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Will Richmond's challenger please stand up?

Sam Lloyd of the Tigers celebrates after kicking a goal with Dustin Martin of the Tigers during the round 20 AFL match between the Richmond Tigers and the Geelong Cats at Melbourne Cricket Ground on August 3, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
Expert
12th August, 2018
195

It has been a tough fortnight for anyone bar the Tigers as we hit the final fortnight of the season. It leaves one pondering: is season 2018 a wrap?

This isn’t the first time this column has asked that question. In early May, when the Tigers were 6-1 with a percentage in the 150s, I asked if anyone could stop the runaway Richmond. The short answer, at the time, was it’s still too early to tell. Well, 21 rounds is anything but early, and here we are pondering once again.

Richmond are almost certainly going to finish on top of the ladder, bar some sort of catastrophe against either Essendon or the Western Bulldogs in Rounds 22 and 23. And even then, West Coast have to outdo them by one game, and even still, Richmond can fall as low as second. They have all-but sewn up home field advantage for the 2018 finals series, and that home ground happens to be the one at which they currently hold the league’s longest single-venue winning streak.

The Tigers were untroubled in the most literal sense of the word against the Gold Coast Suns, barely breaking a sweat in running up the team’s fourth blowout win of the season. Jack Riewoldt kicked ten goals and Trent Cotchin spent half the game on the pine. They took going through the motions to a whole new level.

As we discussed a month ago, Richmond isn’t some sort of invincible, historically great super team. They are playing just a shade above their win tally according to my Pythagorean win formula – 16-4 – in a season where there aren’t many standout teams. However, as foreshadowed in that piece, the Tigers might not be historically great, but they appear to be historically difficult to beat.

And ‘tough to beat’ might be enough to win it all in season 2018, what with the repeated blows being worn by every other team still in the hunt. Every time someone is handed Tiger Killer status, they seem to fall by the wayside.

Dustin Martin

(Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

This weekend’s results make you wonder whether there is a sizeable chunk of the league that has thrown in the towel. Losses to Geelong, Port Adelaide, North Melbourne and Melbourne put each of their seasons in jeopardy, though the maths being as it is two of the four will make it into the eight come two weeks from now.

Geelong once again needed to be revived on the operating table after a languid three quarters of football against the Hawks. It’s getting a bit lather, rinse, repeat for the Cats: the top handful of players in the team keeping the whole squad in it until the second half of the last quarter, then some willing efforts help bring the margin closer. It is not sustainable football.

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Port Adelaide were wrecked by injuries after doing plenty right in stifling the West Coast Eagles on Saturday afternoon. Now, with Charlie Dixon’s leg broken and Paddy Ryder’s electrical tape and elastic bands coming loose more frequently, Jack Watts once again carries the hope of his franchise.

North Melbourne were made to look amateur by a Western Bulldogs outfit that finally put together four quarters of Luke Beveridge’s new gameplan. The Dogs had almost 90 extra uncontested possessions than the ‘Roos as they moved the ball at will. North now need a miracle to make good on its surprising start to the season.

And Melbourne’s annual Seppuku routine kicked off in earnest, losing to a Sydney side (two men down on the bench, including the luckless and cursed Alex Johnson) who ostensibly leapfrogged both their ladder position and their likelihood of making the eight. The Dees had enough ball, enough territory and enough scoring shots but couldn’t get it done. Now they face the prospect of having to win either away against West Coast or at home to the GWS Giants to secure their place in the eight.

Of all of this weekend’s losers, Port Adelaide’s predicament looks most dire. They still have to travel to the ‘G to play Collingwood and host an Essendon team on Friday night in Round 23 in what may be in a win-and-in (at least temporarily) situation. Without Dixon in attack, the Power risk becoming less multi-dimensional, given his role in straightening up the opposition’s defensive set-up.

Even this weekend’s winners have their challenges. West Coast looked a completely different team without Andrew Gaff as the midfield fulcrum – at times equal parts directionless and impotent with the ball in hand. Now Josh Kennedy looks likely to miss the rest of the home-and-away season (if one is reading Adam Simpson’s comments correctly) and suddenly a top-four finish seems sort of… wasted.

Andrew Gaff

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

The Giants and Pies have their share of injury challenges too. Neither side will hit the end of the home-and-away season with a clean bill of health – on their planned or emergent best 22 – and will relish the chance to rest up in the pre-finals bye weekend.

Sydney still remain utterly unconvincing, though a finish in the fifth or six seed might do them nicely so long as they get a nice match-up in week one of the finals. The Swans are road warriors, but seem to lose the plot at home. A tough match against the GWS Giants looms this weekend, before – pending that result – a crucial Round 23 encounter against Hawthorn.

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And it is the Hawks who, almost by default, are this week’s great white Richmond-stopping hope. They tick a few of the requisite boxes: MCG team, quality outside game, flexibility up forward. However, they aren’t deep through the middle and have a back six that relies on support from further up the ground to stop opposition sides from scoring. On balance, though, they look like the best challenger we’ve got.

Which says it all, I reckon. It was May 7 when I first posed the Richmond question for 2018. Three months and 14 rounds of football later, the best answer we’ve got is “Hawthorn, maybe, but they’ve got some holes”. The Tigers have been crunched into extraordinarily meagre odds to win the flag at most outlets. Follow the money.