WITH three minutes to go in the first quarter of Essendon's round one clash with Fremantle, coach John Worsfold was joined on the interchange bench by his anointed successor Ben Rutten.

Worsfold had watched the term unfold from that position, while Rutten had been in the coaches' box on the second level of an empty Marvel Stadium.

They had already arranged that Rutten, as part of his development this season ahead of taking on the head role for 2021, would lead the team addresses on game-day.

Worsfold reminded Rutten of some key things ahead of quarter-time: stick to your main messages, don't say too much, reinforce the good things and remember what it was like as a player in the same situation – you're barely taking anything in, so keep it simple.

Then the siren went, and Rutten stepped onto the field with Essendon ahead by 19 points after a promising start.

Rutten addressing the Bombers during the round one win over Fremantle. Picture: AFL Photos

The Bombers hadn't held a pre-game meeting together due to the COVID-19 protocols, so it was Rutten's first address to the side in an AFL game.

With 'Come back to our system' plastered across the bottom of the whiteboard in front of the players, Rutten was composed, although it went so fast it's a blur.

After Worsfold spoke with some players individually, he then took a step back, listening in to Rutten from close range. He'll be there doing the same thing when the 2020 season resumes.


ESSENDON'S succession plan announced last September – the first in its history – came together swiftly after the Bombers' elimination final loss to West Coast.

But Rutten's stocks had been on the rise for some time.

Rutten was an immovable full-back for Adelaide, playing 229 games from 2003-2014 and winning All-Australian honours in 2005.

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'Truck' (a nickname that originated in his first game in West Adelaide's reserves in the SANFL before he arrived at the Crows) was part of a strong, experienced defence that was central to the Crows' push for a flag in the mid-2000s.

"He was a very good communicator and very reassuring from behind, so he had a skillset to be a leader," said former Crows teammate Michael Doughty.

In his last four seasons at Adelaide, Rutten made a conscious effort to develop as part of a move into coaching post playing.

Under coach Neil Craig, Rutten would be allowed to steer the defence, sometimes even taking backline meetings. "He basically ran things down there," said Adelaide best and fairest Bernie Vince.

You could always trust Ben's opinion

- Neil Craig

Rutten didn't have things easy – he suffered a serious knee injury as a junior and had to work his way off the Crows' rookie list before breaking into the team.

But his spot on the field meant he saw what was happening ahead of him, and he had ideas on how to do things better.

"You could always trust Ben's opinion," Craig said.

"I'm not saying I always took it, but it was always an informed opinion. He'd have thought about it."

Craig is one of the most important figures in Rutten's coaching rise. The eight-season Adelaide coach helped mould Rutten's philosophies (and those of former club captain Simon Goodwin, who entered a succession plan at Melbourne under Paul Roos).

Craig also influenced Rutten's communication.

Craig was known for being an engaging presenter, and over time Rutten and teammate Tyson Edwards kept track of all their coach's funny sayings, quirky metaphors and provoking analogies.

The sheet turned into a scroll, and he still dips into the book of 'Craigy-isms' at Essendon when he needs to find something to connect with the players.

Rutten and Craig during the 2005 season. Picture: AFL Photos

Bombers forward Shaun McKernan, who played alongside Rutten and under Craig at Adelaide, occasionally reminds Rutten he's heard a particular line before.

Craig's departure at the end of 2011 brought Brenton Sanderson to the club, along with Darren Milburn as an assistant.

Milburn was fresh from his stellar career at Geelong, and Rutten was his pseudo assistant. He helped coordinate weekly preparation for the opposition and, with the end of his playing career in sight, assisted the Crows develop a defensive transition.

"He was instrumental in the development of Daniel Talia, including when he won the NAB AFL Rising Star (in 2012)," Sanderson said.

Daniel Talia and Ben Rutten contest the ball with Lance Franklin lurking back in 2013. Picture: AFL Photos

"It was almost a handover from Rutten to Talia. Sometimes players can be a little bit sensitive when it comes to the end of their careers, but he was extremely generous."

Rutten had ambitions beyond manning the best key forwards of the competition.

He had started catching up with coaching contacts while on interstate trips with the Crows to extend his network, and had begun the Next Coach program under mentor David Wheadon, a course that includes Melbourne's Simon Goodwin, North Melbourne's Rhyce Shaw and West Coast's Adam Simpson as graduates.

His next move was significant.


CLUBS were quickly on the phone once Rutten announced he would be finishing at Adelaide.

Brisbane and St Kilda were keen, while Richmond was also pushing to add Rutten to its coaching panel. It is more common for a retired player to go straight into a club as a development coach, but the Tigers offered him the role as their backline and defensive coach.

Other opportunities were more lucrative, but Rutten's then-agent Justin Reid (now Adelaide's list manager) had a strong bond with Dan Richardson (then the Tigers' football boss) from the pair's time together at leading management firm ESP (now TLA Australia).

Rutten surprised some at Richmond with how strong in his beliefs he was, but he knew he wasn't the finished product. It was in that early time at Punt Road that his ambition to be a senior coach grew.

He had a really good feel for the game and was really calm in the way he went about it

- Neil Balme

"He had a really good feel for the game and was really calm in the way he went about it," Richmond administrator Neil Balme said.

Rutten badges himself as a 'fundamentals' coach. There are no bells and whistles, and fewer tricks. He focuses on technique – for defenders it might be about footwork and positioning – and teaching.

The defensive system he wanted at Richmond was built on simplicity and clarity. An overall defensive principle, for instance to 'slow them down', was threaded through his messaging.

Occasionally, Rutten would be conscious he might have been boring the group, such was the consistency of what he wanted.

He embraced the Richmond defenders, becoming tight with key backs Alex Rance, Dylan Grimes and David Astbury.

A keen observer of other sports, Rutten had seen the specialised nature of NFL coaching and wanted to be the best coach of talls in the AFL.

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"Until I spent a lot of time with him, my focus in my career was purely on my shortcomings, and investing time so they wouldn't get exposed," said Astbury.

"But he said, 'Mate, you're an elite one-on-one player, and you need to keep focusing on what your strengths are'. He drove that for all of us."

Rutten's competitiveness remained never far from the surface.

During most main sessions, Rutten would include himself in a drill working with the key backs. Astbury had him covered for height so he generally managed, while Rance, too, found a way to get past Rutten. But Rutten would save his best for Grimes, or so Grimes thought.

"Once or twice a main session he'd really handle 'Grimesy' and Grimesy used to blow up about it. He'd be like, 'You're always trying harder with me! Why don't you try harder with Dave and 'Rancey'?'" Astbury said with a laugh.

Rutten wrestling with Tigers superstar Dustin Martin in 2017. Picture: AFL Photos

The quartet are still close, regularly catching up for dinner and a couple of beers or even strolling down Swan Street in Richmond for an ice cream.

Another time during his stint at Tigerland, Richmond's recruiters were assessing a potential category B rookie. They asked Rutten to go along to the trial to test the player's strength in the contest.

After 45 minutes of Rutten pushing the prospect aside, the Tigers crew decided they had seen enough and didn't pursue the player further.

Rutten also became known for his knuckle push-ups, regularly heading into the club's gym while the players were there, getting on the foam roller, cracking his back and then launching into his work-out (a habit that's followed him to The Hangar, too).

His fitness routine included cycling to work each day from his family's home in Melbourne's east, about a 20km round trip.


WHAT most stood out at Richmond was Rutten’s investment in his professional development.

Already with a degree in exercise-science, Rutten started a Master of Coaching degree at Queensland University, gradually ticking it off until completing it last year online. He also finished his Level Two coaching course through the AFL, and sought out mentors from other fields.

He's one I called a 'star' of our program

- David Wheadon

"He's one I called a 'star' of our program," said Wheadon.

"We talk about concepts and beliefs and he was really good as a thinker. He knew there's an art and science to it."

Wheadon takes members of his program to Stanford University in California each year, but Rutten organised his own trip at the end of 2017.

Rutten had booked the venture before the Tigers claimed their drought-breaking flag that season. By the time he got there, he was interested in the ability to sustain success.

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But after learning about Richmond's fairytale rise, those at Stanford were asking more questions of Rutten by the end of his stay, fascinated by the Tigers' story.

Learning is part of the 37-year-old's make-up. He believes if he asks his players to find ways to better themselves continually, he should take the same approach.

During the AFL's recent shutdown of the season due to the coronavirus, Rutten continued that quest.

He read The Courage To Be Disliked, a book about creating your future rather than being determined by past experiences, and The Cycling Mind, by leading sports psychologist Ruth Anderson, about the mental strategies used in elite competition.

"The thing that made it obvious to me that he was pretty ambitious and bullish about the prospect of being a senior coach is his personal development," Astbury said. "It's as good as I've ever seen."

With time and confidence, Rutten's presence at Richmond continued to grow. He saw Tigers coach Damien Hardwick thrive on storytelling, and started to embed more of his dry humour into his presentations.

Hardwick and Rutten all smiles after the Tigers' 2017 preliminary final win. Picture: AFL Photos

He started showing more of his interests; how he enjoys camping, cooking and sitting around a fire, how he has a chicken pen at home and an immaculate garden. With wife Kylie he has two young sons, and has coached at their junior club, the Camberwell Sharks.

Richmond didn't want to lose Rutten at the end of 2018. But after four years establishing his credentials, and with Richardson now heading the Bombers' football department, they came calling.

The Tigers had assistant trio Rutten, Blake Caracella and Justin Leppitsch all pegged on the same level of seniority, so couldn't budge, even if it wanted to match Essendon's offer to Rutten.

"If we did that with him, we had to do it with the other guys and we couldn't afford to do it from a soft cap point of view so we accepted the inevitability of it," said Balme.

"We really liked him as a personality and as a coach, so I'd be surprised if he's not successful going forward, but it's a tough game."


ESSENDON'S pitch to Rutten centred on broadening his skillset by working under Worsfold, a premiership coach with West Coast in 2006 and a dual AFLCA coach of the year.

But the Bombers are adamant they didn't poach him knowing he would be their next senior coach, nor was the succession plan even in play when he joined at the end of 2018.

"Ben wasn't a confirmed replacement for John, but it meant we had a highly talented assistant coach coming into our system," said Bombers CEO Xavier Campbell.

Rutten's first address to the Bombers' group focused on the system of team defence he wanted to implement. Essendon had shown it could score (they sat third in the AFL for scores in 2017) but ranked lowly for defence. To be a contender the Bombers needed to tighten up.

Part of the terminology changed, with 'blitzing' added to Essendon's vernacular (meaning to pressure the ball carrier). The structure of the backline was altered, with a focus on its shape and depth, which means how far the players are up the ground.

The adjustment took time. As Essendon struggled at the start of 2019, some players wondered about the level of change to the game plan, given they thought the way they played late in 2018 – when the Bombers won 10 of their last 14 games – had seen them strike the right balance between attack and defence.

Rivals saw distinct similarities between how the Bombers were trying to play and Richmond's model.

The Tigers' defensive group sets up behind the play but then rapidly push up to defend when required. But the Bombers 'folded back' too deep in their defensive zone, conceding too many inside-50s and being one of the worst teams for turnovers going the length of the field.

Dyson Heppell and Rutten during a 2019 training session. Picture: AFL Photos

Essendon's blueprint also saw it try to outnumber at the contest, but Rutten was keen on looking after the 'outside' more. That was via pulling a midfielder out of the play and having him 'hold' in the centre square, a role Tigers skipper Trent Cotchin has perfected (and one which Andy McGrath has been used in at Essendon).

Richmond gets away with one less midfielder around the ball because of its star quality in that area, but also its group of elite-running half-forwards, such as Daniel Rioli and Jason Castagna, working up the ground as support.

The idea didn't quite click at Essendon, which managed to sneak into the top-eight by year's end, but was easily beaten in the elimination final against West Coast.

"Change isn't easy. We made a concerted effort to want to improve our structures and processes to how we defend. This stuff isn't linear. It's two steps forward, one step back," Campbell said.

Rutten's confidence in how he wanted the Bombers to play wasn't stirred. That wouldn't surprise those close to Rutten, who describe him in equal terms affable, engaging, knockabout, driven, demanding, motivated, structured and single-minded.

"He doesn't suffer fools," Craig said.

The Bombers backed in what they had seen from Rutten, moving quickly at the end of last season to appoint him their next coach – their eighth in 15 years.

During discussions between Campbell and Worsfold, Worsfold indicated he was contemplating heading back to Perth at the end of 2020 for family reasons. Richardson joined in the talks as the concept of Rutten being elevated for a coaching handover was raised.

"We all agreed he had the potential to be a senior coach, it was just a matter of how quickly it got to that point," Campbell said.


IT WAS fast.

Campbell put it to Rutten, who only needed to tick off one thing before he said yes: was Worsfold in? Rutten, who also had an inquiry from Adelaide during that time from the Crows as they searched for a new coach, knew if the partnership at Essendon was to work, Worsfold needed to be fully supportive.

In the week before the plan was announced publicly, Campbell gathered with Worsfold, Rutten, Richardson, people and culture boss Lisa Lawry, football director Sean Wellman and mental skills coach David Reid to work through the pair's duties.

Who would inform the players they were in and out of the side? Who would control training? Who would do the press conferences? The minutiae took about 12 hours to work through across that week before it was signed off.

"There's not one particular gear for Ben," Campbell said. "He can dial it up and dial it down depending on the mood of the group. He's prepared to show his vulnerability."

In his first pre-season in his elevated role, the Bombers saw all sides.

"He has that good balance of cracking jokes and when to be serious," said defender Adam Saad. "He's not as funny as me, but he gets a few laughs."

Rutten laughing it up during the Bombers' photo day earlier this year. Picture: AFL Photos

On the track, Rutten's booming voice echoes around Tullamarine when he spots something to improve. Observers rate his one-on-one coaching his greatest strength.

"He's very good at taking something from the auditorium and explaining it on the field," a source said.

Rutten wants to build an environment where every Bomber – from thrilling forward Jake Stringer to the task-oriented Patrick Ambrose – can be themselves.

He was keen to grow his relationships this season. On the eve of the Bombers' campaign, he and Worsfold attended David Zaharakis' 30th birthday party.

Insiders have noticed Rutten's impact on talented youngster Aaron Francis, helping him peel things back to become more consistent, while Dylan Shiel and Devon Smith have stepped up as leaders under his approach.

Coaching structures and football departments will look very different after the damage of COVID-19, but Essendon is racing ahead with its handover.

Worsfold continues to give more responsibility to Rutten, particularly around the gameplan, and those at Essendon have noticed the pair's qualities mesh. Rutten even followed Worsfold and recently filmed a TikTok video for an internal competition (although it is understood he didn't wear Ugg boots like Worsfold).

Every fortnight the pair, along with Campbell and Lawry, meet to identify two things that are working in the partnership and two things that could do with extra attention.

By the end of this season, Rutten's sixth as an assistant, the Bombers believe he will be ready. Then, says Craig, the challenge arrives.

"The test has yet to come. And it won't be next year, it will be when the heat comes on at some stage in his coaching career. How does he handle the heat and the pressure?" Craig said. "That's the ultimate test for a senior coach."