Love them or hate them, you have to give the Richmond Football Club a lot of credit.
Over the past seven seasons, they have built a formidable list – both on and off the field – and have raised the cup three times as a result. After a disappointing end to their 2022 finals campaign, many believed the Tigers may have fired their last shot and were ready to inhabit the middle of the ladder for a while.
Nup… they’re back.
An ending to their Elimination Final loss to the Lions shrouded in controversy saw the Tigers wounded and knocked out of contention, but when it comes to a dangerous opponent, a wounded tiger is right up there with the ones to be most wary of.
And so, the club hit the recruitment trail hard, securing the pair of Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper to immediately rejuvenate their midfield, and in the process, pushed the premiership window back open for the boys from Punt Road.
Can they once again stand on the dais and hold the premiership cup aloft? Or has this been a last-ditch attempt to stay in the hunt that will end in tears?
That’s what I plan on exploring.
It’s that time of year, already.
Christmas and New Year are in the rearview mirror. The holidays are finished for AFL players, and the hard stuff starts now. Yes, the teams had been training for well over a month prior to Christmas, but as we head into 2023, the ante is upped and the intensity increases.
This is where premierships are won and lost. This is where improvements are made and lists come together. New faces, new colours, old heads with renewed passion… so much feeds into the making of a contender. And as the days tick down toward the intra-club clashes, practice games, and eventually the real stuff, questions are raised about each team and how they’re going to perform in 2023.
We don’t do things by halves here, at The Mongrel. When we do a season preview, we go all out to make sure it is the best, most comprehensive coverage you’ll receive. We pride ourselves on it. If you are going to read one season preview for your team, or any team, this series provides it.
The way it works is as follows.
Each club has a minimum of 15 questions asked about their 2023 season, their coaches, their players, and their expectations. The answers are not glossed over. We dive deep on each and every one – some singular answers would normally be long enough for an entire column. The first five questions/answers are free for you to consume. The next 10-14 for each club are for our members, including a special appearance from Mrs Mongrel to throw her two cents in the mix.
You will not read a deeper season preview than this – I guarantee it.
And with that, let’s jump into The Big Questions relating to the Tigers in 2023.
DID THE TIGERS STRIKE IT RICH WITH TARANTO AND HOPPER, OR IS THIS FOOL’S GOLD?
This warrants some thorough exploration, particularly in light of recent news.
Oh, and no panic, Tiger fans – the recent news was about Tim Taranto finishing first in the Tigers’ recent time trial, which bodes, really, really well given his recent injury history.
However, this whole situation does strike me as something that could be viewed as an “all or nothing” kind of move from Richmond, and whilst I do not disagree with them propping that window open for another year or two – I am all about getting one more flag whenever you can – I do worry about the long-term effects of topping up can have on a club.
From where I sit, it can go either of two ways. On one hand, you have Geelong, who have continually propped up their club with a host of mature-aged players – some have been excellent, and others have been Shaun Higgins. No need to delve into their success in that arena, however, as they now have some silverware that speaks volumes about how the strategy worked for them.
The alternative is Hawthorn, who tried to remain relevant after their premiership glory and are now paying for it. Hell, they have a soon-to-be-30-year-old Chad Wingard on their team – that’s how well it worked for them. They are paying for their insistence that they could keep their window open, and now it has slammed shut and will stay that way for a while. They have been forced into rebuild mode and will inhabit the lower region of the ladder this year.
But the Tigers are different to the Hawks, I hear you think… because I am clairvoyant like that, and also because I have had this discussion with a couple of Richmond fans already. Yes, you’re right – they’re vastly different, inasmuch as they’ve managed to find young talent to bolster the list as well along the way. Hugo Ralphsmith, Tyler Sonsie, Maurice Rioli Junior… and a pretty handy defender named Josh Gibcus. They’ll be fine, you say!
And maybe they will, but will they be able to replicate the success of the Cats?
That’s the multi-million dollar question, isn’t it?
Taranto and Hopper are quality players. I’ve heard some refer to Hopper as the cleanest player below the knees they’ve ever seen, whilst Taranto’s 2019 Best and Fairest season was underrated mainly because he played for GWS, they got spanked in the Grand Final, and despite making a “big big sound” not many were genuinely listening to what was occurring at the club. These two immediately lift the pressure on the ageing legs of Cotchin, Prestia, and Martin and give the Tigers their bite back in the middle of the ground.
Teaming with the old guard, and acting as the bridge between those players and the new generation of Tiger cubs learning how to hunt, the Taranto/Hopper duo has the potential to rocket the club back into the last weekend of September. Of course, there is a lot of water to trickle under the bridge before then, but there are not many instances when you take a contender and have them able to rejuvenate an entire section of the ground with some shrewd recruiting.
As a result, however, the club will be without top-end draft picks in the 2022 and 2023 drafts.
You can only hope that in the end, the deals are looked back upon fondly, as I reckon there is only one outcome that justifies giving up first rounders for players.
And that’s premierships.
IS THIS THE YEAR SHAI BOLTON BECOMES A TOP-FIVE PLAYER IN THE GAME?
You could argue he already is, depending on the criteria you use.
Bolton is a heat magnet – where he goes, excitement follows. Throw him into the ball and he is dodging and weaving out of places other players don’t even know how to get into. Push him forward and the elusive star manages to conjure opportunities out of nowhere to both create shots at goal for himself and those around him.
In 2022, Bolton had 84 scoring shots (and more than a few that failed to score at all) as he converted at just 44.3% accuracy. Putting it out there – if he kicks accurately in 2022, the question posed above is redundant – he would be in the top handful of players in the game.
However, as a result of that inaccuracy, Bolton’s star is a little diminished. Not much, but enough to have people question whether he belongs in that group. Most have him situated right in the group that comes next. He was knocking on the door in 2022. 2023 could be the season he kicks it in.
I think we’ve only scratched the surface with Bolton. People speak of generational talents and players that stand out in an era – Bolton has the potential to be the first player since the mercurial Stevie Johnson to average 20+ disposals and two goals per game.
It doesn’t sound like much, does it? 20 touches and two goals, but it has been achieved just four times since the turn of the century.
Stevie J in both 2008 and 2011
Nathan Brown in 2005
And Brad Johnson in 2002
In 2022, Bolton was right at 17.52 touches and 1.78 goals. Still a ways to go, but it is in sight.
The goals are easily rectified. As indicated above, accuracy is the key to Bolton slotting two per game, but he has never averaged 20 touches in a season. He’ll need career-high numbers to do it… and I am not betting against him.
One thing I didn’t touch on in terms of the Taranto/Hopper acquisitions were the impacts on other players (that is because I have multiple sections below doing just that), but with Bolton, having two inside bulls ready to dish off to him when he breezes through the middle… it is really a tantalising prospect, and thoughts of him being the one dashing forward and approaching fifty should send shivers up the spines of Tiger supporters.
So, what else does Bolton have to do to embed himself in that top handful of players? What does he have to do to erase doubt?
That answer lies in the finals series. And given the structure of this team, that is where this team should be heading in 2023.
Shai is yet to have a dominant finals performance. His best goal output was three in the 2020 semi final win against the Saints, but he has been held goalless in four of the eight finals he’s played in. If reputations can be made during the home and away season, they’re cemented in September.
Or they can be lost.
There is no questioning the talent of Shai Bolton. To do so would be ludicrous, bu it may just take a huge September from Richmond’s young star to have even his harshest critic nod and accept the fact that this bloke is absolutely bloody brilliant.
And he should have the chance to do that this season.
DOES DUSTY HAVE ENOUGH LEFT FOR ONE BIG YEAR?
He might, but the last couple of seasons indicate that Dusty – the indomitable Goliath when at his best – can be wounded and can be restrained.
Yes, it took injury and some personal tragedy to drag him down a couple of levels – back to the levels of some of his peers, but at this stage, Martin remains the master of his own destiny and only a fool would completely disregard him when it comes to making the 2023 season his Simple Minds season.
That’s right… don’t you… forget about him…
Speaking of showing one’s age, Dusty turns 32 in June and after being so durable for so many seasons (11-straight years with 20+ games), he has managed just 25 in total over the 2021/22 seasons. Is that a cause for concern? Or has a couple of the breaks perhaps given him the rest his body required before going hard one last time?
With more talent running through the midfield, the obvious option to alleviate the stress on Martin’s body would be to run him as a half-forward. It’s funny – when doing the Freo preview, the consensus seems to be that Nat Fyfe will go forward and play like Dusty.
No.no, no… you don’t just play like Dusty. If anyone could play like Dusty – they would! Dusty knows where the goals are – he has the instinct to go for the kill when within range. He doesn’t squander too many opportunities and whilst Fyfe may well be serviceable in the role (or at least better than he was in 2022), he is not the forward Martin is. He’s nowhere near it, and the statistical history is evidence of that.
Martin is the ultimate swingman between the midfield and the forward line. Strong overhead and through the body, he is able to get great position on an opponent and hold them off as he sets himself for a mark and a scoring opportunity. The great thing is – he has Jack Riewoldt and Tom Lynch to draw the heat away from him, often meaning he is monstering the third-best defender.
Unless you have an absolutely stacked defence, you’re in trouble if the Tigers are able to use Dusty as a forward, even at 50% of the time. He creates a mismatch and capitalises more often than not.
A motivated and hungry Dustin Martin is a nightmare for other clubs. They’d be hopeful that Dusty is relatively content with his place in the game and what he has achieved over the journey. They’d be crossing their fingers that he is not as invested as he could be, and isn’t hell-bent on making up for the lost time of 2021/22. Because if he is, you won’t need to worry about what difference Taranto and Hopper will make – all you’ll be worried about is how to stop a bloke that has forgotten more about footballing talent than most will ever know.
IS THIS DANIEL RIOLI’S ALL-AUSTRALIAN SEASON?
I have to admit… at one point, I was not the world’s biggest Daniel Rioli fan. Playing as a small forward, he was dangerous, but spent large amounts of time being where the ball wasn’t. He’d bob up here and there, slot his goal or two and then disappear like he was a magician’s assistant.
That all changed with a move to the half-back flank to replace the reliable Bachar Houli – an AA player in his own right.
As for Rioli, his ascension to All-Australian could very well have been 2022, couldn’t it?
Look, I know that the All-Australian team is a bone of contention for some, and truth be told, it got stuck in my throat a little in 2022. Seeing a couple of those selections… baffling.
Anyway, one aspect that I reckon is overlooked when they are selecting the defensive part of the team is impact. Impact of possessions, and impact of the way the player moves with the footy. Was there a more damaging half-back in 2022 than Daniel Rioli?
If so, the list would be very, very short.
Some of his hard runs from defence, both with and without the footy, were exhilarating. His ability to leave an opponent for dead (and expose quite a few forwards who elected not to bother following their man) saw him dart through the middle and become a scoring threat. What that tended to do was throw the entire defensive structure of the opposition out of whack as they scrambled to cover this lightning-fast bolter, streaming toward goal.
A lot of people laud the manic run from defence of Adam Saad (that’s All-Australian, Adam Saad… if you see what I’m saying) and Nick Blakey – and yes, they cause absolute chaos when they are afforded space to run with the footy, but I am willing to wager that on a possession-by-possession basis, none were quite as damaging as Daniel Rioli.
Saad = zero goals
Blakey = two goals
Rioli = 10 goals
See what I mean about impact?
The other difference between them was that whilst the other two were manic, which is fine as it creates the desired response, Rioli ALWAYS seemed like he was in complete control. Balanced, composed… dangerous at all times. His run was with purpose. His run was always to do as much damage as possible.
His run had impact.
If I am choosing a player based on how much their run and carry cuts an opposition to shreds, he is my choice. Apologies for ever doubting you, Daniel.
HOW MUCH OF A MISSED OPPORTUNITY WAS 2022?
People talk about Brisbane blowing it in 2020 with teams stuck in hubs and so on, but part of me thinks the Tigers really blew it in 2022.
They were right there in so many games. Whilst Collingwood won close ones, the Tigers found a way to lose. They established leads and lost them. They had teams by the throat and then their grip slipped and so did the game.
They had chances to win a final, and missed goals from 20 metres out…
Not to pile on Tom Lynch, here – there are so many moments in a game that change the momentum – but had he kicked the goal against Brisbane, how far could the Tigers have gone?
Melbourne were in the midst of falling in a heap. I reckon the Tigers get them. They then would have faced the Cats in the Prelim and with the body strength to match them (and Dusty with games under his belt), the stage would have been set for a classic.
I am sure many of you lament the closing moments of the Elimination Final. From the missed shot, to the controversy over the pathetic technology used for the goal review, to the Tigers bowing out, 2022 remains a season where this club should have finished top four and had the opportunity to cement themselves as THE greatest team of the modern era.
Instead, they shot themselves in the foot once too often. The losses to North Melbourne and Gold Coast… they were brain fades. Costly, costly brain fades.
2023 offers the opportunity to fix their sights on genuine targets again.
I would not want to be in the firing line when this team pulls the trigger. If they’re focused and come prepared each week, there will be some casualties.
This ends the free component of the article. The next five or so thousand words are for our members. Want to join us?