Tigers unleashed: Richmond breaks out of its cage, and into the 2017 flag race

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By Ryan Buckland, Ryan Buckland is a Roar Expert

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    Four rounds into the year, the Tigers of old find themselves one of three undefeated teams sitting in the top four of the AFL ladder. While a hot start was always in prospect, the manner by which Richmond have gone about their work suggests theirs form is not merely a product of a kind fixture.

    Coming into the year, there were enough signs of life at Punt Road to approach this season with some optimism.

    The Tigers had fallen into the abyss of the mid-table in 2016, against most pundits expectations. After some off-season moves, including a complete overhaul of coach Damien Hardwick’s main support staff and gameplan, a decent year looked in prospect.

    Four weeks into the season, those signs from six weeks ago have materialised into four wins from four starts, and Richmond standing with Geelong, Adelaide and Greater Western Sydney atop the AFL ladder.

    At face value, finals football is close to touching distance for these teams. Since the 2000 season, 29 teams have been undefeated after four rounds of a home-and-away season. Just three of them missed out on playing in September: 2000 Collingwood, 2010 Brisbane and 2012 Essendon. 2013 Essendon technically meet this criteria, but for the purposes of quality of team they made the cut as a finalist.

    It is a remarkable strike rate, and one which should give us all great pause for thought.

    A 4-0 start means the Tigers (and Adelaide and Geelong) are well ahead on a season-long target of the 12 or more wins which almost certainly means finals in most years. With 18 games still to come, an 8-10 or 9-9 record from here puts any of the three leading record teams well in the hunt. Any more, and the spoils grow.

    Richmond are in that position. While the Tigers are not in the same league as the brutally efficient Adelaide Crows, there are abundant signs that what we’ve seen from Richmond thus far is real. From here, a fourth trip to September in five years looks in prospect.

    Pause for thought
    Before the plaudits start flowing, a word of warning: Richmond have played what could very well be three of the worst teams in the competition in 2017, in Carlton, Collingwood and Brisbane. The Tigers also hosted West Coast at the MCG, a game which was affected by rain for most of the second half.

    So far this year, the Tigers have played the 14th most difficult fixture in the competition, worth an average of ten extra points a week. The team’s average margin has been 31 a game, meaning the schedule accounts for about a third of their performance to date.

    Coming into the year, the data said Richmond was likely to face the second least difficult slate of opponents, with two of their favourable double ups coming in the first month of the season. That’s proven to be the case to date.

    So if we adjust for Richmond’s early-season cakewalk, their percentage of 141.5 per cent through four games drops down to 130.5 per cent. The Tigers’ underlying percentage might not be as world-beating as it seems, but 130 is an outstanding mark if it holds over the full season.

    Does it mean the Tigers are the real deal? The positive signs don’t end here.

    Getting it done by getting it forward
    For so long, Richmond were stodgy, slow and indecisive. It was the lament of Tiger fans everywhere, including The Roar’s own Cameron Rose (whom I made sure wasn’t also writing about Richmond this week before beginning this piece – he said he only likes to write about his team when they are going badly).

    Despite possessing a top-ten key forward, the best key defender, and three top-30 or so midfielders, Richmond lacked any semblance of dynamism in a league that was increasingly demanding it.

    No longer. Richmond have returned to their pre-2014 ways, moving the ball with remarkable pace, taking risks and reaping the rewards. Again, quality of opposition is an important consideration, but even then, Richmond’s intent to pay aggressive football is crystal clear.

    The stodgy, slow ball-movement of years past is no more. The Tigers have taken just 42 field marks per game to start the season, almost half of their mark (80.9 per game) from 2016. Their use of the handball has fallen significantly too – from 152 per game to just 111 per game to start the year. Richmond’s defenders and half backs have been given the authority to move quickly, a stark contrast to the patient, possession-heavy style of last season.

    It has manifested in strong territory wins for the Tigers to date. Their inside 50 differential of +7.5 per game puts them in the top four on this statistic for the year, despite the team holding on to the ball for one and a half minutes less than their opponents (on average).

    Richmond has been the second best team at generating inside 50s per minute of possession to date. It is translating to high scores, but also helping their defence, which has been the most miserly by way of points conceded so far this year.

    Maybe this is what he meant by Hawthorn-like
    All of this is being helped along by a revolutionary change in Richmond’s forward structure and methods.

    While the Tigers have picked Jack Riewoldt and two ruckmen (with the idea being one ruckman will rest forward) in each of their four outings to date, for all intents and purposes, Riewoldt is the only tall player that spends the majority of his time inside forward 50.

    Josh Caddy Richmond Tigers 2017 AFL tall

    Riewoldt has started the year as a full-time stay-at-home full forward – a rare specimen indeed in the era of flexibility and mobile marking targets. Of his 55 touches in season 2017, 48 have come in the forward half of the ground, and 29 of those (53 per cent of his total) have been in the forward 50 arc. With this in mind, it’s clear coach Hardwick has decided Riewoldt’s best use is as a finisher, not a link man as he so often was in recent years, particularly when Ty Vickery was in the team.

    He is the centrepiece. The resting ruckman is no more than a foil (Toby Nankervis, Ben Griffiths and Todd Elton have scored 3.3 as a collective in four games). What’s fascinating is who makes up the supporting cast: three small forwards and a constantly rotating midfielder. We’ll deal with them in turn.

    Richmond has gone all in on a Hawthorn-2016-style small forward line, rolling with 22s that contain flexible, fast footballers capable of link play, ground ball wizardry and goal kicking. The list is larger than you think: Dan Butler, Jason Castagna, Daniel Rioli, Jayden Short, Ben Lennon and Sam Lloyd have all seen game time. The first three players on that list have played in every game so far this year, while Short has been a staple since Round 2.

    The smalls play higher up the ground than Riewoldt, hoovering up ground balls in the forward half and transitioning the ball inside 50 with great speed. The Tigers seem to like to use long kicks to exit their defensive 50, and rarely if ever kick to one-out contests, ensuring a smaller player is always available to gather a spoil or receive a handball in the event of a mark. Their forward 50 play is similar; long kicks to a leading player, with a small always front and centre to gather. When it works, it’s great.

    Speaking of Rioli, his start to the year is worth calling out specifically. Player comparisons for guys with less than 20 games under their belts is usually a sign of weak analysis, but given the manner Daniel Rioli has gone about his work in the opening rounds of the year, a comparison to his uncle, Hawthorn’s Cyril Rioli, is fair.

    He’s already kicked what looms as a top-three finisher in the 2017 Goal of the Year, and has added a Cyril-style tackle and harassment game to his arsenal. Daniel Rioli has already become one of the most watchable players in the game.

    For all intents and purposes, this is a completely different philosophy from Richmond. At times last year, Hardwick’s side ran with three tall forwards plus a full-time ruckman, with Lloyd and Rioli as the lone smalls. This group has been more effective.

    Despite the smaller look, Richmond are averaging 14.3 marks inside 50 per game, up from 11.3 per game last season. That’s three extra set shot opportunities, which doesn’t sound like much, but kicking (optimistically) three extra goals per game was almost the difference between Sydney’s fourth ranked and Gold Coast’s 14th-ranked offence last season.

    The Tigers’ indicators of efficiency are a little more mixed. While they’ve managed to generate a ton of inside 50s, they’re converting them to score at a below average clip. Despite the team’s penchant for small forwards, they sit in 12th for tackles inside 50 through four rounds, with 16 per game – Riewoldt leads the team, with three per game himself.

    Part of that could be the constant presence of a rotating midfielder, and the volatility this causes to the set up. The Tigers play one of Josh Caddy, Trent Cotchin, Dustin Martin or Nick Vlaustin inside 50 at all times, all of whom have different strengths and weaknesses which mess with defensive assignments for the opposition. It also means there is plenty of upside, even if their top four inside 50 differential falls back to the pack.

    Dustin Martin
    We can’t heap praise on Richmond’s start without mentioning their midfield, which has delivered on its preseason promise following the injection of a range of interesting players.

    Dion Prestia, Josh Caddy and Toby Nankervis have slotted in and played critical roles, so much so that there’s been nary a word spoken about them and their impact. Prestia hasn’t been the number one or number two at Richmond that he perhaps could have been, but that has been fine.

    Indeed, Prestia’s insertion has been Dangerfield-like, insofar as he has allowed Trent Cotchin to play a far more free-wheeling rover role as Dangerfield enabled Joel Selwood last year. Cotchin is second at the Tigers for score involvements with 7.3 per game, is third for intercept possessions (5.8 per game – very high for a midfielder) and is equal with Dustin Martin for clearance wins (6.3 per game). He is powering Richmond on the inside and out, smacking down the doubters who have been hounding him for years.

    But Richmond’s avatar is undisputedly Dustin Martin. His first game was the stuff of video games; 33 disposals, 13 contested possessions, nine score involvements, six clearances, 801 metres gained and four goals himself. He kicked one of the longest direct goal assists you’d ever hope to see, too.

    Martin’s second and third outings were just as impressive, while Ken Sakata favourite Mitch Robinson kept him quiet over the weekend. Hardwick is happy to use Martin as a one-out threat inside forward 50 more frequently this year, taking advantage of his unique one-on-one abilities when the ball hits the deck. Fox Sports has aired footage showing Martin lurking in Richmond’s attacking 50, opponent-less, while the ball is pinging around the opposite end of the ground. It’s a deadly tactic, and shows just how much of a focus Richmond has placed on quick transition in 2017.

    The test begins now
    While the signs are great, and the Tigers have jumped out of the gate, the howls of “who have they beaten” are deafening. Over the next four weeks, that call will either define the first half of the season, or prove as vapid as it appears on face value.

    There is nary a kind match-up on the horizon. After a Monday night date with Melbourne, the Tigers travel to play the unstoppable Adelaide Crows, play the Western Bulldogs at Etihad Stadium on a six-day break, and host the rejuvenated Fremantle Dockers at the MCG. It’s no murderer’s row, but in the context of their first four, the difficulty scales up a notch or two.

    The Tigers have an identity, a structure that has helped power their first four wins, and a clutch of great players capable of great things. Damien Hardwick’s gameplan is built for today’s league, and he has the players to execute it more often than not.

    A break-even performance in the next four weeks will leave Richmond 6-2, and likely well ensconced inside the top eight. From there, they can take the next chance, and the next, until they win or the chances are spent.

    A 4-0 start is a luxury for a team whom few gave any hope of making noise in the 2017 AFL season.

    Ryan Buckland
    Ryan Buckland

    As an economist, Ryan seeks to fix the world's economic troubles one graph at a time. As a sports fan, he's always looking one or two layers beneath the surface to search for meaning, on and off the field. You can follow Ryan here.

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    The Crowd Says (60)

    • April 19th 2017 @ 4:53am
      SmithHatesMaxwell said | April 19th 2017 @ 4:53am | ! Report

      They’ll probably finish 6th to 8th and get bundled out in the first week. Will be quite amusing.

      So far they’ve had a win against Carlton.

      Beat a wasteful Collingwood.

      The win against the Eagles was more about the weather and the lack of Eagles intensity than Richmond playing well.

      And a win against Brisbane.

      • April 19th 2017 @ 6:47am
        Bill said | April 19th 2017 @ 6:47am | ! Report

        Lol. I was actully thinking 9th would be an appropriate position for them.

        • April 19th 2017 @ 7:25am
          Milo said | April 19th 2017 @ 7:25am | ! Report

          Lets check our facts shall we ? Last 10 years RFC has finished 9th once – 2008. While StK has finished 9th three times in 2007, 2012 & 2016. NM twice 2010 & 2011 are the other multiples.

          Really very boring joke.

          • April 19th 2017 @ 7:41am
            me too said | April 19th 2017 @ 7:41am | ! Report

            But it is their average positiion over the last few years, and their most common finish in the AFL period.

            • April 19th 2017 @ 8:01am
              Milo said | April 19th 2017 @ 8:01am | ! Report

              They had four finishes there from the mid 90s to 2000 when they were constantly challenging for the finals and that’s where the stigma comes from. But as said, I think its getting a little tedious now and an easy comment to throw out.

              They’ve had two finishes from there since so Id hardly call it “their average position over the last few years”. In fact they’re probably around 11-12th unfortunately.

              This perception and “they always sack their coaches (one sacking since KB’s contract wasn’t renewed in 1991)” are ones that the Tiger faithful continually have to rebut. Like i said, its boring.

          • April 19th 2017 @ 8:05am
            Neil from Warrandyte said | April 19th 2017 @ 8:05am | ! Report

            Totally agree Milo, however the ultra lazy keyboard warriors who continue to rehash what they have heard someone else say, will probably be saying the same thing in 20 years, even if the tigers don’t finish 9th again.
            From a football lover, who appreciates conversations that stimulate the mind and challenge the way we think about our great game, such repetitive dribble adds nothing.

            • April 19th 2017 @ 9:28am
              mattyb said | April 19th 2017 @ 9:28am | ! Report

              Does the ninth joke also have to do with Richmond finishing sixth in the latter years of the final five and finishing seventh a lot when it was a final six? I’m thinking that’s where the joke originally came from and was updated to ninth when the AFL introduced a final eight.
              Either way the jokes is getting old but people joke about the clubs they don’t support,it’s not really something to get upset about.

              Tigers are looking good this year. Under Hardwick the tigers have shown they can mix it with the best on their day. They have had a good draw admittedly,but they tend to be a confidence club. These early wins have really set the season up. I’d be surprised if Richmond don’t make the eight. They have some brilliant footballers on their list.
              Top four? Perhaps,let’s wait and see on that one.

              • April 19th 2017 @ 10:18am
                Milo said | April 19th 2017 @ 10:18am | ! Report

                Nup, it doesnt. The latter years of the final five found us down the bottom of the ladder. In fact dont think we got higher than 8th out of 12 (when there was a final five) following the 1982 GF. The final six has already been covered in earlier stats concerning the 90, but feel free to check.

                Frankly i dont think anyone gets too upset, its just a roll your eyes, cmon say something original or approaching a degree of fact, type reaction.

            • April 19th 2017 @ 12:19pm
              Slane said | April 19th 2017 @ 12:19pm | ! Report

              The worst thing about the ‘Ninth’ jokes in my opinion is that there are people who think that writing Ninthmond is funny and/or clever. Completely ignoring the fact that Ninthmond is awkward to say and is not a real word, North Melbourne have finished 9th more than the Tigers and North Melbourne becomes Ninth Melbourne with ease!

            • Roar Rookie

              April 19th 2017 @ 12:49pm
              Seano said | April 19th 2017 @ 12:49pm | ! Report

              Yeah the sacking coaches thing and 9th finish is silly.

              Perhaps we should stick to no premierships since 1980.

              I’m pretty sure I will still be saying that in 20 years too!

              • April 19th 2017 @ 7:34pm
                tibor nagy (big four sticks) said | April 19th 2017 @ 7:34pm | ! Report

                No they won’t because Richmond will be premiers in 2017. We have the game plan, we have the players, and we have the will to win. After Monday we will be 5-0. The football world will finally sit up and take Richmond seriously. I don’t see Essendoom winning a flag in the next 20 years.

          • April 19th 2017 @ 7:45pm
            Mark said | April 19th 2017 @ 7:45pm | ! Report

            And yet people like you still take the bait.

      • Roar Guru

        April 19th 2017 @ 10:12am
        Paul D said | April 19th 2017 @ 10:12am | ! Report

        Do you like anything about football?

    • April 19th 2017 @ 7:06am
      Slane said | April 19th 2017 @ 7:06am | ! Report

      Exciting times ahead for Tiger fans. This next month is a real litmus test for this young group. The Tigers still have a tendency to ease up and allow their opposition to dictate the game for short periods. Hopefully they will keep the pressure going for a whole match because the REAL contenders only need one blistering quarter to win a game.

      I think the two most impressive things about Richmond so far are:
      A) Hardwick has reinvented his gameplan. Knowing he needs results he has swallowed his pride and made some changes.
      B) The Tigers have a LOT of inexperienced players running around. Rioli, Butler, Castagna, Nankervis, Short, Menadue and Todd Elton have not played 50 games between them. Todd Elton has probably been a flop but the rest will be fixtures in the Richmond team for the next few years, hopefully getting better with each season.

      I really can’t understand why Richmond delisted Liam McBean(2 VFL goal kicking awards) and Matt Dea(serviceable back-up defender) while holding on to Todd Elton. He has the body for AFL but never looks like being a dangerous player.

      • April 19th 2017 @ 9:18am
        Milo said | April 19th 2017 @ 9:18am | ! Report

        Think the knock on McBean was while he had talent, he wasn’t prepared to work hard enough. Probably believed he was as good as his housemate (Joe Daniher) without having to do all the work. That said, agree Elton’s not the answer either and if Griffiths is available he will get selected this week which may push Elton out. . And gees I hope Griffiths does what he’s been promising for some time otherwise he too will have a shortened career.

        • April 19th 2017 @ 10:31am
          Philby said | April 19th 2017 @ 10:31am | ! Report

          Ben Griffiths at his best would be a decent centre half forward, but he is yet to produce that form with anything approaching reasonable consistency (same problem as with Ty, really). That leaves a huge hole at centre half forward, which you just can’t have if you are a serious finalist.

          I’d be fine if we offered up both of our first round draft picks for Tom Lynch (!!), but in the meantime, it’s either give Ben another go, or…bite the bullet and give Ivan Soldo a run. He’s been solid in the ruck in the twos and has goal sense as well as being pretty mobile for his size (204cm, 106kgs). I’d start him in the ruck against Melbourne’s (relatively) inexperienced ruck and put Toby at centre half forward.

          The other reason I’d give Soldo a run is that if Toby gets injured, we’d have to throw him in anyway, as our backups are also injured – best to get him experience first, in a planned way.

          I know Chol is another option, but still too green and too light, I think.

        • April 19th 2017 @ 10:33am
          Slane said | April 19th 2017 @ 10:33am | ! Report

          I’m not saying that McBean is the answer to Richmonds second forward, but surely it makes more sense to keep a talented young player on your list and watch him mature than to keep a talentless mature player and hope he magically finds some talent. Griffiths definitely goes harder at the ball/pack than Vickery does, it’s a shame his goal kicking is so shoddy. I’d love to see Griffo taking marks on the 50 and dobbing goals from 60 every game.

          • Roar Guru

            April 19th 2017 @ 11:19am
            Paul D said | April 19th 2017 @ 11:19am | ! Report

            If he was worth persisting with someone would have rookie listed him after Richmond gave him the axe – no-one bothered to pick him up in 2017, McBean is currently playing down in the SANFL for Glenelg.

            Griffith is basically a more experienced version of Mason Cox.

            • April 19th 2017 @ 12:15pm
              Slane said | April 19th 2017 @ 12:15pm | ! Report

              That’s a fair point, Paul. There are blokes who get paid to watch/judge these players and McBean has been found wanting by the lot of them.

          • April 19th 2017 @ 11:20am
            Milo said | April 19th 2017 @ 11:20am | ! Report

            Griffo’s got an amazing boot, be great if he could use it.

            Think the thing with Elton is he must work harder on the track than most as Hardwick seems to have a penchant of sticking with those sorts of guys like him, Morris, Hunt, who quite frankly should never get another game at AFL level. Admire Morris btw, but he’s very limited skills wise.

            • April 19th 2017 @ 12:25pm
              Slane said | April 19th 2017 @ 12:25pm | ! Report

              You are probably right about Elton being a hard worker. I’m sure he will make an excellent brick layer next season.

              Morris was my favourite player in his first season. The only Richmond player who can be relied upon to give 100% every time he pulls on the guernsey. It’s a shame he is so limited in his skillset. I remember him completely shutting down a range of high profile small forwards in his heyday, but now I just cringe when he touches the ball.

              Incidentally, your favourite whipping boys (Houli and Grigg) have had a great start to the season. Grigg in particular has really hit his straps. He has kicked a couple of clutch goals and we are only 4 weeks in.

              • April 19th 2017 @ 1:28pm
                Milo said | April 19th 2017 @ 1:28pm | ! Report

                Totally agree on both. Really hope they can continue but still have my doubts about Houli turning it over when the heats really on. Not on his Pat Malone I’ll admit.

    • April 19th 2017 @ 7:42am
      Milo said | April 19th 2017 @ 7:42am | ! Report

      Thanks for the article Ryan, good to get your take on the Tiges. Personally i agree they’ve not won anything yet from afar, but inside the victory against Carlton was all about dispelling pressure (they had everything to lose Carlton very little), Collingwood was about the ghosts of 2016 and that last gasp loss, and WCE was a hard fought game where they got behind but kept at it. Brisbane, yeah well sometimes teams have the wood on others. Before the season, even most passionate Tiger supporters would’ve looked at you strangely if you’d said we’d be 4-0.

      So the tests are definitely yet to come but if we can somehow snare two or best case three of the next five then it augers well for the rest of season.

      Win or lose, the change in game plan is astounding. For once under Hardwick they look like they have faith in a direction and are sticking to it. The communication seems consistent and the atmosphere exudes calm. Its a different administration and I cant help thinking people like Balme and Caracella and a wiser Leppa have had a fair bit of say in this.

      The addition of Prestia and Caddy has certainly helped in freeing others as you say and the rebirth of Maric II (Nankervis) gives some real inside warrior grunt overall. Don’t underestimate the departure of Lids and Vickery either. Actually think that’s been an overall positive. Lids was perceived as critical to the team’s win loss record while Vickery was overestimated in ability and short on execution. Having them gone while seemingly harsh, forced RFC to rethink its forward play especially imo.

      All up very early days, and the lid remains firmly ensconced but a lot to like.

      • April 19th 2017 @ 10:41am
        Philby said | April 19th 2017 @ 10:41am | ! Report

        Well, in support of Lids, I was critical of our win loss record too…

        A great player for the club, but it seems the trade was a win-win for club and player. All the best to him.

        • April 19th 2017 @ 10:55am
          Milo said | April 19th 2017 @ 10:55am | ! Report

          Point on Delidio I was trying to make (and didnt very well) was there seemed to be a perceived unhealthy reliance on him to help us get over the line and I don’t think that helped the team. To contrast, the game on Sunday against the Lions was the closest I’ve seen for years to an overall even team effort.

          Back to Lids, if he ended up in a premiership team this year, I don’t think anyone at Tigerland would begrudge him that.

          • April 19th 2017 @ 9:26pm
            Philby said | April 19th 2017 @ 9:26pm | ! Report

            Ah yes, I see what you meant now.

    • April 19th 2017 @ 7:53am
      George said | April 19th 2017 @ 7:53am | ! Report

      Next 4-5 games will be telling. Still have doubts about Richmond. Good new players but I noticed that Nankervis was dominated by Martin as game progressed. No team depth, so far lucky with injuries but 1-2 injuries to key players and they are in trouble. Keep an eye on Prestia as he does not train. I like their game style, it was unwatchable last year. Small forwards are exciting.

      • April 20th 2017 @ 9:10am
        Philby said | April 20th 2017 @ 9:10am | ! Report

        You’re right about Nankervis being dominated in the ruck tap outs, and that may be important against stiffer opposition. That’s another reason why I’d give young Soldo a run as his tap out work and general play are both improving rapidly. Try Nankervis at centre half forward/forward ruck, as I think he’d do better than Griffiths there.

        Regarding depth, with small forwards Rioli, Butler and Castagna, well, we’ve also recruited Shai Bolton and Tyson Stengle, and both of them shape up as excellent back up should any of the first 3 have issues with form or fitness. We also have players like Miles, who can’t even get a game at the moment, not to mention Lloyd, Lennon, Corey Ellis, Menadue, Markov, Batchelor, Hunt, Morris, Townsend… All of these guys have a fair bit of first team experience and would be able to step in and do a job if they had to – some may even be part of our best 22. The fact that our twos are playing the team style and doing very well is crucial as well, I think. Craig McCrae is doing a great job there.

        The main issue is that two of our rucks, Hampson and Maric, already have injury worries, which is why we should blood Ivan Soldo now.

    • April 19th 2017 @ 8:00am
      me too said | April 19th 2017 @ 8:00am | ! Report

      Dusty just firing at the moment, and his form is the difference between Richmond looking at a 8-12th place and their current target of 6-10th.

    • April 19th 2017 @ 9:40am
      Birdman said | April 19th 2017 @ 9:40am | ! Report

      Sad when the best Rioli in the AFL is currently playing at Richmond.

      • April 19th 2017 @ 12:31pm
        Slane said | April 19th 2017 @ 12:31pm | ! Report

        Sad for you. Not for us! The best Rioli should always be playing in yellow and black for traditions sake.

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