There are big games every week in the AFL. Contenders slug it out on ovals all over… err, in three or four states as we sort out the wheat from the chaff, but once in a while there is a legitimate heavyweight title fight atmosphere to a clash, and you can feel it, even two states away.

That is the feeling that surrounded the clash between the teams that own the last three premierships between them, and have plenty of people convinced they’ll make it four in a row come the end of this season.

Was it Ali v Frazier? Hmmmmm… it might be if they face off in the Grand Final? Is it Pacquiao v Mayweather? No, I said heavyweights. Is it Stone Cold Steve Austin v The Rock? Now you’re talking! Who said I had to stick to boxing?

The stars were out, the lights were bright and the pressure was huge as the Tigers and Eagles met at the unlikely venue of the Metricon Stadium. Is this the Grand Final preview, and if it is, where will it be played?

Who were the stars and the unsung heroes of the Tigers’ win? Is it a season-defining victory? And where did the Eagles go wrong?

I guess that’s what I am here for – here’s a huge edition of the Mongrel’s good, bad and ugly.

 

THE GOOD

 

A CLASH OF CULTURES

What is it about this Richmond team that is different? What is it that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts?

There is a collective school of thought at Richmond – a standard they refuse to compromise on and it is quite a simple one. You go wholeheartedly at every single contest and if you do, you have the backing of every single one of your teammates.

Simple, right? No finger pointing. No complaining. If you are 100 per cent committed, they don’t knock you. It is an ethos that has seen them win two of the last three flags and after this evening, there is a bit of a feeling that 2020 may be the season that turns this team into one of the greats of the modern era.

Oh, you think they already are?

Nope. Two flags doesn’t cut it. Great team – yes, but one of the greatest? I reckon you need three flags to put yourself in the frame with Brisbane, Geelong and Hawthorn. But this Richmond team is starting to edge ever closer to making it a reality.

The West Coast team is a genuine contender and on home soil would really fancy their chances against the Tigers, but do they have the same willingness to get down and dirty and fight in the trenches when things get messy? Can they do it when the game is not on their terms?

Are they a team where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, or are they a team that wins on individual brilliance knitted together in a strange pattern that is very different to the yellow and black pattern they were faced with tonight?

I’ve watched both teams closely all season. I still think we will see these two teams, hopefully at full strength, butt heads again on the last day of the season and it will be the team that works for each other tirelessly, gets things from the unsung players on the list most, and trusts each other implicitly that walks away with the flag.

That was the way Richmond played in this one. They worked together, clinically. They made plays for each other, selflessly. And they won the game on the back of a gameplan that requires everyone on the park to work at their optimum, collectively.

The Tigers struck the first blow in this game, and it was a significant one. Where do the Eagles get better? And scarily… where do the Tigers do the same?

This West Coast culture was shaken to begin the season on the Gold Coast. After righting the ship, they are faced with another loss in Queensland. How this team responds as a unit will give you a glimpse into their current culture, and whether they have what it takes to bounce back and challenge the Tigers in a couple of months.

I, and the footy world, will be watching closely.

 

TWO MENS AND ONE MENS

Sorry, was just channelling a bit of the old Slickster from late eighties WWF…

Nic Naitanui is a force of nature, and he had moments in this game where he just lumbered forward and dragged the play with him. His follow up work was exceptional at points, and some of his ruck work was exquisite…

However… and you knew this “however” was coming, didn’t you? However, Richmond opted to play two rucks against Naitanui and the first gamer, Bailey Williams this evening, and it reaped rewards.

Toby Nankervis and Ivan Soldo are not like your regular rucks. They’re not the type to win a hit out, or contest the ruck and fade slowly into the ether. They are competitive beasts, and with Naitanui continuing to play around 70% of game time, both Richmond ruckmen realised they’d have opportunities to take advantage.

And they chose the third quarter to make the most of the situation.

As the Tigers went on what would eventually be the match-winning run, it was both Soldo and Nankervis sneaking forward to hit the scoreboard.

Early in the game, it was Naitanui hustling and bustling his way to goal to get the Eagles off and running, but in the third quarter, Nank and Soldo were just as important. They did a great job all evening of going body-t0-body with Nic Nat around the ground. Naitanui and his midfielders won the stoppages where he could get a clean run at the contest, but in the clinches, the clearances went to the Tigers.

Some Richmond fans may not have watched a heap of West Coast games. They may not have seen what Naitanui has been doing to opposition rucks. Guys, he has been pantsing them. He has been owning ruck contests like Bill Gates owns patents to viruses. What Soldo and Nankervis were able to do to match him in this game was about as good a defensive ruck tandem as you’ll see, and when you add in that Nank had six tackles as well… this two headed monster was fantastic.

 

AARTS-TISTIC

He’s kicked three goals once, and has two goals to his name on three other occasions this season, but this is the best game I have seen Jake Aarts play for the Tigers.

In short, he gets it and he now feels like he belongs.

After playing so long in the second tier league, you could see how a player could have a little bit of an inferiority complex. Perhaps that’s not the correct term – an imposter complex is more accurate; feeling as though he probably doesn’t belong. I mean, this is Richmond he’s playing for – the premiers. Does he really belong in a team that has been so successful and has the kind of depth that other teams envy?

The answer was apparent tonight.

Hell yes, he does!

Aarts is now playing with confidence. He is hitting the ball hard, not taking a backwards step, and has added a hardness to the Richmond forward half that “may” have been missing a little. People have pontificated that the Tigers made a HUGE mistake allowing Dan Butler to go to St Kilda so cheaply, but when you see players like Aarts finally get their opportunity and make it work for them on a level that indicates he is going nowhere anytime soon, you understand how Richmond can make those calls and get away with it.

He has a bit of attitude at the moment about his football, does Jake. It is catching as part of this team that knows how good it is, and how good it can be. In Jake Aarts we have seen a player go from looking as though he is lucky to be getting a game to a player that knows his best is as good as anyone else’s. He now walks, talks and attacks the contest like a Tiger.

He belongs.

 

I DIG DUGGAN

Liam Duggan has had his break out season for the West Coast Eagles this season, emerging as a consistent undersized interceptor and adding plenty of run and carry to his arsenal as well.

He was into everything all game long and was one of the Eagles’ true four quarter performers as he racked up 23 touches across half back. His 11 intercepts were an equal game-high with the next bloke I am going to write about as he worked incredibly hard to get back behind the contest and pick up the mess left by the big boys.

When I look at this West Coast defence, one thing that I cannot help but notice is the absence of Lewis Jetta, who ha been gone since the Eagles’ round four loss… their third in a row. I’ve heard conflicting things about his absence over the last day or so after discussing it on our Mongrel podcast (You haven’t listened? Then we’re not friends…) and though his presence is missed in terms of ball movement, the desperation of Duggan and the willingness to put his body on the line is something the man with the mullet adds to the mix.

Was he the best player on the park for the Eagles? Look, I’m sure some will prefer Liam Ryan’s game, or maybe even that of Luke Shuey or Andrew Gaff, but if you’re asking me, I think Duggan was far and away the best-performed Eagle on the ground.

 

BALTA FROM THE BLUE

So, can we just make a bit of a point in saying that I completely acknowledge that Jack Darling kicked three goals and against Noah Balta. Yep, and for that reason, I could not have him high in the votes, but what I saw from Balta in this game is a young man starting to realise his potential.

And that potential is huge.

Let’s put aside the fact that it was his knee to the head that send Josh Kennedy to the bench and ended his night (and also really screwed up his chance to catch Tom Hawkins in the race for the Coleman) and focus on the way Balta is now starting to read the play and take the game on.

He had 11 intercepts in this game, added five rebound fifty disposals, gained 449 metres for his club AND… ran 100 metres to receive a handball and pinch a goal back for the Tigers.

My guess is that if you’re reading this, you’re a bit of a Tigers tragic – what do you genuinely see in Balta? Don’t give me the Rance comparisons – not yet, please. What can he be this season?

His athleticism makes him a danger and if you have a forward not willing to put the defensive work in, he can and will hurt on the rebound. He is becoming more confident in the air and whilst he has a way to go in terms of his development, with his strength base and willingness to take the game on, I’m not seeing Rance just yet. I’m seeing Glen Jakovich. Pre-knee reconstruction Jakovich.

Power, speed, athleticism; this bloke has it all, and the Tigers have been sitting on him, waiting for him to mature a bit before unleashing him. He will still have down days – he is just 20 years old, but within the next couple of years, if you’re not thinking you could have an All-Australian calibre key position defender on your hands, you might need to think a bit harder.

 

THE CAPTAIN

The last couple of weeks, I have seen Trent Cotchin start to play the footy he made his name on.

Hard, uncompromising, contested football – that is what people came to expect from Cotchin over the years, but until the last couple of weeks, his record of producing whilst in the middle has been a little… hit and miss? Would you agree?

In terms of playing complete four-quarter games, Cotchin has probably been nowhere near the top of the tree. Instead, he was playing big moments in games – making a difference when it mattered most. However, for the last fortnight, there has been a significant upswing in Cotch’s overall performance, and he is starting to have a broader influence on the game again more often.

He is really starting to play good, consistent footy again.

The grunt work from the Tiger captain was on full display in this one, as he led the game in clearances, had 15 contested touches and drove Richmond inside 50 on six occasions. It should also be noted that he worked hard back into defensive fifty often as well.

I’ve long though Trent Cotchin was a great leader, but in recent seasons, whether it was due to injury or having kids (they take it right out of you, believe me!) he has looked a little tired and – bluntly – past it. The last two weeks have been a bit of a renaissance for Cotchin as he has put the Tiger midfield on his back and battled his heart out. And with Cotchin playing well, it gives the Tigers a whole new gear they can shift into.

 

FLYIN’

Whether you support the Eagles or Tigers, there can be no argument that Liam Ryan is spectacular to watch.

He finished this game with three goals, should have had four and could have had six but for a couple of big attempted marks not sticking.

Every now and then I produce an article that rates the players with “x-factor”. The criteria is composed of a number of small forward-related stats and a couple of the mids also make the grade. Names like Papley, Breust, Charlie Cameron litter the list, but the player that seems to capture my imagination is Liam Ryan.

Sure, there are times when he should probably stay down and crumb for a goal, but to pull the handbrake on the way this bloke plays would most likely have a negative impact on him, and the team as a whole.

He was too quick off the mark a couple of times for Kamdyn McIntosh, who must have been wondering what he did to draw the short straw and why he couldn’t go back to the relative freedom of the wing and looked as though he could be the potential match winner for the Eagles as they mounted a challenge.

 

SOME QUICK ONES

I’m getting carried away here, so some quick ones before moving to the bad.

Nick Vlastuin is not just becoming one of the most reliable half backs in the game. He IS one of the most reliable half backs in the game and would be one of the first picked every week at Tigerland.

Loved the hardness of Jack Graham in this game. I had no idea he is still 22. Between him and Liam Baker, the Tigers have a couple of blokes who can genuinely ensure this culture remains intact for years.

Probably the best use of the footy I’ve seen from Andrew Gaff for a while. Lowered his eyes a couple of times and hit targets inside fifty, and was rewarded with two direct goal assists for his trouble.

Dom Sheed was really strong over the footy at times, but the Eagles really miss that nuggety presence of Elliot Yeo in there. He makes that midfield walk taller.

Nice shutdown role by Mark Hutchings on Kane Lambert. Lambert has been the target of a couple of tags this season. I wonder, if Adam Simpson had his time over again, if he’d throw Hutchings onto Cotchin instead. He is the heart and soul of Richmond and is more likely to get frustrated these days than Lambert, who seems very level-headed.

 

THE BAD

 

WEAK IN THE BACK FREE KICKS

I don’t know about you, but the free kicks in front of goal to Jack Darling and Jack Riewoldt, which obviously cancel each other out… they just seem to miss the mark in terms of the way the game is being played.

These blokes are out there, crashing into each other and throwing caution to the wind, and then inside fifty, a tackle ends with a player falling with an opponent who is lurching forward and the umpire deems it in the back?

Look, I don’t like seeing guys buried in tackles… no, I kind of do at times, but I don’t hold it against the umps if they pay the really obvious ones, but when you’re home as a neutral supporter and you see the guy with the ball going to ground and the tackler goes to ground with him, only for the whistle to blow, it is one of the softest rules in our game.

I figure if I groan, I can only imagine the protestations of those who follow either team as soft free kicks are paid in front of goals.

I liked the way the umpire told Dustin Martin that the high contact he was complaining about was “incidental contact”. He was right, but so were the in the back decisions to both Riewoldt and Darling. I’m a big fan of letting the line-ball decisions go and only paying the truly obvious ones, but I am happy to be on that island all alone.

 

THE UGLY

 

Righto, these are drawing long bows because there was very little to dislike in this game.

 

BT

I reckon what BT does for a living is pretty difficult. I reckon I’d screw it up all the time. That’s probably why I’m not doing it. But he is, and when it comes to something as simple as counting to two, you reckon he could get his head around it, right?

In the third quarter, we’d just seen Shai Bolton put a great step on Xavier O’Neill and slot a goal. Then Jack Darling took a mark and goaled. BT excitedly exclaimed that the Eagles had kicked the last two…

Huh?

This came on the heels of his verbal felatio of Dustin Martin for converting a banana kick for a goal from the boundary. Sure, it was a great kick, but we do see a few of those kinds of goals every weekend now (not every Thursday, though… is that the difference?). It was a nice goal by a great player. I’m not sure we needed the endless replays of it and Brian dribbling all over himself as a result.

He capped it off by using the word “brilliantly” to describe the way Dusty stood on the mark as he corralled someone in defensive 50. That’s a pretty low bar for brilliance, particularly for someone who has achieved such brilliant things.

I watched tonight with the volume up. It was my mistake. And yours.

 

SALT INTO THE WOUNDS?

I know Jack Riewoldt’s last shot at goal didn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. The Tigers had the game in the bag, the clock was counting down and the win was assured.

But is there a feeling that deciding to kick with your opposite foot around the corner from 30 metres on a 45 degree angle had more than a little bit of showboating about it?

I was always taught to be gracious in victory. Not that I won a hell of a lot of things, but rubbing it in to an opponent was always something that I felt was unnecessary. So, when I saw Jack line up and opt to snap on his left foot, I may have screwed my nose up.

Was surprised, and somewhat pleased to see Damien Hardwick have a similar reaction.

Jack Riewoldt is a Coleman Medallist and a favourite of the Tiger faithful. I don’t think he should be giving opponents the Tigers may face again in a couple of months any ammunition at all and I reckon that moment, opting for the round the corner kick on the opposite foot, may have done just that.

Players remember things like that.

I watched Michael Jordan shoot a free throw with his eyes closed once to make a point. Jack is no MJ, and I reckon it was a blemish on what was an underrated outing from him – see below.

 

SOME QUESTIONS

 

HOW IMPORTANT WAS JACK RIEWOLDT’S ROLE ON JEREMY MCGOVERN?

I can picture it now – kids and the slower Richmond fans amongst us asking what is wrong with Jack Riewoldt. We all know someone who will speculate that he is really struggling, right? If they approach you and state it again, just point them my way – I’ll sort them out.

Did we all watch the Eagles game last week? Did we all see McGovern save the game for the Eagles with a bunch of intercepts late in the piece to secure the win for his team? We did? Good, then this will make more sense.

Jack Riewoldt played a selfless game tonight. It was his job to look dangerous, be dangerous and make Jeremy McGovern play accountable football, and that is exactly what he did.

Tom Lynch had several one-out contests with Tom Barrass in an Eagles defence that usually does not allow such a thing to occur. On any other day, Barrass would take a big forward – let’s use Jeremy Cameron as an example – and soon enough, McGovern would realise that they’re not going to use his man (Harry Himmelberg) so he starts zoning off to ensure Barrass has support.

Not this day. Riewoldt is far too dangerous to be allowed to roam around in defence by himself. The Tigers will go to him and go to him often – McGovern was obliged to follow him, and Riewoldt was intelligent enough to drag Gov far enough away from Lynch that he often couldn’t get back to impact contests.

You won’t see much written up about Riewoldt’s game. If you love good team footy you would probably have made note, but while people are salivating about Dusty kicking a banana goal, or manning the mark “brilliantly” (seriously BT, manning the mark isn’t brilliant), Riewoldt didn’t just take one for the team in this game – he took a dozen or so.

And in the end, the W matters, not his own personal stats.

I have long been sceptical of whether Riewoldt would be content taking a permanent back seat to Lynch, but in this game he proved my speculation very wrong. I feel like giving him a pat on the head and telling him I’m proud of him, because outside of those Richmond rooms, I am not sure many others will.

 

DID THE LOSSES OF JOSH KENNEDY AND DYLAN GRIMES CANCEL EACH OTHER OUT?

Hmmm, there’ll be a few who say yes and a few who say no.

The loss of Kennedy sent Liam Ryan to the square and he delivered three goals. Given a couple of his goals were chest marks on the lead from the goal square, it is safe to say that if Kennedy stays on the park, Ryan gets no such delivery.

As for Grimes, usually he would be more easily replaced, but the Tigers are operating without Broad and Astbury back there, so all of a sudden he is not so easily covered.

Both are incredibly important players to their teams’ structures and both have the ability to make match-winning plays. I reckon assessing them as about equal in the grand scheme of this game is about right.

 

DID TIM KELLY DO ENOUGH?

I’m a bit torn on this one.

This was the sort of game you’d want Kelly to shine in. A big stage, a high quality opponent and the footy world watching. He had moments where he looked good – a couple of very nice inside fifty deliveries amongst them, but I wanted to see some meaningful run and carry from him. I suppose I am being a little selfish – I wanted him to be the difference West Coast were hoping he would be.

I thought he padded his stats with some late touches but for the most part, didn’t really hurt with his disposals as much as he could have. It was about a six and a half out of ten game from him.

 

IS ANYONE EVER GOING TO MAN-UP ON BACHAR HOULI?

It doesn’t seem like it, does it? He gets a hell of a lot of footy out in open spaces and drives a lot of the Tiger attack from half back.

This season I’ve seen defensive forwards play on Sam Docherty to great effect. When will someone pull the trigger and sit on Houli? The bloke has been close to two Norm Smith Medals. Start giving him the credit he deserves and get someone to play accountable footy on him.

 

OTHER BITS

 

If I were Damien Hardwick, I would have instituted another nappy-penalty against West Coast. If you give a free kick away to Nic Nat in a marking contest, you change the kids’ bums. As great as he is in so many facets of the game, Nic Nat simply does not take marks. There’s no need to get overly concerned about him in those contests.

Interesting to hear the fans in QLD booing Tom Lynch early in the piece. I reckon this has been blown out of proportion over the last couple of weeks. The stuff with Hurley was minimal, and I was glad it got dismissed so quickly.

 

That might do me, guys. This is a pretty big review in terms of size and I can feel my eyes hanging out of my head. Great win by Richmond – they face the Dockers next Wednesday and if there is one team who enjoys a full on scrap as much as the Tigers, it’s Freo.

For the Eagles, they get the resurgent (after one win) Bombers which has the potential to be a highly entertaining affair.

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