Adelaide and Richmond stay the course and build to finals success

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By , Ryan Buckland is a Roar Expert

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    It is hard to look past the blindingly obvious narrative emerging from the first two qualifying finals. Adelaide and Richmond, two of the most success-starved teams in the competition, have taken the hard path to contention. And for one of them, it will pay off.

    That’s not to disparage the efforts of the Greater Western Sydney Giants or Geelong Cats. It’s just that, well, their recent history is in stark contrast to the careful, cautious builds of their Week 1 opponents.

    The Giants were built to succeed for the good of the competition’s continued growth. The first round picks, the savvy list management, the salary cap concessions? All roads lead to premiership contention, from last year until they win one or two or three in the next half dozen years. It was given to them, and the Giants’ management has put nary a foot wrong in taking full toll.

    Geelong are trying to circumvent the usual push and pull of the list management cycle. The advantageous return of native Patrick Dangerfield was a two-by-four in the window of their premiership contention, Geelong’s list decisions framed around his prime and the tail of their premiership era.

    Both were beaten in qualifying finals, by teams not expected to figure in this year’s flag to the same degree nabbing genuine shots at a premiership.

    Adelaide and Richmond have taken vastly different paths to this point, but provide lessons for the rest of the competition as we enter the silliest month or so of the year.

    Both entered the 2017 finals series with the two longest gaps between their last premiership and now. Adelaide last won the last game of the year in 1998, Richmond all the way back in the VFL days in 1980.

    We could take the longest view possible – that the intermittent 19 and 37 years respectively have been building to this. The Crows fired many shots, playing in a finals series in 12 of those years. The club has, frequently, fallen just a little short in individual years. Meanwhile, the Tigers spent the best part of two decades in the wilderness before the end of the Terry Wallace era gave way to a rash of top draft picks and a (mostly) sustained run.

    That could get unwieldly, and it’s impossible to untangle how decisions made 30 years ago have led to where we are today. Instead, our frame of reference is the past five or so years, and our magnifying glass is trained off the field rather than on it.

    Richmond’s 2017 could have been dramatically different
    This time two years ago, Richmond faced a significant, direction-altering choice. Coach Damien Hardwick was entering the last year of his second contract, his tenure stretching six years at that point.

    In 2009, the year-long term coach Terry Wallace stepped down, Richmond went 5-1-16 just as they should have been accelerating. In the preceding five years, the Tigers selected inside the top 30 a dozen times – Brett Deledio, Trent Cotchin, Alex Rance, Jack Riewoldt the highlights among the variety of hits and misses. Dustin Martin was the prize for such a dire season.

    Hardwick’s tenure from 2010 (his first full year in charge) to 2015 had yielded success, if success is a relative term. The Tigers won six games in 2010, eight in 2011, ten in 2012, 15 in 2013, 12 in 2014 and 15 again in 2015.

    It was as close to linear as these things go. Three straight finals campaigns followed in those final years; three straight first-up losses and elimination finals were viewed by many as a signal the coach wasn’t up to it.

    Richmond’s four mid-2000s draftees were the critical pieces of those teams. The Tigers made some moves to build their depth around them, so-called ‘recycled’ players that locked draftees out of the first team. The time was then; 2016 had to see the Tigers make the top four, or win a final, or hit some vague marking post that signalled progress.

    To do that, the cloud of an expiring contract wouldn’t do, because having fewer than 365 days to run on a coach contract is like blood in the water for the mainstream football media. Those same media members were baying for that blood – the common refrain being, “How can you sign him up beyond this year?”

    Damien Hardwick Richmond Tigers AFL 2015

    AAP Image/Joe Castro

    Club leadership stared it down, backing Hardwick with a two-year contract extension that expired in 2018, with a promise that progress would continue. That was March 2016.

    By the end of 2016, it looked like a mistake. Richmond endured a torrid campaign, winning eight games on the year including five losses in their final six. The club slipped to 13th on the ladder, their lowest finish since in Hardwick’s first year in charge (15th).

    Challenges emerged to the club’s leadership, including the now-infamous ‘Focus on Footy’ campaign run by prominent Richmond-affiliated business people. They were defeated, the club staying the course with Hardwick despite appearing to move backwards materially in the short time after they re-signed him.

    That’s not to say they simply ran it back. Their offseason was hectic, with significant changes to both on and off-field personnel. Out went long-time Hardwick lieutenants, including former Port Adelaide premiership coach Mark Williams, and in came a near-completely refreshed line up. The headline appointment might have been recently-deposed Brisbane coach Justin Leppitsch, but the star signing was Blake Caracella, the former Geelong strategic mind who took over the unique portfolio of ‘midfield spread and ball movement’.

    According to reports, Caracella was lured over by new Richmond head of football Neil Balme, who fell into the Tigers’ laps after the shenanigans at Collingwood in the second half of last season. Balme was the centrepiece of a revamped football department structure that appears to have taken some of the line management responsibilities away from the coach and installed them in Tim Livingstone – whose tenure at Richmond pre-dates Hardwick.

    We covered the player-related off season moves in the preseason, and the significant strategic shifts a few weeks into the year.

    Needless to say, it has all worked a treat. Richmond made the top four, caught a sluggish Geelong side napping, and are now in the box seat to make their first grand final since 1982.

    What could have been? A sacked coach, another rebuild, a new board. Another era out of finals contention. The Tigers kept the faith, made some adjustments, and – at least for this year – it looks to have paid dividends.

    The most patient rebuild: Adelaide’s 2017 has been a decade in the making
    Adelaide’s path to another preliminary final has been shorter, and in many ways far more winding than the mob on the other side of the draw.

    The Crows have been starved of victory in the last game of the year, but have otherwise proven one of the more sustainably successful teams of the post-2000 era.

    As above, they’ve made it into a finals series in 12 of the past 19 seasons; they’ve played in three unsuccessful preliminary finals over that time. The last trip was 2012, as a young team ahead of its time, Rory Sloane, Patrick Dangerfield and Taylor Walker all 22 or younger. From 2013 to now has involved as many setbacks as any team would hope to experience in at least twice as long.

    The Crows have endured tragedy, controversy, a financial upheaval, and significant player personnel changes, and have emerged on the other side as the best team in football.

    They’re still a relatively young group too, ranked seventh for average age but with just three 30-year-olds on their list from 2018, following the retirement of Scott Thompson.

    The Crows have never chased a quick fix. If anything, they have been one of the teams who has suffered under the new meta-game of player movement. Adelaide lost more than half a dozen best 22 players to other clubs during their build, and instead of chasing best 22 players elsewhere – Bryce Gibbs notwithstanding, but who knows which party initiated that last year – they have made do with limited opportunities.

    They have a tougher task than Richmond to make it to the big show given they’ll face either Sydney or Geelong – both of whom have challenged, or beat, them at the Adelaide Oval this season and in recent seasons.

    Jake Lever Adelaide Crows AFL 2017 tall

    Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images

    The way it goes
    If history is a guide, Adelaide and Richmond are set to face off for a premiership in just over a fortnight’s time. One will close one of the longest flag gaps in the league, the other will fall just short. It’s brutal, but that’s the nature of the game.

    Like the Western Bulldogs last year, Richmond might not be the best team in the competition over the course of the year. But by finishing in the top four, and putting together a complete team performance in a qualifying final, they have put themselves in a position to win a premiership after finishing last season in the bottom six.

    Unlike the Western Bulldogs, Adelaide are almost certainly the best team in the competition over the course of the year. They finished on the same number of premiership points as Geelong in second place, but had a vastly superior percentage, and as we showed last week were far and away the best team in the competition against their peer group.

    Both teams have taken similar roads to this year’s final four. Richmond stuck by their team, and their coach, knowing (or hoping, and trusting) they were a tweak away from making good on their half decade or more of hard work. Adelaide have built their platform over a ten-year period where they’ve barely been bad enough to finish outside the finals bubble.

    Many other clubs are taking this slow, steady, even-handed approach to team building and moving into contention. The days of attempting to build instant super teams, collecting ready-made talent in clutches and firing every shot in a year or two are surely numbered.

    Geelong found themselves with a situation they could not refuse: one of the best half-dozen players in the competition (remember this is 2015) wanting to come to their club in free agency, just before everyone knew the salary cap was about to explode as a result of the league’s new TV rights deal. That’s a deal you make 100 times of 100.

    But when Richmond forced their will on the Cats with increased veracity as the night progressed last Friday night, I couldn’t help but wonder what price putting all of their chips on the table in an aggressive list reset has meant for the Cats. They will contend for as long as Dangerfield, his running mate Joel Selwood, and their home-grown quality players like Mitch Duncan, Cam Guthrie, Tom Hawkins and Harry Taylor remain at their peaks. But there’s little coming through, and almost no flexibility in their ability to wheel and deal to do much more than tinker at the edges.

    Ditto the Giants, who will be fine, but who now subject to the same tensions as the rest of the league may find themselves a little weaker by the year. 2017 was supposed to be the crescendo of the AFL’s grand design, and it still well could be, but after Adelaide eviscerated them under the Thursday night lights, it’s hard to picture it. The Giants’ premiership chances with this core team won’t expire until the middle of the next decade.

    A lot of this comes down to luck. A more strict interpretation of the league’s new head-high contact rule on Saturday evening and we’re talking about an imminent rebuild out west and the stunning re-rise of Ken Hinkley’s Port Adelaide. A straighter Tom Hawkins kick against the Giants in Round 15 and the entire shape of the finals series is altered.

    But the point of singling out the achievements of Adelaide and Richmond is luck only tells part of the story. Hard work, commitment and resilience are the hidden virtues of team building and club development in the AFL. That might turn out to be the biggest lesson of our even 2017.

    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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