After a slow start to the season, Richmond has bounced into the top four after ten rounds.
It’s a feat that has been worthy of respect given their heavy injury toll, a list not just lengthy but containing the cream of the Tigers list.
Alex Rance, Jack Riewoldt and Trent Cotchin, the entire Richmond leadership group and between them owners of premiership medals, All Australian blazers, Colemans, and a Brownlow, have only played three full matches between them to this point of the year.
Jayden Short was the Tigers’ best running halfback in 2018 but hasn’t played since Round 3. Other players to have missed multiple games along the way read like a who’s who of Richmond stars – Josh Caddy, Bachar Houli, Toby Nankervis and Daniel Rioli.
Plus a host of others have missed a solitary match – Dustin Martin, Dylan Grimes, Nick Vlastuin, David Astbury, Kane Lambert, Jason Castagna; perhaps not a big deal in isolation, but important enough given the other players out in this period and the lack of continuity that means.
In fact, the Tigers have already used 34 players in 2019. No club has used more. To be sitting fourth while doing so speaks volumes about the development coaches and the Richmond system, which is based on perpetual forward movement and utilising the best of player instinct.
Sydney Stack has been the face of the heretofore unknown depth at Punt Road, a charismatic youngster that only found himself on the list as a late addition not long before the season started. He’s already accumulated a highlights package of high marks, long goals and fierce bumps, but it’s the simple things he does so well that speak to a long career ahead.
The emergence of Liam Baker has also been a feature, with his sure hands and repeated acts of courage, another in a seemingly endless supply of small or mid-size forward-mids at Richmond.
Noah Balta has raised eyebrows with his raw athleticism and genuine pace playing back-up ruck and general chaos merchant whenever he’s near the ball. Even the coaches must be surprised how quickly he’s developed across the first half of the season.
Stack, Baker and Balta are all eligible for the Rising Star, to give an insight into their youth and inexperience, two of them still teenagers. Another in that boat is Shai Bolton, who was behind only Nat Fyfe in the Richmond versus Fremantle coaches votes in Round 8 after his 16-disposal, four-goal and seven-tackle game.
The Tigers won the flag in 2017, but a list needs to evolve in order to improve. Even with the mass of injuries, they still have premiership players like Dan Butler, Jack Graham and Jacob Townsend plying their trade in the VFL, unable to crack a game in the seniors.
It’s what all successful clubs need if they’re going to stay in premiership contention.
A 7-3 is a superb record given what the Tigers have been through, but it has to be said they have only played two proper contenders, Collingwood in Round 2 and GWS in Round 3, and been bashed both times.
Admittedly Richmond are playing with more confidence now, having settled into the rhythm of absorbing absences. Geelong in two weeks’ time will provide a sterner test than the middle-of-the-road likes of Fremantle, Hawthorn and Essendon.
The other question is whether the Tigers will be able to maintain their current level, or even increase it when their better players come back. It’s not a given.
One thing Richmond will be is slower when Trent Cotchin and Kane Lambert come back, possibly for speedsters Connor Menadue and Bolton. Jack Riewoldt will have to be fit in too, probably for another player much quicker than he is.
Riewoldt and Tom Lynch have only played three interrupted matches together, but they have looked a long way from gelling when they have shared the forward line.
Chemistry is a funny thing on the footy field. Some teams have it, and we know it when we see it. Others can only find it for a quarter or two at a time, but not over a full game or season.
Right now, the Tigers have this chemistry in spades. Keeping it as they go searching for another flag may be an even bigger challenge than what they have already overcome.
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