After two blessed years of sparse injury and impeccably fit superstars, the injury bug has arrived at Richmond. Gun full-back Alex Rance was struck down with a season-ending ACL tear in round one, while a heavy fall last Thursday will see three-time Coleman Medallist Jack Riewoldt sidelined for a month.

In the current football landscape, the Tigers – once mighty with All-Australians standing in opposite goal squares, and the unequivocal Premiership favourites, have been labelled as having already lost an opportunity to win the flag, according to most pundits. They sit at 1-1 at the conclusion of Round Two, along with seven other clubs. 

“No Alex, no Tiges,” sang The Coodabeen Champions last Saturday morning and whilst the absence of Rance is significant, if one watches the final half-hour of football on last Thursday night again, there is a clearer explanation.

But for that brilliant final quarter of free-flowing Collingwood dominance, Richmond’s defence held. It was clunky, skittish and rudderless at times but, against the best forward line in the land, the Rance-less Tigers shakily held together for three quarters of football. With the last stanza ahead, Collingwood had 16 scoring-shots to 13; at its conclusion, the numbers had blown out to 25 to 16.

Without Rance (and back-up defender Ryan Garthwaite returning from Achilles soreness), Richmond chose to re-tool utility Noah Balta in the VFL and presented Oleg Markov to the baying MCG faithful, opting for pace and versatility. Astbury played Cox, Vlastuin took Mihocek. Broad, Grimes and the new boy Markov stood Stephenson, De Goey, Elliot and Thomas, with back-flankers Short and Ellis making up the difference.

By no means were Richmond’s defensive unit controlling of Collingwood’s forwards. However, we must take into account that both Stephenson’s goals came in the last quarter, along with one each from Cox, De Goey and Elliot.

Goals were kicked not from a lack of defence, but from failures further afield. For the majority of the game, the issue was not the stretched, small, Rance-less backline, but the lack of pressure and pace from the midfielders and forwards.

If Richmond indeed miss the Grand Final, or the top four, or the top eight, it won’t be a defensive failure that causes it – will be down to their midfielders and forwards that lifted them to Premiership glory just two years ago.

The tackle numbers indicate that Richmond’s famed defensive pressure was sorely lacking. Midfielders Mav Weller, Shane Edwards and Dustin Martin did not lay one tackle between them. Dan Butler’s three tackles, on a usual day for Tigerland, would be considered too small a number. When you consider that fellow small forwards Dan Rioli, Jason Castagna and Jack Higgins, renowned for pressure and maniacal intensity, had one tackle apiece, the situation goes from pretty average to fairly abysmal.

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 Richmond’s game is not built upon disposals. Indicators of their success are tackles inside 50, and pressure acts. Their game is won by manic small forwards and intense pressure on man and ball. On Thursday night, that was simply not present.

Collingwood played the game impeccably, controlling the ball from the back pocket. Jack Crisp and Steele Sidebottom found acres of space across flanks and deep on the wings. The Pies trusted their skills to kick through Richmond’s structure and, if there was no option available, went back and across until space was found or the play broke. Defenders Crisp, Jordan Roughead and Jeremy Howe had 41 (not a typo) marks between them, yet just eight of these came from intercepts.

If the competition were to take a key lesson from the game and apply it to their future match-ups with the Tiges; you can’t get tackled when you’ve marked the footy. And Collingwood had 174 marks, a video game-like number that exceeded Richmond’s by a frankly ridiculous 96 clunks. Furthermore, the Pies’ 340 uncontested possessions eclipsed Richmond’s 186; yet the Tigers were also belted in the contested ball (133-110), edged in the clearances (32-30), trounced in the disposal efficiency (81.2% to 70%). Most worryingly, they were completely spiflicated in the tackle numbers (60-33 overall and 13-6 inside 50).

In 2018, the Tiges laid an average of a little over 13 tackles inside 50 out of around 62 in total. The numbers are as damning as I’ve seen in quite a while.

What happened?

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 Richmond weren’t out-run by the Pies according to the AFL’s GPS trackers, which shows just a kilometre of difference between the two sides’ total distance covered (naturally, Collingwood won that stat too). The question I had walking from M14 and through Fitzroy Gardens was whether Richmond were that bad, or whether Collingwood were that good.

The answer is a combination of both.

Collingwood played the Tigers perfectly. They disallowed Richmond their usual pressure by hitting targets, marking the footy, refusing to risk the 50/50 kick unless it was absolutely necessary. The Tigers play half-a-man off their direct opponent, allowing them time to spoil, gather and gallop down the ground like Labradors on red cordial. It is an enthusiastic, fast-paced, hectic, irresistible wave of yellow and black. Collingwood prevented the Tiger tornado from manifesting, and instead relied on their ball-winners to farm the footy to the outside, where they slew their opponent with impeccable disposal.

But Richmond, despite poor performance, did not simply watch on as the Pies ran riot. They spoilt errant kicks and dashed forward, yet their disposal lacked Collingwood’s polish, often bombing to an out-numbered Tom Lynch or, worse, a myriad of black-and-white jumpers, leading to a Collingwood dash up the MCG.

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 Richmond had a bad outing. No midfield pressure or polish. No forward-line intensity. There was a distinct lack of the vigour we’ve associated with the Tigers for the last two seasons. Yet to invalidate Collingwood by making excuses for their opponent would be ridiculous. The Magpies have the best forward line in the competition and their midfield, with Taylor Adams and Daniel Wells waiting in the wings, is terrifying.

Add a fit Darcy Moore’s rise to an All-Australian calibre centre-half-back among an exceptional squadron of high-flying interceptors, a stoic defender or two and polished rebounders…

What I learnt from watching the Magpies rampage on Thursday night, and from my subsequent stats deep-dive, is that the Collingwood Football Club, in my (albeit Vic-biased book) are clear favourites to take out the flag. And, if Richmond indeed misses the top four, the blame will rest on their trend-setters in the midfield and forward line, on the 2017 Brownlow Medallist and on the tackling trio of Rioli, Butler and Castagna. Not on the ACL of Alex Rance.

Premierships are not won, nor lost, in round two.

But the evidence laid before us last Thursday was more worrying than just one ACL injury.

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