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Fewer things in the sporting world are quite as enjoyable as a top of the table clash and fans of the Australian Football League have exactly that to look forward to come the weekend.
Ladder leaders and reigning premiers Richmond will take on the second-placed West Coast Eagles on Sunday at Optus Stadium.
With eight rounds of the season done and dusted it’s been one of the most even campaigns I can recall.
Richmond and West Coast are the clear stars, both with seven wins and a stunning percentage – 149.5 and 134.0 respectively.
Following the early bolters are six teams all sitting on five wins with the difference between eighth and third pure percentage. It’s great to see.
The winner of this match may well be dubbed the premiership favourites and heading into the encounter neither side has wavered much in form – West Coast is on a run of seven wins in a row and Richmond six.
Recent clashes between the pair belong to West Coast.
Last season, in what I felt was one of the matches of the season, Richmond defeated West Coast by 11 points in Round 3 at the MCG.
Played out in the wet it was a furious fight for early momentum and an indicator that Richmond refused to accept moral victories any more.
West Coast crushed Richmond in 2016, defeating them by 68 points in Round 4, and did the job easily in Round 12 2015 – winning by 20.
Both sides also carry respectable injury lists – while West Coast’s is certainly longer in length.
Richmond are missing premiership trio Shaun Grigg, Daniel Rioli and Dion Prestia – however all expected to be available within the next three weeks at a maximum and beyond that the Tigers stunning run free of injuries has continued from 2016.
For West Coast injuries to Luke Shuey, Liam Ryan and Dom Sheed are all a hassle – however the 22 the Eagles are capable of putting out on the park in the absence of the trio eclipses that concern.
At this stage in the game I’m envisioning a West Coast win.
The obvious factor is travel, with Richmond never having played at Optus Stadium a concern along with the journey to Western Australia itself.
The biggest issue I sense on the horizon for the Tigers is the side’s most recent win against North Melbourne.
Richmond buried North Melbourne at Etihad Stadium, getting over the line by ten points late in the piece as a result of goals to captain Trent Cotchin and small forward Dan Butler – while at the other end the Kangaroos’ key forward Ben Brown missed twice and threw away the chance at a win.
The contest was an absolute bruiser with the Tigers laying 81 tackles to North Melbourne’s 69.
As a consequence of the relentless pressure more than 150 turnovers were committed between both sides.
That tackle count was Richmond’s highest for the season, eclipsing three over totals above sizeable totals (70 – Round 1, 71 – Round 2, 78 – Round 6).
It was the kind of contest that certain players thrive in – one of the them was North Melbourne’s Ben Cunnington, setting the AFL record for contested possessions (32) and the other was Richmond’s Cotchin – setting the contest on fire in the absence of Dustin Martin.
Oh – Dustin Martin. Martin copped a heavy tag from North Melbourne’s Ben Jacobs and while it was a stunning duel between the pair it was also pretty hard to watch.
Jacobs held, pinned and casual struck Martin around the ground at the majority of the contests they shared together (and did a great job of limiting his impact on the match) and as a result I’m sure that Martin would’ve been forced to put plenty of extra recovery time during the week and will be still feeling it come the weekend.
West Coast on the other hand will be riding in red hot after a 25-point win against fellow top four fancies Greater Western Sydney.
While they did have to travel to get the win, West Coast had no problem weaving it together – rarely looking in doubt all day.
If there’s one factor that may swing it for the Tigers it will be the the variety inside the forward 50.
Richmond, the competition’s strongest offensive side, has six footballers with more than ten goals – Jack Reiwoldt (19), Josh Caddy (16), Jason Castagna (14), Dustin Martin (13), Jacob Townsend (10) and Kane Lambert (10).
Regular small forward Dan Butler (8) and Jack Higgins (8) aren’t too far behind either.
West Coast has just four with more than 10 – Jack Darling (22), Mark LeCras (15), Josh Kennedy (15) and Jake Waterman (10).
If Richmond’s star defensive trio of Alex Rance, David Astbury and Dylan Grimes can put a lock on at least half of these forward, while at the other end Richmond’s unpredictable attack on the goals is able to strike multiple times, then the Tigers have a chance late in the piece.
Early accuracy will be a must too – Richmond can’t afford to find itself at 2.5 or 3.7 at any stage unless a dramatically different West Coast outfit arrives on the day and manages to relent in pressure.
In the big picture recent history is in West Coast’s favour too.
In Round 6 of the 2017 season Adelaide and Richmond went head-to-head at Adelaide Oval – both undefeated at the time with five wins each.
Adelaide defeated Richmond by 76 points on the day, booting a 21 goals and 14 behinds (140 points).
However if an early season loss to another premiership contender is an important step in the journey towards a premiership for this yellow and black unit – I’m sure Tigers fans will happily cop another one.