IT MIGHT be unusual, but for Port Adelaide it has been highly effective.

A mid-season decision to swing Jeremy Finlayson into the ruck has proved an unlikely winner for Power coach Ken Hinkley. Now, a question as to whether the club can and will persist with the tactic long-term is up for debate.

While he was initially looked upon to provide temporary relief in an area where Port Adelaide was sorely lacking in – Scott Lycett's shoulder injury, combined with mid-season recruit Brynn Teakle breaking his collarbone on debut had left the Power short on ruck options – Finlayson's form in the position might dictate permanent change.

Hardly the competition's best tap ruckman, Finlayson's mobility and athleticism – and the flexibility it has provided the Power's midfield group – has given the side an agile new dynamic out of the centre and has also freed up Charlie Dixon in attack. The benefits, in that respect, have been two-fold.

Jeremy Finlayson battles with Rhys Stanley in the ruck during Port Adelaide's clash with Geelong in round 19, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Since its bye, and coinciding with a period where Port Adelaide won five of six games, Finlayson has remarkably been the No.1 ranked ruckman in the competition according to Champion Data's AFL Player Ratings.

His average of 17.8 points per game during that stretch is some distance clear of Fremantle's Sean Darcy, who ranks No.2 in the League with an average of 15.1 points per game.

Furthermore, during that eight-game stretch Finlayson ranks No.6 among all players in the competition. He's there behind only Marcus Bontempelli, Christian Petracca, Clayton Oliver, Touk Miller and Tom Liberatore. It's handy company to be in.

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Finlayson's form, and his potential as a long-term first-choice ruckman, must come with the caveat that he currently has the worst hitout rate and the third-worst hitout-to-advantage rate of all rucks to have played at least three games this season.

But, if Port Adelaide is still winning the clearance battle – and, indeed, if Finlayson is still playing a significant role in helping it win the clearance battle – then do hitouts really matter?

Jeremy Finlayson contests the ruck against Mason Cox during Port Adelaide's clash with Collingwood in round 20, 2022. Picture: Getty Images

Champion Data notes that, despite frequently losing the hitout count, the Power's effective clearance percentage has surged from No.6 in the League through the season's first 12 matches (79 per cent) to No.1 since Finlayson moved into the ruck (79.8 per cent).

The club's first possession win-rate has also risen from No.11 in the competition at round 12 (44.9 per cent) to No.2 since Finlayson moved into the ruck (47.6 per cent), while its clearance differential has gone from No.8 (+1.2 per game) to No.3 in the League (+4.2 per game) after the former Giant shifted positions.

To top it off, Port Adelaide has gone from being a middle of the road team at scoring from stoppage (its -1.4 points per game differential ranked No.11 at round 12) to being among the best in this particular statistic (its +6.1 differential after Finlayson moved into the ruck is now ranked No.5 in the AFL).

 

Rd 1-12 avg.

Rank

Rd 13-20 avg.

Rank

Hitout differential

-6.3

#14

-19.8

#18

Hitout to adv. differential

-2.4

#15

-3.8

#16

First poss. win-rate

44.9%

#11

47.6%

#2

Clearance differential

+1.2

#8

+4.2

#3

Effective clearance %

79.0%

#6

79.8%

#1

Scores from stoppage differential

-1.4

#11

+6.1

#5


While it might be easy to look at the numbers and think Port Adelaide's midfield is to thank for this improvement, rather than its ruckman, Finlayson has actually been central to the side's rapid rise in these key statistical components.

The 26-year-old – who enjoyed a 44-goal season with Greater Western Sydney in 2019, kicked five goals in just his fourth game for Port Adelaide earlier this year, and has even spent time on a wing during stints of his career – has used his versatility to great effect since moving into the ruck.

Finlayson's ability to win the ball, and his ability to influence in possession going forward, is another standout feature of the 197cm option as a ruckman. He is currently winning 6.1 first possessions per game since round 13, ranked fourth of any ruck during that stretch and highlighting his ground-level follow-up work, while his average of five clearances per game throughout that same period now ranks No.2 among all rucks.

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Jeremy Finlayson rewards his forward line's pressure with this clever intercept and goal midway through the opening term

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Of his League-leading average of 17.8 AFL Player Ratings points, 5.6 points come from his ball use. It's the most of any ruckman and a full two points clear of Essendon's Sam Draper in second. A further 3.6 points come from his field kicking. Again, it's the most of any ruck in the League and, again, it's a full two points clear of St Kilda's Rowan Marshall in second.

Finlayson is scoring 9.7 points per game from his ball-winning, ranked second only to Marshall, while his average of 1.6 points per game from pressure is also ranked second only behind Geelong's Mark Blicavs.

Put simply, Port Adelaide is winning more clearances and more effective clearances with Finlayson in the ruck. This, in turn, is having a secondary benefit by creating more and better opportunities for Dixon in attack.

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Dixon displays all his skills with brilliant banana goal

Charlie Dixon gives Port some hope with a terrific goal to start the fourth quarter

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Having missed the season's first three months while recovering from an ankle injury, Dixon has kicked 11 goals from eight games since the Power's bye. But his impact hasn't necessarily been entirely on the scoreboard.

Champion Data notes that the veteran's average of 14.5 AFL Player Ratings points in this period ranks No.1 among all key forwards and is well clear of Adelaide's Taylor Walker, his crosstown rival, in second (13 points per game).

Finlayson's move has enabled Dixon to win more of the footy in the forward line – an average of 9.1 of his AFL Player Ratings points comes from ball-winning, nearly two full points more than any other key forward in the AFL – while he's also proved an influential chop-out option in the ruck.

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A further 1.3 of his AFL Player Ratings points average comes from hitouts, the most of any key forward in the game and proving that he may very well be the best second-ruck option in the League. It's also further evidence that the unlikely but effective partnership of Finlayson and Dixon is working, and working well.

At the heart of this has been the ball, and the territory, that Finlayson has been able to help Port Adelaide win consistently from the middle. It might not have been the primary reason why Power officials chose to part with a future third-round pick to secure his signature last year, but it's proving the most compelling reason to view the trade as an overwhelming success.

Having already emerged as a key component of what Hinkley's reborn side has been able to achieve in the second half of this season, whether the veteran coach continues with a similar strategy for Finlayson in 2023 and beyond should be one of the summer's biggest talking points at Alberton.