Jeff White played 268 games for Fremantle and Melbourne from 1995 to 2008 and is now the founder of Post High. The All-Australian ruckman expresses his views about the centre bounce potentially leaving the game in an exclusive AFLPlayers.com.au column.
It’s the first Saturday in September, 2000. I take my usual place at the centre of the 50m arc during the warm-up with my eyes fixed intently on the middle of the ground.
While the rest of my Melbourne teammates were kicking the balls around and soaking up the atmosphere in what would be my only appearance in an AFL Grand Final, I’m assessing how each umpire is bouncing the ball — keenly identifying the height and direction of each bounce.
Like kicking, bouncing the ball is a skill and most umpires have their own natural variations so it was in my best interests to scope it out, particularly before a game of such magnitude against a powerful force that was the Essendon Football Club.
The lead-up to the first bounce was intense and it was one of my favourite parts of being a ruckman.
There’s a lot of planning and tactics that go into being a ruckman but we kept it simple that week. Neale Daniher drummed into us to belt the ball forward or to tap it backwards depending on the bounce.
I remember the feeling of waiting for that bounce — anything could happen. The anticipation of waiting for the ball to go anywhere in the air was one of the things I loved most about being a ruckman.
But it seems that part of the game may be taken away in the coming seasons and it’s a sad one for a guy who used to enjoy it so much.
While I understand the reasons behind doing it and I’m not necessarily against it because the game has evolved so much but it’s disappointing to potentially see one of the few remaining traditions disappear from the game.
Rucking is a science, it’s an art, it’s not only about simply winning the tap and getting it to the mids but it’s the anticipation that comes with it.
If we’re to throw the ball up at every opportunity, which has almost become the case nowadays, it becomes like a tap out in basketball — you stand there, everyone knows where it’s going and it comes down to whoever jumps the highest and reacts the fastest and the clearance will go the way of that side.
There are certain advantages when the ball bounces a certain way but you need to time your run, work the angles and make the most of the advantage or minimalise disadvantage — there are many elements to the centre bounce.
There were times where it was crucial to win the hit-out and it didn’t go our way. It’d be late in the fourth quarter and we needed to win it but the ball didn’t bounce our way. But there were other occasions where it bounced favourably for us.
If the ball bounced up above my opponents head, as it did at the beginning of the 2000 Grand Final, I always knew I was going to smash it forward but there were times when I had to reduce the damage as much as possible the other way.
Without trying to complicate it too much, the bounce added to the occasion and was an unpredictable element. It became another challenge the ruckman and the midfield had to face.
Before that Grand Final started, I knew which umpires were going to do what during the game in regards to bouncing the ball.
Sometimes the conditions of the ground would play a part. I always checked where they bounced the ball to see how firm the ground was and, of course, weather played a role at times.
In regards to the 2000 Grand Final, it was clearly a massive game, a huge occasion for everyone involved in the Melbourne Football Club and it was an electric build-up that was only enhanced with the unpredictability of the first bounce.
I enjoyed the anticipation, the tradition and the challenge so the day we never see it again will personally be a sad one.