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Game Review - Fremantle v Richmond

Last season, when Richmond left Melbourne, they had a 1-4 record, with their interstate losses to Adelaide, West Coast, Port Adelaide and GWS being their only losses for the home and away season in a season that didn’t end the way any Tigers supporters wanted it to. This year their road record has already improved, with that uplifting, season defining win over Port in Round Four.

However, after being belted last week by the young, upstart dogs, led by Marcus Bontempelli and Aaron Naughton, not many would have picked Richmond to overcome their interstate kryptonite by travelling across the Nullarbor and beating a surprisingly good Fremantle side, led by superstar captain Nathan Fyfe and contested marking jets Jesse Hogan, Rory Lobb and Matt Taberner.

The Dockers themselves were also coming off a relatively disappointing loss in a dour, tight contest against Adelaide, but would have probably backed themselves to get up here and stay in touch with the top 4. Here’s what happened:

Oh We’re (Far) From Tigerland

As I stated earlier, the Tigers road resilience was their one weakness last year, with their only win coming against a depleted, dejected Gold Coast side late in a game that represented more of a training drill. While their win against Port was arguably as good as any win they’d had since the 2017 Grand Final, they still entered this game as outsiders (just), against a resurgent Freo side, who have managed to start scoring heavily at home while restricting their opposition to low scores.

It was important, then, for the Tigers to get a good jump out of the gate to stay in touch with their opponents, but I don’t think in even the most optimistic Richmond fan’s mind they could have expected to perform the way they did in the first ten minutes in Perth. Shai Bolton has been in and out of the senior side over the last couple of years but on Sunday evening he was magnificent, with two goals early setting the tone for his side. Equally good, though, was the big Nank, who was monstering Rory Lobb early before going off with what seemed like a groin injury. Though he did come back on, he looked pretty much cooked, and didn’t take part in the game after half time, and despite the fact that the stats suggested Lobb was dominant against the makeshift ruck duo of Noah Balta and Nathan Broad, the effort of the Tigers pair around the ground made the contest as close as Damien Hardwick probably could have wanted.

At times, especially throughout the first half, when Fremantle managed to set up their wall across half forward, Richmond really looked like they were struggling to break through, and the only thing that kept them in the game was the Docker’s inability to score with just 5 goals from their 29 first half entries. Down back, Bachar Houli battled incredibly well in the absence of Nick Vlastuin, finishing with 30 touches at 80% efficiency, including 7 intercepts and 515 metres gained. Make no mistake, the Tigers missed Vlastuin, as at times Freo’s tall forwards managed to take contested marks a little too easily, but with Houli in fine form, in combination with Dylan Grimes and the returning David Astbury, who were again outstanding, Richmond managed to restrict their opposition exceedingly well. 

Another thing that should excite Richmond fans out of this game was the return of their vintage 2017-esque ball movement and forward pressure. The Tigers have been far from disgraceful this year, but they are yet to look like the all-conquering side they were through the home and away season last year. Sunday evening was a return to that kind of form, with players managing to keep the ball in motion by any means necessary, and when they did they looked simply irrepressible, especially in the third quarter when they managed 6.4 from just 13 inside 50’s.

The last point here, but another exciting sign for Richmond fans as Tom Lynch played, I reckon, his best game in yellow and black. While he kicked 6 goals from not many touches against the Power, playing on Alex Pearce on Sunday, he was excellent, and should probably have kicked a bigger bag than just the 2.2. Pearce was beginning to be talked up in the Melbourne media, and rightly so, but Lynch absolutely takes the points from this contest, with his goal kicking return matched with 8 score involvements and 6 contested marks out of 8 total. The Tigers looked to have left their road demons behind, and Lynch has been a big factor in that.

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Docker Shocker in Front of Goal

Like in the 2013 Grand Final, Fremantle had plenty of chances to win this game, and just like in that game, they were overrun by a side that probably were better than them. Before I get into the good aspects of their game, their profligacy in terms of kicking for goal needs to be discussed. They had so many chances to keep themselves in this game after half time, but wasted nigh on every single one of them as Richmond extended their slender 13 point lead at the long break to 27 points at three quarter time. Fremantle kicked 3.8 from 15 inside 50’s in that quarter, with Brandon Matera the chief offender, kicking 1.3 in the quarter. At the end of the day, Freo kicked 12.14 to the Tigers’ 17.9, and the home side had more inside 50’s, and yet barely fired a shot and never really looked like winning after half time.

Nathan Wilson played what would have to be one of his worst games in purple, though he wasn’t alone, but it is the drive Wilson provides off half back which is so critical to this Fremantle side that was so effectively shut down. He ended the day with 10 touches, after having just two to half time, for just 328 metres gained, well down on his usual output. Joining him, though, was Brad Hill, who has such high standards yet ran out the day with 15 touches to his name at just 60% and with just 210 metres gained. Without these two runners, the Dockers struggled to get their running game going, and even though when they did go they looked a good side, they simply don’t try it enough to damage the good sides.

It wasn’t all bad for Fremantle though. Fyfe was enormous, though he did pad his numbers out a little late (more on him later). David Mundy was again spectacular in his career renaissance season, finishing with 27 touches, 18 of which were contested, with 9 clearances and a great goal from 50 to keep his side in with a sniff in the third quarter. Michael Walters continues to bloom into one of the best players in the league, and had 27 touches too, with 8 inside 50’s and 460 metres gained. Rory Lobb battled manfully and took 4 contested marks but butchered the footy a little, while Matt Taberner added 3 contested grabs and was better than his return of 1.1 would suggest. The Dockers were far from disgraceful on Sunday though, and had many chances to win it, but only have themselves to blame after not getting up.

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The Old Dogs and the New

The title to this subsection may be a little misleading, but it isn’t every week we get to see two Brownlow medallists go head to head and I wanted to sneak a Game of Thrones reference into this article. The 2015 winner in Fyfe has been excellent so far this season, taking his game close to the level that saw him crowned the AFL’s fairest and best, while the 2017 winner in Martin has had some well publicised struggles returning to his dominant form, so when they went head to head on Sunday it shaped for a fascinating match up that would likely decide the game. It probably didn’t quite in the end, as Fyfe was by far his side’s best player while Martin was more than serviceable but not better than Bolton or Houli.

Early on in the game the match up looked like it was going to go exactly to script, as Fyfe racked up disposals at will while Dusty looked almost uninterested in running defensively. Indeed Freo’s ascendancy after giving up the first four goals of the contest was built largely on Fyfe’s 6  first half clearances, while Martin had almost zero influence after the first ten minutes of the first quarter up until half time. When Fyfe was off the ground though, Richmond had the run of play to the point of almost insanity. The extent to which Fremantle are a better side with the ball in their captain’s hands is crazy and, largely, unsustainable. Walters and Mundy are, no doubt, excellent players who supplement their skipper superbly, but when Fyfe wasn’t getting his hands on the ball Richmond were dominant.

In part, the fact that Richmond were the better side when Fyfe wasn’t getting hands on the ball is best exemplified by the fact that the Docker had just one clearance after half time when Richmond piled on 10 goals to 7 to seal the game. On the other hand, Dusty worked into the game hard late in the second quarter and through the second half. He set up the play for Lynch’s second goal and Broad’s first career goal before the long break, then was critical in setting up Lynch’s shot at goal immediately after half time that somewhat fortuitously resulted in a Balta goal. It was great vision from Martin to spot up Castagna for his second goal, and it’s days like today that remind you that if you can set up scoring chances like that, you don’t need to run defensively.

With his clever goal from 45, it was a pretty good day out for Martin. Again, Fyfe was probably better overall, and was exceptional up to half time. He ended the game with 3 goals from 33 touches, though two of his goals came in the last five minutes when the game was already over, as well as 21 contested touches, 606 metres gained and 9 inside 50’s. Martin may have only had 23 touches, with 9 of them coming from the contest, but he also had 9 score involvements and 5 inside 50’s. In terms of influence on the game, you’d almost be willing to say they broke even.

Purple Wave or Purple Ripple?

Despite the 27 point advantage to Richmond at the final break, injuries to Jack Ross and Toby Nankervis meant the Tigers were genuinely undermanned, and there was a sense that if Freo could kick a couple of early goals, they might have managed to run over the top of the opposition. The opportunity fell to Brandon Matera, who could have got his side on a roll but instead kicked his fourth behind of the evening. Somehow, Richmond just never ran out of legs, and looked relatively quick with their run, even in spite of their two-man disadvantage. Brandon Ellis’ goal served well as a settler, and came through a vintage passage of yellow and black football. It wasn’t necessarily pretty, but the fierce desire to keep the ball in motion at all costs clearly paid off.

If halfway through the lost you were forced to guess which team had the injuries you almost certainly would have said Fremantle. Their players looked tired, they were missing targets and they weren’t sticking to their systems, instead making mistakes based purely on their intent to hack the ball forward. Ed Langdon kicked another behind, another example of how the Dockers’ deficit could be blamed mostly on themselves, and when Bolton kicked his 4th the result was beyond doubt. Even still, the Tigers kept running, with a desperate Conor Menadue running down Sam Switkowski from behind to save a certain goal. At times, it looked like the men in purple didn’t even want to kick a goal.

At the end of the game, the Dockers finally managed to start kicking straight, and three junk time goals really flattered them hugely. Fyfe’s two goals at the end were both classy, but it was simply a case of too little and far too late.

So what next?

Fremantle fall back to the pack a little after that one, with their 4th loss leaving them still sitting in the 8 based on their healthy enough percentage. Richmond, on the other hand, have defied injury, a poor road record and, frankly, expectations in winning their 5th game, seeing them leapfrog into 6th spot, just ahead of the Eagles. Next week, the Dockers take on a listless Essendon side at Marvel Stadium, with both sides being desperate for a win and the Dons needing a big performance. For the Tigers, it’s back to familiar ground as they take on a still-alive Hawthorn, coming off a good win against the Giants.