AT THE start of the season, none of Sydney's Tom Hickey, GWS' Shane Mumford and St Kilda's Paddy Ryder were a lock as their club's No.1 ruckman.

Seven rounds later, they boast a 100 per cent winning record from the nine combined games they've completed.

All three have been pivotal in turning their teams' fortunes around this season and Mumford said the reason was simple.

"The more experienced rucks can help carry the midfield. When you've got that experience, you're not afraid to have a go at the mids when they're in the wrong spot or they do the wrong thing. You're able to keep them in check," Mumford told  

"If you're a young player coming in, it's a bit harder to spray these older guys who have been in the team for years. The sooner you can get to the point to give direct feedback the quicker you can all improve.

"Back when I started everyone used to play two ruckmen, you'd just go from the bench to the ruck then back to the bench. Now you have to be able to spend big minutes out on the ground, so I'd say the fitness levels required have gone through the roof and that needs to be built over the years."

Tom Hickey and Shane Mumford do battle in the ruck in round five, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

The tall trio each watched from the sidelines as their teams lost in round six, but the big men were back last weekend to help their clubs again salute as winners.

Sydney's Hickey made the most impressive return, with a best-on-ground 20-disposal, 11-clearance performance in the two-point win over Geelong.

It was a surprise the bandaged-up big man was even playing, as he'd suffered a knee injury two weeks earlier that was initially expected to keep him out for up to two months.

Sydney's Tom Hickey celebrates a goal against Geelong in round seven, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

After Hickey was subbed out with that injury in round five against GWS, the Swans gave up a 21-point lead in the final to eventually lose by two points.

They were upset again the following week, losing to Gold Coast by 40 points in Hickey's absence before his shock return against the Cats.

Giants battering ram Mumford, 34, had said before the season that six or seven games would be "plenty" for him, but has lined up in three of the past four matches. GWS has won those three games, while losing the four he sat out despite some impressive efforts by developing tall Matthew Flynn.

With injured recruit Braydon Preuss still recovering from shoulder surgery, GWS assistant coach Steve Johnson confirmed on the weekend that Mumford is again their "No.1 ruck option", even though he's now only able to play two or three matches in a row.

GWS' Shane Mumford in action against Adelaide in round seven, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

And while Saint Ryder's absence through personal reasons was increasingly noticeable as his side suffered three thrashings in four weeks, the 33-year-old had an instant impact in his return against Hawthorn.

He gathered 36 hitouts against the Hawks and helped set the standards, in much the manner Mumford talked about, to inspire his teammates to a desperately needed victory.

With his hybrid player-coach role and more than 13 years' experience at the elite level, Mumford is well placed to explain how the best ruckmen can have the biggest influence on games.

"The hitouts are the bread and butter. You certainly want to have as many hitouts to advantage as possible too," Mumford said.

"From there comes your blocks, bumps and tackles and everything else that's the part of the game."

St Kilda's Paddy Ryder soars over Hawthorn's Ben McEvoy in round seven, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

Collingwood's Brodie Grundy is a clear competition leader in hitouts and hitouts to advantage (41 and 14 per game), but Ryder (36 and 13), Hickey (23 and 7) and Mumford (22 and 7) sit within the chasing pack.

Tough tackling has been a key feature of Mumford's 205 games and he tops the tackle count for ruckmen this season with more than five a game. Ryder (5) is equal next best, while Hickey (2) wraps up the occasional tackle too.

Mumford also expects the premier ruckman to help their midfield win contested balls and to gather their fair share themselves. 

Grundy collects the most contested possessions among ruckmen (13 per game), with Mumford and Hickey next best with around 11 a game. Ryder only gathered four contested disposals against the Hawks, but averages close to seven across his career.

"The biggest thing for rucks at the moment is the follow up, to get them following their hit," Mumford said.

"If you do that you're putting yourself in and around the ball, and it gives you more chance to get someone out of the way for your teammate or get the ball yourself. 

"All these young guys are bringing much the same as what I would. The big thing that I bring is more of that physical side of the game. But it certainly isn't getting any easier the older I get."