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The "Ifs", "Buts" and Other Stuff - Richmond

So, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing about other teams up until now, I’m sitting here at the keyboard like a serial killer eyeing off a lone person walking on a dark backstreet. Will this one be the one to rub the lotion on its skin, and put the lotion in the basket?

Maybe Richmond will be the governor’s daughter to my Jame Gumb? And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, go watch Silence of the Lambs and get back to me.

But I am not here to stalk Richmond as though I want to skin them – I’m here to praise the team that were far and away the best team in the game for 22 rounds in 2018. But that also means I am here to remind you that despite all the talent, the best home and away season, all the confidence in the world, and a game plan that saw them roll over Collingwood twice… they capitulated when it mattered most.

It was a wasted season for the Tigers. No matter which way you twist or turn it, the Tigers’ 2018 has to be deemed a failure. Coming off a drought-breaking flag, the sky was the limit for them, but on Friday September 21st, the sky seemed to fall on the Tigers as Mason Cox took over a game in a fashion none of us thought he was capable of. He had the best game of his career against the best team in the land, and it made all the difference. The best team in the land failed to make the rand Final to defend its title. The best team in the land were the best team no more.

Whilst 100K members is damn impressive, it is not how we’ll remember 2018 for Richmond. We’ll remember the way they were almost anointed as premiers in July. We’ll remember the way they tore teams to shreds with their manic pressure and relentless attack. We’ll remember Jack Riewoldt claiming the Coleman, Trent Cotchin being voted as best captain, and sadly, it’ll be remember for Richmond falling to Collingwood – a team they’d rolled twice earlier.

But where does that leave Richmond? There would have to be a hunger to redeem themselves in 2019. Though they are a team of professionals, players would feel a certain amount of personal pride attached to the way their season ended. I mean, this was Collingwood – they were like Richmond-Lite, yet they found a way to get past them. The imitators beat the originators.

It has to burn a little. I hope for some it burns a lot (not dissimilar that rash Joe Ganino simply can’t get rid of), because righting a perceived wrong is a driver that can propel a team to great heights – see Geelong in 2009, and Hawthorn in 2013 for reference.

Circle Round Two in your calendars. Tiger fans, you can look past Round One – it’s only Carlton, Round Two is where your season really starts, and the road to redemption goes straight through Collingwood, ending on the last day in September. If you thought 2018 was a wild ride, buckle up for 2019… it’s going to be a cracker!

Let’s take a look at some “ifs” and “buts”.

 

IF…

… Tom Lynch fits in seamlessly, watch out!

OK, I know some of you (Bloody Richie Stanley and Paddy Farrelly are the main offenders) think I am hoping for the Lynch-to-Richmond experiment to fail. It’s not the case at all and so, instead of focussing on the “what if it fails?” scenario, let’s focus on “what’ll happen if it is a huge success” point of view. That OK, fellas? You happy Richmond campers now?

Let’s not pretend that every club didn’t want Tom Lynch in their forward line before he narrowed down his choices. Actually – scratch that. Let’s not pretend that every club didn’t want the 2016 version of Tom Lynch in their forward line. He was a kid on an average team, playing the sort of footy that saw him earn an All-Australian berth. He was a jet, and was dubbed as the next big thing in terms of forwards. However, two years of playing for a lacklustre Suns team, and looking less than enthused about it, saw his stock drop a little.

Not a lot, but a little. What you have in Lynch is a guy who has proven he can be the best forward on the park on any given game day. The thing is, he had to be that guy in order for the Suns to win. He doesn’t have to be the be-all and end-all of the forward line for the Tigers to win. Whilst many think he’ll have enormous pressure on him, and that may very well be the case, there is the argument that in slotting in at Richmond, the pressure is off. That comes from playing with teammates who can carry the load and hold up their end of the bargain. It’s not really something he’s been accustomed to up until this point in his career.

I’ve asked how many goals the Tigers could/should expect from Lynch in 2019, but it is hard to accurately gauge where he, and the rest of the forward line will be at. On one hand, you have this successful tandem, in Jack Riewoldt and Josh Caddy, who combined for 116 goals in 2018, and on the other, you have Lynch coming in, who SHOULD make that forward line better.

However, in making it better, does he cause the totals for Caddy and Riewoldt to drop, or does he take the heat to enable them to be even more damaging?

So what would you think the pass mark for Lynch is at Richmond? For me, as speculated above, it is a little more about the team, and less about his individual play. If he has a week where he kicks no goals, but Riewoldt and Caddy combine for eight, that’s a win. It may not reflect it on the stat-sheet, but what it indicates is that the forward line is functioning well, and that Lynch has been able to slot in without disturbing too much. That’s what’s important.

That said, if Lynch is limited to under 15 games, I’d start to worry. After 19 in 2017, and just 10 last year, ideally you’d want 20+ from him this season. In terms of goals, I think we really do need to look at the Riewoldt/Caddy/Lynch combination as a whole. If Jack and Caddy had 116, I think 130 from the three of them is a realistic target.

It may sound hefty as one number, but with 55 from Riewoldt, 40 from Lynch, and 35 from Caddy, you’re right there, and if they do get that, the Tigers should be right at the pointy end of the ladder.

If we’re going to put numbers on it, the key stat I’d want to see Lynch improve on this season is contested marking – he was taking 2.82 per game in 2016, and that dropped significantly in 2017 (1.42) and 2018 (1.50). If that is up above 2.0 per game, things are looking up again.

Gimme a couple of contested marks per game, and an equivalent amount of goals and Lynch doesn’t have to blow me away. He just has to play his role well. The rest of the talented Tigers can do the rest.

 

… Dan Butler is fit, he adds so much to the Tiger forward line.

It's not really given much press, but Richmond really missed this bloke late in the season, and not just what he brought to the table. Others were expected to do in his absence, and perhaps they were asked to do too much. I remember watching Jason Castagna late in the season, with Dan Butler out of the side, and it reminded me of a certain workplace I may or may not have been employed by, where they kind of made a habit of condensing two roles into one, and the poor bugger that got stuck trying to do that condensed role just got snowed under because too much was foisted upon him.

That’s how I saw Castagna without Butler to take some of the heat.

Butler has only 38 games to his name, but his ability to be in the right spot, at the right time was instrumental in the Richmond drive to the 2017 Grand Final. I’ll often write about teams getting injuries to key personnel, and how that can be the difference between winning and losing – well, what Butler brings to the table more than made him a key player for the Tigers, he almost embodied what they were about.

Quick, pressurising, and manic without the ball, then poised and classy with the ball; Butler’s presence in the Richmond forward half alternated between chaos merchant, and silky finisher. At over a goal per game in his young career, he is the kind of small/medium forward that can look a little out of sorts, only to bob up two or three times and become the difference.

At just 22, Butler has plenty of room to develop. He will have to fight to keep his spot at times, particularly with player the likes of Rioli, Higgins, Baker and Bolton all hungry for an opportunity, but personally, and as evidenced by the space afforded him in this column, I think he has them covered at the moment.

Whilst Rioli can do the magical, Butler is more the kind of guy that sees the sleight of hand and reacts to it well. He isn’t a magician – he is just very, very good at what he does.

Over the course of the year, a lot of focus will be on the Tigers. They have a lot of strings to their bow, and will be a force in 2019, but it is the little things that will propel them to the promised land. The tackling, the forward pressure, the ability to get to the right spots, and they’re all boxes that Dan Butler ticks. You may be reading this wondering if I was adding him to make a point, or to be different… nope – I rate Butler as one of the better opportunistic forwards in the game, and by season’s end, should he be healthy, you just might rate him as such as well.

 

… Alex Rance has another year as AA Full back, do we have to start considering his place in the all-time defender list?

Here’s another thing I get whacked for. I don’t hate Alex Rance – I think he is a wonderful defender that deserves most accolades that come his way. Some say he isn’t a great one-on-one defender… I call bullshit on that. Basically, the only times he gets beat is when he’s trying to do two jobs – mind his own man, and help out his fellow defenders. And that’s what occurred in games against Adelaide and Melbourne last season when both Josh Jenkins and Jake Melksham got away from him.

When you get Rance one-out, you’re in for a long day, particularly if he’s allowed to narrow his focus and concentrate solely on his opponent.

In 2017, the big Geelong tactic was to throw Patrick Dangerfield forward and allow him to go to work. It took a lot of teams by surprise and by the time they adjusted, Danger had already had an impact.

Fast forward 12 months and as the Cats challenged the Tigers, Chris Scott (the evil twin) threw Dangerfield forward. Rance didn’t flinch – he was ready, as was Damien Hardwick. Danger went to the goal square and Rance followed – it is as big a marquee matchup as you’re going to find in the current climate. Danger v Rance is a main event bout people will pay good money to witness. Well, on this occasion, it was Rance who rained blows on Danger. The Brownlow medallist limped back to the midfield without firing a shot. Every contest went Rance’s way. Every high ball was spoiled. Every ground ball was knocked away. If it was a title fight, Dangerfield was beaten in every round and eventually knocked out.

That period in the game had a two-fold effect. Not only did Rance stifle Chris Scott’s “go-to” move, it also put a huge dent in the Geelong midfield, as their prime mover was made redundant. Not only did Rance win the individual battle – he helped the Tigers win the war.

For all the great defensive plays I saw Rance make in 2018, it was his efforts on Dangerfield, with the game in the balance, that stood out most. Faced with a new challenge, he took on the responsibility, and won convincingly.

You’re going to find times throughout the year where you’ll probably think I am harsh on Rance. You’ll probably shake your head and think “The Mongrel doesn’t like this bloke” and that’s okay.

It’s not that I don’t like him – it’s that I hold him to a higher standard than most defenders. You see, I expect Lance Franklin to get the better of Tom Jonas. I expect Josh Kennedy to be better than Daniel Talia, and I expect Ben Brown to kick goals on Phil Davis.

I expect none of them to get the better of Rance, so when it happens, I take notice.

So, to the original question – if we see Rance in his customary spot as AA Full Back come the end of this season, where do we start placing him all-time?

There’s a lot of sentiment that Rance doesn’t belong in the conversation with Silvagni/Southby, Fletcher, Dench and a host of others, but in the modern game, no one comes close to doing what Rance does. He has been in five-straight All-Australian teams, ascending to the captaincy in 2017, and without any clear contender to his throne, he could very well make it six selections in a row this season. Matthew Scarlett made it six times. Silvagni managed five. He more than belongs in the elite the most elite of company.

Rance stands on the precipice of greatness, if he hasn’t tipped over into it already. A great 2019 season, in line with his last five, would give him the kind of consistency as a key position player that few have enjoyed. Would it make him the greatest? That’s a loaded question, but what it would do, is make it extremely difficult for people to argue against him being part of the conversation.

The Tigers will get plenty of column space in 2019, good or bad, and you can bet your bottom dollar that the performance of Alex Rance will take up plenty of that space too. People tend to focus on champions. I know I do.

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… Shane Edwards is top three in goal assists again, we’ve got to start giving this stat more credit.

Edwards and Melbourne’s Jake Melksham duelled for the top spot in the goal assist rankings throughout the year. Melksham ended up on top, but some of the tap-ons, and creative handballs from Edwards were “jaw on the floor” type of plays.

He finished with 31 direct goal assists for the year, at an average of 1.29 per game. To put that in perspective, the all-time leader in assists per game is Robbie Gray. His average is 1.03 per contest.

Edwards’ season was punctuated by his ability to create for his teammates. It emphasised his ability to see the game unfold and his willingness to provide opportunity for others with ball in hand was beautiful to watch. A handball over his shoulder, hitting a teammate in stride as he ran in the opposite direction was the kind of act that became commonplace for Edwards.

But acts like that aren’t common – they’re special. Otherwise, everyone would be doing them, right?

The Tigers have Edwards, but also Jack Riewoldt, as their top goal-assist men. Riewoldt seemed to turn into this benevolent goal distributor in 2018, making something out of nothing for teammates at times, and seemingly doing the impossible with some amazing knocks back into play as everyone around him slowed, expecting a boundary throw in. I started to wonder whether Edwards’ way of operating was catching down at Punt Road.

Whilst Riewoldt has 192 career goal assists to his name, Edwards has 166, and though his 31 in 2018 is his career-high, I would not bet against him topping that number in 2019. After being selected to the All-Australian team in 2019, I believe that the lightbulb has definitely been flicked on in Edwards’ mind. Goal kickers get the accolades, but people are starting to respect the men that set them up more and more. And for the Tigers, no one set up his teammates more than Shane Edwards last season.

If Edwards is near the top of the leaderboard for goal assists again, opposition coaches had better start taking notice of what he’s doing out there. If they don’t the price will be hefty.

 

BUT IF…

… Shaun Grigg remains as the back-up ruckman, the Tigers might need a change.

The more I think about it, the more I start looking at teams that didn’t play a second ruckman last season, and wonder whether they’ll be made to pay in 2019. I mean, I am sure Damien Hardwick has looked at the ruck situation, and there’ll be certain times, on wet, cold days where playing a smaller, more mobile second ruck will be the preferred option, but I have a genuine concern that  with new ruck rules coming in, that smaller second ruckmen will find themselves being monstered at stoppages.

Here’s why.

We’ve already had a concerted effort by the AFL to make ruckmen more influential in the game. The “no third man up” rule ensured that rucks only had to beat their direct opponent at stoppages. In 2019 we get another rule that benefits the big men immensely.

This season, ruckmen will be able to take the ball cleanly in a ruck contest, and unlike previous seasons, if they can’t dispose of the ball effectively, they won’t be automatically pinged for holding the ball. The monsters of the competition – the big bodied, crash and bash rucks, will be able to pluck the ball from the contest and as long as they’re attempting to get rid of it, the worst possible outcome will be a repeat stoppage. The best will see a clean possession as they dispose of their smaller ruck opponent with bodywork, allowing them a clearing kick or a quick handball to advantage.

Whilst I don’t doubt the ability of Toby Nankervis to compete with and nullify the influence of the league’s best big men (he is one of my favourite players to watch), I have serious doubts as to whether Shaun Grigg can do the same. There were points in 2018 where Grigg, as the backup ruck, didn’t even bother to compete in the air. Instead, he opted to wait at ground level, knowing that should his opponent take possession, he was in position to tackle him, and thus earn a free kick for holding the ball.

With this rule change, that tactic won’t work in 2019. A tackle will result in another stoppage, and we’ll rinse and repeat until a ruck taps it, or gets a successful clearance. Not contesting the tap is resigning yourself to the fact that your team will probably be chasing tail.

Ivan Soldo might find himself with more game time in 2019 out of necessity. On days when the weather is clear and the wind isn’t playing havoc with the ball in the air – so basically when ruckmen aren’t a liability around the ground, a Nank-Soldo combination could allow the Tigers to match it with big ruck combos (Grundy/Cox/Roughead, Gawn/Preuss, Ryder/Lycett) without losing traction at stoppages.

New rule interpretations (and whole new rules) have added a new dimension to the 2019 season, and whichever coach and team adapt best to them early could have a flying start. The Tigers are good enough to win games even with one ruck doing the bulk of the work, but as the season rolls on, I believe we’ll start seeing some creative use of the “emergency” players on the eve, or morning of the game.

If you see Soldo named as an emergency, and the day is a clear one, I’d be putting some dollars on the second big for the Tigers making an appearance come the first bounce.

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Look! Mongrel Punt Stubby Holders. Buy one and be cooler than all your friends! It also helps the site out.

 

… Dusty gets hurt, the Tigers struggle

This sounds like an obvious one, right? Hear me out.

What were Queen without Freddie Mercury? What were INXS without Michael Hutchence? The Doors without Morrison, perhaps - how did they go? Losing a front man is the death of a band in many cases… and don’t throw AC/DC at me, please. There’s always an exception.

Tiger fans… I want to go back to the 2018 Preliminary Final one more time – I know it hurts, and I’m sorry. This is your trigger warning. I just want to emphasise just how important this bloke is to your team.

The Richmond Football Club, with Dustin Martin up and about, can almost move mountains. He is as irrepressible as any player in the game, and with him shoving people in the chest, breaking away from packs, running hard to position and finishing in front of goals, the Tigers have a weapon that no one can stop.

But when he isn’t 100% fit, he almost looks… human.

Let’s face it, the 2017 version of Dustin Martin was almost at superhero levels. He had the kind of season that you’d dream of having as a kid, cleaning up in all the awards races, standing on the dais as the best player in the biggest game of the year, and leading your team to a long-sought-after flag. It was the dream season.

But in one game, and with one knock just above the knee, Dusty, and his Tigers were brought back down to Earth. A thigh contusion, resulting in bleeding into his knee, dragged Dusty back to the pack, and what Richmond needed was their superhero. Collingwood found one that day, and Richmond’s was physically unable to exit the phone box.

On his day, Dusty is the best player in the game. Some can do snippets of what he does, but none can put it all together quite like he can. Richmond, for all their balanced performances, all their team-pressure, and all their stars need Martin to stand head and shoulders above all others. He is the beacon others will rally to. He is the light in whatever dark place the Tigers may find themselves in. He is their star, and they need him to be just that in order to rise above the competition.

Richmond with an above average Dustin Martin are contenders. Richmond with Dustin Martin donning his cape are premiers.

 

OTHER STUFF

I covered Dusty above, but there was another bloke not at 100% in that Prelim Final, and that was David Astbury. Between him, Rance and Dylan Grimes, the Tigers have an unbelievable defensive threesome (isn’t that how most threesomes start? Asking for a friend…). Astbury was ill the week of the game, and it showed. The saying ‘a chain is only as strong as its weakest link’ rang true, with the Richmond defence faltering on the second biggest stage.

Now I am not pointing the finger at Astbury – far from it. He is an unsung hero in the back half. I’m more making the point that even a great team like Richmond can be brought undone by one or two players not being at 100%. History is littered with teams that took in underdone or injured players to big games, and paid the price. Come September, I’d expect the Tigers to take no risks this season.

I am absolutely astounded  that no other team took a punt on Jacob Townsend during the off-season. Re-signing with Richmond, Townsend provides a fantastic back up option should any injury befall one of the Richmond starting six forwards. He has a wonderful attack on the ball, and the man when required, and can still make an impact for the Tigers in 2019 despite being encouraged to seek opportunity elsewhere. If he gets his opportunity again, he might be one of those blokes who is very difficult to get out of a team once he gets in.

If you’re Damien Hardwick, who would you be looking at to take advantage of the new kick-in rule that allows you to take off and not have to kick to yourself first? With the man on the mark a further five metres back, a player like Jayden Short could really do some significant damage. I could see him loitering around as players take long shots for goal and miss. With him grabbing the ball, running 15 metres and roosting it 60, the Tigers will be off and running before the opposition knows what’s hit them. Got any other players who could be a viable option to play that role? Let us know.

Will we continue to see the evolution of Kane Lambert into an elite mid in 2019? His selection in the All-Australian squad finally made people sit up and take notice of just how far he’d come in 2018. He had a career high in disposals (22.55) and contested touches (8.95) and was able to take plenty of heat off his more celebrated midfield teammates. If we see him start to push towards 25 touches per game, could a berth in the AA side be next?

Speaking of celebrated midfielders, Trent Cotchin had an interesting 2018. Despite his personal production dipping to his lowest disposal average since 2010 (22.05), Cotchin’s leadership and ability to split contests he had no business getting to continued to enhance his reputation. Being voted as the best captain in the game indicated that players on other teams were aware of his influence as well.

But is a further drop in production on the cards for Cotch? And at what point does a lack of production become an issue, particularly with others getting their hands on the ball so often and crying out for more opportunity? Do the Tigers even require him to be a ball-winner anymore? Does he step into a different role? I know this might be a little left-field, but I personally think Cotch could be one of the best negating players in the game if he decided to wear that hat. His never-say-die attitude and determination to get to the ball first in one-on-one contests make him incredibly tough to beat. If he is having a quieter day, a defensive mid role beckons, and would be very, very effective.

So all great teams have one thing in common – organic improvement, and we’re asking this in every team we preview (which is every team, by the way). So where does it come from for the Tigers?

Jack Higgins had a great first year in the system. He became a cult hero as much for his lack of refinement in front of the microphone as his miraculous goal kicking. What is his ceiling, though? Is he just the goal sneak? Does he move into the midfield? Can he be a creator instead of a finisher? Higgins is an enigma, and capable of being a star in the game. He has a feel for the contest that not many possess and his enthusiasm is infectious not only for teammates, but for supporters as well. 16.2 touches per game and 15 goal for the season are a decent return, but he’d be eyeing that 20 touches and a goal per game average in 2019. That’s where he needs to get.

It’ll be interesting to see if the Tigers start preparing for life after the defensive trilogy of Rance, Grimes and Astbury in the form of Ryan Garthwaite. With a couple of games in 2018, Garthwaite will be hungry for more opportunity, and may even be able to slot in as a key forward if circumstances dictate. With him and Callum Moore coming through, the Tigers look to have some good young big men ready to slot in where required.

I can’t believe Daniel Rioli has played 55 games already. He still strikes me as such a baby (in the best possible sense). Regardless, his impact on the team, whether it be defensive with run-down tackles, or in attack (he is averaging just a touch under a goal per game) is undeniable. After a slow start to 2018 due to the ankle injury he suffered in the 2017 Grand Final, Rioli should be cherry-ripe for 2019. With an improved fitness base, I expect him to be more involved up and around the wings, and we should see an increase on his 14.2 touches per game. And if he plays a bit further up the ground at times, does the door open a little for Shai Bolton to get some forward line game time?

So how does the draw look for the Tigers this season? Thy get the Blues twice, which is a bit of a gift, but their other double ups are tough. Collingwood, GWS, Melbourne and Port will all provide big obstacles, with all but the Dees getting a win over the Tigers last season.

Their run from Round 2-6 is a tough one, and will go a long way to indicating just where they sit in the 2019 pecking order. Games against Collingwood at the ‘G, Port and GWS on the road, followed by the Swans and Demons back at the MCG will provide a testing period. If they emerge from that stretch with a record better than 3-3, the Tigers will be very well-placed. With their last seven games all at the MCG, you'd expect a fast finish to the year.

And where does the Old Mongrel see them finishing? Well, truth be told, with what they possess and with a fire lit under them by their exit before having the chance to defend their title, I can’t see Richmond not being a part of the last fortnight in September. Their 2018 form up until the loss to Collingwood was as impressive as I’ve seen a team perform over the course of the year, and a replica of that will be more than enough to secure home finals.

Richmond are a powerhouse. They have great forwards, mids and backs. Their only weakness comes with a lack of quality depth, but should they get another good run with injury, they have the ability to lay good teams to waste.

Maybe 2018 was a wakeup call? Maybe they listened to a few people who thought that a Grand Final berth was a mere formality? Maybe… just maybe a few got a little ahead of themselves. Not making the Grand Final last year is a sobering reminder that one bad day can cost so much. For Richmond it cost the opportunity for back-to-back flags.

But it also may have given them the impetus to make 2019 a year of redemption. If we’re talking teams that look most likely, I’m afraid we’re talking about the Richmond Footy Club in 2019. They’re the current favourite for the flag, and rightly so.

Can 2019 be the Year of the Tiger again? All I know is my gut says… maybe.

 

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