Richmond are at the crossroads in their quest for three premierships in a row and their fourth in five years. If successful, it would unquestionably make them the team of this century.
We know the Tigers start slow and have been much stronger in the second half of the season in their premiership years.
If we look up to the bye rounds in 2017 and 2019, and up to Round 11 last year, their record is 20 wins, 14 losses and a draw from 35 matches.
The record in the rest of the home-and-away rounds in those seasons is 23 wins and three losses. Add in finals and that becomes an even more impressive 32 wins and four losses.
In those three years, Richmond finished third each time, no more than a game inside the top four. In each of those seasons when they came flying home, if they had dropped just one more game than they did, they would have finished fifth or lower. It was a high-wire act, and they never fell.
This year, there is no safety net below. A top-four finish won’t be happening from here.
Melbourne, Geelong, Brisbane and the Western Bulldogs are all tracking for 17 wins, with Port a chance to reach that mark but more likely to hit 16. Even if the Tigers win every game from this point on, in a stretch that features the Cats and Lions as well as the Giants away, they would finish on 16 wins only.
But it’s not just the win and loss count for Richmond, they are playing in bursts more than ever before, and thus being exposed as vulnerable. Their inconsistency is costing them in almost every game they play.
The loss against West Coast on Sunday came after giving up a four-goal lead halfway through the last quarter. It was un-Richmond-like if comparing to the last few seasons, but not when looking at this year alone.
The week before, they were five goals up against Essendon late in the third quarter before allowing the Bombers to hit the front early in the last. In the first quarter against Adelaide in Round 11, they gave up five goals in a row in the first quarter and four in a row in the last. There were four goals conceded in a row against Greater Western Sydney, who compiled a 28-point lead.
All three of those sides are inferior opposition, won’t be playing finals and ultimately couldn’t stay with the Tigers for long enough.
However, the top sides have been punishing Richmond harder and for longer.
Geelong smashed through seven goals in a row after halftime when handing them a 63 point belting in Round 8. In Round 6, Melbourne put through seven in a row too, spanning late in the first term to early in the third. Even Sydney had an eight-goal second-term against the Tigers way back in Round 3, in what was a sign of things to come.
Up at the Gabba in Round 10, scores were level halfway through the third, before Brisbane kicked the next five goals and ran out comfortable winners.
That’s five losses against fellow top-eight sides, all of which bear similar hallmarks.
Richmond have become shabbier when transferring from defence, committing unforced errors and deadly turnovers less than 60m out from goal. It has left them exposed the other way. And while they have historically been the team that can’t be stopped when they have momentum, they are now finding themselves unable to prevent it.
You’d still back the Tigers to find their way to a fifth or sixth-placed finish, and if they can do that off the back of five or six wins in a row, then they will be the dangerous floater no-one wants to play. Their best is still scintillating, as the Bulldogs, Essendon and St Kilda particularly can testify.
Top six would give them an MCG final, and given the fact that it’s likely we’ll see three Victorian teams in the top four, there is a path that could see Richmond not leave their home state if they keep winning.
But there is a lot of work to be done before they can even think of competing at the top end, principally stiffening up a leaky defence.
Hunger and motivation must surely be a factor too, after so much success, and the loss to the Eagles smacked of complacency – as have the other performances against lower-rated opposition. At least it can be said that Melbourne, Geelong and Brisbane are just better than them this season.
Did those four late goals by West Coast signify the end of the Richmond era? In years to come, is that the time we will look at, where it was all over? It’s a very real possibility.
But if the Tigers do somehow get themselves off the canvas and win this year’s flag from outside the top four, it will be their finest hour yet.