Before we get into it, I have not seen a better first half of pure football all year. Yesterday we were treated to first v second on the AFL ladder, but each team employed a dour, defensive style that saw them hit the boundary at every opportunity.

The result was a huge number of boundary stoppages and out of bounds on the full free kicks. The result was close, but the footy was ugly. If you wanted to show a first-time viewer a game of Aussie Rules to gauge their interested, it wouldn’t be Brisbane v Geelong. It would be the instant classic between the Tigers and the Eagles.

In this game, both teams looked to play their own brand of football, and people… it was bloody glorious!

It was the precision of the Eagles taking on the pressure of the Tigers. Two distinct game plans and two quality outfits slugging it out.

West Coast got the jump in a very similar fashion to the game in Perth last year, and just like last year, Damien Hardwick made his adjustments at quarter time and the Tigers came roaring back. The kicking to position, the run and carry… the hallmarks of the potent West Coast Eagles offence was on full display, but as good as the Eagles were, the Tigers dug their heels in.

Last year, the scores were level at half time. This year, the Eagles managed to maintain a nine point lead.

And then it rained heavily.

It was time for the pressure to come to the fore, and that, my friends, is where the Tigers excel.

Did the rain change the game? Yep, it certainly did. Perhaps a stupid statement, as rain changes every single game, but it was a definite swing to the preferred style of the Tigers, and despite some gutsy efforts from West Coast, the Tiger machine works best when it is well-lubricated…

… much like my mate, Joe Ganino when he hangs out at home by himself.

But enough of talking about that loser. We may revisit his perverted self-exploration later. For now, we have a game to review… and it was a belter.

Here’s The Mongrel’s good, bad and ugly.

THE GOOD

DUSTY

So, if we questioned whether he was really back, I guess we can now confirm it.

In a head-to-head match-up against Elliot Yeo in the middle but I must stress – not a hard tag, Dusty burst out of the blocks and had nine touches in the first, and added 11 touches in the second. His hard run, clean hands with a slippery ball and ability to break tackles and use the fend to great effect were back in a big way as he was once again the engine room for the Tigers.

There is nothing that warms the heart of the Richmond faithful more than Dusty grabbing the ball, shrugging a tackle and accelerating away from a contest. It reminds them of 2017… and remember how these people were in 2017? They were bloody ecstatic!

Martin finished with 35 touches, kicked a goal and continually drove the Tigers into attack (a huge 13 inside 50 deliveries emphasising where he was getting his touches. It was a career-high number for Dusty in a game that mattered).

His last couple of months have fired a shot over the bow of the rest of the AFL teams. If they haven’t taken the warning just yet, they may be wise to take it after this effort. He is starting to look like a man on a mission.

And I think we’re all aware of exactly what that mission is in 2019.

Redemption.

He was down when the tigers needed him last year. I doubt he’ll be down like that again this season.

THE WET WEATHER SPECIALISTS

I mentioned above – “and then it rained”.

Is there a better wet weather side in the land than the Tigers? All credit to the Eagles for battling back – it was an amazing effort to get back into a position where the game was in the balance, but the way the Tigers use the force of will to move the ball forward… it’s scary. And it is perfect for when things get a little slippery.

They have these hard-bodied, hard at it mids that just bodyline the ball and continually push it forward. Many will look at the error from Barrass that allowed Kane Lambert in to kick a goal and place the blame on his kick – we will look at that later – but it was the hard running forward by the Tiger mids that forced the Eagles backward and turned what should have been an easy clearance into a pressure situation, prompting the error.

It could be termed either an error, or an unforced error, depending on how you look at it. In this instance, with the Tigers breathing down the neck of Barrass, he was rushed and didn’t have time to compose himself. His kick, whilst a disaster, was at least in part the result of Richmond knowing that the conditions were not conducive to big fellas picking up the ball and disposing of it easily.

The Tigers dialled up the pressure after half time, and when the rain came down after half time, the Eagles fumbled the ball in situations they would normally be clean. In this case it was the pressure of the Tigers winning out against the precision of the Eagles, and it would prove to be the story for the remainder of the third quarter.

THE DRY WEATHER KINGS

But prior to Richmond pressure, and prior to the rain, the Eagles were supreme.

Let’s put this out there – if the finals are played in good weather, the Eagles will win the flag. Their brand of football was scintillating in the first quarter. Jack Darling took Dylan Grimes to task and had two goals on him in the blink of an eye. Willie Rioli was electrifying, and the speed of Petruccelle was causing enormous headaches for the Tigers.

Here’s a novel idea – these two teams looked so far ahead of the rest, how about we abandon the final eight system this season and just play a best of five series between these teams? This idea comes courtesy of fellow Mongrel writer, Trent Adam Shields.

Two games in WA. Two games at the MCG, and the decider to be played at the venue of whomever finished higher on the ladder. It sounds dismissive of the others in contention, but the way these teams played today, if either of them miss the Grand Final this season, it will have had to take a monumental effort from a lesser team (think Collingwood over the Tigers last year) or a terrible day at the office (think Tigers v Collingwood last year again).

I reckon we saw our Grand Final preview today, and if we get it again on the last day in September, the weather will play a big part.

ELLIOT YEO’S STOPPAGE WORK

Much of the attention in this game will go to Dusty, but the work of Yeo at the coal face should not be overlooked.

So much was made of Patrick Cripps collecting 19 clearances a few weeks back against the Crows, but Yeo’s 15 clearances this afternoon were testament to his hard work and determination.

If we’re looking at this game through the lens of Dusty v Yeo, you give the points to Martin, but the inside efforts of Yeo were huge, particularly in the second half when he continually got first hands on the ball at stoppages.

Will he win his third straight John Worsfold medal? It’d be hard to argue against him. Garry Lyon says he is the best player in the game, and whilst there are a few that would definitely challenge him on that point, I am not sure there is a better all-round player in the game. Yeo’s desperation and desire for the contest whether he is in possession of the footy or not make him a special player, and the Eagles will need him at his best in the next month and a half.

THE EBB AND FLOW OF THE LAST QUARTER

It was pulsating, wasn’t it? It looked as though the Tigers had broken the will of the Eagles after restricting them to just two goals in the second and third quarter, but I remember Rudy Tomjanovic, former coach of the Houston Rockets, speaking about his 94-95 team after they won the championship.

“Never doubt the heart of a champion.”

It could be applied to either of these teams today.

The Eagles battled back and the Tigers were up for it. This was a heavyweight fight, people. These teams were exchanging heavy, heavy blows in the last quarter, and it took some amazing heroics form Lynch, Riewoldt and Bachar Houli to steady the ship for the Tigers.

The Eagles were coming, and a costly miss from Willie Rioli, after having moments of brilliance earlier in the game, but a tremendous mark from Josh Kennedy – one of the few good things he did all day – dragged the Eagles back again.

This game sat on a knife’s edge in the last quarter. Mistakes, acts of blind courage and a relentless Tiger attack on the ball saw Richmond get the chocolates, but it really could have gone either way.

I cannot wait until these two meet again in the finals. The perfect scenario would see them clash in the big one, but I have this horrible feeling a West Coast v Richmond match will occur in the Preliminary Final, and we’ll end up seeing the two best teams in the game face off the week before the ultimate prize is decided.

BACHAR HOULI

There was one moment in the dying minutes where Houli hit the contest hard, met the footy at full speed and cleared it, reliving the pressure on the Tigers, and snuffing out the last ditch efforts of the eagles to eke out a draw.

But he was everywhere in this one, once again playing the rebounding defender role to perfection. He trailed only Dustin Martin in disposals, and in trying conditions, ran at 82% disposal efficiency. He had nine marks and pumped the Tigers inside 50 on six occasions as he collected the footy on intercepts a game-high 11 times.

Grimes will get a heap of credit for his ability to get in the way at the right time, but Houli has been doing a wonderful job this season in yellow and black.

DAVID ASTBURY

This bloke gets bugger all credit, but I’ve had enough of that business. Check out his game on Josh Kennedy in this one. Until Kennedy took a great contested mark and goaled in the last quarter, I thought Astbury had been so good on him that JK had actually been a liability to the Eagles inside 50.

He drew three free kicks against Kennedy as he out-bodied him for most of the game, and whilst he does not pick up the big intercept or one percenter numbers that other elite defenders do, Astbury has this knack of just preventing his opponent from getting involved in the contest at all. It’s actually quite a gift.

Anyway, as great as the Grimes/Vlastuin/Houli combination is, Astbury is a glue guy, holding things together back there and allowing his fellow defenders the scope to run off and play a more attacking game. He deserves a lot of credit.

DION PRESTIA

I thought this bloke was huge when it mattered, and has been wonderful in every Richmond game I have watched this year. I really hope his consistency is rewarded this season with a well-deserved Jack Dyer medal.

He had 29 touches in this one, with five clearances and five tackles rounding out another typical Dion Prestia performance, and it was his repeated efforts late in the third quarter that paved the way for Dusty to run forward and goal.

That is typical of Prestia – often involved heavily in the build-up, but never covers himself in glory.

I’ve noticed a few non-Richmond supporters starting to give Prestia his due this season, and it’s not a moment too soon. His grunt work in this game was integral in the Tigers surge in the last quarter that answered the Eagles’ challenge.

WILLIE RIOLI

There is only one player in the league as good at reading a ball off the pack at the moment as Rioli, and that’s Travis Varcoe. not saying he does it better, but he is probably his equal.

Rioli is freakish. His goal in the first quarter, hitting the pack at full pace, and running into the open goal… watching him is like watching art being created. he is so fluent, so balanced and so… natural? Is that he right term? Everything he does in-play is like he was born to do it.

Of course, he’d like a set shot in the last quarter back again, but early in games, and with a dry footy, Rioli is in the top one percent in the league in terms of skill.

His quick thinking, soccers off the ground to the advantage of his teammates, and deft touches around the packs make him an absolute weapon in any conditions, but if I were coaching against him, which I never will because a) I’m a shit coach, and b) because I’m lazy, I’d be putting my best runner on him because as great as he is, i reckon he still tires a little too easily, and in the current AFL, that’s exploitable.

THE INJURIES THAT WEREN’T

There were two instances in this one where both Richmond and west Coast fans had their hearts leap into their mouths.

Dylan Grimes looked in a bad way after crumpling to the deck in a marking contest in the third quarter. After losing Alex Rance early in the year, it has been Grimes to step into the role of defensive general in the Tiger defence (and didn’t the Eagles allow him to assume that role without much opposition for large chunks of the game?).

Could they win the flag without Rance and Grimes? Maybe – they’d still have Astbury, Vlastuin and Houli back there, but the recovery of Grimes means it isn’t an equation they have to figure out.

To a rousing response, Grimes retuned to the game in the last quarter in an act that not only strengthened the Tiger defence, but also would’ve acted as inspiration for a Richmond team that was gaining the ascendancy.

At the other end in the fourth quarter, Brad Sheppard limped off the field, looking as though he’d damaged his knee.

Sheppard missed last year’s grand final, and has been one of the great performers off half back for the Eagles this season. As he sat on the bench having his knee looked at, I felt a genuine sense of despair for him – surely he couldn’t be so unlucky as to be hurt in the second to last round and miss another finals?

Well, the injury gods not only smiled on Grimes, they gave a nod and a wink to Sheppard and it turns out it was a kick to the knee rather than anything structural. He was back on five minutes later after looking shot as he left the field.

Both these guys are integral to their sides’ chances in September. To lose either would have been disastrous. To lose neither… that is bloody brilliant.

TOM LYNCH

From his hard tackle on Luke Shuey where he wanted to go  on with it, to his three huge goals, to his 17 disposals, Tom Lynch was, again, everything the Tigers wanted when they pulled him away from Gold Coast.

In the preview I wrote for patrons, I spoke about the big forwards and their impact. Darling was huge initially, but the way Lynch worked into the game was again testament to his will to compete. The fact it was him at half back late in the piece, claiming the free kick for a block to alleviate the pressure on the Tigers is even more evidence that recruiting him was a wonderful move.

Lynch is about to embark on his first finals series. You can currently see in his play that he is chomping at the bit for them to start. He is up for the fight, and added yet another bag of three goals to his resume today, and when you consider the quality of the opposition, and the wet weather, it makes it all the more impressive.

THE BAD

STUDS UP

I’m not sure this is what the rule about studs up was brought in for, but Jack Riewoldt may have to make some adjustments to his aerial style unless he wants to cost his team a game one day soon.

Twice Jack extended his leg into the back of his opponent to create space and take a mark, and twice he was pinged.

Look, I hate this rule – despise it. I even think Toby Greene was well within his rights to use his foot in a marking contest last season to protect the space. This was much, much tamer, and after watching all season and only seeing Jeremy Howe pinged once for using his foot in a marking contest, to see it penalised twice in the same game was jarring.

The decisions were correct to the letter of the (new) law, but they just felt wrong. Riewoldt did use his studs in the contest, but they were used as part of a legitimate marking contest… and this comes from a bloke who has a scar on his hip from someone using studs on me in a marking contest back when I played at the highest lev…err, in the Western Districts Football league 25 years ago.

So if we can get this rule relaxed a little, would it be a good idea? How do we do it? have a rule that is termed “dangerous use of the studs”? Would that work? Or does that make it too ambiguous?

If there are any other contentious applications of this rule, please let me know – I can only remember the Howe decision and these two today. It’d be good to get a look at all the incidents, as I reckon this may be reviewed at the end of the season. Richmond fans, I am happy to have a bit of a word to those in charge on your behalf, given I’m SOOOOO connected and all.

THE UGLY

TWO EM-BARRASS-ING TURNOVERS

Oh man, if there were a hole to climb into on the MCG, I reckon it’d probably be an OH&S risk and the AFL would be in huge trouble, but it may have come in really handy for Tom Barrass today.

I know it’s a long game, and there are dozens, if not hundreds of little incidents over the course of the match that change the outcome, but when you make two glaring errors… or in Barrass’ case, three errors but two condensed in one play, it’s hard not to focus on them.

His errant pass across goal in the second quarter opened the door for Kane Lambert to mark and goal. It should not have happened, obviously. Barrass is an excellent defender, and part of an elite back six, but dinky little kicks across goal, whilst running away from your own goal are written in bold in the defenders’ handbook.

It comes under the title “Things you should never attempt!”

The second one saw Tom make one mistake and try to compensate by making a worse one.

Tom Barrass refused to kick down the line on his left. As he ran into the back pocket in the last quarter with the pressure at its highest, it was his only legitimate option. Yet he opted not to, and he paid for it. So did the Eagles. Turning back inboard, Barrass fired a handball straight to Tom Lynch.

Lynch, compete surprised by some of the best delivery he received all day, fumbled the ball, allowing Barrass to recover… only he recovered by jumping, and wrapping his arms around Lynch’s head. Two wrongs definitely did not make a right on this occasion for Barras.

Lynch was awarded the free kick, went back and kicked a goal (with a traditional drop punt to the surprise of everyone!).

Barrass had some great moments in this game, but he will be remembered for two huge errors, and in a game that was decided by just a kick, how big does that make those two goals?

QUICK BITS

So there’s a bit to get through here that didn’t deserve parts of its own.

Andrew Gaff – he was pretty fumbly early on, and I didn’t like seeing him thrust into the middle for stoppages. Granted, this was a game where there was very little space for him to operate in due to the nature of the action, but he was the common denominator in several West Coast turnovers in the first half.

That said, I think he did get better as the game went on, and found himself having to put his head over the ball and win it himself as opposed to the role he is more suited to, which is getting the ball released to him after the initial contest. He is still at his absolute best one disposal removed from the contest, where he can either use his foot skills, or get on his bike, but it is up to his teammates to create those opportunities for him, and in the wet, they’re hard to manufacture.

I’d love to see Liam Ryan get more of the ball. Every time he touches it, whether it be amazing marks, or punching kicks on the 45, he seems to make things happen. He had 11 in this one, and a season high of just 16. A 20-disposal Liam Ryan game would be scary.

Ditto Willie Rioli, but we saw that last week.

You ever seen Scooby Doo run, and he takes all those little steps before he gets going anywhere? Both him and Shaggy do it. Well, even though Brandon Ellis looks more like Fred than Shaggy, the way he runs, with all those little steps to start off, make him look like a character from Scooby Doo.

Maybe he can solve the mystery of where he’ll be playing next year soon?

Interesting to hear old mate Eddie McGuire call the first five minutes of Jack darling’s first quarter the best five minutes he’s ever played. I reckon Ed may have blocked out a fair bit of the third quarter last year when Darling was a complete beast! That hit Darling took in the first quarter was huge, and I was so rapt to see him get up – he is paramount to the Eagles chances to repeat.

So if we weight up the Daniel v Willie match-up, who comes out on top? I know they didn’t play on each other, but I reckon Willie had more impact as the things he did seemed to stand out more. Daniel seemed more akin to playing his role and being content in it.

Interesting to see how two great interceptors went about their games today. Grimes is able to time his zoning off perfectly, and he was able to take a couple of telling intercept grabs as he zoned off Darling and made ground to contests on the wing or at half back. McGovern was mucy more daring and it came back to bite him early with Lynch getting out the back and having the match up on Barrass instead. Grimes seems a bit handier at ground level, though – his smother  and steal of the ball early in the second quarter is the sort of action that can get a team off and running. In this case it started a wave that saw Caddy get a shot at goal.

Shai Bolton’s goal was really undersold. It was amazing he was able to manufacture that kind of time and space 25 metres out from goal. He sold so many fakes before snapping he may open a shop in Bali after he finishes up with footy. People will buy them, apparently.

Not many blokes outmark McGovern in a true one-on-one, but the Jack Riewoldt mark and goal in the second quarter was an absolute team-lifter. Seriously, in a body-to-body contest, who beats McGovern? Riewoldt, that’s who.

He has received nowhere near the same amount of press he did last season as he swept to an AA berth, but Shane Edwards’ last few weeks have been excellent. Moving back to add some class in the midfield, his creativity and pressure have elevated that tiger midfield group, and as September looms, his ability to make things better for his teammates forward of centre will add another dimension to Richmond. His clearance work was outstanding in this one.

Did you find the commentators incessantly banging on about the Eagles not getting back to cover Grimes when they were pinned in their defensive half a bit of overkill? Is it really that easy to throw darling and Kennedy back there and it fixes everything?

I thought it was pretty simplistic from Lyon on commentary, but as soon as they did it once, they were able to get the ball inside 50 and score. Now he’ll never shut up about it.

The in-danger free kick to Soldo 20 metres out… was it there? Yeah, it was there. Would I have paid it? I don’t think I would have. It was such a line—ball, as evidenced by the fact the controlling ump elected to call play on and the non-controlling ump ran in and paid it. My guess is that Tiger fans would have paid it and the Eagles fans wouldn’t. I have no dog in the fight, and I could see arguments for both.

I reckon it was evened up a few minutes later as Rioli got a free for a push in the back that was there, technically, but just as easily could have been called play on.

And that’ll about do me. If we see these two meet again, I will be glued to it.

The Tigers play the Lions next week at the ‘G and will be looking for a top two spot as the season ends. If they get a clean run through finals at the MCG… we should be seeing them in the Grand Final.

The Eagles get the Hawks back in WA, and will be looking to make sure they get a home final in week one of the finals. The end to this season is crazy at the top end.

Overall, this was a wonderful game of footy. Amazing resiliency demonstrated by both teams, and Tiger supporters may be tempted to do a rain dance or two just as September begins.

Pressure v Precision was the match up today, but pressure beats precision when rain becomes a factor.

Every.

Single.

Time.