AFL 11 months ago

Another Success Story In The Making? Is Richmond The 'Western Bulldogs Fairytale' of 2017?

  • Another Success Story In The Making? Is Richmond The 'Western Bulldogs Fairytale' of 2017?

    MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 08: Nick Vlastuin of the Tigers celebrates a goal during the AFL Second Qualifying Final Match between the Geelong Cats and the Richmond Tigers at Melbourne Cricket Ground on September 8, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Following Richmond's incredible fourth quarter against Geelong last Friday night, setting the Tigers up for their first finals win and advancing to their first Preliminary Final in 16 years - That's right, 2001 was the last time the Tigers won a final, and it was that very same year that the Tigers were a game away from a Grand Final.

Their last Grand Final was 35 years ago in 1982, which ended in an 18-point loss to Carlton. Just a couple of years before that was the Tigers' last premiership, which saw the yellow and blacks destroy Collingwood by 81 points. Since then, the Tigers, more often than not, have been somewhat of a joke to the AFL community. Consistent losses, horrendous draft decisions and just an overall lack of Finals success has seen the football world mock Richmond and their loyal, yet extraordinarily vocal supporters over the past 30 years.

All of the mockery was swept aside briefly on Friday night, as Richmond made another step towards what could very much be another astonishing premiership tale. The Tigers finished third on the AFL Ladder, winning 15 games for the year and half a game behind first place Adelaide. Just imagine if they'd held on against Fremantle earlier in the year, or that Shai Bolton's goal against Greater Western Sydney had been allowed, or if they had held onto games against Western Bulldogs (five points), or Sydney (nine points). If they had won two or three of those games, then Richmond would've easily been on top of the ladder at the end of the home and away season.

Their 51-point win against Geelong - who haven tasted September action time and time again over the past decade - brought back shades of the Western Bulldogs of last year. Watching their game on Friday night, they had that same intencity for the ball, that same hunger and want for the ball and most importantly the belief to go all the way - much like the Western Bulldogs last year.

Do I think Richmond have what it takes to win it all this year?

Absolutely I do.

The one thing that makes me think this way is that there are a few similarities between Richmond's road to a potential premiership and the Western Bulldogs' fairytale finals campaign from last year, but make no mistake, Richmond are forging there own fairytale story this September. Much like how Luke Beveridge got his Western Bulldogs to rise from the mire when he took over at the end of 2014, Richmond coach Damien Hardwick has gone through quite the bumpy road since being appointed coach of the Tigers at the end of the 2009 season.

Hardwick inherited a young and inexperienced Richmond list and took them from a bottom-two team in 2010, to a finals contender in 2013 - finishing the season in fifth place on the AFL ladder, just half a game behind the fourth-placed Sydney Swans, however they would lose to Carlton - who had finished the year in ninth place, only to replace Essendon in the finals after the Bombers were found guilty of doping and putting the game into disrepute.

They would also play finals in 2014 and 2015, however they were again out in the first week of the finals. In 2014, they won their final 10 games of the season to finish the year in eighth after winning only three games in the first 14 rounds. Scheduled to play Port Adelaide in the first week at the Adelaide Oval, Tigers' captain Trent Cotchin controversially elected to kick against the wind in the opening quarter, causing the Power to blitz Richmond with an eight goal first quarter and led by as much as 87 points midway through the third quarter, the Tigers would go on to lose by 57 points.

In 2015, Richmond would finish the season in fifth place and consigned to a date with the eighth-placed North Melbourne in the first week of the finals. The week before, the Tigers had defeated North Melbourne by 41 points in the final round of the home and away season, but the Roos had rested several of their stars. It would prove to be a magnificent decision as North, despite winning two less games and a percentage much inferior to Richmond, proved too good for the Tigers on this day, winning by 17 points.

That's three successive finals campaigns and yet no progress has been made for Damien Hardwick and his Tigers, but in 2016, Richmond started going downhill, losing six matches in a row follwing their round one triumph over Carlton. Their 36-point loss to Adelaide in round three prompted Hardwick to suggest that the Tigers had to go a 'half-step back' to progress further than the first week of the finals. It also didn't help that the Tigers had personal issues off the field either, with Chris Yarran's mental health problems playing a bit of a role in what state the club was in.

By the end of the 2016 season, the Tigers had finished 13th with just eight wins to their name and had just endured an absolute thumping at the hands of the Sydney Swans who had finished on top of the ladder - they had kicked 22 goals to 2.8 at three quarter time and what Hardwick said earlier in the year, was simply scoffed by many - myself included - and it looked like it would be more than just a half-step back and the spotlight was heavily on by the time 2017 rolled by.

I had written in my 2017 season preview that if Hardwick could not improve this side from their woeful 2016 campaign, then my gut feeling was that the Tigers would sack him mid-year, but not only has he improved this side, he has given his side a genuine chance to win the flag this year, which is a remarkable achievement in itself. The recruitment of ruckman Toby Nankervis from Sydney has proven to be a revelation and at only 23 years of age, faces his best footy ahead, but it's been the personnel at either end of the ground that has helped this side be the premiership contender it is today.

In defence, Richmond have arguably the best key defender in the competition today in Alex Rance and a support cast hard to ignore. Dylan Grimes and David Astbury are solid second and third tall defenders, whilst the run of Bachar Houli and the courage of Nick Vlastuin make a very sturdy backline, which is only conceding an average of 76 points per game during the home and away season, which sits them third in the AFL. Last Friday night, the only allowed Geelong to kick five goals and only 40 points for the match.

On the other end, they have that tall forward capable of kicking bags of goals. Since 2010, Jack Riewoldt has only kicked less than 50 goals in a season only once - that was last year, when he kicked 48 goals. Experts have criticised Richmond for a lack of help up forward. Last year the next two leading goal kickers were Sam Lloyd with 35 goals and Ty Vickery with 26 goals. One is no longer at the club, whilst the other only played six games in 2017, with Damian Hardwick opting to go a smaller forward line, which has worked tremendously.

Five players have kicked over 20 goals this season for the Tigers, with Riewoldt leading the charge with 51 goals so far, along with Dustin Martin (32 goals), who continues to step up and cement himself as one of the league's best midfielders today, and then we have Richmond's brigade of smalls. Daniel Rioli (21.13), Dan Butler (27.15) and Jason Castagna (24.19) are the mosquito fleet that are quickly making the AFL world stand up and take notice, and if Josh Caddy wasn't so horrible in front of goal (19.20 in 20 games) and Jacob Townsend played all the home and away season (13 goals in just three games), then there is no doubt that Richmond could've had seven players that could've topped the 20 goal mark this season.

Fox Footy analyst Gerard Healy has stated that Richmond's forward line set-up has the 'hallmarks' of the Western Bulldogs of 2016

Richmond's small-forward set-up isn't too dissimilar to the Bulldogs' premiership team last year, as most of their forward line consisted of players who weren't primary forwards. Aside from Jake Stringer, Tory Dickson and a Tom Boyd who was relishing the second ruckman/resting forward role, the Dogs turned to guys such as Clay Smith, Liam Picken, Zaine Cordy and Josh Dunkley to kick goals and apply pressure to opposition defenders, much like what Rioli, Castagna and company do at Tigerland, and if you watched the Bulldogs' premiership run last year, that's what these four men did very well in the Finals last year.

It's easy to compare Richmond's performance over Geelong to the Bulldogs' performance over West Coast at Subiaco in the first week of the finals last year. Both teams were dominant for the most part of four quarters, both winning sides had eight men who had played 50 games or less and both sides are in that average age bracket of 24-25 years of age, but Richmond didn't have any player on that team on Friday night that were 30 years of age or over - the Bulldogs had three.

Despite all the similarities, it's impossible to agree that Richmond's road to the premiership will be as hard as the Dogs, given that they do get a week off, where as the Bulldogs had no break during the Finals Series, but after it is all said and done, The Tigers will still unquestionably deserve the cup when they get to that one day in September.

Say what you like about the Richmond supporters, but like us Bulldog supporters, have long been ridiculed for their lack of success, and although it's not quite the 62-year wait the red, white and blue faithful have had to endure, 37 years is still considered a long-time between drinks and if football has showed me anything in the past 12 months, it is to back an underdog story come September. 

I can't speak for every Victorian, but I am definitely on board the Tiger train this September  I can seriously sense a premiership heading to Punt Road this year. It would be pretty fitting if Richmond wins it this year - it would cap off a 2017 season full of surprises and incredible matches with an incredibly unpredictable result.

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