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

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By , 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.