IT'S a big night for the Tigers. Centre stage at Etihad Stadium against a rejuvenated St Kilda. Milestone games for Jack Riewoldt (100) and Shane Tuck (150). Rave reviews all week for their demolition job against Hawthorn. And you sense Tigers coach Damien Hardwick wouldn't want it any other way.
In other big games this year, Richmond fell short against Geelong, West Coast and Essendon. But not by much. They needed a big scalp and got it last week against the Hawks. Now all eyes will eagerly watch tonight's outcome. A win puts the Tigers 5-5 and a genuine chance to play finals for the first time in 11 years. A loss and September action will be unlikely.
Hardwick has built up the confidence and skills of this current team. The Tigers lead the competition in disposals. The coach encourages his players to keep the ball moving with lots of share. Players feel good when they are getting a lot of leather, and they are exciting to watch. The big improvement in 2012 has been the all-over-the-field defensive efforts. Last year, Richmond was too loose, conceding on average 108 points a game. Only two teams (Port Adelaide and Gold Coast) conceded more. This year, the average score against is down to 87. It appears the blowouts of the past are gone.
Recruiting has been specific at Richmond during Hardwick's tenure. Over the past three seasons, the senior players brought into the club have been given definite roles and plenty of time to blossom. Shaun Grigg filled roles at Carlton. Now he is strictly a hard-running midfielder. His ability to cover enormous ground is being used to the max, and he now leads the AFL in uncontested possessions. The knock on Bachar Houli at Essendon was that he butchered the ball. The Tigers have settled him as a running defender. With an average of 22 possessions a game and disposal efficiency close to 80 per cent, he is doing a fine job. Steven Morris arrived at Punt Road via West Adelaide, and the courageous 23-year-old hasn't missed a beat. He can be a dashing rebounder or lock down on dangerous types such as Cyril Rioli.
After just nine games, big-hearted Ivan Maric has won over the Tiger faithful. Last year, Richmond's ruck situation was dire. Andrew Browne and Gus Graham just didn't measure up and Maric had fallen out of favour with the Crows, playing just six senior games. Under the tutelage of premiership ruckman Brendon Lade, Maric is now in career-best form. He ranks second in the AFL for hitouts to advantage, and leads the way at Tigerland for contested marks. The big fellow can also go forward and kick a goal. Watching him closely last week against the Hawks, the thing that stood out was the team spirit he engendered. He was forever encouraging his mates. He gifted a goal to Robin Nahas when he didn't have to. He did 90 per cent of the centre bounces, Ty Vickery did the rest, and as his understanding develops with Trent Cotchin, Nathan Foley and Shane Tuck, so too will their clearance rates.
So far this season, the Tigers have fielded just 27 players and of these, 15 have played every game. That's good, because with a settled combination comes confidence, understanding and, above all, predictability. Richmond is getting to the stage where it knows what's required and its improved skill level gives it every chance to succeed.