Subtraction By Addition? Tom Lynch moves to Richmond

The Richmond Football Club did exactly what the football community thought they were going to do this off-season. They went fishing, and hooked a big one.

The worst-kept secret in the AFL this season has been Tom Lynch’s decision to play for the Tigers in 2019. With rumours suggesting the groundwork for this move has been years, not months, in the making, Lynch finally made it official last week, nominating Richmond as his club of choice, and informing the Gold Coast Suns of his decision.

As if he needed to do so.

With all clubs throwing their line in the water this off-season, and even earlier in regard to Lynch, it is the Tigers that have landed him. As the hierarchy at the good ship, Punt Road stands up, shake hands and smile at each other, content with a recruiting job well done, they’re not noticing the ripple effect a move like this creates.  They’re also not noticing what their self-congratulation is doing. The movement starts to rock the boat, ever so slightly to begin with, but it doesn’t take long for things to become unbalanced. Things become a little unsteady, and as the big fish lands in the boat, some of the little fish have to be thrown back.

It’s the way of things in the football ecosystem. You just cannot have everything, even when it feels as though you do.

Reece Conca was the first “little fish” to jump out of the boat, signing on with the Fremantle Football Club at the start of the 2018 free agent signing period. Eight years at Tigerland saw him amass 104 games, with this 2018 season interrupted by a particularly nasty-looking ankle injury in Round 15. It seemed as though his season was over, but he battled back well from the setback, and was there as the Tigers fell to the Magpies in a preliminary final upset.

But Conca is just one fish in the Tiger pond who is feeling the squeeze and wriggled his way back into calmer waters.

Sam Lloyd has been linked with the Western Bulldogs after two frustrating years in yellow and black, where he managed just 15 games. Lloyd’s talent is undeniable, but he hardly excelled at senior level when given the opportunity. In truth, Lloyd’s lack of opportunity was due to many others playing similar roles, and playing them better. At 28, Lloyd has only 57 games under his belt. His time is now, and with the development of players like Caddy, Rioli, Higgins, Castagna and Butler in the Tigers’ forward half, and the midfield presence of Cotchin, Martin, Prestia and Edwards through the guts, opportunities would be limited for him at best. He waited for his opportunity, and his opportunity at Richmond seems to have come and gone.

Jacob Townsend is an interesting one. Though nothing has come out just yet, there are four or five teams reportedly interested in his services heading into 2019. He made a name for himself as a genuine second forward option in 2017, but has been unable to recapture the consistency, or game time in 2018. With Lynch entering the Richmond locker room, and youngsters, Callum Moore and Ryan Garthwaite both pressing for selection, Townsend would have to see the writing on the wall, and rumours are that he is definitely taking heed of it. Undersized for a marking forward, Townsend managed 10 games in 2018 for a total of 47. At 25, he is coming into his peak years and playing third or fourth fiddle at Richmond won’t see him build on that total in a hurry.

Others names, such as Corey Ellis, Tyson Stengle, Anthony Miles and Connor Menadue have all been raised as possible departures from Richmond this trade period, and whilst any of those names individually will not raise too many eyebrows from Richmond fans, football is never about individuals – it’s about the collective, and those players were very handy in patches when the Tigers needed them.

The six players mentioned leave a big hole in the Richmond side, so often praised for its depth. As the Tigers won the 2017 flag, their reserves team was also playing finals. They had a strong second unit to draw from to bolster the ranks as they powered to the flag. With this exodus, those ranks are thinning.

However, the glaring positive amongst all this is the addition of Tom Lynch. Proclaimed by Dermott Brereton as “the best player in the AFL” at the beginning of 2017, Lynch was coming off 66 goals for the Gold Coast in 2016, and looked set to take the competition by the throat.

But something happened on the way to that predicted dominance. The form wasn’t there in 2017 to back up that statement by Derm, and Lynch, battling through injury and uncertainty, managed just 64 goals from the next two years.

Tom Lynch goal tallies

Granted, Lynch was playing in a team that was, at times, non-competitive, winning just 10 of their 44 games in 2017/18. Of those 10 wins, Lynch played in nine. They were a better team with him on the park, but they just weren’t very good – with or without him. As the ‘Tom Lynch saga’ dragged on through the 2018 season, made worse by both Gold Coast’s insistence of Lynch declaring his intentions, and Lynch’s boneheaded idea to hang out in Melbourne with officials from other clubs, Lynch’s season was declared over. As word of his impending departure from the Suns spread, he was stripped of the club captaincy – a position he probably should never have accepted.

The problem here for Richmond is that bringing Lynch in, albeit on less money he could’ve commanded elsewhere, sends a sign to those bottom eight or nine players on this list. The Tigers are looking to improve, as are all clubs, but they’re looking to do it without YOU as part of their plans. It is an action that prompts a reaction.

The possible exodus from Tigerland isn’t just a matter of players switching clubs. No, no… it’s a matter of a team fabric tearing and having to be mended. Luckily for the Tigers, it seems as only the edges are fraying.

The main threads are still in place. The big three in defence – Rance, Astbury and Grimes will hold down their end of the bargain, as they usually do. The Cotchin, Martin, Prestia and Edwards quartet will continue to be a formidable prospect for opposition coaches and midfields to deal with, and the forwards around Riewoldt and Lynch will provide plenty of bite when the two big guys bring it to ground.

So what’s the problem then?

The problem is that Richmond are not buying the 2016 version of Tom Lynch. They are not getting a guy coming off 66 goals in a season – they’re getting a bloke who failed to reach that mark over the last two years. They’re getting a player who has missed 15 games over the last two seasons due to injury, and they’re expecting it not to occur again.

Tom Lynch trending downwards

Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

If Lynch continues the trajectory of the past two years, the Tigers will have lost many effective role players and replacements in order to gain a star. But that star simply isn’t shining the same way Richmond fans would have you believe. Not in recent history.

I know it is a big “if”, as most ifs are, but if Lynch cannot get back to playing somewhere near his best, the Tigers may have actually got worse by recruiting 2016’s “best player in the comp.”

It’s a gamble, but as we’re all aware, to achieve success in the AFL, gambles are necessary. The Tigers have had an extraordinary run with injuries over their last two years of success. Until the 2018 Preliminary Final, their stars have escaped relatively injury-free (Martin was obviously banged up in the preliminary final). Now they’re bringing in another star – one who hasn’t been able to avoid the curse of injury. Lynch has basically been the opposite, health-wise of the Richmond big four.

The Tigers will have to reverse that trend for him. If they can’t, they may have paid for a Ferrari, and bought themselves a lemon.

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