After years of blockbuster games between the mighty Tigers and Eagles, this game was certainly, in comparison, a less desirable match, shoehorned into the family-friendly, but viewer scarce 1.45pm timeslot. A long way from the lofty heights of four straight premierships from 2017 to 2020, these proud combatants were each coming off five successive losses and desperate to get themselves off the back page for the wrong reasons.
The game itself was competitive for the majority, until Dion Prestia blew the game open in a four-minute stretch, booting three goals and breaking West Coast’s resistance. Despite an improved showing from both teams, those nagging questions will still linger for two teams who have moved past the premiership window. Below is a deeper dive into five talking points from the game.
Damien Hardwick upon addressing again the cost of bringing Taranto and Hopper into the club during the off season, blurted the highly quotable line of preferring proven players over ‘magic beans’ – in reference to draft selections. Now without revisiting ground well covered to date, and to be honest, only eight games in to a seven-year contract we are far too early to conclude one way or another. Personally, I’m of the opinion that you can’t replace all-time champions of the game, whether that be through the draft or free agency/trades, the price of success is ultimately a steep cliff, as history has shown time and time again, but Richmond (and by the extension the new players) deserves more time, and that may extend into next year before any definitive answers are apparent.
The two players in question were both industrious in this game, Hopper the leading possession winner, 18 of his thirty-two games contested, in probably his best showing in black & yellow to date, while Taranto was only marginally behind in touches, his thirty consisting of twenty won in the contest. Taranto also hit the scoreboard, scoring two goals from his three shots, while Hopper was credited with two direct goal assists. They combined for twenty clearances and eleven tackles, getting their hands dirty as we always knew they would, however, questions will continue to be whispered about their ability to advantageously progress the ball on the numerous occasions they win it.
At one point in the final term Taranto was going at just 31% by foot, in a game where it is so hard to win possession, just giving it back to your opponent seven times out of ten is unforgivable. Hopper was only slightly better, and this has been a criticism of both of their games since they debuted. There is one additional area I’d like to explore around the Hopper/Taranto debate, yes they are very good AFL players, it remains to be seen if they will reach the dizzying heights of Cotchin & Martin, but does having them almost exclusively on the ball limit the development of players like Baker and Graham playing in those positions? Those two are the most capable, Graham was a potential captaincy option, and for a six-week stretch last season Baker was the equal of any player in the comp. Does holding them out of the coalface for large stretches reduce the impact they can make and stifle their ceiling? List management is never an exact science and flexibility of role players is important, but equally you want to maximise the output of players in their respective positions, and that typically decides who ends up covered in confetti at the end of the year.
WHAT DOES WEST COAST STAND FOR?
Three from 34, or just under 9% strike rate. That’s West Coast’s record since Round 20 of the 2021 season – during the 2021 season they sat inside the top eight after 20 of the completed 23 rounds, and since then have won just three games. Yes, there are excuses in regard to injuries, and a global pandemic, but this is as bad a stretch of uncompetitive form as has been seen in the modern era, comparing unfavourably with basket case Sydney of the early 90s, and Fitzroy on its deathbed in the mid-90s. For some reason West Coast have escaped the blowtorch to any real degree, is it their powerful friends within the media landscape, is it the affable and accessible manner of the head coach, or is it reverse #VicBias, where the critical mass of pundits who are usually criticised for missing great stories from the West are so apathetic, they can’t even raise an eyebrow about the most worrying formline in this proud club’s history?
In the last couple of years, West Coast have put their trust in their experienced stars who took them to the top of the mountain on that glorious day in 2018. While this level of respect is commendable, all signs are pointing to the fact that this particular cohort of players are on their last legs, their battle-weary bodies no longer able to withstand the rigours of AFL footy. Jeremy McGovern, multiple AA superstar, Elliot Yeo, AA & B&F enforcer, Nic Natanui 3 x AA force of nature and Luke Shuey Norm Smith Medallist and midfield dynamo will rightly be remembered as legends, but with barely an on-field shot fired in three seasons the players and club have not heeded that sage advice from football doyen, John Kennedy Snr, ‘it’s later than you think’, doubling down on their future planning with these men still the centrepiece.
Only history will reveal how long these seemingly compromised decisions will hold the club back from their next successful era.
There are some nice-looking talents slowly coming through, and obviously, the club itself is flushed with support and resources the envy of pretty much everyone else in the competition, but the lack of definitive direction is West Coast’s brand right now, and until addressed the diabolical losing streak will continue to plummet.
While the mighty may have fallen, each of these teams have some promising younger players who are tracking nicely to become mainstays of their respective rebuilds. In his 50th career game, Jamaine Jones was probably the Eagles’ best on a day he recorded his career-high disposal count of 30, delivering it upfield at 80% in gaining 449m. Nine intercepts and seven score involvements were great reward for his brilliant start to the season where he is averaging massive career highs in most statistical categories as he’s finally realising his undoubted talent. His major competitor for best Eagle, Oscar Allen continues his exceptional start to the year, locked in a fierce battle with Tiger, Noah Balta, the Eagle took the points on account of four goals and some strong contested marking. He now has 22 goals for the season after barely getting on the park last year and for a team mostly uncompetitive on the field to be sitting fifth in the Coleman race is a great credit and illustrative of his superb form. Bailey Williams battled manfully against Ryan & Miller, conceding in the hit outs with 28 vs a combined 53, but finished with five tackles and clearances against his opponents two and one respectively. It was also obvious when he wasn’t on the ground, Richmond’s match wining run in the middle of the third term occurring while he took a break. Connor West played his best game of the season and was a constant presence around the forward line in the continued absence of Liam Ryan and Jamie Cripps. He collected fourteen touches and kicked a goal amongst five score involvements.
The Tigers were best served by their more experienced players in this game, but also had some pleasing contributions from their youthful group. Most prominent were Samson Ryan and Ben Miller rotating in the ruck due to the late withdrawal of Ivan Soldo and long-term injury to skipper Toby Nankervis. Ryan has steadily improved across his seven games this year, his 31 hit outs smashing his personal record of 16, four marks also confirmed an improved aerial presence. His partner in crime, Ben Miller was a strong presence in the air as well, his six marks an equal career high, and his awareness in contested situations to use his body and then hand off to teammates in a better position a highlight, along with a massive 22 pressure acts. A contested mark and goal capped his fine day. The maligned Jack Ross also took a step forward recording season highs for I50 & R50, his 82% disposal efficiency and 405m gained finishing off the good, contested work of his fellow mids.
I was surprised when I counted the number of 2023 senior coaches who had both played in and overseen premierships, thinking that the clash between Hardwick & Simpson might’ve been a rarity. However, the number is in fact 5, almost a third of the entire list (for the record, Longmire, Goodwin and C.Scott have also achieved this feat), still meritorious, but apparently not something to fill the pages of a match analysis with, so I’ll move on.
Hardwick’s premiership teams were renowned for the frenetic forward momentum of the ball, and complete trust in the system and players who intrinsically understood and adhered to their role. Replacing critical players with those not yet trained in the discipline, compromising expectations due to key components no longer at the peak of their powers and combating opposition tactics have brought Richmond pack to the pack, and it is showing in passages of play where the previously unstoppable wave is breaking down through a combination of those three factors. In the first half in particular, Richmond’s running handball game was awry, simple missed targets, not putting the ball to their teammates’ advantage, and over possessing all added pressure to their flow and was illustrated by an inability to capitalise on the scoreboard. It’s almost as though there is a reliance on individual brilliance at present, rather than strict adherence to an overarching plan, and was illustrated by Bolton’s wizardry throughout. He won 18 contested possessions yesterday, double his season’s average and this is the type of output we all expect, but probably don’t see often enough for a player with his immense gifts.
Hardwick was more successful with his match-ups though, Broad absolutely annihilated Darling (winning all five of his contested defensive one on ones), holding the star Eagle to only four possessions and one goal, while Riewoldt acted as a wonderful decoy drawing the match winner Barrass away from the ball time and time again.
Simpson as outlined above is presently in no man’s land from a focused list management perspective and that makes the planning and execution of game plans incredibly difficult. Coming off the back of a 108-point shellacking, he was able to instil some energy and pride, having early success with keeping control of the ball with an excellent disposal efficiency and out-marking the Tigers. Ultimately though too much was left to the same few again, Tim Kelly continuing his consistent season, in particular one sublime pass to Allen will live in the memory, Jones as above, and Sheed a welcome return to the side after overcoming injury. I’m fearful that a sustainable gameplan isn’t being prepared at present, and it seems that a lot relies on the return of the premiership heroes to their former glory. The next few weeks will be instructive for where this club goes next.
This might be viewed unfairly because the players I’ll discuss here are excellent to all-time greats of the game, but with age and injury comes a diminished ability to impact as you once did. Dustin Martin has been one of the very finest players of his generation, without too much thought, probably a top five AFL player (since 1990), but he’s on the other side of the hill in his career now, and while he collected 27 disposals, was clean below his knees while others fumbled, set up a goal with a genius pass and kicked a customary goal breaking away were great contributions, in seasons’ gone an identical stat sheet would have meant a certain three Brownlow votes. His power is a little less, his kicking slightly less deep, his possessions don’t result in his teammates having as easy next touch as before. This isn’t a criticism really, more of a reality, I’m actually impressed he has returned to such a high level with seemingly the hunger to still compete and play the role he’s been given, but no longer can he turn a game on its head in a withering quarter.
Andrew Gaff was the prototype running machine in the 2010’s, regularly topping 30 disposals as he zipped up and down the wings at a pace and endurance seemingly no one could replicate. In eight games this season, he has failed to register 20 disposals, all of these coming in the last month, for comparison he was only held to below 20 possessions four times in each of 2022, 2021, 2020 and in 2019 only recorded less than 30 disposals an incredible 6 times! Age waits for no man, and as he approaches his 31st birthday it would appear that while he can still glide up and down the wings, the younger opponents are catching up to him finally. Like Martin, though, his commitment to the cause cannot be questioned, and deep in the final term he stood under a hospital ball in D50 and was duly crunched. If his final acts in an Eagle jumper can be to inspire the next generation to play with courage and commitment then that’ll be a tremendous legacy.
And in recognition of Shai Bolton side-stepping his way to a best-afield performance here are five quick ones to finish:
Noah Cumberland, the precocious talent was given a late reprieve with the foot injury sustained by Ivan Soldo, but unfortunately did not take his chance. Coach Hardwick was asked before the game about him, and outlined he wants him to be more involved. Two measly handballs in almost three quarters will sadly see him have a spell at Punt Road for the foreseeable future.
WCE shining light and Rd 6 Rising Star nominee, Jai Culley’s right knee buckled in a contest early in the first term. It looked like the dreaded ACL, but hopefully, he can escape with some minor cartilage or medial ligament damage. He is exactly the type of player Simpson et al should be investing in and a long stint on the sidelines would further prolong the misery for Eagles fans.
Prior to the game, Richmond’s midfield were contributing the lowest number of scores in the competition, this was certainly addressed yesterday with Prestia slamming on three straight in a remarkable purple patch in the third term. He was supported by three goals from Taranto & Hopper, one apiece from the rucks Ryan & Miller and a further two goals from Graham and Pickett. Richmond tripled the forward half turnovers of their opponents yesterday and that’s credit to the hard-working midfield who reaped the rewards above.
I really wanted to avoid commenting on the umpiring, but the four umpire system has introduced more problems than it has corrected. Two blatant drop to the knees by players in possession were rewarded early, one each by Grimes and Waterman were bizarrely adjudicated as too high. This dangerous practice will continue unhindered if the umpires refuse to officiate it correctly. And while I’m at it, I’m lumping the umpires in the same boat as Harry McKay, spend some time on your craft and bounce the ball properly!
The stats don’t clearly show it, two tackles, twelve pressure acts, but Marlion Pickett is an exceptionally important part of this Richmond line up, and his second efforts and desperation often hold up the opposition from breaking clear. He also nearly took mark of the day about three times in a typically hard-nosed game that would’ve greatly pleased the coaching panel.
Next week the Tigers take on the rampaging Cats, and payback for years of heartache will be firmly on Geelong’s agenda. The continued absence of Tom Lynch likely to prevent Richmond from building a winning streak. Meanwhile, the Eagles host the Suns who will be desperate to atone for this last-gasp loss against the Demons yesterday. In a strange overlapping Friday night fixture West Coast will be determined to win again in front of their home crowd for only the third time in 2.5 years.