I’ll try hard not to make this a Richmond love-fest, I swear.

For those who have been reading for a while, you’d know how I felt about the 2018 Richmond side. They were the best team in the competition right up until the second last weekend in September, when they had one of their worst outings of the year. I’ll spare you the details, but it was a stark reminder that on any given day, there can be an upset occur that makes the neutral fan sit back and think… wow.

And watching the first quarter of the JLT match between the Demons and the Tigers, there was definitely some wow factor. The Demons got the jump on the Tigers and were making them look ordinary. Christian Petracca looked like the player he has been threatening to become, Clayton Oliver was everywhere, and Joel Smith was hitting the scoreboard.

But then it happened. The switch was flipped, and as though they were stung into action, a pissed off Tiger team started firing on all cylinders, and though with a few minutes left in the game, just a kick separated the teams, it was Richmond that made the statement in this contest.

And they made it loud and clear.

Here are some of the things that jumped out at The Mongrel as I watched.

Jack Higgins – I can’t help but like this guy. My missus calls him “the guy who can’t talk” but far out he can play footy. One aspect of his game that I didn’t really rate was his overhead marking, but bugger me, he actually has a beautiful pair of hands.

Higgins took eight grabs and his ability to one grab the ball on the lead really stood out. He worked right up the ground, but he was at his most damaging running forward, and you know that Jack Riewoldt must lick his lips when he sees Higgins with the ball. He looks to me as though he is ready to take his game to another level in 2019, and that’s what happens in great sides – there is organic improvement.

If Higgins can raise his game, and they get similar improvement from Daniel Rioli, Dan Butler and Kane Lambert again, this is a formidable side. Quite a few people let just how good Richmond were last year slip from their consciousness; I mean, they didn’t even play in the Grand Final, right?

It matters not. When they were challenged today, the team responded like few others would. That is the mark of a good team. That is the mark of a team with pride, and that is the mark of a team with a chip on its shoulder, that even in a practice game, refused to lay down.

I’m looking at Trent Cotchin’s game and on paper, it is nothing special, but you know what? It was him being pissed off, and having his actions state “enough is enough” that helped turn the tide. He gave away a free kick… one of those stupid ‘below the knees’ ones that can go either way at times, and wasn’t happy about it. As his opponent kicked the ball, he dropped him, which in and of itself, is an undisciplined action.

But what does that action say to the team? If your captain was out there in a game that should’ve been a bit of hit and giggle, and he starts getting serious, you get serious too. If he sets the tone, you follow. He set the tone, and the first person to follow was Dustin Martin.

Despite a couple of nervous moments after his knee seemed to jar as he landed, Martin looked like he had the power back in his legs. In the pivotal second quarter, Martin started his engine, and then took off. He was the opponent-fending, long kicking, inside 50 dealing son of a bitch that haunted so many teams in 2017, and he was haunting both the demons and James Harmes in the second.

I guess that’s the difference between tagging an injured Dusty and a fully fit Dusty. It doesn’t matter if you tag a fully fit Dusty – he just beats you one-on-one.

The move to send him forward in the last quarter paid dividends, with two almost identical goals, and his presence inside 50 created absolute anarchy amongst defenders. The crown may have slipped a little from Martin’s head in 2018. New contenders to the throne emerged. This season should be the year Dusty leaves them in his wake – on his day he is the best player in the game, and I get the feeling he is set for plenty of “his days” this season.

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Grab a Mongrel Bumper Sticker – click the image, grab a sticker and help spread the Mongrel word. We’d really appreciate it.

But there were two teams out there, right? Surely there is some things to focus on for the Dees?

You damn betcha there is.

Clayton Oliver – when he gets his hands on the ball, good things happen. He is so strong for a young bloke, and stands in tackles, works his arms free and delivers with a monotonous regularity. What’s more, he makes good decisions. At one point in the second quarter, the Dees streamed forward and Oliver had every right to go long, but instead of quickly trying to get the Dees inside 50, he assessed his options, waited another second, drew a player and fed the ball forward by hand. This allowed James Harmes to run to 50 and convert

Last year I was shot down for stating (early in the season) that Oliver may go down as one of the all-time greats in Demon history when all is said and done. I think I actually said he may finish as a top five all time Melbourne player. The more I watch him, the more convinced I am that he is capable of achieving this. He had 17 contested touches amongst his 32 disposals, seven clearances and six tackles. He’s a monster.

And then there’s Angus Brayshaw. I thought that he was who he was due to the silver service provided by Max Gawn. In games I watched last season, Gawn would put the ball right in his lap, and that’d end up resulting in an easy clearance… or as easy as a clearance can get at AFL level.

But there was no Gawn today, and he still had a game-high 10 clearances to go along with a blistering 10 inside 50s. There’s a very good reason he polled so well in the Brownlow last season, and it wasnt that funky headgear. If he keeps this sort of play up, he might just go a couple of slots better this season.

So if you have a defensive mid at your disposal, who do you tag? If I am running a team, I try to stop Oliver. His creativity kills teams, and the way he brings teammates into the game, Brayshaw included, is an incredibly valuable asset. You put the brakes on him, and the Dees grind to a halt.

Dees fans, are you worried about the decision to allow Jesse Hogan to go home yet? I have to say, I was worried when it happened. The funny thing is, I wasn’t worried about McDonald – I was worried about Weideman… and now I’m worried about both.

Look, they ran into a triple-bladed buzzsaw today. The defensive efforts of Grimes, Rance and Astbury were absolutely outstanding, and the way they work in concert to keep Rance as the deepest defender is almost like a choreographed dance.

Those three blanketed the Melbourne key forwards, and it was only when Weideman went into the ruck for a while, then drifted forward that he was able to get a clean run at a mark inside 50. It was actually smart coaching to free him up like that – nice job at that point by Simon Goodwin.

I thought Rance was fantastic when the game was there to be won in the last quarter. It was as though he became the general, marshalling the troops and taking the battle to the oncoming Demon horde. I loved his game, and though the commentators were claiming the goal early to Joel Smith was Rance’s responsibility, there is so much chopping and changing between him, Astbury and Grimes that I’m not completely sure that was the case.

I’m backing TMac to redeem himself the next time he takes the field, but the real test will come the next time he faces the Tigers. His pride took a bit of a hit today. I’m still not sold on the Weed.

I’m not sure there is a better first quarter player in the game than Christian Salem. If I was a man with time and resources, I’d look up his first quarters from last year as compared to the rest of the games he played and see just how much better he is in the first stanza. I’d be willing to bet that first quarters would make up at least half of his best quarters for the season. And that continued today.

There was a moment I wanted to highlight that saw Toby Nankervis kick a goal from the ruck contest. This exact scenario is what I’ve been banging on about all off-season as the new ruck rules were introduced. Teams almost have to play two big-bodied rucks now. The penalty is too great of you don’t.

Nank was matched up against Declan Kielty, and he simply muscled him out of the way, grabbed the ball and snapped a goal. Now, Melbourne will get Gawn back, so it is a problem for today only, but do they persist with Preuss, or do they give Kielty a go considering he jumps like a scared cat?

That scared cat thing is a good thing, by the way – they jump high. I scare them all the time just to test.

The point here, and it also applies to Richmond, is that if a team opts to go with one ruck and say, a Shaun Grigg-type to play second ruck, that player will be absolutely abused. Today it cost one goal. When the games are serious, and coaches see the advantage, how many times will you see Nankervis, or his like, bully smaller players and take possession?

With Kielty, when allowed a run at it, he gets plenty of height and can get first hand on it, but in body to body contests, I don’t think he’s anywhere near ready to match up against the monsters of the ruck division.

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Look! Mongrel Punt Stubby Holders. Buy one and be cooler than all your friends! It also helps the site out.

Nice game for Bailey Fritsch. That high half forward role is perfect for him. Despite going missing for long periods, Christian Petracca went from delivering on his potential to threatening to deliver on his potential again. He is looking beastly, but where does a beast go to hide for stretches that long? Does he have a castle somewhere, and a rose in a container or something he needs to attend to?

As the Tigers took control, the Dees needed someone to step up. I was hopeful it would be Petracca.

But it wasn’t. The wait continues.

And so we come to Noah Balta. In the modern game, it’s not often one bloke has a five-ten minute stretch like Balta did in the second quarter. It’s kind of a shame it was wasted in a JLT game, because his performance deserved a bigger audience. His second efforts, his run and carry, his positioning, and his influence on the contest were all significant in the Tigers turning the table. It started with Cotchin, then Dusty, then Riewoldt, then it was Balta.

In the off-season a few of our Mongrels on our Facebook page mentioned Balta as being the next player to break out. They’re very astute judges. They also said that my mate, Joe Ganino is one of the biggest clowns on the planet. Looks like they’re two for two so far.

I’m a bit of a Jacob Townsend fan, and was really surprised that no other team went after him following last season. Now, with Balta showing this kind of form, how far down the pecking order is Townsend?

The games of Jayden Short and Bachar Houli off half back really kicked into gear as the Tigers set up their defence. Their run and penetration broke down whatever tactics the Demons were trying to employ, and allowed them to drift back to be the first release handball or kick whenever Melbourne went forward. Again, Short was able to cruise by, take a handball and slam a long goal home… when will teams learn?

What else did I like? Jayden Hunt’s chase down of Oleg Markov was a ripper. I love a good rundown tackle, and Markov was traveling fast when Hunt got him. By the same token, I loved when Noah Balta took Hunt on and won.

The little piece of byplay between Oliver and Dan Butler that saw two 50 metre penalties and a goal handed to Oliver was fun for what it was. There is zero doubt in my mind that Oliver was trying to play on when Bulter dragged him down, but I guess if the umpire hasn’t called it, you’re not supposed to grab him.

And that’ll do, Mongrel… that’ll do. Great win by the Tigers despite the fast Melbourne start. The Dees have some genuine firepower to come back, but I have a feeling the road to September glory runs right through Richmond in 2019. 

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