With Richmond set to have a September break for the first time in a few years, is this another case of a dynasty – that is, three flags in a short space of time – falling away very quickly?
What if anything can Richmond learn from the experiences of Brisbane, Hawthorn and Geelong?
Firstly, consider the reasons for the Tigers’ decline.
First, the AFL does not want teams to enjoy sustained success and has built a system to prevent it. The draft, salary caps and other equalisation measures are meant to ensure regular turnover within the top eight, and they have been reasonably effective.
Geelong have remained competitive for a long period, but the flags haven’t come. I think this might be because their list is just a little too old to keep winning deep in the finals. Even if they win the premiership year, this still wouldn’t be incorrect.
Second, the ‘downside’ of four years of Richmond success has been that it hasn’t allowed for much in the way of list turnover. If the game plan keeps working and the list stays reasonably fit, it’s hard to justify giving young players the games needed to prove they are worthy of a regular spot in the side. Combine that with a spate of injuries this year and it’s no surprise the Tigers have struggled.
Third, Richmond’s ‘connection’ game plan was ahead of the curve, and this was a strategic competitive advantage for a while. Other clubs studied it, and even though they understood what the Tigers were doing, they weren’t able to defend against it. It now looks like they’ve finally caught up, and now we’re seeing some of Richmond’s tactics – for example, moving the ball forward by hand – being adopted effectively by others. Commentators have also suggested that the ‘stand’ rule in particular has hurt the Richmond ground defence this season.
Four is hunger. Do the players still have it? This could also be a factor. And there is the combined fatigue from playing four seasons and going deep into the finals, so there is less time for both physical and mental recovery between seasons. Some of the off-field stuff from last season could certainly be a factor as well.
With this understanding of why Richmond have fallen this year, the question is: what to do the triple premiers do about it?
There are two approaches. One is that this year is a blip and that there’s still another flag or two in this core group. All they need is a good break and a strong preseason.
I don’t agree, because there are plenty of other factors to consider.
What I suggest instead is a mini rebuild in four stages.
The first stage is to identify the on-field leaders of our next assault on the flag. It might be Nick Vlastuin, Noah Balta, Jack Graham and maybe Liam Baker. That means the current crop of leaders needs to be transitioned out to make space and the senior players who can still be part of a flag-winning team in, say, five years need to be identified.
The second stage is, rather than retiring just one or two 30-plus-year-olds each year, let three or four go this off-season. It’s a bit ruthless and unpleasant, but others have tried the slow list turnover and it hasn’t been effective.
The third stage is to develop the next innovative game plan that will leapfrog the other clubs, and the final stage is to pack the team with youngsters and pour games into them in 2022 and 2023. Manage some of the senior players down to, say, 15 games per year to give more games to younger ones.
Next year will not be pleasant, but with 50-plus games into another ten or so young players, there will be a good mix of veterans and young, hungry players ready for another sustained shot during 2024-27. The aim should be for another two flags over that period.
It sounds crazy, but it just might work. The point is that doing what other dynasty clubs have done will likely result in similar outcomes. Richmond must learn from them and develop a qualitatively better plan.