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Does the AFL have a worthy challenger for Melbourne?

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12th April, 2022
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Will a challenger to the might of Melbourne please stand up?

In a not unexpected development, the Demons are the last team standing, the only club left undefeated after four rounds, and with a healthy percentage of 140 to go with it.

They are yet to put in a four quarter performance, have been solid yet not spectacular, their best players have played in fits and starts, and even while coasting are giving every impression that they are miles ahead of the competition.

Three teams, ostensibly the most likely coming into 2022, were embarrassed on the field in the last two weeks of last season.

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Port put in the ugliest performance of those three clubs, and they still haven’t recovered. They’re 0-4, forlorn and lost, soon to be forgotten as a finals contender, if they’re not already. Psychological scars often linger after a finals belting, and there is no better example than what the Power are going through right now.

Geelong are Geelong. They’ll look good at times. They’ll look old and slow at times. And they’ll ultimately be found out in finals as they are every year.

Last year’s beaten grand finalist, the Western Bulldogs, are sitting 1-3 and at no stage have looked like having the sort of groove that took them to 9-1 last season, and eventuated in becoming runners-up. They couldn’t hit water from a boat when it comes to their goalkicking. Only time will tell if they can rise again.

None of the three teams above are going to stop Melbourne from winning the premiership.

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Brisbane are clearly the team most likely. They’ve finished top four on the ladder three years in a row, they’re second right now and playing well.

Joe Daniher celebrates a goal.

The Lions celebrate a goal (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

The Lions have the requisite finals experience, defend strongly and attack with purpose, and importantly have guns on every line. The only question left, which must be answered with finals wins, is their ability to be clutch when their season is on the line. They have to win finals. They just have to.

You’ve got to cast the net pretty wide to find another team capable of taking it up to the Dees.

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Fremantle are about as ordinary a 3-1 side as we’ve seen, having beaten nothing of consequence in their victories, and losing to the only half-decent opposition they’ve played.

St Kilda were that half-decent opposition, and certainly fit the profile of fairytale teams like Richmond and Melbourne, given they played finals, then missed, and are perhaps ready to contend now. They just look a bit too vanilla across the ground – Max King might be the one that can defy this.

Carlton’s bubble burst against Gold Coast on Sunday night, but they looked electric in the first two rounds. It’s too tough an ask to play at that level for an entire season, including finals, when they have no history of doing it before. They’ll take steps forward this year, but can’t stop the Demons.

Sydney are the maybe. They won the same amount of home and away matches as Brisbane and the Dogs last year, and only two fewer than Melbourne. They’ve got a good blend of experience and youth, but perhaps not enough star power.

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It’s not going to happen for this iteration of Greater Western Sydney, even when Toby Greene comes back. West Coast have been torpedoed before leaving the gates. Essendon are a long way off it, and it’s way too early for Collingwood.

That leaves us with Richmond. What to make of the Tiges?

Jack Riewoldt of the Tigers celebrates kicking a goal.

Jack Riewoldt celebrates a goal. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

They’re middle-of-the-road at 2-2, having beaten two of last year’s finalists in the Bulldogs and GWS, while losing to in-form Carlton and St Kilda. But they’ve been in front at three-quarter time of all four matches.

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Richmond’s pressure and ball movement in winning games against the Giants and Dogs looked very much like the ‘Tigers of old’ that delivered three storied premierships. They’re sitting in the top four for points scored, so attack isn’t the issue.

The problem Damien Hardwick must address is the defence, which has conceded large runs of goals. Resilience in the midfield and backline has gone missing too quickly. The Tigers do have new faces like Robbie Tarrant, Josh Gibcus, Daniel Rioli and Hugo Ralphsmith playing down back this season, but will welcome back Nick Vlastuin in the near future.

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If this team-within-a-team can gel in quick time, and keep opposition to manageable scores, it might just be that Richmond can rise again. The dynasty might have one more chapter, and if not, perhaps they can at least be more than a speed bump for Melbourne to get over on their way to consecutive flags.

Oh, and they could do with a certain triple Norm Smith medallist in their side as well.

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