THE GOOD, BAD AND UGLY – RICHMOND TIGERS 2020 SEASON PREVIEW

 

So, we’re making this an annual tradition now – extensive season previews for all 18 teams in this format because… well, people seem to like the Good, Bad, Ugly format for game reviews and I thought why not? Also, I really like Clint Eastwood.

The Tigers overcame a slow start in 2019 to roll into September and take all before them in their stride. Whether it was the emergence of Dylan Grimes as a defensive superstar, the recruitment of Tom Lynch and his rebirth as one of the best power forwards in the game, or the awakening of Dustin Martin as September beckoned, the Tigers did a lot right in 2019…

…despite a lot going wrong.

It speaks to the character of this team that they were able to firstly, hang in there amid a tide of injuries, and then compose themselves for a stunning second half of the season. They were stoic, unflappable, and when push came to shove, they were dominant.

The 2020 version of the Richmond Football Club strides into the season with whatever doubts they had after 2018 completely erased. They are fully aware of what they’re capable of, and understand that they possess something many teams do not – mental strength.

It was that strength that carried them to wins against Port Adelaide with many of their stars missing. It is that strength that saw them reel in the West Coast Eagles to triumph in one of the games of the season, and it is that strength that saw them destroy the GWS Giants with apparent ease on Grand Final day.

Can they reproduce another stellar season to run roughshod over the competition and claim their third flag in four seasons? Or will the peloton wear them down, allowing someone to leap past them?

Let’s explore the 2020 Tigers, and their chances with a little bit of the old good, bad and ugly, Mongrel-style.

 

THE GOOD

 

CRUISE CONTROL

I have a 2013-model car. It’s not great – gets the job done… fits a car seat for the little one and even I have cruise control. Basically everyone has it, but few use it.

I drive mainly in the city – through it every day for work (and yes I see what you’re doing in the city – reducing road width with tram stops and bike lanes to create congestion so you can start taxing cars that actually use the city… assholes!) and as such, I don’t use cruise control. I need to be in hands on in terms of my car – I wish I could use cruise control and relax a little, but I don’t have that luxury. Again, few do.

But some do.

Last year, Dustin Martin treated the 2019 home and away season like a leisurely drive on a country road. He had his favourite tunes on (I’m guessing a bit of Taylor Swift and maybe Justin Bieber are right up his alley), his arm half out the window, and a smile on his dial as he trundled along about ten kilometres under the speed limit.

There was no need for him to put his foot down. Why would he?

The Tigers slipped to seven wins and six losses at the bye, and still, it appeared as though Dusty was sitting in second gear.

His numbers were comparative win, lose or… well, there were no draws.

But there was no need to take manual control just yet. He was cruising, you see? What was the urgency?

And then, with finals on the horizon, Dusty pulled that arm in the window, narrowed his eyes and began to focus. The engine revved, the speed increased, and suddenly the need to cruise along was replaced with an aggressive form of driving – precisely nipping in and out of traffic, drifting around corners and accelerating away from others. It was finals time – it was Dustin Martin time.

2020 re-established Dustin Martin as the premier big game player in the league. With his second Gary Ayres Medal to go along with his second Norm Smith Medal, the Punt Road Menace reminded the competition that though he may have challengers, the throne still belongs to him, and will until someone can match him in September. In 2019, no one came close.

And it was also a reminder that even when he is in cruise control, you know that he is just a little bit of motivation away from dropping the hammer.

And when that hammer falls, he leaves all others in his dust.

Martin’s finals were a thing of beauty, starting with a six-goal haul against the Lions, and finishing with a four goal outing en route to being adjudged best on ground. Again.

So, do we get to see a Dustin Martin taking the season seriously in 2019, or do we get him pulling up to the lights, winking at the person in the car next to him, revving his engine as a challenge, and then taking off at a leisurely pace?

The person in the other car can go as hard as he wants in the home and away season. Dusty will be waiting for him in September, and when traffic is at its heaviest, he’ll make a point of being the best driver then.

 

ONE SMALL ACT…

I don’t think I am going too far out on a limb by saying that Trent Cotchin is probably not the player he was five or so years ago.

Not in terms of personal form, anyway. In 2019, Cotchin failed to average 20 touches per game for the first time since 2010, and whilst that is no reflection on his leadership and what that aspect of his game provides this team, it is an indication of two things.

One, that Cotchin isn’t required to be one of the top couple of players on the team for Richmond to be successful.

And two, that what he can offer is inspirational moments. And those can mean just as much as 30 touches sometimes.

Let’s rewind to the Preliminary Final. Coming out of half time, the Tigers trailed by three and a half goals. Geelong had looked good in the first half, yet they’d still been way too inclined to play tempo footy when attacking the dozing Tigers seemed a much better option.

Richmond had been into the rooms and their coach had eyeballed them. They knew what they had to do. They had the matches, they had the fuse – someone had to light it.

That someone was Trent Cotchin.

As Rhys Stanley gathered the footy for the first meaningful disposal of the second half, a maniacal Cotchin came out of nowhere and laid a fierce tackle. The ball spilled, the Tigers took possession, and it was Tom Lynch converting the resultant shot at goal to give Richmond the momentum.

They would never hand it back.

Some would look at Cotchin as one whose best football may be behind him, and you know what – they may be right, but there is more to footy than possessions and Brownlows. There are moments that matter, and Trent Cotchin is becoming the master of these little moments – these little, game-changing moments that swing momentum, set an example, and demand the same from his teammates. It was Cotchin who laid the tackle on Stanley in 2019, just as it was Cotchin putting his body on the line and barrelling into Dylan Shiel in 2017. Both acts were vital in the Tigers’ run at the flag.

So, let Cotch have under 20 disposals per game in 2020. Let him have a few quiet ones here and there. It matters not, because when the chips are down, and the Tigers are looking for someone to do something, you know who will answer the call.

It’s Trent Cotchin. It’s always Trent Cotchin.

 

THE CHANGING OF THE GUARD

Seamless.

That’s the word that most aptly describes the way Richmond have adapted to life without Alex Rance.

Are they a better side with him in the team? Look, I think so, but I am sure there will be plenty who would disagree. However, Dylan Grimes’ quick transition into being the number one man in the Richmond defence wasn’t the only act of seamlessness in 2019.

Tom Lynch’s ascension to the number one forward spot in this team was remarkably smooth. Sure this was aided by an injury to Jack Riewoldt in Round Six, and really, we didn’t get to see much of Lynch working with a fit Riewoldt, but what we saw was enough to realise that there is a maturity about these Tigers and the way they go about their football.

Rewind five or six years – do we think that Riewoldt would have been so accommodating of Lynch? At that stage, Jack was still in the mindset of kicking bags and winning Coleman Medals. There was pouting, crawling up the race with concussion… we’ve seen a different Jack Riewoldt in the last few years.

And it is that maturity that has allowed Lynch to flourish so quickly.

All over the Richmond team, we find players who do what is right for the team. They play roles that are sometimes shuffled – Shane Edwards, such a weapon in attack in 2018, played in defence for long period of 2019. Liam Baker plays forward, back and sometimes not at all. Josh Caddy goes where he is told and does what he is instructed.

This team’s selflessness has allowed players to drop in and out of positions with ease, and it is a credit to the culture they have cultivated at Punt Road that a team of footballers is actually acting like a team of grown men for a change.

No pouting. No silliness or pettiness – just a team of men in the business of winning flags.

And they might not be finished just yet.

 

THE BONUS

So, Jack Higgins was more or less a non-factor at the Tigers in 2019. Prior to his season, and almost career-ending brain surgery, Higgins wasn’t exactly in the greatest form. Headaches during games and blurred vision were symptoms of something much more sinister, and when he was diagnosed, operated on, and came out of the woods, the football world breathed a sigh of relief.

You see, it is not just Richmond fans who like Jack Higgins. Footy fans in general can’t help but smile at the way he conducts himself both on the field, and off it. He is a character in a game that has tried its best to stamp characters out. He is unique, and he is infectious.

Even Mrs Mongrel knows who Jack Higgins is, and she would watch ten minutes of footy per week (by accident). “The one who talks a million miles an hour and makes no sense” was how she described him to me when she was putting together a list of her favourite players for our Mongrel Punt podcast (listen to it – available on all the regular outlets).

So, the Tigers made their run without the livewire little forward that had been such a revelation in his first season. They got on a roll into September without the reigning goal of the year winner, and they went all the way and won their second flag in two seasons.

Without Jack Higgins.

But they won’t have to do it without him again in 2020.

Higgins is about to start contact drills at Richmond pre-season training again. With a helmet on, he will be making a return at some point in 2020, and will be one of the stories of the season… just what the Tigers needed, huh? Another high quality player joining the line-up.

As much as supporters of every team in the league would hope Richmond don’t find a way to get stronger, I am pretty sure none would begrudge them the return of Jack Higgins to the fold.

The league needs players like him, and I am glad we haven’t lost him.

 

TIME… TIME…TIME IS ON OUR SIDE

That Richmond team, with a couple of flags, and a sustained three-year run of success… fear not – they must be getting old now, right?

Yeah, you wish.

The Tigers are right in the middle of the league in terms of age bracket, meaning they have almost the perfect blend of win-now veterans, and players who will be around for quite a few years yet.

It pains me to say this, but the Tigers have done a masterful job in building this list.

The 28+ brigade contains names like Grimes, Martin, Riewoldt, Cotchin, Edwards, Astbury, Houli and Lambert. They have had time to establish themselves as the pillars of this team, and though some are getting slightly slower, some are playing their best footy.

The 24-27 bracket boasts Nankervis, Broad, Short, Caddy, Lynch, Prestia and Vlastuin. Prestia is the reigning Best and Fairest winner, and Lynch has become everything Richmond dreamed of when they lured him south.

And the next generation of 23 and unders has Rioli, Castagna, Higgins, Bolton, Ross, Markov, Graham, Balta, Stack and Baker. All are getting meaningful game time in a system built to be sustained. They’re learning their craft from the best.

Their list is so well spread out that it feeds into the way they’ve been able to operate so fluently, even when injury befalls the club (see below)

The Tigers have the time on their side as they mount another assault on the premiership, and it should be enough to make fans of less successful teams look at the way they’ve constructed their lists, and maybe start to ask some questions.

 

THE MACHINE ROLLS ON…

There is a feeling at Richmond that when one soldier goes down, another steps into his role and fills it. It is the way a football team becomes one; where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and though many teams have preached this kind of selfless mantra, none have enacted it like the Tigers in recent seasons.

When Alex Rance went down injured, “experts” theorised that there was no way the Tigers could win the flag. They’d fallen to Collingwood in the Preliminary Final in 2018, and their armour was apparently showing some decent-size cracks. How could they go to war without their defensive general? And if they did, how badly would they lose?

Then Cotchin got hurt. And Riewoldt. And Higgins… and the Tigers started to look vulnerable.

As the bye loomed, the Tigers limped to a 7-6 record and needed a week to lick their wounds. It was all they required.

They would not lose another game for the season.

In the absence of Jack Riewoldt, Tom Lynch became the player he had threatened to be. As Trent Cotchin struggled, Dion Prestia put the midfield on his back. And as Alex Rance watched from the stands, Dylan Grimes put his hand up to be recognised as something Richmond fans had known for years – one of the best defenders in the caper.

Players went down, and others filled the role, and as we turned for home, the Tiger machine started rolling. Teams stood in front of it, and were mown down unceremoniously. They were challenged by other contenders to the throne – the Tigers took their best shots and overran them. Then, on the last Saturday of September, the machine finally hit top gear, particularly compared to the sputtering machine it encountered opposite it.

The Tigers had warmed up the motor early in the season, then kicked it into gear as the season reached the halfway point, and by the time finals rolled around, there was nothing that could stand in their way.

In 2020, they’ll face challenges again. Depth, so long a strength of this side, will be further tested, with Brandon Ellis and Jacob Townsend joining other fringe players in attempting to get consistent game time at other clubs, but there is no question Richmond will overcome their absence.

When one goes down, another steps in. It is the Richmond way, and will remain such as 2020 rolls on.

 

WHAT CAN HE DO WITH A PRE-SEASON?

It’s quite amazing to go back and watch what Tom Lynch was able to accomplish in 2019.

Without a pre-season, he had every right to sleepwalk through the season, finding his feet amongst a group he was unfamiliar with, and take a back seat to the established full forward, and three-time Coleman Medallist, Jack Riewoldt.

However, circumstances dictated that more was required of the star recruit. Much more.

And he did not fail his new team.

Lynch got results early in the season, but there was something not quite right about him. If the situation required any sort of agility, or work below the knees, you could almost put a line through the big fella. He looked as though he was on rails, and I was a little suspicious as to his fitness levels.

But he soon turned things around.

His 2.52 goals per game average was his highest return since his 2016 All-Australian season, and it was the same result for his 3.08 contested grabs per game as well. His ability to clunk a mark at important times of the game not only steadied the Richmond ship, but also opened up space for his teammates to work in. With Riewoldt struggling, the Tigers relied heavily on his scoring power, and his penchant for crashing packs to provide opportunity for others.

And he did all that with a restricted pre-season.

Word out of Punt Road is that Lynch looks happy and relaxed heading into the 2020 season. And why wouldn’t he be? His re-emergence as one of the best power forwards in the game is exactly the panacea the slow-starting Tigers needed. Lynch was everything they recruited him to be, and more in 2019, and with a full pre-season under his belt, his 2020 should be bigger, better and perhaps capped with a Coleman Medal.

 

THE NEXT STEP

Do you know what a group of tigers is called? It’s right up there with a murder of crows and a parliament of owls.

It’s called an ambush. An ambush of Tigers… and you guys said I never teach you anything… for shame!

If we’re looking at the top tier of Tigers right now, we might just be in for an ambush due to the group of youngsters being cultivated by Richmond at the moment. Names like Shai Bolton, Jack Ross, Sydney Stack and Jack Higgins sit in, or on the fringes of the Tigers’ best-22, and in the years to come, will make themselves known not just as part of this wonderful Richmond team, but as young men who will forge their own reputation and become leaders in their own right.

Shai Bolton already possesses one of the best changes of direction in the game. He goes from heading one direction to flat-footed to darting off in the other direction in the blink of an eye, often wrong-footing an opponent and leaving him in his dust as he nips out of harm’s way.

I like to think I notice little things about a player… whether he trims his eyebrows as my daughter points out I need to, whether he bodylines the footy or tries to finesse it, and whether he has elite evasive skills. Bolton checks that third box easily (not sure about the eyebrows, though) and after 19 games in 2019, looks set for his break out year.

Sydney Stack burst onto the scene, and almost burst Jack Viney’s lungs in the process, with the best hip and shoulder of the season in just his fourth game in the competition. Able to play at either end of the ground, Stack has an explosiveness, and also this little bit of mongrel that… you know, I kind of like.

Jack Ross found his place in the team in 2019 with seven games, and as Jack Higgins returns to the team, he’ll join Daniel Rioli as incredible forward half threats.

The Tigers are by no means top-heavy. They have talent spread across the board and would be quite pleased with anyone who chooses to focus on the big names and forgets about those starting to make names for themselves.

You never turn your attention away from an ambush of Tigers. I’m sure I don’t have to further educate as to what happens if you do.

 

THE JACK DYER MEDALLIST

How can a bloke chug along at over 27 touches per game on a premiership team and still not rate a considerable mention when people discuss his team’s midfield?

How can a man collect almost six clearances per contest to lead his team and still fly under the radar?

How can a player win the Jack Dyer Medal and still not grab headlines as one of the best mids in the game?

You’d have to ask Dion Prestia how he feels about being in the shadows of some bigger names, but here at The Mongrel, we and our old mate Paddy Farrelly love the work of Prestia, and have been on him for a while now.

It became apparent in mid-2019 that Prestia had established himself as the number one man in the Richmond midfield. Whether he was winning clearances or contested footy, Prestia’s name just kept bobbing up in our game reviews to the point where his influence became close to impossible to ignore.

Whilst other mids had ups and downs throughout the season, Prestia’s consistency was one of the reasons the Tigers were able to stay in the mix until all cylinders started firing.

After no games with 30+ possessions in 2018, Prestia lifted his workrate to have ten occasions in 2019 where he ticked past that number, and with three games where he had 10+ clearances, established himself as one of the premier inside mids in the competition.

So, how is he still underrated?

There’s this bloke named Dustin who hangs around Punt Road a fair bit, and he seems to attract attention like Joe Ganino attracts particularly hard-up women, so with him in the mix, it seems as though every other midfielder sans Trent Cotchin, can run around and do as they please. It seems as though every defensive effort made against Richmond will be made to curtail the influence of Dusty.

And that would be just fine with Prestia.

Given his recent success, I wonder whether teams will deploy their stoppers with a little more attention to the work of Prestia. Martin breaks tags by going forward – Prestia is a midfielder and that’s about it. They’d be smart to consider whether nullifying his influence would be worth a shot in 2020.

 

THE WARRIOR

I have a bit of a thing for Nank. Not an attraction… though I am sure he is a lovely guy and could go off like a firecracker in the sack – more a respect for the way the bloke goes about his business on the field.

There is no nonsense about Toby Nankervis – perhaps I should have taken his lead in the paragraph above? He does the dirty work, does not ever give up, and really embodies what this Richmond team is all about.

You will never get anything less than 100% from Nankervis. Not the most gifted ruckman in the league, what he lacks in terms of athleticism he more than makes up for in determination and a willingness to mix it up with any opposition big man at any time.

You hear so much about the elite ruckmen in the competition – Max Gawn, Brodie Grundy… and I am just as guilty as anyone about pumping up their tyres, but Nankervis provides the kind of hustle that means he is never soundly beaten. Someone like Max Gawn may get the better of him, but it is always a fight, and it is always a knock-down, drag out affair. When going up against Nank, only a fool would expect a first-round knock out.

He now has a very serviceable back up in Ivan Soldo, who did a terrific job holding the fort whilst Nank was sidelined in 2019. With a year between them in ages, Richmond seem to have shored up their ruck division for the foreseeable future, and with Soldo adopting much of Nankervis’ “not on my watch” attitude when taking on the league’s best, Richmond are well-situated to reap the rewards of two big guys that have something about them that many don’t seem to.

They both actually look like they give a shit.

I know it may sound stupid, but watch them. Watch their eyes, their reactions and their response when they’re beaten in a contest. Some players look as though they’re a bit disappointed when their opponent gets a win over them, but these two look like it hurts, and I love that about them.

 

THE LEGACY

We’re starting to get into uncharted waters for the modern Richmond Football Club here.

Is this a dynasty? As The Mongrel’s very own Tom Basso put it, a “Dimma-sty”?

The Tigers have two flags in three years, and may well lament the 2018 campaign the way Geelong lament 2008 as the one that got away, but unlike the Cats, Richmond have a chance to really put a stamp on the last few years as the Tiger-era to match the legendary runs of Hawthorn from 2013-15 and Brisbane from 2001-03.

Whilst a three-peat is not part of the equation (yet), three flags in four seasons is nothing to sneeze at, and given the age bracket of the team I broke down above, there may be plenty left to accomplish.

This is where this stuff starts getting serious – another premiership and this group starts to enter the conversation about the best teams of all-time. Some may scoff at that, but I did say “enters the conversation”. This is an era of equalisation – three-peats and sustained success are not supposed to happen, yet here we are with Richmond boasting a still-young team and further glory looming ominously on the horizon.

If they win another one, they make a mockery of the equalisation of the league, and as we edge closer to 2020, their place in history starts to become a factor.

Think about it – in the back of their minds, players like Prestia and Vlastuin could be thinking about being four time premiership players. Maybe five. Players like Dermott Brereton hang their hats on their big finals results, and the amount of premiership medals they’ve received. Given the state of this group, is it too far-fetched to think we may be witnessing a modern dynasty in yellow and black?

 

THE BAD

 

SO, WHAT DO YOU DO FOR AN ENCORE?

Look, I was always going to struggle to find something negative about the premiers, so humour me here, okay?

There’s this bloke who wandered into the Grand Final team last year. At 28, he was picked up by the Tigers mid-season and proceeded to go out and prove his worth in the VFL. Not a bad acquisition by Dimma and the boys, right?

And then we’re ticking over into Grand Final week, he has picked up a VFL premiership medal, and his name is being thrown around as a possible debutant in the biggest game of the year.

Now, this could have gone either way, really. Either Marlion Pickett lines up in the Grand Final and has a ripper, making the decision to play him look like a masterstroke, or he falls over in such a way that people start questioning the decision making at the top.

Well, we all know how it played out, but what is this bloke going to do for an encore? Win the bloody Brownlow? Break the record for touches in a game? Hell, it’s pretty hard to top what he did in the Grand Final unless…

… he does it all again, and better?

Get excited, Tiger fans – a full season of Marlion Pickett blind turning out of trouble awaits, and if it is anything akin to his debut game, it’s going to be ridiculous.

 

THE UGLY

 

SWITCHING ON AND SWITCHING OFF

The switch was well and truly flipped after the bye in 2019.

The Tigers went from being a 7-6, middle of the road team to a powerhouse that could not be halted.

I sat with a Tiger-supporting friend (give me a call, you idiot) as the Tiges sat at 7-6 and we spoke about the probability of the Tigers to create momentum and head toward September in great form. I have to admit – he was right on this one. Spot on.

This one time.

I am not a fan of flirting with form, and whilst he was absolutely confident that Richmond would find their way – I have the text he sent stating that they would be undefeated after the bye – I was actually a little worried that having this belief that you can turn it on when required can become as bad for a team as it can good.

I fumble around for switches to flip all the time. I wake up in a stupor, wander around, thinking I know where everything is – I’ve been in this house eight years, I know where things are… but then, I go to flip that switch and there’s something wrong. I’ve mis-stepped, or misjudged the distance, and suddenly I am flailing about in the dark like someone who’s never been in this place before.

That obviously didn’t happen to Richmond, but flirting with form is very, very dangerous. At some point they are going to reach for that switch, and it’ll be them flailing away, unable to hit the lights. Though the Tigers peaked at the right time in 2019, all it takes is one bad game – one switch you cannot flip – to undo that which you worked so hard for.

The Tigers made the top four last year based on half a year of dominance. Yes, my friend was correct (look, it was bound to happen once) and they timed their run beautifully, but I’m not sure they’ll be happy sitting 7-6 again this season.

They’re too good to have six losses for the season, let alone in half of one.

 

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