The Tiger train is tooting along, and it could well be stopping all stations to the last day in September.
There have been an amazing number of dramatic storylines throughout this AFL season. Hawthorn’s fall from grace. Sydney’s cataclysmic 0-6 start to the season, and then 14-2 run from there.
Essendon bouncing back after their WADA-sanctioned 2016. The Western Bulldogs’ limp premiership defence, winning only seven of their last 17 matches. The continued mediocrity of St Kilda.
The disgrace that is the Gold Coast Suns. Melbourne’s pathetic attempts to secure a finals berth. The drama of Round 23.
But none of these come close to the Richmond resurgence, which has taken them all the way to third spot on the ladder, ahead even of the silver spoon GWS Giants.
Dustin Martin and Alex Rance are on track to be in any conversation about Richmond’s top ten players in history. Trent Cotchin and Jack Riewoldt, through a Brownlow and a couple of Coleman medals respectively, have won some of the games highest individual prizes. Their exploits are well-renowned, their capabilities well-respected.
Beneath these four established guns, most people are inclined to see a rag-tag bunch of misfits, but there is no doubt the Tigers are greater than the sum of their individual parts.
In defence, while Rance is the superstar, David Astbury and Dylan Grimes have been the rocks on which the miserly backline has been built this season. This trio shapes as one of Richmond’s secret weapons this finals series.
Only seven players have taken more marks than Astbury in the AFL this season. He has repeatedly won the ball back from opposition forward forays through judgement and strength, but also provided a lateral link for his teammates to exit from the defensive 50.
Dylan Grimes plays both tall and small, along with everything in between, and is rarely beaten, both contest-to-contest and game-to-game.
Brandon Ellis had gone backwards over 2015-16 after a breakout 2014 season, but has been instrumental to team success since a move to half-back and embracing a more direct method of moving the ball. Bachar Houli has been ever-consistent to complement him, and is more dangerous as a result of not being so heavily relied upon.
Shaun Grigg came to Richmond at the same time as Houli, both as off-cuts from unsuccessful clubs, yet both have played over 140 games for the Tigers, and are lining up for their fourth finals series while there. Grigg runs, links and creates space to the benefit of others.
Dion Prestia, Josh Caddy and Jacob Townsend are more recent additions from other clubs, that are starting to impact games.
Prestia has got better as the season has gone on, and he’d have wanted to given his start was quite poor, especially given the cost he came at. His best month has been his last, and there’s no better time to be peaking than for finals.
Caddy has proven to be a big moment player in his first season at Tigerland, rather than a four quarter performer, and has been asked to plug holes more often than expected. He was never at his best in finals for Geelong, but gets a chance to rectify that now, and may be asked to shoulder more midfield responsibility once back, since Townsend replaced him through injury.
Townsend has proven to be no more than a jobber in his time on AFL lists, first at GWS and now at Richmond, but after 11 goals in two games to finish the season, he’ll be playing in September. Of course, taking on Geelong in a qualifying final is a bit different from minnows like Fremantle and St Kilda. He’ll be asked to lockdown on someone like Zach Tuohy or even Harry Taylor if he plays in defence, and kick a goal or two out the back when possible.
Kamdyn McIntosh and Kane Lambert are no-frills footballers having career best seasons, the former having played his 50th last week, the latter playing it against Geelong.
McIntosh runs all day out on his wing, but unlike most who play that position, he has size and strength, and is defensively sound. Lambert has become a true professional, and is equally at home winning his own ball, doing a defensive job, or popping up for an important touch inside 50.
Speaking of inside 50, this is where the Tigers have surprised and excelled in 2017, thanks to their unequalled forward pressure.
Daniel Rioli, Dan Butler and Jason Castagna have only missed two games as a collective, and while they don’t get a lot of ball, between them they have combined for 205 tackles, 70 goals and 37 goal assists.
Their quickness enables them to both close down space on opposition defenders, forcing panic with the ball, and their breakaway speed means they usually can’t be caught when getting goal-side in an open forward line.
Toby Nankervis has only played 33 games at AFL level, but the 23-year-old ruckman has already become the heartbeat of the Richmond side. He competes hard, and then follows up with tackles, bumps and blocks, takes important marks at both ends of the ground, and has a nice left shoe on him too.
The Tigers may take a one ruck strategy into finals, and his returns over the last two games (44 touches, 15 tackles) suggest he’s ready to make a stamp in September. The pre-finals bye is perfect for Nankervis to have a rest and reload before shouldering his heavy load.
The worst mistake Richmond could make would be to bring in a second ruckman to support Nankervis. Ivan Soldo isn’t ready for finals football. Ivan Maric is too far gone. Ben Griffiths can’t be trusted to play out the game, and is a low intensity player in high intensity times.
Better for the Tigers to double down on their strengths of pressure, run and mid-sized players, than play someone unworthy of a spot simply to mitigate a weakness that hasn’t overly exposed them.
After three years of finals from 2013-15, including twice finishing fifth on the home-and-away ladder, Richmond suffered an annus horribilus in 2016. The Tigers were a dreary mess on the field, which rightly led to widespread disenchantment off the field from members, and demands for change.
The club reacted appropriately by making drastic changes, chief among them bringing in Neil Balme as the General Manager of Football, and Blake Caracella and Justin Leppitsch as assistant coaches to run the midfield ball movement and forward-line respectively.
To the credit of all concerned, senior coach Damien Hardwick was kept on, and even more significant than that, he admitted his failings and changed his own attitude accordingly.
No longer do the Tigers suffer from paralysis by analysis. They handle the ball less than any of the sides that are playing finals, and their game plan is simple. Move the ball forward as directly as possible, then rely on pressure once inside 50, and defensive coverage to counter opposition rebound.
The first and most important hurdle for Richmond is overcoming Geelong, given they are in the midst of suffering one of the biggest hoodoos in the AFL. The Tigers have lost to them 13 times in a row dating back to Round 6, 2007.
If there’s a brighter note for the Richmond faithful, in the last four clashes between the teams, the Cats average winning margin has been only eight points. With the qualifying final to be held at the MCG, a Tiger win will ensure they don’t have to play anywhere else in September.
The Western Bulldogs showed in 2016 what can be achieved from a cobbled together 22 playing fervent football. Who knows what sort of intangible belief this has bestowed on a club like Richmond.
The Tigers have superstars that can both shape and change games. But underpinning that top tier is a group of good footballers playing as a team and united in the belief that they can win anywhere, anytime. The MCG on Friday the eighth of September would be as good a place as any to make that statement.