Damien Hardwick said it himself – the Tigers were tired in 2021.

They looked it in the back half of the season. Their superstar went down with a lacerated kidney and though the minds appeared willing, the bodies were simply unable to execute. The famous Richmond pressure fell away and teams started to sense weakness.

But was it weakness, or just fatigue?

The Tigers are one of the most intriguing teams in the league once again. With an extended off-season for the first time in a while, they are gearing up for another assault on the competition – can they pull it off?

Over the last month, I have been slowly compiling questions relating to each team to include in our season previews. There were so many questions in need of answers. When I finally sat down and started the previews, it quickly became apparent these articles were going to be huge. There were simply too many things in need of addressing.

So, the way this is going to work is that the first five questions are available for free for each team, to whet your appetite and the next 15 or so are for our members.

So, it’s a ploy to get people to join the site?

Ummmm, yeah, kind of, but it is also about providing value for those who support what we do here and enjoy the content – those who are already on board. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

I am aiming to provide the most comprehensive team previews out there, so if you like sinking your teeth into articles with a bit of meat on the bone, that’s what you’re getting here. No flippantly thrown together article with a stupid prediction at the end – I’ll leave that to those with restrictions on word counts and pressure to make space for gambling ads. We’re diving deep.

So, without further ado, here are The Big Questions regarding the Tigers in 2022.

 

IS THE ADDITION OF ROBBIE TARRANT SUFFICIENT COVER FOR THE LOSS OF DAVID ASTBURY?

He’s a very handy pickup if healthy, but coming off a season where he played ten games, and didn’t exactly set the world on fire for North Melbourne, it may take half a year to start understanding whether Tarrant’s inclusion in this side makes up for the loss of Astbury.

David Astbury was an unsung hero of this Richmond side. Whilst Dylan Grimes, and Alex Rance before him, racked up awards and All-Australian selections, Astbury was the one doing a lot of the heavy lifting, often sacrificing his game in order to ensure his man was unable to impact contests, or drifting across to lay a body on his teammates’ opponent as they prepared to get a fly at the ball.

In short, he was the grunt worker that helped make the stars look good. Every team has them, but they’re not often spoken about in reverent terms. David Astbury deserves a lot of credit for the success of Richmond in their glory years and it is difficult to replace someone who knows the Richmond system and the Richmond way inside out. Hell, players like Astbury helped design the Richmond style of football.

Whilst Robbie Tarrant is an exceptional defender (one of two players to ever register double figures in one-percenters, intercepts, and rebound fifties in a single game), I expect he will have a period of assimilation to the Richmond system. If he falls down here or there, people should not be quick to jump all over him – becoming familiar with the way a defence works together takes time; even the greats have a period of adjustment when they switch clubs.

So, it is not simply just a numbers game when it comes to Tarrant replacing Astbury. It is a cohesion game. It all depends on how quickly Tarrant can fit in and apply his considerable skill set to this team and make those around him better.

He won’t take the best forward – that should be left to the developing Noah Balta, but he is a very handy second option if the going gets a little tough. His inclusion, and the return of Balta, makes Dylan Grimes more dangerous, and should allow Nick Vlastuin to patrol defensive 50 and increase his intercept numbers.

All going well, Tarrant is a wonderful replacement for Astbury. What he brings seems to fit perfectly, but as someone who continually falls into the trap of buying flatpack furniture from IKEA, I am well aware that just because all the pieces fit well doesn’t mean I’ll get it right the first time. Maybe not the second time either.

Give this addition until around Round Seven to start working the kinks out. By then, we’ll be able to see whether this acquisition covers the loss of one of the Tigers’ unsung champs.

 

HAS THE CROWN FALLEN OFF, OR JUST SLIPPED A LITTLE?

Geez, you get a lacerated kidney and people start to forget that which you’re capable of, huh?

The crown still sits atop the head of Dustin Martin, and though there are usurpers to the throne creeping closer, the King of the modern game and the best Grand Final performer of all time is far from a spent force.

If there is one thing opponents should fear from Richmond in 2022, a motivated Dustin Martin would be it. Having been forced to sit back and watch others battle it out and make their names in September, the competitive fire would be burning in the belly of the three-time Norm Smith Medallist.

And that spells trouble.

Christian Petracca became the toast of the town. Marcus Bontempelli went to another level. Ollie Wines elevated his game.

And Dustin Martin looked on.

As the final siren sounded to end the 2022 Grand Final and Christian Petracca accepted the Norm Smith Medal, you can just picture Dusty raising an eyebrow – after dispensing with the challenge of Patrick Dangerfield over the previous years, it was now a new breed staking their claim on the title of the most damaging midfielder in the game. The Tigers were sitting at home, and Petracca was standing in Martin’s place… wearing the medal Martin had made his own.

How quickly they forget…

Martin was in the midst of another 22+ disposal season, combined with over a goal per game. For context, he has only done that ten times. The challengers… well, Petracca just notched his first season with those combined averages, and Bontempelli has done it three times. Wines hasn’t achieved it once (not enough goals).

Though the media will tell you that these players are closing in on the throne, Dusty still sits atop it, and he is poised to fire back. Is 2022 the year he looks these challengers in the eye, stares them down, and says “not day, kids. Seeya next season”?

An 11th 22/1 season (equalling the run of Leigh Matthews, who was a freak and is the Wilt Chamberlain of AFL stats) would go close to doing it, but it will be the head-to-head clashes with those who would displace him that will make for compelling viewing in 2022.

Dusty v Petracca. Dusty v Bont. Dusty v Wines.

The usurpers want the crown, but to be the man, you have to beat the man. And despite injury getting the better of him in 2021, Dusty is still the man.

 

IS IT TIME TO PUT UP OR SHUT UP FOR SYDNEY STACK?

I mean this in the nicest possible way – really, I don’t mind if he doesn’t shut up at all.

Immensely talented, Sydney Stack has teased the Richmond faithful over the last couple of seasons. 2019 saw him finish the season with a flurry, emerging as one of the more exciting young players in the game, and adding his name to the group of Sam Walsh, Connor Rozee, and Bailey Smith when people discussed the best kids coming out of the 2018 Draft.

That was then – this is now.

Via a couple of well-documented indiscretions, Stack’s value has fallen a little. He is no longer viewed as a sure thing, but rather, a bit of a risk – he sure did himself no favours, there. With all signs pointing towards a season that will see Stack have some routine back in his life, no extended trips away on the road, and no being stationed in hubs going out of his mind, I am sure I am not the only one expecting Stack to have a career-best season.

Am I?

As a matter of fact, if I were to pick a handful of players I consider to be the best bets to have great seasons and put their marks on the year, I would have Stack in the first few named. He is that good.

Of course, talent only gets you so far, and so much of where Stack, and possibly as a result, his team, end up this season. A motivated, committed, and importantly, relaxed Sydney Stack is a lock for a Best-22 role with the Tigers, particularly with Bachar Houli hanging up the boots after a wonderful tenure with the club. Stack’s hardness at the contest, sure hands, and bolting runs from half-back started to return in the latter stages of 2021. he averaged just under 20 touches per game over the last four weeks of the season (he only played six games), and aggression, when used well, can set this team alight.

Just ask Jack Viney.

Still only 21 years old, Stack could set up his future with a big season in 2022. But what would that look like?

Stack is a 20+ disposal per game player in waiting. He could easily team up with Jayden Short to terrorise teams as the Tigers exit their defensive 50, and 4-5 rebound 50 disposals are definitely not beyond him. With five intercepts per game in 2021, an average of over six in 2022 is not beyond him at all.

With Sydney Stack, they have the opportunity to cultivate a wildly talented player and guide him as he blooms. I have seen many people asking the question as to whether Stack is worth investing the time in – I hate that question. He is a person and a young bloke finding his way. His upside is incredible, and with the club rallying around him, and Stack embracing the culture and the people, I have a very, very good feeling about what he can achieve in 2022.

 

DID PEOPLE UNDERESTIMATE HOW BIG LOSING NOAH BALTA WAS IN 2021?

When Noah Balta went down injured in Round 15, the Tigers sat at 7-7 and were still in with a chance at finals. One of many injuries to erode the strength of this club, Richmond struggled from that point on, winning just two more games for the season.

I wrote at length above about the inclusion of Robbie Tarrant to bolster this defence, but the return of the 22-year-old key defender could be the key as to how the Tigers perform in 2022. Compared (somewhat unfairly) to Alex Rance in his formative years, Balta was starting to round into some pretty impressive form in 2021. He was holding down the position of the number one defender, often taking the roles on the gorilla forwards of the league, and was providing a reliable defensive option.

That he was just 21 at the time should give an indication that this was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Balta can provide. An elite athlete, he already tops 102 kilograms and looks like a brick shithouse out on the field… only without the shit, I guess. And probably a bit more mobile, too. As he continues to grow and develop, I simply cannot see forwards, irrespective of their power, being able to move him off the spot. Once Balta establishes position, he ain’t moving!

Balta averaged 5.4 intercepts in 2021 and would be keen to build on both that number and the number of spoils he collects. Pace is not his problem – he flies over the ground at ridiculous speed for a man of his size, and his ability to close down space to make the late spoil is a strength. If there is one aspect he needs to improve on, it is most likely backing himself in when he gets the best position. A few times in 2021, I saw Balta lose contact with his opponent and then attempt to make up for it by taking his eyes off the footy and abandoning the drop zone. Intelligent forwards (Josh Kennedy, Tom Hawkins) prey on those mistakes. Sometimes, it is best to back yourself, and I expect Balta to be given the licence to do that a little more in 2022.

So, how do we assess him as we make our way through the season?

No bags against him would be a good start. Look, a forward is always going to get off the chain here or there, but kicking four or five should no longer be permitted. There is no shame in signalling for help, and with players like Grimes, Vlastuin and Tarrant on hand, the cavalry should arrive quickly. You’d also like to see some big one-on-one wins in contests with established forwards – I look at Balta like Luke Skywalker. Young, full of potential, but his games against players like Hawkins were like Luke facing Vader before he was ready. This year – a year older, a year stronger, and a year wiser, Balta gets another shot at his version of the dark lord.

And if he has to chop his hands a couple of times and gets away with it, then so be it.

 

WHAT IS THE 2022 CEILING FOR SHAI BOLTON?

We’ve seen what he is capable of, and having just turned 23, all that is left for Bolton now is to develop the type of consistency that makes great young players into great players – full stop.

We have seen a steady rise in the output from Bolton over the past three seasons, as though he has realised he has all the tools to take on, and best, some of the biggest names in the game. Splitting time between the midfield and forward line, he is two disposals per game away from registering what will be known for the remainder of this column as a ‘Dusty’ (22+ disposals and 1+ goal per game). His trajectory points to him knocking over his first ‘Dusty’ in 2022.

I wrote in the opening about the tired Tigers of 2021, and one of those was Bolton. He went from matchwinner with boundless energy to a bloke looking as though the season could not end soon enough. I’m not sure about you, but when Martin went down hurt, I saw that as an opportunity for Bolton to put this team on his back and say “follow me”.

Maybe I was expecting a little too much at that stage. Martin went down in Round 18. From that point on, Bolton averaged just 14.8 touches and one goal per game. As much as DC comics tried to make Robin a standalone character, he was always better with Batman – in 2021, Shai Bolton needed a Batman of his own. He wasn’t quite ready to branch out on his own.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t, eventually.

If we see Shai Bolton off to a flyer in 2022, it may very well drag the team along with him. Not that it needs dragging, but when a young star makes the big leap, it gives a lot of the old blokes a shot in the arm (sorry… I know it’s a sore point for some) and they feed off the enthusiasm generated by the young star.

That is what Shai Bolton can be for the Tigers in 2022. As everyone looks to Dusty to right the wrongs of 2021, it could be Shai Bolton who starts to take the reins and make corrections, himself. Maybe this is the season Robin looks over at Batman, says thanks for everything, and starts going into the crime-fighting business on his own. I’m told Nightwing was a pretty cool character – happy to be corrected.

I want to see Bolton reinvigorate this Richmond team. I want to see his teammates ride the wave of momentum he creates, and damn it, I want to see Shai Bolton become the next bloke to average a Dusty.

 

And that’s it for non-members. The next 15ish questions are for those members who support us. I want these to be the biggest season previews you’ll read and am determined to give value for money. Some sites will give you lip service about your team – I will be diving deep. The Mongrel does the work… always. Want to join us?

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