Richmond supporters crave success like children crave junk food. Once they’ve had a taste, the more you feed them, the more they want it.
But try and deny them altogether, particularly when you’ve modified behaviour so they think it’s coming, and you get wild-eyed, ravenous hysteria.
If finals, and the journey to them, in 2013, ’14 and ’15 were like illicit drugs to the Tiger army, then 2016 was the horrible comedown. Damien Hardwick and a new look coaching staff under him are tasked with giving the fervent supporter base their next hit.
A bright and energetic gameplan has been promised, and the early signs are okay. Fingers screeching down a blackboard were preferable to watching Richmond play last year. There was board upheaval, malaise among the membership, and irrelevance was fast approaching.
Damien Hardwick has committed to letting his team play with more freedom this season, in a tacit admission that he was responsible for over-coaching and paralysis-by-analysis previously. It is clear that content from The Roar played a part in the post-season review.
The off-season delivered an active trade period, and a restructuring of the off-field hierarchy at Richmond. There is a glint of optimism in Tiger eyes once more. Suckers.
Richmond Tigers’ best 22
|B||Dylan Grimes||David Astbury||Oleg Markov|
|HB||Bachar Houli||Alex Rance||Kamdyn McIntosh|
|C||Corey Ellis||Dustin Martin||Dion Prestia|
|HF||Shaun Grigg||Jack Riewoldt||Shane Edwards|
|F||Sam Lloyd||Ben Griffiths||Daniel Rioli|
|Foll||Toby Nankervis||Josh Caddy||Trent Cotchin|
|Int||Nick Vlastuin||Reece Conca||Anthony Miles||Brandon Ellis|
Emergencies: Shaun Hampson, Jayden Short, Ben Lennon
Richmond have lost Brett Deledio and Tyrone Vickery, but brought in Dion Prestia, Josh Caddy and Toby Nankervis. The end result is a net gain, in the short, medium and long terms.
Let’s start with the skipper.
It’s rare for a player to reach the heights Trent Cotchin did in 2012 as a 22-year-old, and then to stagnate or go backwards through what should be the prime years to follow. He had strong foot soldiers Shane Tuck and Daniel Jackson for company in his Brownlow year, and the addition of Prestia and Caddy could well elevate Cotchin’s game once more, and Richmond’s with it.
Prestia is a natural ball magnet, as at home on the inside as he is the outside. He just wins the footy, and uses it well enough.
Caddy was top three for clearances, tackles and contested possessions at Geelong in 2015, and also kicked more goals than any other midfielder. Obviously a certain P.Dangerfield changed the dynamic at the Cats last season, and Caddy will be a better player at Richmond than he was at Geelong.
Dustin Martin is one of the nuclear weapons in the AFL, who should be primed for his best season. What he gained in disposals last year, he lost in goals, and a more friendly game plan should see his impact levels reach a career high.
Nick Vlastuin is the other member of a four-man quartet that will be required to balance inside and outside play with resting forward and impacting the scoreboard.
Like Cotchin, Martin and Caddy, Vlastuin is a good isolated one-on-one player, particularly in the air, and with Richmond lacking some obvious support options for Jack Riewoldt, these four will be required to deliver five to six goals a game between them. Expect to see one of them deep inside 50 at all times.
Corey Ellis will be expected to stamp himself in a playmaking role, while Shaun Grigg continues to be an important linking member of the midfield. Anthony Miles may see himself squeezed out of the line-up with the new contested ball additions, and runners like Connor Menadue and Nathan Drummond will be hoping to claim a spot.
Brandon Ellis is at the crossroads as a conservative ball-carrier, and if he continues down that path should be facing VFL time regardless of how many touches he accumulates. Reece Conca is another whose judgement day is fast approaching. In some eyes, it has been and gone.
Nankervis has designs on the number one ruck spot, which was Shaun Hampson’s last year. The ex-Swan has made a big impression over summer, with his appetite for the contest at ground level, sure hands and neat left foot. Already, he is a more rounded player than Hampson ever will be.
The Tigers are lacking in tall forward support for Jack Riewoldt, who we know sets a high standard both inside forward 50 or pushing further up the ground. He needs to be averaging three goals and a goal assist per game, and should be splitting his time 70/30 deep versus up-field.
Richmond’s biggest problem this year is going to be relying on Ben Griffiths in a key forward post. Tiger fans have seen glimpses of game-breaking talent across his seven years in the AFL, but they have also seen many games of no impact, and a lack of physical presence that is disconcerting from a man of his imposing dimensions (200cm, 101kgs).
Ben Lennon has been a disappointment, but is the type of player his team needs as that lead-up linkman between the arcs. If he can’t deliver, and most signs suggest he can’t, then Riewoldt will be required to push up, taking him away from where he can hurt opposition sides the most.
The Griffiths-Lennon dynamic, and their lack of reliability, could cripple any hope the Tigers have of finals football. Riewoldt will have to deal with double and triple teaming. It may force Nankervis to play as a forward with Hampson moving into the ruck, which is plan B, and creates its own imbalance.
Sam Lloyd may be able to take some of the lead-up responsibility, and the rotating midfielders mentioned earlier are also key. Many hands are going to need to make light work.
The Richmond smaller fleet may rise from nowhere to cause problems for the opposition this year. Daniel Rioli has bulked up and looks sharp; Shane Edwards, who is critical to Tiger success when right, might be ready to recapture his best form; and the speedy Dan Butler and Jason Castagna are putting pressure on from underneath.
Alex Rance will lead the defence. Rarely has someone been as comfortable in their own skin off the field, and rarer still has a key defender delivered so reliably on it. He has the most complete all-round game of any key defender this century, with Matthew Scarlett his only equal.
The rest of the Tiger backline looks thin.
David Astbury and Dylan Grimes are both members of Honest Battler’s Anonymous. Oleg Markov was a bright light in a dim second half of 2017. Kamdyn McIntosh will likely find a home as a rangy running type with third defensive tall capabilities.
Bachar Houli, like Grigg, often has a target on his back among Richmond supporters, theory being that he is a turnover merchant under any hint of pressure. The flipside to that coin is that he is a positive playmaker, and his skillset is suited to a more attacking gameplan.
Richmond won eight games last season, and finished 13th on the ladder. They should be measurably better based on new players, new coaches, new thinking, and were coming off finals campaigns in the three years prior.
As for a lot of teams in the lower-mid bracket, the Tigers are capable of surprising and should be in the conversation for finals. If they’re not, Damien Hardwick will likely be executed – metaphorically speaking, of course.
Then again, they are a passionate, unstable and unwieldy bunch at Tigerland…
Predicted ladder spread: seventh-12th
Predicted finish: 10th
Best and fairest: Alex Rance
Leading goalkicker: Jack Riewoldt
All-Australian potential: Dustin Martin, Alex Rance, Jack Riewoldt
Rising Star candidates: Jason Castagna, Jack Graham, Oleg Markov