Richmond’s charge towards back-to-back premierships, seen as almost a foregone conclusion by some due to the Tigers’ overall dominance in 2018, came to an abrupt and gruesome end against Collingwood on preliminary final weekend last year.
In 20 minutes of play from late in the first quarter until midway through the second, the Pies piled on six unanswered goals and led the game by 42 points. They would extend that margin to 53 later in the term, as a result of kicking 8.3 to 0.2 in a stunning display of almost perfect football.
Richmond finished on top of the ladder, two games and 15per cent clear of second-placed West Coast, but it all came crumbling down at the most inopportune time.
Can the Tigers climb the mountain again?
Richmond’s best 22
B: Nick Vlastuin, David Astbury, Dylan Grimes
HB: Jayden Short, Alex Rance, Bachar Houli
C: Shane Edwards, Dustin Martin, Dion Prestia
HF: Josh Caddy, Jack Riewoldt, Jack Higgins
F: Daniel Rioli, Tom Lynch, Dan Butler
Foll: Toby Nankervis, Trent Cotchin, Kane Lambert
Int: Jack Graham, Shaun Grigg, Jason Castagna, Nathan Broad
Em: Kamdyn McIntosh, Brandon Ellis, Maverick Weller
Richmond landed the biggest fish of the AFL trade and free agency period, luring Tom Lynch from the Gold Coast in a plan that was a minimum of 12 months in the planning according to industry insiders, and more likely closer to two years.
Lynch came over with a PCL injury and had a delayed start to his pre-season due to surgery – he’s touch-and-go for Round 1, and won’t be at full fitness if he does play.
With the addition of Lynch, the dynamic of the Richmond forward-line changes, and how well they gel as a unit will be a story to follow through the year.
Jack Riewoldt has been the sole key target for the last two years, and will enjoy some relief from opposition defenders with another gun alongside him. Both he and Lynch are completely comfortable playing deep from the square or pushing upfield as a lead-up target, so they should complement each other well.
Between 2014-17, Lynch kicked between 43 and 66 goals per season, so Tigers fans will be hoping for returns along those lines, without impacting the scoring of three-time Coleman medalist Riewoldt.
Josh Caddy will miss the first month or so with an ankle injury and will have to deal with a role change upon his return. After playing as a second marking target alongside Riewoldt last year and kicking 46 goals, he may now be a third marking option or spend more time in the middle.
Richmond will still have a mosquito fleet at the foot of the tall forwards, led by Daniel Rioli and featuring the likes of Dan Butler, Jason Castanga and ex-Saint Mav Weller, with Shai Bolton and Liam Baker in reserve.
Jack Higgins will be considered part of this group by most, and while he certainly has tricks inside 50 (as evidenced by his goal of the year last season) he is just as likely to be part of the midfield and high-half forward rotation with Kane Lambert. For a first-year player to break into the side of the reigning premiers and then hold his spot for the last 20 games, as Higgins did, speaks to his quality.
Lambert is one of the hardest runners in the game and has finished top three in the best and fairest two years in a row in a high-quality team. Dion Prestia only played 13 matches in 2018 and is an important player – he was probably the Tigers’ second best in the 2017 finals, behind only Dustin Martin.
Coming off his first full pre-season at Richmond is a positive that makes the team more dangerous.
Martin didn’t reach the heights of 2017 last year, but was still named All Australian after a fine season. Shane Edwards joined him that AA side, a reward for a player that has one of the quickest minds and some of the fastest hands in the business.
Trent Cotchin’s career has gone from Brownlow medal winning silky mover to premiership captain battering ram – quite the evolution. Jack Graham is the number one pressure player at the Tigers, which complements the rest of the midfield outfit, but he will be looking to up his possession rate and have more impact offensively in this third year.
Shaun Grigg and Kamdyn McIntosh have been the wingmen in recent times – Grigg starts the season injured and unlikely to fulfil his secondary duties as relief ruck when he comes back. Pressure may be on his spot, but his smarts should see him through.
McIntosh is a more defensive outside player, good at filling holes and being a physical presence.
Toby Nankervis will once again lead the ruck division, but the big question is where his support will come from given a couple of rule changes are seen to signal the death knell for the undersized second ruck.
Ivan Soldo is the next in line ruckman at the Tigers, but it’s hard to play two lumbering types in the same team. Noah Balta is an athletic all-purpose tall that may get a run, but he has a long way to go in order to be a proper AFL player.
The Richmond backline has been an area of stability in the last two seasons.
Alex Rance has been an All Australian defender five years in a row, and continues to be a two-in-one player – he is responsible for the majority of one-on-one match-ups in the Tigers’ defensive 50, but his reputation among the football public is of someone that never plays on a man; that’s how good his reading of the play and defensive skills are.
David Astbury and Dylan Grimes are fellow bedrocks on the last line of defence with Rance. Astbury often takes the opponent’s best tall forward and Grimes is one of the best lock-down players in the game. Between these three players, they have only missed three matches combined across the last two seasons.
Jayden Short has quietly become one of the best rebounders in the league with his penetrating right boot and is known to sneak down for an important goal. Nick Vlastuin is an exceptional aerial judge, often chopping off opposition forays. Bachar Houli provides experience and run. Nathan Broad is another negating type that can play tall and small.
Richmond lost a lot of depth players in the off-season, squeezed out as is often the case with successful teams. Reece Conca, Sam Lloyd, Anthony Miles, Corey Ellis and Tyson Stengle were all traded to other clubs, but it’s notable that none of these were considered first 18 players. Only Conca was a first-choice member of the side.
What these departures do is put pressure on the 2016-18 draftees. Will they be better than the above names when injuries strike and replacements are needed? Will the new draft crop overtake them?
Much has been made of the fact Richmond may be most disadvantaged by 6-6-6 given they played a man behind the ball more than any other side last year. The Tigers forewent clearances to win the ball back and create drive from behind. This is a concern.
Most of the rule changes have been brought in to promote fast and flowing football, but this was Richmond’s competitive advantage already. Forward momentum was their game, so this may give an opportunity for other teams to catch-up.
The Tigers also have to carry the mental baggage of having nothing to prove until they get to the preliminary final, and that likely involves winning 15-16 matches in the home-and-away plus at least one final. It’s no easy task to sustain football at that level year after year.
West Coast and Collingwood beat Richmond handsomely in 2018, and did it in different ways, which others are sure to learn from. The Eagles used ball control and piercing field kicking to dismantle the Tigers, while the Pies simply beat them at their own game.
Richmond are going to be a good team again, and surely finalists. But a top-four spot is no lay down misere.