It feels kind of strange to be sitting here on a Monday evening, writing about a game that is not just huge in terms of the 2018 AFL finals series, but historically huge as well.
It’s strange, inasmuch as we’ve never seen this before. As the days tick down to the first ever Richmond v Hawthorn finals clash, we are fully expectant that there will be 90,000 fans at the MCG on Thursday evening. Yes, we are all aware that it’s a school night, and we are aware that those situated in rural Victoria will have a bugger of a time attending and then making the trek back home, but hey, it’s nothing that Western Australian or South Australian supporters haven’t had to endure up until now.
It’s crazy to think that these two teams, both with such successful periods through the 70s and 80s, never locked horns in a final. It’s particularly weird when you think that Richmond now has a finals history with Greater Western Sydney, the Brisbane Lions and Port Adelaide more storied than they do with Hawthorn. Hawthorn has a finals rivalry with Fremantle, with West Coast, and with Port Adelaide that have created more memories than they have with the Tigers.
And all this lends weight to the argument that this is the most important final of the first finals weekend in September. Oh, there’ll be some Melbourne and Geelong supporters pointing to their cut throat elimination final, and both Collingwood and West Coast fans putting their hands up to talk about their clash – neither have anything on the Hawthorn v Richmond clash. This is a first for two power clubs; a chance to put their stamp on a finals rivalry decades in the making. You don’t get a second chance at a first impression.
So we don’t often do this at The Mongrel, but given the magnitude of the game, a look at the teams, the players and the possible scenarios may just be in order. Here are some of the things on our mind.
THE FORM OF JARRYD ROUGHEAD
If there is one thing the Haws have been missing this season it’s a forward that can clunk a mark, and their captain needs to be the man who stops the rot. The last time we saw Roughead take marks that had a significant impact on a game was against Geelong in Round Two, where he monstered an overmatched Zach Guthrie to mark and kick a point to win the game. The Hawks will need a captain’s game from him, and they’ll need him to be a threat.
Because in being a threat, he neutralizes a threat.
Alex Rance is a defensive weapon best deployed when the player he is manning-up can’t get into the game. It allows him to lend a helping hand to his fellow Tiger defenders and rebound out of defensive 50 with less accountability. This is where Roughead needs to stand up. If he is the deepest forward, he will draw Rance as his opponent. As much as I admire the defensive capabilities of Dylan Grimes and David Astbury, Rance is the player the Richmond defence revolves around.
Rough needs to play deep, and he needs to take a few marks. He needs to make Alex Rance accountable for his team to have a shot. He needs a captain’s game – it will silence more than a few critics if he does. By the same token, it gives them more ammunition if he doesn't.
BATTLE OF THE BACK SIXES
With the back six of Richmond lauded by many, and rightly so, what we find in brown and gold is a defensive unit that has really clicked over the past two months. Ben Stratton has emerged as a top-tier defender, and his mulletted mate Blake Hardwick has become a hard man to beat. Throw in the slight possibility of James Sicily returning, and the run of Jarman Impey and the Hawks backline is starting to look ominous.
At the other end of the ground, the three-headed monster of Rance, Astbury and Grimes have laid many a forward line to waste. However it is the likes of Nick Vlastuin and Bachar Houli off half back that have cut teams to ribbons.
We may see a case of whichever backline can hold up best having a huge influence on the result. Can Stratton get a handle on Jack Riewoldt? Can Bachar Houli or Jayden Short risk running forward and leaving All-Australian forwards, Jack Gunston and Luke Breust unchecked? Will the benefits of doing so outweigh the risks?
WHO STEPS UP?
In last year’s finals series we saw both Daniel Rioli and Jacob Townsend rise to the occasion. Twelve months later and we’re looking down the barrel of a finals series that will see both Richmond and Hawthorn need someone to jump out of the pack. Rioli is now a known quantity… a slick, speedy, skilful package, but known quantity. Townsend is out for the season. Who jumps out of the pack for the Tigers?
Jack Higgins is the obvious choice as the player looking most likely, but even he has been able to throw a curve ball into the mix, becoming a valuable midfield contributor when he is not throwing the ball at his boot to kick the goal of the year.
With the attention on Cotchin, Martin and Edwards, don’t be surprised to see Dion Prestia sneak up on the Hawks. Whilst I am sure Hawthorn are painfully aware of the damage Prestia can do, it may come down to a case of having to pick their poison in the Tiger midfield. Since returning to the side in Round 15, he has averaged 25.5 touches and 4.7 clearances per game.
On the Hawthorn side, they may need a big effort from a couple of their young fellas to break down the Tiger machine. James Worpel and Harry Morrison have both shown that the future is bright at Hawthorn. Both had Rising Star nominations in recent weeks, and both have shown the ability to step up in big moments.
COTCHIN V MITCHELL?
Do we dare to dream? The league's best captain against the best accumulator the game has seen?
Cotchin would be a little stung by his omission from the AA side. He may feel as though his sacrifice for this team was not recognised by selectors, and he may see nullifying the Hawks' ball-winning MVP as the perfect answer.
And then there's Mitchell. He's heard the comments all year that his disposals don't hurt the opposition - what better time to prove those people wrong, and what better team to demonstrate it against?
The stars may not align here. Daniel Howe may go to Cotchin and Mitchell may have to deal with someone else, but a Cotchin v Mitchell match up for the majority of the night is a mouth-watering prospect.
THE OLD MASTER V THE NEW MASTER?
Who blinks first?
There was a moment this season where Damien Hardwick’s mettle was tested. In the third quarter of the Tigers’ win over the Pies, Hardwick sat his ruckman, Toby Nankervis on the bench. He knew the big man needed a breather and would have to rest up in order to be effective in the last quarter.
Nathan Buckley smelled blood, and unleashed his own ruckman in a quarter of footy that was the equal to any played by a big man all season. The Pies drew closer and closer as Grundy got more and more of the ball. Still, Nankervis remained seated.
“Is there something wrong with him?” questioned the boneheads in the commentary box. “Is he injured?”
There was nothing wrong with him, and he wasn’t injured. He was recouping his energy as Grundy spent all his petrol tickets trying to drag the Magpies back into the game. It worked, too. The Magpies got to within a kick. Yep, it worked right up until the last quarter, when Grundy didn’t have the legs to keep going and Nankervis gained the ascendancy in their contest.
It was a pivotal moment for Hardwick; a moment where he looked Nathan Buckley square in the eyes and refused to blink. He stared down the Collingwood coach, called his bluff and reaped the rewards.
But Alastair Clarkson is no Nathan Buckley. Not to disparage Buckley at all – he has done a great job this season, but Clarkson is on a whole different plane of existence in terms of AFL coaches. Will Hardwick be able to stare down the old master as easily, and as calmly as he did Buckley?
Clarkson’s Hawks stormed back into the clash earlier this season, kicking six goals to Richmond’s three in the last quarter, but the Tigers had already done the hard work, choking the Hawks through the midfield to register 23 scoring shots to 15 leading into the last. If there is one thing Clarkson does well, it is learn from his mistakes. He will have to have taken some lessons out of that loss earlier in the season, but turning it all around is a monumental task.
If Clarkson has learned his lessons, it’s safe to assume that at some point, he will do the football equivalent of stare down his Richmond counterpart. Will Hardwick look away, or will he meet the stare of his former mentor? Will he refuse to blink again, and signal that though Clarkson may be a four-time premiership coach, the Tigers are just getting started on a dynasty of their own?
WHO STOPS THE RUN OF JAYDEN SHORT?
I watched this year as Jayden Short continually seemed to be able to drift to the half forward line, get a handball off a teammate who was just a little too far out to score, and use that powerful boot of his to either kick a goal, or go damn close to doing so.
To allow him to do this at any stage of the game this Thursday would be tantamount to neglect. Whoever gets the job on Short cannot sag off when the ball is turned over. They only need to do it once, and watch a kick on the run sail through for a goal from 55 metres out to hear just what a mistake it was from Alastair Clarkson. Whether it’s Gunston, Breust or Impey, Jayden Short cannot be allowed to meander down to half forward and employ that booming right foot.
WILL A RIOLI HAUNT THE HAWKS FOR A CHANGE?
For so many years, a flash of brilliance from a Rioli impacted games for Hawthorn in a way no other could.
And here we are, a couple of months after Cyril wandered off into early retirement and there is another Rioli looking to make a September impact.
Daniel Rioli made his statement in September 2017, and he paid for it with an extended stint on the sidelines after injuring his foot. But looking at the Richmond forward line, and the Hawthorn defence, it’s hard to see someone stopping Rioli. If he gets 15+ touches, it spells a whole lot of trouble for Hawthorn.
Rioli’s ability to evade tackles, and his creativity with the ball make him incredibly dangerous. If Jarman Impey gets the job on Rioli we may be in for a treat. Impey is combative, and he likes to run and carry, but if there’s one thing that has become synonymous with the Rioli name, it’s chase down tackles, and Daniel hunting Jarman would be something to see.
THE SPECTRE OF 2017 DUSTIN MARTIN
Spectres are scary, right? They’re like ghosts… and though it may be a little silly, anything supernatural kind of freaks me out.
Supernatural. It’s not a bad word to describe Dustin Martin’s 2017 year, but the scariest thing is that over the past month or so, there has been a reawakening of Dustin Martin. There were those who criticised his 2018, as though they expected him to continue to perform at the amazing levels of 2017. He couldn’t.
No one could.
But what he could do was warm into September, and perhaps save his best for the most important part of the season. Martin won the Gary Ayres Medal in 2017 as the best player of the finals series. Add that to his Norm Smith Medal, Brownlow Medal, and Leigh Matthews Trophy and you can see why another 2017 was out of the question.
BUT… all he needs is a good month to grab another Gary Ayres Medal, and stock in Dusty has been on the rise for a few weeks now. Ghosts, spectres, the supernatural… they all scare the hell out of me, but a Dustin Martin performance circa 2017; that would scare the hell out of the Hawks.
So, who have you got? The Tigers have been a juggernaut at the MCG, but the Hawks play the ground well. If the Hawks get up, does it blow the Premiership Race wide open? And if the Tigers win, do they already have their claws dug into the 2018 Premiership Cup?
It’s going to be a cracker. Tigers v Hawks for the first time in – what a way to start the 2018 finals series.
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