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Eagles win the battle, but Tigers likely to win the war

Jack Darling of the Eagles celebrates a goal. (Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)
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21st May, 2018
16

West Coast devoured Richmond in a top of the table clash on Sunday afternoon, soaring home for a 47-point victory.

Contested at Optus Stadium in front of a record-breaking crowd of more than 56,000, West Coast booted a stunning 20.10 (130) to crush Richmond’s meagre 12.11 (83) in sunny conditions.

While watching my beloved yellow-and-black battalion get crushed is painful, what hurts most is the knowledge that the media and public are going to wildly overreact to this result.

Heading into the match, Richmond and West Coast sat in first and second on the ladder, both with eight wins, a single loss and boasting fantastic percentages.

In the opening quarter, West Coast surged ahead off the back of some outstanding coaching from Adam Simpson and co. Their ball movement was unbelievably well tempered. Moving slow, pushing and probing down the ground, the Eagles refused to allow the tempo of the contest accelerate to the pace Richmond desperately wanted.

A side that thrives on opposition turnovers and aggressive rebound play, the Eagles blocked Richmond’s path to the scoreboard and set up a valuable early lead.

In the second quarter that advantage vanished. Off the back of strong quarters from Alex Rance and Jack Reiwoldt, with Dustin Martin and Toby Nankervis also notable contributors, the Tigers dramatically sped up the flow of play.

As a result, the sides went into the main break equal.

In the second half, West Coast found that energy from the first quarter once again and crushed the Tigers right around the ground. While the contest remained free flowing, the Eagles dominated the uncontested possessions, operated at above 70 per cent efficiency and even managed to out-tackle Richmond.

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Playing on the Optus Stadium deck for the first time, Richmond didn’t look close to the contest in the second half.

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While it’s going to read as damage control, the first thing worth pointing out for those now doubting Richmond’s contender status is that this sort of result is not uncommon for the Tigers in the last two seasons.

In Round 2, the Crows stomped Richmond at Adelaide Oval by 36 points. Last season, in Round 6, a then-undefeated Richmond was beaten by Adelaide by 76 points. Both were the Tigers’ first loss of the season.

Richmond was also pulverised by St Kilda to the tune of 67 pointSin Round 16 of 2017, then the former won the premiership 84 days later.

Let’s not panic in May.

The Tigers are also developing a reputation as poor interstate travellers, dropping matches to Adelaide and the Eages this season. All I can say is doubt them at your peril.

Last season none of the top-four finishers (Adelaide, Richmond, Geelong, Greater Western Sydney) successfully recorded an interstate victory against another top-four finisher.

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Richmond managed to defeat Gold Coast, Brisbane and Port Adelaide interstate in the same season. The Tigers defeated Fremantle by over 100 points in Western Australia late in the season and lost to Greater Western Sydney after a disallowed goal to Shai Bolton and an on-the-siren major to Jeremy Cameron.

Even with all of this in mind, let’s not undermine the West Coast result. The Eagles lined up against the reigning premiers in Round 9 and crushed them – it’s an effort that must be celebrated.

Two key Eagles stood out.

In the first half, Elliot Yeo ran down the race and disappeared into the club rooms after an injury to his lower leg. A huge blow to West Coast, especially with Richmond evening up the scoreboard before halftime.

In the third quarter, Yeo returned to the ground and claimed total control, matching Dustin Martin in tight and gaining what felt like an endless amount of metres gained to keep his side in constant attack.

Yeo’s final statline read 29 disposals, ten clearances, six tackles and a goal – and he’s like to be rewarded for this effort against one of the competition’s premier midfield engines with a couple of Brownlow votes.

Elliot Yeo West Coast Eagles AFL 2017

Elliot Yeo (Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

The other Eagle to tear the contest apart was Jack Darling.

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It’s no secret that Darling is having a wonderful season, sitting second in the hunt for the Coleman Medal with 28 goals – trailing only North Melbourne’s Ben Brown (31).

Darling tore Richmond’s defence to pieces, thumping through six goals and missing from straight in front in last quarter for what should have been his seventh. He finished with 21 disposals and an unstoppable 15 marks, seven of them coming inside 50.

Darling’s success is directly connected with the issue that will haunt Richmond the most coming out of this round – a complete failure for the back six.

Heading into this weekend, Richmond had the competition’s best defensive network, conceding fewer than 70 points on average.

Alex Rance played possibly his worst game in two years and needed to be switched away from his direct opponent multiple times. David Astbury, the quiet achiever in Richmond’s premiership year, was unable to compete close to his usual level body-to-body.

Dylan Grimes, the final of the rock-solid trio, projected himself a long way down the ground but was ineffective. Richmond needed him down deep.

It wasn’t just the three battlers struggling either. Bachar Houli, Nathan Broad and Nick Vlaustin were all weak coming off the half back line.

However, in the long run, this unit need not despair. On Sunday, the Tigers conceded ten more goals than they do on average – that’s a shocking anomaly and not some kind of scary, creeping downward trend. Another month of good football down back and all will be forgotten.

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It’s obvious I’m coming to Richmond’s defences to a heavy degree here. Let’s talk about selection mistakes.

Prior to the match, the Tigers made a late change – bringing in veteran Shaun Grigg, a return from injury, and dropping Jack Higgins.

While the selection made sense, with Grigg’s seniority a bonus along with his ability to help Nankervis in the ruck, in the end he looked undercooked. Would have liked to see him have another week of rest.

I mentioned Nankervis. Heading into the match the ruck option was no certainty, entering under an injury cloud. With Ivan Soldo in nice touch in the VFL, Round 9 seemed like a good chance to give the number one ruck option a week off.

Given the quality of opposition coupled with an interstate journey, I would’ve liked to see Richmond make a few more rotations.

Ryan Garthwaite is a premium defender, desperate for a chance in the big league after starring in the VFL, and it would’ve been a good chance to give him a run.

Likewise, the combination of Jason Castagna and Dan Butler – both looking more and more worn as the season goes on – both would’ve been well served with a rest. A promotion for Tyson Stengle and another game in Jack Higgins would’ve been a good move.

Jack Graham and Connor Menadue could’ve been another worthy exchange, with one deserving another crack at the top level while the other is in need of a spell.

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These are a lot of big selection suggestions but after an eight-goal loss on the road, they seem like good calls in hindsight.

But winning momentum is important and keeping a solid unit cohesive is one key to success so it’s easy to see why they kept the bulk of the side together for the trip west.

Richmond’s best on the day was Jack Reiwoldt and it was interesting reading the heat he was receiving from viewers on various livestreams and social media channels.

Jack Riewoldt Richmond Tigers AFL Grand Final 2017

Jack Riewoldt (Photo by Cameron Spencer/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Reiwoldt finished with five goals, seven marks and three tackles and was an aerial threat all day. He showcased a flood of leadership as vice-captain on a day when the team’s other leaders struggled.

Looking ahead, Richmond now has an ideal month to rebound from its second loss of the season.

First comes St Kilda at the MCG, shooting for an AFL-wide record amount of wins at the home of football for any side consecutively – 13 in a row.

Next are Essendon on the same deck, then the Power at Adelaide Oval, before heading home again to face Geelong.

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Richmond’s contender status is likely to remain in place in four rounds time – sitting at a probable 12 wins and two losses.

West Coast have a trip to Etihad Stadium to face Hawthorn, back to Perth Stadium to host St Kilda, then off to the SCG and the patiently waiting Sydney Swans, before back to Western Australia to host Essendon.

If West Coast can drain the self confidence they deserve from the weekend’s result, they may well remain on top of the ladder in this period of time, with 13 wins and one loss. But that sort of a stunning run of form is difficult in a competition as even as the national one in 2018.