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How Dean Cox changed footy
Picture: Getty Images.

Teammates talk about him reverentially, opposition coaches and players plan to stymie his match-winning talents, statisticians have a field day toting up the numbers other players can only collect in their dreams on the eve of a game.

Regardless of all the perceptions, Dean Cox, who is preparing to play his 250th match on Sunday in the elimination final against North Melbourne at Patersons Stadium, is a three-dimensional player and the most influential ruckman of his generation.

No ruckman in the modern game can match the 31-year-old's curriculum vitae, which has produced five All-Australian guernseys and glowing plaudits from luminaries of the sport.

Some say Cox ranks among the all-time greats, in the company of Polly Farmer and Essendon's Simon Madden. Others, like Leigh Matthews, suggest he is the best of all time.

From the mid-2000s, Cox has changed the rucking landscape so dramatically that other clubs in unison declared: "We've gotta get one of those."

It is generally recognised that the 203cm Eagle has redefined the role of ruck play, incorporating traditional ruck work with an ability to gather possessions around the ground and, more latterly, become a danger in the forward line.

Matt Priddis, who has spent most of his 128 games camped in and around Cox, rates him "as good a ruckman that has played the game".

"It's not just his tap work which is exceptional, but his ability to cover the ground and read the play and then finish off his run and carry with goals. It's pretty amazing," Priddis said. "He's had some pretty amazing midfielders play under him, but he's made them look pretty good."

Beau Waters, who said Cox had redefined the work of a ruckman and continued to challenge the norm, marvelled at the game in Hobart against North Melbourne in round 15.

"It was an epic game and Coxy's influence in that game was as influential as I have ever seen," Waters said. "He was unbelievable, especially in the last 10 minutes when he took four or five contested marks. He's got nerves of steel.

"People get separated from being good and great. The great players want the ball in those important stages."

Midfielder Luke Shuey said: "He's going to be one of those blokes that I can look back on when I retire and say I played with him. The fact that he's 200-plus centimetres and still finds the ball as much as the midfielders do is unbelievable."

Picture: AFL Media.

After Cox almost single-handedly got the Eagles across the line in Hobart, North coach Brad Scott said: "Dean Cox has just stamped himself again as the premier ruckman in the competition."

John Worsfold, reluctant to dish out praise unless it is hard earned, said after the same match: "His career to date stands up with any ruckman that has been in the game, I'd expect."

Current GWS and former Port Adelaide ruckman Dean Brogan has given an insight into trying to match Cox's running power.

"One game I played against him I ran 13.8km. I went on and off the ground as Coxy did and I followed him everywhere," Brogan said.

"That ability to run is what sep-arates him from other ruckmen.

"It's not unusual for a ruckman to run 11km in a match but 13.8km is just unbelievable, like a small midfielder.

"And the even more amazing thing was that our data showed we ran above cruising speed - maybe 75 to 80 per cent of top speed - for most of it. There was no dawdling."

Perhaps last year's Brownlow Medal best demonstrates Cox's pre-eminence among his peers.

In an award these days tailored almost solely to possession-driven midfielders, Cox polled 18 votes to finish 13th, an honourable enough achievement. North Melbourne's Todd Goldstein was the next best ruckman with six votes.

If ruck taps were included in the overall disposal tally, Cox's numbers would dwarf some of the figures enjoyed by midfielders.

In 52 of his 249 games, with ruck taps and disposals combined, Cox has topped 50 touches, and in 10 games he has been over 60. Of the modern ruckmen, only Aaron Sandilands enjoys similar figures.

Another stat that looms large for Cox is the 300-game mark, as distant as Pluto to most players.

Worsfold believes Cox is capable of becoming the first Eagle to reach the milestone.

Cox, who is contracted until the end of next season, doesn't rule out the prospect.

He said there was one compelling reason why his career could extend that far - Nic Naitanui.

Picture: Mal Fairclough / The West Australian.

It's all about sharing the ruck load.

Cox, who has played the last 69 games consecutively, credits his sidekick for already helping ease the burden on his body.

"It means I'm not going to 70 or 80 contests, I'm averaging about high 40s or 50 each game," he said. "So it certainly helps for later on in the year and to prolong your career as well.

"When you're 31, it's all about how the body is. So if the body can withstand another season and pull up really well, then I think I'll still have the hunger and desire to continue to play.

"But I won't play just to notch up games. It's all about if I can have an impact on the ground, then I'll continue to do it. Otherwise I'll finish."

Worsfold said: "He's in the echelon of great players at this football club now and he's still got a lot of football left in him."