With just six rounds to go in the regular season, only one team is mathematically out of contention for the finals with North Melbourne leaving its run of form until too late in the season to emulate Richmond in 2014.
Yes, you read that correctly. 17 teams are still in the running, although teams from 13th to 17th need to win every game and rely on results going their way, increasingly so the further down the ladder.
Hawthorn started the season with a win, but ever since then they have never been in the top eight at the end of any round nor have they won consecutive games, so with three matches against top-four teams a bottom-placed finish is much more likely than finals.
Adelaide needs to win out and hope a lot of other results go their way if they are to bridge the 12 points and tonne of percentage they are currently behind eighth place. With the Round 18 clash against West Coast the first step on their mountain, the Crows will just be hoping they can see off the pair of teams currently below them to avoid another wooden spoon.
Collingwood has three games to make up too, but their dour defence has preserved a reasonable percentage and three wins from their past five games gives their chances a whiff of credibility with four MCG games to come against rivals for eighth, with trips to face Brisbane and Port made all the more fascinating given the Pies lost at home to both teams by a solitary point each time.
Gold Coast have shut the mouths of the death-riding media with successive wins against both the 2019 grand finalists away from home, with the next three games against top four sides all played in Queensland and the Northern Territory, while the Suns’ percentage and six wins puts their destiny largely in their own hands with only a handful of results needing to go their way if they run the table.
Carlton has a feasible shot at pinching eighth place with five games to come in Melbourne against teams currently outside the finals places and good percentage, so they will be viewing the Round 22 clash against Port in Adelaide as their mini-grand final if they can win the next four, but it all depends on this week’s match-up against their arch-rivals in black and white.
However, much as all of these clubs need to mount the longest table run since Richmond in 2014, it is the Tigers themselves in the worst run of form of any team in the past month who need to rediscover their flag-winning ways or their season will be done within a fortnight as the Lions and Cats await them in their next two matches.
The Tigers have seemingly lost their self-belief in four straight losses to clubs that they should have routinely beaten. Yet with just 12 players in the most recent loss to Collingwood backing up from the 2020 decider, Richmond are a shadow of their former selves and their aura of invincibility in big games has been shattered.
So how does a team with such swagger during their previous hundred games suddenly become incapable of the final quarter heroics that have punctuated the dynasty to date?
Richmond’s only win against a top eight side came against the Bulldogs, but they’ve lost six and only their early-season flat-track bully performances have kept them within touching distance of finals despite their horrible winter form. In fact, their overly difficult fixture has not eventuated as the reigning premiers might expect, with only nine games against top teams and a whopping 13 games against sides outside the eight.
The elephant in the room is Damian Hardwick’s marriage breakdown and subsequent new relationship with a club staff member. Dimma wasn’t the only coach to go through a separation last offseason, with the other bloke having already lost his job after a horror six months. Jack Riewoldt has repeatedly hosed down suggestions that his coach’s private life has affected the Tigers’ season, but the speculation continues as Hardwick shows ever-increasing signs of cracking during his side’s flagging season.
Coming into the season club morale should have been running high with no major departures apart from fringe players Jack Higgins and Oleg Markov (who have both experienced wins against their former side in the past few weeks), but they made way for exciting ruck prospect Samson Ryan and father-son Maurice Rioli Junior. And yet, something is not right at Tigerland.
The injury factor
Richmond won the 2017 and 2019 grand finals by playing with dual ruckmen Toby Nankervis and Ivan Soldo. Neither is superman or regarded as elite, however, together the pair was able to give the highly experienced and talented midfield good access to the ball in addition to providing extra height around the ground. The fact that neither has been available recently is telling considering Richmond’s slump, with Callum Coleman-Jones and Mabior Chol coming in and also sustaining injuries of their own, so mature-aged greenhorn Sam Ryan was drafted in for his debut and promptly recorded doughnuts on the stat sheet.
Injuries and suspensions have forced the Tigers brains trust to blood the youngsters, but this has been exacerbated by the quality of the names missing from the team sheet – Shane Edwards, Bachar Houli, Dion Prestia, Nick Vlastuin, Nathan Broad, Kane Lambert, Tom Lynch – and saw the losses mount as the next generation has been knocked around by injury and bad behaviour.
Where is the cavalry?
The fitness of several best-22 players for the prime time clash against the Lions will go a long way towards the Tigers firing a shot, with Edwards, Nankervis, Lambert and Chol all a chance of playing, then another group of players could return for the Cats game.
In the VFL, Josh Caddy had a team-high 39 touches, Will Martyn had 31 touches and 13 tackles and Noah Cumberland had 20 touches and kicked 5.3 while Sam Ryan had 3.1 to go with 20 hit-outs.
Play the kids?
While it has been a necessity for the Tigers to play some kids already as they battled form and injury issues to their senior players, there is one prospect who has been exciting club insiders in the young Maurice Rioli. Watchers report that he has trimmed down and bulked up in the right places, so expect his debut to come this year.
As above, the major performers in the twos are the kids, with the former Brisbane Academy trio of Martyn, Cumberland and Ryan pushing for selection.
Mid-season rookie draft
Readers may have forgotten that Richmond pulled a power move at the MSRD reminiscent of the Marlion Pickett selection in 2019 by passing over 19-year-olds and plucking ex-Saint Matt Parker out of the WAFL. Taking a ready-made experienced player was a risk other clubs were unwilling to take, so it really has to be now that the Tigers push the button and see what they have in the journeyman.
Richmond’s dynasty is almost certainly over, however, it would be a brave pundit to write them off entirely. With their backs against the wall, the Tigers have centre stage this next fortnight to show whether they have more to say in 2021. Even if they don’t make finals, or like they did in 2014 they get eliminated first up, 2022 is an all-new chance for the core group to reload at the draft with their impressive array of early picks and have another shot at glory.