Each AFL season, we bring a set of biases and preconceptions to our thinking about the upcoming year, a platform of knowledge based on what we’ve seen, read, and heard over the preceding years.
We expect Melbourne to find a laughable way to flounder once more. We assume St Kilda is destined to fail, no matter how bright their prospects. We just know that Fremantle will rarely put up a fight on the road.
Conversely, Geelong is expected to contend because that’s what they do. Alastair Clarkson is always presumed to have a trick up his sleeve. West Coast will be thereabouts.
Every now and then a club can overthrow history and assumption, but it takes some doing.
No one really thought Richmond was a legitimate premiership contender in 2017 until the very final stages, especially given the fall of the Western Bulldogs after their 2016 fairytale – it was assumed history would revert to normal.
None expected a dynasty of three premierships in four years.
Most people entering the 2021 season had the Tigers as rightful premiership favourites, or at least the team to beat. Three rounds in, and it might be time to question all that has come before. In fact, we’d be foolish if we didn’t.
This year we are watching a different version of the same sport. It has thrilled and enthralled. It is up for debate whether it is the much-discussed rule changes themselves that have brought about this quantum leap, or a shift in the mindset of most coaches to be more attacking. If the latter, it has surely been brought about by the former.
The ground is much longer again, teams are attacking, particularly through the corridor, and key forwards are staying at home and have become ever-threatening once more. Who isn’t loving the bags of goals being kicked, with the promise of more to come?
With such a fundamental shift, it stands to reason that some of the best teams from recent years, who played a certain way, must be disadvantaged. It wouldn’t make sense for a sport to alter dramatically and still have the same set of contenders.
What has changed most is that AFL has become very much a kicking game. Uncontested marks are up almost ten per cent on 2019, when we last had 20-minute quarters. It is far easier to pin-point short passes with the man on the mark unable to move laterally to cut down options.
This in turn makes it easier to move the ball quickly and because of that coaches are realising they are better off having a key forward positioned deeper to accept or contest the ball.
Which brings us back to Richmond.
Geelong led the league in kicks per game last season and made the grand final. Brisbane and Port were third and fourth on the list, and finished in the top two on the ladder. The Tigers were ranked 13th for kicks.
In 2019, Richmond were ranked 15th for kicks, while fellow grand finalist GWS were first. It 2018 they were 14th, while the Eagles at No.1 took their kicking game all the way to the flag.
The Tigers have been renowned as a pressure and forward handball side, an art they have perfected over many years. It has been their point of difference against the other contenders that preferred to move the ball by foot.
And it’s not just offensively that Richmond were able to draw a competitive advantage. While Tiger players pushed, nudged, tapped and handballed the ball forward, an impenetrable defence was forming behind the ball. The longer the ball stayed on the ground, the easier it was for Richmond to keep control of the game, even when the ball was in opposition hands.
Of course, every now and then a team would break the Tigers down. West Coast and Collingwood had the most success, playing a possession, kick-and-mark game, with high uncontested marks not allowing for the famed Richmond pressure to get a hold.
The AFL rule changes have now made it easier to control a game by foot, and exhibit A was against Sydney at the MCG on Saturday. The Swans sliced and diced the Tigers apart with their exquisite skills, which had also been on display against Brisbane and Adelaide.
In Round 1, Richmond had 75 inside 50s against Carlton, and didn’t get fair return. The same can be said for Round 2 against Hawthorn, where Changkuoth Jiath, Jarman Impey and Blake Hardwick cut off forward forays all afternoon. These were two average wins against inferior opposition.
The Tigers are not a kicking side, in a year where the game has evolved to favour those that are. And they have historically struggled to defend teams that are highly skilled by foot, and were given another lesson in that area by Sydney.
It’s not a combination that screams premiership favourite, even if recent history says they deserve to be.
Oh, and the team that played most like Richmond last year, based on pressure and moving the ball forward by any means? St Kilda. And we’ve seen how the Saints have been all at sea in two matches on dry ground. Their Round 1 win against the 0-3 Giants was in wet conditions favourable to their old style.
Damien Hardwick and Brett Ratten have their work cut out for them. Can they adapt to the new environment, and the standards and skills that this AFL season seems to be asking of them? It will be a fascinating watch from here.