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How can the Richmond Tigers avoid the fate of the Western Bulldogs?

Dustin Martin celebrates the Tigers' premiership. (Photo by Scott Barbour/AFL Media/Getty Images)
Expert
20th February, 2018
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Fresh from a victory in the last game of the year, the Tiger Army is as rampant and rapturous as it has been in a generation. But will the bubble burst as fast as it was inflated?

Richmond climbed into the top four for AFL club membership in 2012. It was the club’s 12th straight season in the finals abyss, a period which brought two wooden spoons and two finishes right on the precipice of September action.

But under new coach Damien Hardwick, and with a generation of top draft picks beginning to show their stuff, Richmond finished on 10.5 wins for the year.

The club embarked on three straight finals campaigns thereafter, their membership surging to 70,800 at the end of 2015 – more than doubling in five short years. Then, some things happened, Richmond crashed to 13th in 2016, and the world may as well have been about to end for Tigers supporters.

The members held on to hope. That’s easy to do when you’ve got Dustin Martin, Alex Rance, Trent Cotchin and Jack Riewoldt. Where other ‘Big Four’ clubs have seen their memberships trend together with their win totals, the Tiger faithful have been just that.

From this already high base, Richmond’s membership has swelled following last year’s premiership victory. At last count, 74,976 people counted themselves as members of the Tiger Army, a fresh record still more than a month out from the season proper. The club is expecting a crowd of more than 90,000 on opening night as it unfurls its first premiership flag in almost 40 years.

Richmond Tigers Grand Final AFL 2017

AAP Image/Julian Smith

It’s a similar situation the Western Bulldogs found themselves in at the start of last season, albeit without the gaud of a membership tally starting with a seven.

The Dogs’ grew their membership from 31,500 to 47,600 between 2014 and 2017, with the tally steadily increasing each year. It’s a similar story no matter where you look in football – there’s no business like premiership business.

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‘Premiership hangover’ is an overworked term in the league, to be sure. But that view wasn’t helped by the manner in which the Dogs went about their football in 2017 – the year after a drought-breaking premiership.

Indeed, if one were interested in correlation over causation, you could argue making the grand final has been the ultimate poisoned chalice in this decade. Putting the immortal Sydney Swans to one side, each of Collingwood, St Kilda, Geelong, West Coast, Fremantle, Hawthorn and the Western Bulldogs has or looks set to go through a lean patch in the years immediately after playing the last game of the year. It’s flat-out wrong to pin such a complex outcome on one teensy part of an ever-changing equation, but the temptation is clear.

Still, Richmond has an opportunity to buck the trend. This is how they can, and will.

The ultimate hangover
The Western Bulldogs followed up their premiership win in 2016 by missing the finals series in 2017, becoming the first club to do so in nine seasons. Was it a premiership hangover?

Hawthorn also missed the final eight in 2017, the first time the club hasn’t played in September since Australia was federated. Theirs was a hangover many years in the making; four premierships over an eight-season span, the last three coming in succession. Much of the core of the threepeat side was in place in 2008, albeit in a younger version. Without spoiling a future column, their jaunt outside the eight could be a short one.

The Hawks might represent the origin story of the ‘premiership hangover’ meme that now forms part of the standard post-premiership conversation for teams. Hawthorn’s 2008 premiership was somewhat ahead of time and somewhat surprising (in the preseason at least). They missed the finals in 2009.

Point is: we’ve been here once before. And only once. Two instances of a thing doesn’t make it a thing. There’s no such thing as a premiership hangover.

Still, there is one key parallel to be found between Hawthorn and the Western Bulldogs. The Dogs had the least amount of experience on their grand final day team sheet of any team since that 2008 Hawthorn team.

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Hodge-AFL-tall

AAP Image/Julian Smith

Young teams, in general, are partial to up-and-down performance; their September performance in 2016 is a testament to the up, and their middle part of 2017 testament to the down. Layer on to that a variety of off-field issues, which we do not need to retrace here, and the seeds of a year that turned out below expectations were planted early.

On the field, the Dogs tried to change their system. Where amps of pressure at midfield contests, aggression at forward 50 stoppages, and a small forward line was the go during their premiership run, coach Luke Beveridge and his crew went for a more conventional set up in 2017.

Gone was the fanatical attack on the ball in the centre of the ground, replaced by a zoning system apparently designed to give the Dogs’ options after winning the ball. The problem was there was less ball-winning being done: Footscray went from +11.7 on adjusted contested possession differential in 2016 (ranked second) to +2.8 in 2017 (ranked eighth). The simple ‘see ball, get ball’ mantra was replaced.

Gone was the smaller forward line look. Instead, the Dogs tried to become more conventional, bringing in Travis Cloke and using two or three tall forwards for most of the year. The club took an extra mark inside 50 per game, and improved its scoring efficiency (scoring on 46.7 per cent of inside 50 trips, compared to 43.5 per cent in 2016). But the club’s scoring accuracy went backwards, hard, suggesting more difficult shots were taken than the front-and-centre forward 50 stoppage style of the year before.

Personnel availability didn’t help either. The Dogs were hit in both forward and back halves, leading to some draftees and lesser lights getting a look before Beveridge would have liked. Just six players played the full 22 game season, albeit four of them were the team’s core midfield group (Marcus Bontempelli, Luke Dahlhaus, Jack Macrae and Lachie Hunter). Opposition teams cottoned on to Jason Johannisen’s importance to the scheme, too, sitting a defensive forward on him from minute one and blunting his run and carry.

A lot went right for the Dogs in the final month of 2016, and the football gods snapped that back faster than an open palm handball. Many of their on-field challenges can be remedied quickly. A little bit of injury luck here, some delistings and trades there, and usual programming could resume relatively soon.

After all, the Western Bulldogs are still a relatively young and inexperienced team: 14th for games played, and with the equal third-most players in the sub-25-year-old demographic. The most important part of the ground is where the Dogs are most settled, and there are answers to lingering questions about the forward line group.

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Sunglasses and Advil
Does the experience of the 2017 Western Bulldogs hold any lessons for the 2018 Richmond Tigers? Most certainly.

A steady hand at the wheel is most important. Richmond built its 2017 success on the back of system football sprinkled with some individual brilliance. There is no reason for the club to reinvent itself to stay relevant.

For starters, unlike the Dogs, the Tigers were a much more typical premiership side in terms of age and experience. The club’s grand final line up was almost a year older and had 22 per cent more experience on average than the flag-winning unit a year prior. In the aggregate, Richmond is just the 11th oldest list in the competition coming into 2018, but they have five players over 29 years of age, and three who will qualify for that status before the start of the next football year.

The Tigers’ most important players are also its oldest. Shaun Grigg, Bachar Houli, Shane Edwards, Jack Riewoldt, Alex Rance and Trent Cotchin all fit into that bracket referenced above. That’s not a slight; that’s how this caper is supposed to work. So, the club doesn’t have the same curse of time that the Dogs possessed after the club won its long-time-coming premiership flag.

There is less of a need to plan for the future as there was at Footscray following its premiership win. The seat is hot. Football mortality alone should be a solid motivation for this group.

The Tigers don’t need to change a great deal, either. Their system held up over the course of the year, and arguably performed better once Richmond reached September. The club won nine of 12 quarters played in the finals series, and didn’t lose a quarter in the second half of its three games.

Their method was clear: a stingy defence, a focus on forcing turnovers, and a nimble forward half to finish off the work. Richmond has the added advantage of a line up stacked with two of the top five players in the game (Martin and Rance), and two others who we at The Roar thought worthy of a spot inside the top 30 (Cotchin and Riewoldt). The club has had these players at their disposal for the entirety of this decade, but something about last year’s system meant each could work to their respective strengths.

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Martin going full atomic superman helped, too.

Dustin Martin Richmond Tigers AFL Grand Final 2017 tall

AAP Image/Julian Smith

Ball movement statistics, collected and held behind lock and key by Champion Data, show the Tigers’ pace of play was driven by their decision making when winning the ball. There was little to no sideways or backwards movement, short kicking or ticky-tack handballs weaving through traffic. Everything was geared towards moving from congested areas to more open areas of the ground.

They could resist repeat inside 50 entries by their opponents, waiting for the perfect moment to counterpunch. In wins, Richmond averaged 376 disposals to their opponents’ 368. The average side had 398 disposals in a victory, and a differential of +31.1. Similarly, their disposals per minute of possession was 6.7 in wins, compared to 7.4 for the competition at large, and a positively cumbersome 8.9 by the slowpoke Gold Coast Suns. In losses, that blew out to 8.9, a +2.0 differential that was second in the league (behind the Adelaide Crows – a team we will get to no doubt).

That hints at their key weakness. Teams that could cut off the Tigers’ swift transition tendencies were winning half the battle. But that’s where the defensive prowess comes in – Richmond won a league-high six games (from 13 attempts) scoring less than 90 points. Geelong was the only other team that could win at a decent clip without putting up a big score, winning five from ten.

It’s eminently replicable. Yes, it requires a commitment from the playing group, but perhaps not in the same way the Bulldogs needed to be committed to win every single ground-ball get.

Richmond probably won’t tinker too much with their set up anywhere on the ground, and they will run back a scheme which bought them the ultimate success. With that, they will avoid one of the biggest causal factors of the Dogs’ decline in 2017.

Breaking right
Where we can give some pause for thought is the potential the injury luck fairy to call in its loan to the Tigers. Richmond’s playing stocks were in pristine condition for almost the entirety of last year, and even when they were not it turned out to be for the better (consider they led the league in marks inside 50, despite playing Riewoldt as a lone tall forward for most of the year).

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Daniel Rioli, an important player given his role and Richmond’s scheme, will begin the year much later than his teammates. My subjective view is missing a preseason in the first few years of a career can have a big impact on a youngster’s output in a given season. A number of players had some minor off-season surgery. Otherwise, it appears as though they have a short injury list once more.

They are exposed in some areas of the ground. For instance, if Jack Riewoldt was to go down for a reasonable length of time, the club would be forced to turn to a series of untried youngsters to fill the tall forward spot. Any team would struggle with the loss of a star player like Martin, Rance or Cotchin, but Richmond would be more worried than anyone if that came to pass.

The club has also been given the usual premiership fixture handicap. As we discussed a month or so ago, the Tigers have gone from what was clearly the least difficult fixture in the competition to the second hardest (based on last year’s Pythagorean win percentage).

Richmond won’t fear it. As the club’s membership campaign intimates, the hunt is on. That’s as much a recognition of the Tigers’ new-found status as reigning premier – a title it has not worn since 1981 – as an attitude built over 12 months of feasting. Hunt they will.