What can be expected of each club in the 2019 season?
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How things have changed. The last time Richmond and Adelaide met at the MCG the Crows were coming off a pair of dominant home finals wins and were favourites to claim their third premiership.
Fifteen games later, the Tigers are reigning premiers, a game clear on top of the ladder and at short odds to go back-to-back. The Crows, on the other hand, face an uphill battle just to return to finals having just won for the first time in a month.
It’s impossible to ignore the venue when these sides meet. This season has been a disappointing one for the Crows, a combination of poor form and poor luck with injuries has turned 2017’s highest-powered team into a middle-of-the-road one, but even still, they got the better of the Tigers by 36 points when these sides met in Round 2 at Adelaide Oval.
That final margin wasn’t entirely reflective of the game with a couple of late Richmond stuff-ups leading to some padding of the score by the Crows, but Adelaide were undoubtedly the better team on the night.
Unfortunately for Don Pyke’s men, this game is at the MCG, where the Tigers have been invincible for 12 months, winning 16 straight.
The good news for the Crows is that they’re slowly starting to resemble the side of last year. Key players Jake Lever and Charlie Cameron aren’t coming back, but for the first time since Round 8, Taylor Walker, Josh Jenkins and Tom Lynch – arguably their most important player – will share the forward line. Disappointingly, Eddie Betts will miss again with a hamstring injury.
In the midfield, Rory Sloane should be better for last week’s run against the Eagles. Sloane was rusty, but he did the tough stuff he can always be expected to do, finishing with 14 touches, 13 contested possessions, eight tackles and seven clearances. Adelaide will need more than that from their star if they are to take it up to the Tigers.
It wasn’t particularly pretty against West Coast, but there were glimpses of the Crows of 2017, whose rapid, aggressive transition often made it feel like they were playing downhill.
There are no surprises about the way Richmond play. Swarming pressure on the outside of the contest, relentless positivity when attacking and a bold and cohesive defence anchored by one of the best backmen the game has seen.
Richmond are No.1 in the competition for scoring from forward-half takeaways, getting slightly more than 33 points a game.
With Dan Butler, Jason Castagna and Daniel Rioli applying the pressure in attack and defenders Alex Rance, Nick Vlastuin, David Astbury and Dylan Grimes pushing up and shrinking the ground on their opponents, it’s a nightmare for opponents trying to rebound the ball from their defensive half.
Vlastuin is deservedly out this week after a cheap shot on Sydney’s Luke Parker. He’ll be missed. Vlastuin is arguably footy’s best medium defender, top 10 for average intercept marks and intercept possessions.
Since the start of 2017, Richmond are 23-5 when he plays and 6-5 when he does not. One of those losses without Vlastuin was against Adelaide in Round 2.
As well as being ranked first for scores from forward-half takeaways, Richmond are also first for points conceded from defensive-half turnovers. They allow just 19.2 points a game in that area, more than a goal better than the league average (25.4).
Despite being ranked 18th for clearance differential, the reigning premiers are ranked third for inside 50 differential. They have mastered turning defence into attack.
Richmond don’t prioritise winning clearances around the ground, which often requires extra numbers in close, and instead prefer to take away options to the outside of the contest, which is where the damage is done.
Dustin Martin is somewhat symbolic of this. The Brownlow medallist is certainly not playing at the same level as he was last season, but he’s still 2018’s No.1 centre clearance player.
Stats gurus will tell you centre clearances are mostly random, but they’re also the most fair fight of all stoppages – four vs four – and Dusty is winning 3.8 of them a game. Trent Cotchin is no slouch either, winning 2.5 a game – For some context, Carlton’s clearance monster Patrick Cripps wins 2.7.
In all other clearances (“stoppage clearances”) Martin averages only 1.6 a game, which is outside the top-100 in the league. Cotchin leads the Tigers at 2.8 a game, outside the top-40 – Tom Mitchell is the league leader at 5.
Throw in Dion Prestia, Kane Lambert, Shane Edwards and ruckman Toby Nankervis, who loves a scrap as much as anyone, and the Tigers certainly have the personnel to be better in those raw numbers, it’s simply not a priority.
Adelaide have midfielders good enough to get first hands on the ball, the test will be turning those first possessions into clean chains.
Not only do Sloane, Matt Crouch, Bryce Gibbs, Richard Douglas and Hugh Greenwood have to win the ball in tight, they need to find a way to maintain clean possession in clean air.
The run of Paul Seedsman will be crucial there, as will the lead-up work of Lynch and Walker who are both exceptional field kicks.
If the visitors can find that space and get the ball into their attack quickly, they can do damage. As great as Rance is, he’s as vulnerable as any other defender when forced to defend quick, clean movement into an open forward line – Josh Jenkins managed to get hold of him for a half last time these sides met, finishing with five goals.
But it all comes back to the venue. Adelaide will be desperate to show they can win at the MCG and snap the Tigers’ streak on their home patch. Richmond would love to inflict more pain on the 2017 runners-up.
I expect it to be feisty early and hope the Crows can make a contest of it, but I’m tipping the Tigers to win by six goals.
That’s my Friday night forecast. What’s yours?