To question the legitimacy of Richmond is a valid query that the next four games are about to answer, with the club facing Sydney, Port Adelaide, Carlton and Geelong.
That’s not to discount the last month’s worth of footy for the Tigers. More than the results themselves, it’s the style in which the team is playing that is most encouraging.
Fast, free-flowing footy with manic pressure has been the name of the game. Creating forward-half turnovers, a signature trait of peak Tiger footy, has been a key feature in recent matches, while the last fortnight has seen Richmond stick 32 tackles inside 50.
Confidence has grown since the demolition of the Eagles, but the Tigers have still had to grind through some difficult patches in order to sit with six wins after ten games.
And while they’ve handled themselves well, particularly without key players at times, Damien Hardwick and his playing group know that the real season starts now.
Richmond sits inside the top eight with a healthy percentage despite not coming close to beating a fellow team in the upper half of the ladder. Granted, only Carlton, St Kilda and Melbourne have been faced, but it leaves the Tigers in a spot without a fair measuring stick to compare to.
Never fear though, as the fixturing gives us what we truly need at a time of great questioning.
Not only do we see them against some genuinely decent opposition, but we also see four completely different styles at play.
The Swans offer one of the more contested, yet direct styles of play. Callum Mills, Luke Parker and James Rowbottom aim to strangle the opposition in the middle, Chad Warner looks to send the ball forward at all costs, and if there’s a better, more direct kick in the league than Nick Blakey, his name is Jordan Dawson, a former Swan himself.
They don’t concede many easy opportunities inside 50s and they break even in clearances at worst, but pressure gets to them and they can turn the ball over.
Port Adelaide continue to have something to prove and will look to take drastically increase their contested marking and aerial advantage inside 50 with Charlie Dixon back. They’re leaky though and susceptible when the ball movement is too quick.
Who’d have thought the Blues would be a standard-setter in 2022? All right, maybe they need to do a little more convincing too, but they’ve answered all the challengers so far and are a real tough matchup.
They possess more of the ball than anyone else, they protect the ball better, and have elite talent in all areas of the field. They also concede the fewest tackles inside 50 in the league, as they always find a cheap, uncontested mark on the fringes of the defensive 50 when under pressure.
Yet we know that they’ve dropped away in second halves and do just enough to hold on. Some call it a real show of strength, others say it could be their downfall. The Tigers showed their second-half ability against Hawthorn.
Then there’s the Geelong team that is probably the most tactically well-rounded in the league, Melbourne aside. They have defensive schemes built into their brains and have developed an attacking style that can blow unsuspecting teams out of the water.
But their speed comes from ball movement, not pace. Tighten the screws and squeeze the space between players and the Cats can succumb. They concede the fourth-most tackles inside 50 per game.
It’s season-defining in many ways for Richmond, not least due to expectation versus reality.
In this block of football, they play a team that they have to beat, a team that is likely too strong, and two teams in identical places to themselves heading into the round.
Some believe that Richmond is the team most likely to slip out of the top eight by season’s end. Others hold onto remnants of a dynasty and think something’s brewing.
The challenges are only made more difficult by the absence of in-form Tom J Lynch, who was instrumental in Richmond’s turn of form. At his best he’s arguably the best key forward in the league, but his absence leaves Jack Riewoldt as the only player of that positional status fit.
Noah Balta’s return to defence was cut short by injury – there’ll be hope he can play in the three post-bye games but it remains to be seen.
Kane Lambert’s impact goes unnoticed by many, but he’s the conduit that keeps everything moving smoothly in the Tiger machine.
Dustin Martin’s return has been both a morale boost and a weapon in attack that demands attention. Shai Bolton is playing some of the most damaging footy in the league and Toby Nankervis is the epitome of a Richmond captain, with elite numbers to back it up.
It’s rare that a first-year key position prospect is flung into a finalist’s best 22 from the outset but Josh Gibcus has done so.
Out of the 39 key defenders to have participated in at least 20 one-on-ones this season, Gibcus is ranked fourth for fewest losses, losing just 14.7 per cent of the time. Seriously, how good is the kid?
There are absences, but there are also players taking their games to another level at Tigerland, which is what makes this next month so important.
Richmond face a set of matches that will provide genuine challenges that, if navigated adequately, will give us irrefutable evidence as to where this team stands in the grand scheme of 2022.
There can’t be any uncompetitive performances, although we rarely see that from this group.
After the Geelong game, the Tigers have West Coast and North Melbourne, either side of a tough Suns trip.
They must beat Port. They need to beat two of the other three teams to justify legitimacy.
It’s tough but doable and there’s no better way to test a gameplan than trialling it against four completely different sets of tactics.
In a month’s time, we’ll be asking the exact same titular question.
Let’s see what this version of the Tigers is really made of.