But knowing where the ball will be is one thing – actually getting your hands on it is another. 

Clubs take different approaches with their centre bounce mix. All midfielders want to be in there – it is the best opportunity and most spacious time in a game for a possession. "There's ego attached to it – that's everywhere," an assistant said. 

Sydney trio Isaac Heeney, James Rowbottom and Chad Warner are rated the equal-best centre bounce combination in terms of clearance differential this season, but Port Adelaide's Connor Rozee, Zak Butters and Willem Drew rank first for most points scored from centre bounces this year when they are a combination. Port Adelaide is the best centre bounce scoring side so far this season, while Fremantle is the best centre bounce clearance side.

Connor Rozee and Zak Butters during the Round 14 match between Port Adelaide and Geelong at Adelaide Oval on June 15, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Most assistants and coaches spoken to by AFL.com.au said they have four or five main combinations of midfielders. But even that requires plenty of preparation and chemistry building. Clubs use analytics to delve into which mix works for them scoring but also which group sees them get scored against most.

"You can have a really offensive mix or a defensive mix. We know what each midfielder does for the other two in there at any given time," said an assistant.

Some players are only thrown into the middle against certain teams where their strengths suit. Others can be used as circuit-breakers – the chaos player who can change the mix but also not be perfectly in tune with regular programming. Often these are the physical, robust players to use their size to influence the contest.

"There's definitely 'break glass' guys," an assistant said. "We all have them."

Richmond's injury-hit squad has seen them turn to a League-high 10 players for at least five centre bounce attendances this season, with Sydney (eight) and Geelong, Greater Western Sydney and St Kilda (all seven) also at the higher end. Port Adelaide and Fremantle have used the fewest midfielders to attend a centre bounce across the season – seven each – showing both clubs' brilliant on-ball groups, with Caleb Serong, Hayden Young and Andrew Brayshaw last week going up against Port's exciting trinity.

Toby Greene is tackled by Hayden Young and Andrew Brayshaw during the match between Greater Western Sydney and Fremantle at Giants Stadium in round 14, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Coaching teams tend to leave it to the midfield group to decide what play they are going for at each centre bounce in the moment, but there is always direction. When a club is getting beaten at forward hitouts, they might look to set up for it or go behind for the next one to break the trend. "I let the players make a decision out there," said one assistant, "but they're very informed." 

The information comes through the week. Midfield assistant coaches usually scour the previous three weeks' worth of centre bounces for their upcoming opponent to pick up trends and then devise the strategy from there. They cut up edits and find the repetition. "We try to make them aware of what the opposition is doing and then work out ways our strengths can overcome theirs," a coach said. "It's all about that first contest; the first contest can set up everything."

During a game, the changes can evolve throughout. The time after goals gives everyone a deep breath, but midfields spend it huddling up to quietly work out the next move. Early in games sides can play it safer and then explore some more experimental or riskier options depending on the trend of the contest. "Everyone is trying to be aggressive in there, especially if you have some weapons," said an assistant. 

Every club's midfield has its weapons. West Coast's trio of Elliot Yeo, Tim Kelly and Reuben Ginbey ranks equal first for clearance differential ahead of next best Brisbane (Lachie Neale, Josh Dunkley and Hugh McCluggage). The Giants have Josh Kelly, Stephen Coniglio and Tom Green rated next. 

Reuben Ginbey and Elliot Yeo celebrates a goal during the match between West Coast and Greater Western Sydney at Optus Stadium in round two, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Then there are the trios who can produce goal-making moves: Gold Coast's Matt Rowell, Noah Anderson and Touk Miller are the third-best combination for points from centre bounces this year, and fourth is Essendon's Archie Perkins, Will Setterfield and Zach Merrett. 

There are different types. Neale, Rozee, Butters, Nick Daicos and Shai Bolton are the fast-feeters, they fake to go one way, go another and make opponents hesitate. There's the push and shovers – Patrick Cripps, Warner, Luke Parker, Dunkley and Tim Taranto. Christian Petracca can do both.

Some, like Cripps, push backwards to open space in front. Others look to shove their opponents under the ball and create room behind.

The longer limbs of Marcus Bontempelli and Jack Macrae have been instrumental for the Dogs in cutting off opposition's first possession to convert to their own centre clearances (one in five first possessions hasn't resulted in a centre clearances this season). 

Marcus Bontempelli in action during the match between the Western Bulldogs and Geelong at Adelaide Oval in round four, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

The players themselves speak another language when dissecting the organised mayhem of a centre square battle: the stars who prefer standing 'back shoulder', those who 'cover', the 'sweepers', the 'releases', the 'hit side', 'cut throughs', 'wedges'. "In that time after a goal you don't have long so you have to be really clear with a decision out there what we're going to try next," a gun midfielder said. "We know what each of our opponents' strengths are and we know each other well. You need to have that chemistry."

Players spoke of a few essential things they focused on at the centre bounce: keeping their feet, getting separation from direct opponents, reading the ruckman's cues, watching the ball closely and being in communication with teammates. If it doesn't go right, there's a plan for that too. "We'll always want it to go wide and be a dirty exit if we don't win it," said a senior midfielder.

With the controllable factors in check, there remains an omnipresent big 'if' that hovers above all of the best laid plans: an umpire's bounce of the ball that favours the opposition. That leads to a scramble. "That's the beauty of the centre bounce," said an assistant.