There have been few home and away games with higher stakes, than the recent Richmond v Collingwood game in Round 19. The reigning premier was gunning for an all-time MCG win-streak record against the charging Magpies who were riding a wave of momentum. It was the best pressure side in the competition against a similar version of itself, and as with most games, there were subplots galore.
Where would Darcy Moore play? How would the Pies combat the loss of Jordan de Goey? Which star-packed midfield would wrestle control of the centre bounces? And could Collingwood withstand the growing legend of the Richmond last quarter surge? One question that was not asked too much before the game revolved around the ruck duel, and just who would blink first.
No, I am not talking about whether Toby Nankervis or Brodie Grundy would be the first to swerve in a game of chicken - it's a safe bet to think that if the two big men did engage in such a contest, we'd be more likely to see a complete wreckage than one emerge unscathed. The war of wills I speak of was conducted in opposing coaches' boxes between Damien Hardwick and Nathan Buckley, and this particular battle revolved around who would use their ruckman not only best, but most wisely. Who would gamble on their ruckman? Who would go all in, and who would call the other's bluff?
When you talk about the top performing ruckman in the league this year, you could be forgiven if your thoughts immediately turn to Max Gawn, Brodie Grundy, and Nic Naitanui before his injury, above all others. However, as part of the reigning premiers, Toby Nankervis has continued to be a plod along, playing a lone hand in the ruck and often splitting contests against the game’s best big men. In the process, he has made some big statements of his own.
The importance of Toby Nankervis to the Richmond Football Club was clearly emphasized in the third quarter against Collingwood at the MCG as Damien Hardwick stared down Nathan Buckley, knowing he had an ace up his sleeve. With Nankervis resting on the bench, Brodie Grundy took over the game with as good a quarter from a big man as we’ve seen this season. He had 13 disposals, and was relentless in his drive to push the Magpies into a winning position.
Hardwick held his nerve throughout that quarter, leaving Nankervis on the bench for extended periods. Commentators questioned whether Nankervis was injured - surely Hardwick saw what was happening out there, right? He allowed Shaun Grigg, Richmond's makeshift ruckman, to battle on, and lose convincingly against the rampant Grundy to the point where it looked as though Collingwood may be the team to not only challenge the Tigers’ MCG dominance, but break the win streak. It was a job far beyond Grigg's capabilities, yet Hardwick was seemingly content to allow Grundy to run all over his team.
And run, and run, and run.
Meanwhile, Nankervis sat, and sat... and conserved his energy.
Some may look at that third quarter, and believe that it was a poor coaching effort by Hardwick. He allowed his makeshift ruckman to be dominated by Grundy and, by proxy, allowed the Pies to draw within a kick of the premiers late in the quarter. But what people are failing to realise is that in the fourth quarter Toby Nankervis re-emerged from the huddle as a man who hadn’t taken the team on his back and run himself into the ground through the third quarter. He returned rested, composed, and ready for battle once more, and he stood across from a man who had given his all, and had little left.
Hardwick had taken Nathan Buckley's best shot, and now it was time to retaliate. If this battle could be related to a boxing match, it'd be the legendary Rumble in the Jungle, with Hardwick playing the role of Ali, and Buckley that of George Foreman. As Buckley and Grundy landed heavy blows in the third, Hardwick and Nankervis covered up and absorbed. They conserved their energy, and when the bell rang to start the last quarter, they were up for the fight.
The result saw Nankervis ready to not only withstand the assault from Grundy in the last, but to counter-punch, and score some telling blows of his own.
In the last quarter, Nankervis compiled a modest five possessions. If you're looking at his offensive stats, it’s nothing to write home about by any stretch. However, when you consider the quality of opposition, and what Grundy was able, or in this case, unable to achieve, you start to get a picture of Nankervis’ influence.
And you also begin to gain a new respect for the will, the trust and the coaching ability of Damien Hardwick. As Grundy ran riot in the third quarter, I am sure several were looking at Nankervis on the bench and wondering what the hell Hardwick was doing? There sat a man capable of subduing Collingwood’s big man, but Hardwick was in no hurry to get him back into the fray. As Grundy accumulated disposal after disposal, and effective hit out after effective hit out, effectively throwing haymakers at the struggling Tiger ruck replacement, Hardwick held his nerve. There was a method to the madness. It was rope-a-dope.
It wasn’t Nankervis’ five touches that made a huge difference in the last quarter – far from it. It was the lack of output from his opponent that told the story. Opposed to Nankervis, Brodie Grundy had one disposal in the last quarter. With Nankervis resting, he’d spent all his petrol tickets monstering lesser opposition. He was still a valuable competitor in ruck contests, but Grundy’s influence around the ground was non-existant. The Tigers, Nankervis and Hardwick had taken the best Collingwood could throw at them. And they were still standing.
People often talk about the most important players at Richmond. There can be no doubting the influence of Dustin Martin and the way he breaks tackles and sets up teammates. The attack on the ball of Trent Cotchin cannot be faulted as he takes a 20-80 situation and turns it into a true 50-50 with an intense burst of physical pressure. The elite defence of Grimes, Astbury and Rance work together, covering for each other as well as any defensive trio in recent memory.
But the efforts of Toby Nankervis often fly under the radar, and I have a feeling he is quite comfortable with that.
He does not come across as the kind of player who craves the spotlight - his flippant disregard of Brian Taylor as part of the "Roaming Brian" segment of the host broadcaster's recent coverage put a smile on many faces. He doesn't seem to need or want the publicity as long as the wins are there. He is team-first, and if that means he has to look bad whilst the Tigers win, he doesn't mind. He is the Billy Hoyle of White Men Can't Jump of this story. He'd rather look bad and win, than look good and lose. He didn't care that Grundy was amassing the kind of numbers that would make it look as though he soundly beat Nankervis. There was only one stat that mattered - the score at the end of the game.
The Tigers' big man is a complete workhorse. He may not compile stats like Gawn or Grundy, and he may not impose himself on a contest the way Naitanui does in short bursts, however his work at stoppages once the ball hits the deck, his second efforts and his relentless tackling provide Richmond with the pressure necessary to maintain their game style. In a game where tackling isn't traditionally the strong suit of the big man, Nankervis has made the perceived weakness his strength.
As we head into Round 20, Nankervis has the fourth most tackles in the Richmond team, with only Jack Graham, Reece Conca and Trent Cotchin ahead of him. What is amazing is that despite that impressive standing at his own club, Nankervis is not rated elite at his position in tackling by Champion Data. As a matter of fact, he is only rated elite in two categories - intercept marks, and rebound 50s. It begs the question - is Champion Data's way of assessing Nankervis' impact on games misguided?
It's interesting that both Hardwick and Buckley awarded the maximum votes to Grundy in their Round 19 encounter. What is also interesting is that they awarded none at all to Nankervis. He strikes me as the kind of player that would not be externally praised often, but internally, he would be adored.
It's as though Damien Hardwick knows that he has a bit of a secret in Toby Nankervis, and after going toe to toe with the Richmond coach, Nathan Buckley is all too aware as well. Whilst Grundy might be a weapon of mass destruction in the ruck, Nankervis is more than equipped to take the damage and be ready to fire back. Nankervis and the Tigers may lose a battle here and there along the way, but they are winning the war.
As the Tigers roll towards September, many see the ruck as a possible chink in their armour. Other than Nankervis, what do they have? They see it as a way to capitalise when Nankervis rests, but what they see as opportunity comes with a great risk. Damien Hardwick is staring down the rest of the contenders. He is looking them in the eye and daring them to try to capitalise on the Richmond ruck stocks as Nankervis hits the bench.
It's as though he's saying "Go on... go all out in the third quarter. We'll be right here in the fourth - when it matters!"
Hardwick and Nankervis are testing to see just how much a team will gamble, and at the moment, they hold a winning hand. At some stage in the finals, it'll come down to who blinks first, and as it stands right now, Richmond, Hardwick and Nankervis are smirking back at their opposition.