Footy is a funny sport at the best of times, but during the pandemic era, it seems like the oddities that make up our game have popped up almost as often as those facebook posts declaring COVID a plot to microchip people from that weird Aunt that every family seems to have.

So it is in this mindset that I find myself shocked at how unshocked I was with this game. Or perhaps I’m unshocked at how shocked I was. Perhaps both?

For two teams gearing up for a run at finals, this game was one that footy heads had marked down as a must-watch for the weekend. Would Geelong manage to put in the sort of effort that would remind people that 2021 wasn’t just a race between the Dogs and the Dees, or would Richmond manage to do what they do best and come into form at the pointy end of the season?

Well, with so much promise the end result might have one set of supporters cheering, but the way they got there wasn’t quite as emphatic.

Ins and outs

It’s been said that premierships are about managing the list as much as the talent of a team, so dealing with injuries is part and parcel of the game. With that in mind, both teams went in missing key players, with Geelong missing prize recruit Jeremy Cameron and Mitch Duncan still out with a knee. Another handy player in Shaun Higgins was a late withdrawal too, though his status as a best 22 player based on his form this year is probably up for debate.

Richmond were a little more under-strength, with Balta, Broad, Houli, McIntosh, Prestia and Vlastuin all best 22 players that will be on the sidelines for some time yet, as well as the Dusty Martin out for the season with a kidney laceration.

Edwards and Asbury seemed a bit off also, with both having iffy ankles.

With so much talent out of the side, Richmond must have been over the moon when they heard Alex Rance was returning to footy. Unfortunately he donned a sash of another colour as he stepped out for Essendon’s VFL team. The story goes that he happened to be in the Gold Coast to visit family, and with a number of players in the Essendon VFL side unable or unwilling to make the trip earlier, they shone a spotlight with a big picture of a defiant fist into the night sky, and Alex Rance appeared as if from out of thin air.

He is adamant that it wasn’t a comeback, but rather a happy accident. Still, you can bet a few people at Tigerland are sending him some texts just to feel it out a bit further.

A tale of two halves

As befitting a contest between tigers and cats, there was a scratch match feel to the first quarter. Neither side seemed to show much intensity, and looked determined to bang long kicks out of packs rather than work the ball through congestion. An odd exception to this rule was when a boundary throw-in deep in Geelong’s 50 resulted in a scramble before Cotchin collected the ball and instead of blasting it back out of their defensive zone, decided to skid it along the ground through the pack of players he had just escaped. Gryan Miers promptly jumped onto it, looked around a little to make sure that this was actually in play and not some sort of cleverly orchestrated prank, then snapped for the first goal of the match. It was a clean kick from some scrappy play, but you take what you can get, because “scrappy” defined the first half of this match.

Likewise, Richmond’s opener was from some surge play when Riewoldt roved a dropped mark to sneak one through. It took until the 22-minute mark of the first quarter before we saw some clean playmaking when Blicavs tapped to himself, got the ball out to Dangerfield who found a running Selwood with a handball out of the pack, Selwood put on a few metres and hit up Hawkins for a mark that Hawkins converted into the first of his four goals.

For teams with the skillset of these two to go so long without a genuine passage of play was unexpected, especially when there didn’t seem to be the intensity that would cause most of the skill errors that we saw.

Geelong also had a few hearts-in-mouth moments as Esava Ratugolea and Joel Selwood both went off to have their knees looked at. Both returned though, and Ratugolea made an immediate impact with his forward craft, setting himself up with some excellent positioning to draw a free kick and his first major for the day. With Cameron missing, Esava’s presence is a vital element to the success of the club, as well as his own career.

Geelong piled on seven unanswered goals up until half time, entering the main break with a handy 41 point advantage and a Richmond team lacking intensity and managing only a single goal.

Second half

If there was a way to make a profit off of Schadenfreude, it’d be the meme stock of the moment. Richmond’s ongoing success has drawn a fair share of footy fans who are keen to see them do it tough for a while, and a fanbase that has brought up a generation that expects success—an expectation that was unheard of during the “Ninthmond” era. So it may have led to some disappointment when Richmond came out of the main break with a bit of the fire and fury that has been expected of the side that has defined the last half-decade of footy.

Richmond suddenly found the willingness to run both ways and actually started to launch reliable counter-attacks, due in no small part to the creativity and commitment from Daniel Rioli. His work rate and ability to hassle was more in-line with what we expect from Richmond, and set an example to the rest of his team. Suddenly the tackles started sticking, Geelong found they had a bit less space and fewer opportunities to find open players.

Geelong are a well-drilled side though, and no stranger to success, themselves. They shifted to a bit more of a possession-type style of play that may not have gotten too many people off their seats even if there were crowds at the game, but it will grind down opponents and put any chance of a surge to rest.

Sometimes footy is about doing what you have to rather than what is fun, but flags don’t go to the foolhardy.

Richmond put on the first two goals of the second half with renewed commitment, but still missing the dynamic presence of Martin to move the ball with the sort of speed that their key forwards delight in. Castagna and Arts managed to kick truly through their renewed effort, and the Geelong defence suddenly had to split their attention between moving forwards and surging midfielders.

Richmond also missed a few gettable shots that seemed to frustrate them as the scoreboard pressure didn’t materialise and Geelong managed to keep the ball in the hands of their classy midfielders—lead by Dangerfield—who looked very calm in the moments where Richmond threatened to claw their way back into the match.

The finish

Starting the quarter with more than six goals to make up is a tough ask for any team, but Richmond seemed willing to entertain the idea for a brief moment, right up until the bounce of the ball resulted in a quickfire shot at goal from Gary Rohan, who pushed it wide. Continued pressure kept the ball in Geelong’s attacking half, with medical sub Narkle replacing Selwood and converting from the consistent forward pressure of the Geelong team.

After that, the wind seemed to go out of the game with a goal to Ratugolea pushing the margin beyond 50 points and Geelong switching to preservation mode. Taking the foot off the gas has consequences though, and Richmond looked to minimise the percentage loss (percentage that Geelong desperately want to ensure they have the best chance of a top two finish) and kicked themselves into gear to take advantage of the little bit of complacency that had seeped into the Geelong squad.

Richmond managed back-to-back goals for only the second time in the match with Cotchin and Aarts kicking truly, but the heat was out of the game and just about stone cold when Parfitt kicked truly a few minutes later.

Junk time goals to Lambert and Reiwoldt were a bit of a salve to the Richmond supporters, but may end up frustrating the Geelong coaching panel and cause a few nervous calculations of percentage as we move towards September.

The difference

It’s going to sound like it’s click-bait, but the difference was sitting in a hotel room on the Gold Coast with a lacerated kidney.

Despite all those outs, it’s beyond argument that losing Dusty that hurt the most. So many of Richmond’s forward thrusts pass through his hands, and the ones that don’t seem to end up with him anyway. Richmond relies on his ability to accumulate the hard ball and find a player so much that they surge forward as soon as an opposition pass becomes a ball in dispute. When Martin is there to contest it, that works out good for the team most of the time, but this game shows just how vulnerable they can be without that capability.

Watching Richmond over the last few years, a defining characteristic is their ability to hassle their opposition into turnovers, and make them pay as they flood forward to present options. If it’s not Dusty at the stoppages, it’s Houli from the half-back line. They lacked both of these weapons in this game, and it showed.

Geelong had scouted this well and managed to counter a lot of the Richmond rebounds, to find that the Tigers were not quite willing to give up on their own forward movement and run back to cover their opponent. In the past, that may well have worked out at their midfielders managed to keep the ball carrier under pressure, but their second-tier players just couldn’t bring that level of heat to the contest, and Geelong found ample targets. It got even worse once Ratugolea found his confidence, but that’s another point entirely.

Ratugolea vs Stanley vs Cameron

Jeremy Cameron is the big recruit for 2021, and has added a bit more potency to the Geelong squad. In his absence, Stanley and Ratugolea have made some strides and found some form. Who leaves to make space for him?

On the back of this performance, not Esava.

A four-goal return is a decent result for any forward in the modern game, but his forward craft was absolutely textbook. Any emerging key forwards out there, watch Ratugolea’s highlights in this match for a masterclass in the role of a marking forward.

No doubt he was helped by having Hawkins run patterns that didn’t spoil his space (which is another element of forward craft to take note of—if you’re the second option on a forward thrust, lead away from the primary to be an option and split the defenders!) but his work at the contest is as good as it gets.

When he had a clean run at it, he was able to clunk a solid mark. Nothing fancy, just a leap and a grab.

When he didn’t, he brought it down to the front of the pack to moving teammates. Any defender standing still or contesting the mark had no hope of catching a player already accelerating away from the contest.

And then there are the moments when he was shoulder-to-shoulder with quality defenders, but far too strong and determined to be pushed off the ball.

If he can replicate that sort of form for a whole season, he’ll tear games apart. How likely that is to happen in a forward line that will welcome Jeremy Cameron’s return is anyone’s guess though, and with the news of Esava’s contract being extended through to 2023, it could see a lot of pressure put on Stanley to justify his Forward/Ruck role.

Stanley had a decent enough game with 25 hitouts and a goal, but at 30 years old and without a contract for 2022, he may need to start hitting the scoreboard with a bit more regularity to feel comfortable. He’s had a decent season, especially with standout performances against North Melbourne and Brisbane, but there is little consideration given to highlights and players over 30 once contract talks begin.

Dangerwood

Selwood received an early knock in the game and struggled to move with the momentum expected of him from that point on. He was eventually put on ice in the fourth quarter once the game was won, but with only eight touches up until that point, his impact was a lot less than expected anyway (much to the chagrin of my fantasy team. Between that and Pendlebury’s injury I’m afraid that my squad has bowed out of finals contention).

As with all quality sides though, they had someone willing and able to step up, with Cam Guthrie answering the call. His 34 touches and seven clearances were a perfect complement to Dangerfield’s 28 and seven, though Danger was at the coalface a little more often and tackling like a beast to earn himself the BoG in my opinion.

Frees in marking contests

Just before the half, a late charge from Geelong saw Guthrie kick to Dangerfield in the square. Danger was shoulder-to-shoulder with Grimes, he got a pair of hands free and looked likely to take the mark, but Chol crashed in heavily, ending in front on contact.

Dangerfield appealed for the kick, but the Ump said he had eyes on the ball, which is absolutely how that call should be made. Dangerfield may have even been a little lucky not to get called in the back as he put a gentle shove on Grimes, but that’s the sort of thing that forwards seem to get away with while backmen get penalised for.

If we have some consistency here, I think everyone would be a bit happier.

Up Next

As is the new normal, the round as it stands and the round as it is played could be very different. Richmond will—in theory—head to WA to take on a Freo side that is coming of a similar thumping from Sydney and also likely to be without their key player Fyfe due to another shoulder injury. Neither side should feel too poorly about coming off losses, as Geelong will threaten any side and despite their ladder position, Sydney are in white-hot form at the moment.

Whoever loses this match will start to wheel out the old reliable Casio calculator and band about phrases like “mathematically possible”, because it’ll take quite a bit of luck to see September action with GWS, Essendon and St Kilda all competing for that 8th slot. Worse still is the ignominy of finishing 9th. Gone are the years when a bottom 5 finish came with the same level of stigma as the high school kid who pissed his pants in class. Now fans simply pull up Cal Twomey’s articles and start daydreaming about the 17-year-old future superstar that will surely bring them premiership glory.

Either that or disappoint them, get traded and profess his love of big boobs and swimming. I know you read this Jack Watts, and while I can’t support your actions, I understand.

On a side note, I’m getting on in years and blanked on Jack’s last name, so I went to google it. Just so everyone is aware “Jack Big Tits and swimming” is not a safe for work search. “Jack AFL swimming” is just as useless as it just brings up Olympic results. In the end “Jack Melbourne fans crying” was the winning search term.

Geelong get a six-day break to take on North Melbourne in Tasmania. Probably.

Whether it’s in Victoria or in the state that seems determined to let the mainlanders keep their covid to themselves is anyone’s guess, but as confident as north will be in their recent form, Geelong will approach this as little more than a tune up match.

It may be all for the best though, as Shaun Higgins’ late withdrawal from this week means he’ll be playing his 250th against his old side (well, the most recent one anyway), which makes it more of a shame that the stands will be empty of fans willing to celebrate the milestone of the rolls Royce of the competition.

North will look to improve on their last outing where they kept with Geelong for a half before being blown away, but it looms as a fateful game for both sides. Too much percentage gained by North (or even an unlikely win) could see Hawthorn overtake them in the number 1 draft pick stakes, and a close game like that could also hurt Geelong in their hunt for a top two finish.

Geelong may look to rest Selwood and keep Cameron in rehab until fully fit for finals, so there is a chance that North could cause an enormous upset, but I would still put it as an unlikely possibility, mainly because they are likely to field as many young players as possible in an effort to give them a run to understand the pace of top-level football. If they happen to lose and pick up Jason Horne, Sam Darcy or Nick Daicos in the process, well it’s hard to be too upset.

 

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