Richmond has had some embarrassing losses over the years, but few would have rankled with the faithful as much as Saturday’s defeat against Melbourne.
It wasn’t the margin, obviously, the Tigers were still within a kick with only a few minutes to play. Not necessarily even the opponent, the Demons’ improvement from last year to this is becoming more apparent by the week.
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Tigers hit a new low in 2014
Richmond have come to a "very significant fork in the road in terms of the bigger picture", according to senior AFL writer Rohan Connolly.
But the result on a day when the club was supposed to be honouring the memory of Tom Hafey, the coach who not only landed four of Richmond’s 10 premierships, but essentially instilled the values of hard work, determination and the “Eat `Em Alive” ethos that was once second nature at Punt Road, was particularly hard to swallow.
As is this unpalatable truth: Less than halfway through the season, Richmond can already forget about the finals. Now three games outside the eight, the Tigers could turn on a major form reversal and still have far too many rivals for September ahead of them in the queue.
Over the next five weeks, they take on Greater Western Sydney, Essendon, North Melbourne, Fremantle and Sydney. Only in the first will they start favourite, and even the most optimistic Tiger couldn’t possibly envisage a return from that block of more than two wins. Take even that and you’re left with a win-loss record of 4-9. And that equals game over.
Just how a team that finished last season just half-a-game outside the top four has fallen this far appears to have even coach Damien Hardwick perplexed, but statistically at least, the problems are everywhere.
Richmond’s disposal has gone south big time, its ranking for effective kicks has fallen from first in 2013 to 10th, disposal efficiency from third to ninth.
Its stoppage work in an offensive sense is a mess. Last year, the Tigers ranked first on the differentials for points scored from stoppages - 349 points more than their opponents for the season. Currently, that figure is in the red, and the ranking is 12th.
Richmond has worked hard under Hardwick to lift its hard-ball credentials. In 2013, the Tigers were ranked second on the contested ball differentials. Now, they are 14th.
The quick ball movement when the Tigers were at their best last year has also vanished. Last season, they ranked seventh for playing on after a mark, now 15th.
Their forward line issues go way beyond Jack Riewoldt’s struggles. The lack of support for the spearhead isn’t reflected only in goalkicking returns, but the fact Richmond’s scores per inside-50 average ranking has fallen from fourth to 15th.
Its defence, meanwhile, in which Troy Chaplin in particular hasn’t been able to exert nearly the same influence as previously, is starting to buckle under the strain, the equivalent scores from inside-50s against ranking also going from fourth to 15th.
That’s a snapshot of the problems. And the solutions? Well, Richmond may well be coming to a very significant fork in the road, a point that in terms of the bigger picture it has to either hold firm with its strategy and refuse to throw the baby out with the bathwater, or concede defeat and effectively start again.
The Tigers’ recruitment of more than a dozen players from other AFL clubs, coming during a period when the fledgling Gold Coast and GWS were picking the eyes out of the national draft, is a double-edged sword.
Had Ivan Maric been performing the structurally critical role he performed last year in the ruck, had established stars Trent Cotchin, Brett Deledio and Dustin Martin at least held their form collectively, and had the likes of Brandon Ellis, Nick Vlastuin and Reece Conca gone to another level to join them, the “foreign legion” would be playing the necessary support roles they performed adequately enough in 2013.
But none of the above has materialised this season. That’s increased the pressure on the likes of Shaun Grigg, Bachar Houli, Ricky Petterd and recent arrivals such as Shaun Hampson and Matt Thomas to raise their personal bar higher. The sceptics would suggest all have merely proved why they were let go from their original homes.
The optimistic view is that for Richmond, this is a bump in the developmental road, one that even great teams of the modern era such as Hawthorn and Geelong have faced. That not only will Ellis, Vlastuin and Conca get there, but there will be more troops on the way to help them. Hold your nerve, will be the mantra internally.
But are the likes of the largely untried Matt McDonough, Ben Lennon, Todd Elton, Kamdyn McIntosh, Liam McBean and Anthony Miles going to develop anywhere near quickly enough for the so-called journeymen to be phased out and the upward trajectory resumed before the simmering discontent of the fan base consumes a plan five years in the making?
Hardwick and the Richmond hierarchy must be desperately hoping so. Because the alternative, to effectively tear up the blueprint and start again, is a story almost everyone connected with Punt Road during the past three decades knows all too well.
AND WHILE I'M AT IT ...
AS WE SAID … IN 1980!
Why does football continue to embarrass itself with episodes that might have been avoided with a little clear thinking? Exhibit Z in this long-running saga is the siren controversy at Adelaide Oval last Thursday night.
For some context, consider the infamous goal to North Melbourne’s Kerry Good to win the 1980 night grand final, his mark taken several seconds after another siren the umpires had failed to hear.
And consider particularly then VFL general manager Jack Hamilton’s subsequent comment that we needed to hook the umpires up to the siren to avoid a repeat. Obviously these things take time.
So here we are, 34 years later, going over the same territory. “Can we try and tie the siren mechanism or use the umpires’ communication system to make sure we are delivering some sort of sound to the ear of the umpire at the same time as the siren is pressed?” AFL football operations manager Mark Evans asked the other day.
Yes, Mark, you can. So how about we actually do it this time?
HEADS UP ON SLIDE RULE
The great bumping debate of 2014 continues, the clash between Essendon’s Michael Hurley and Sydney’s Dan Hannebery the latest incident to fuel the fire.
Much of the same arguments apply as to the Jack Viney incident which preceded it. As Swans’ coach John Longmire put it, his player had two options – to lead with the head, or two completely jump out of the way.
If players start doing the latter, we really can just about call our game something else altogether. But are we also now paying a more frequent price for another rule change a couple of years back?
Many of us thought the sliding rule an over-reaction to Gary Rohan’s broken leg in early 2012. It’s not like broken lower limbs and serious knee injuries were frequent from such slides as Lindsay Thomas’. We also made the point at the time we could far more frequently see two players attempting to keep their feet coming from opposite directions at the same height.
Doesn’t that equal far more clashes of head with upper body? Would have thought so. But at least we’ve cut down on a freakish broken leg once in a blue moon.
SUNS EYE SEPTEMBER
You suspected even as people were proclaiming Gold Coast a finals chance in 2014 that they didn’t really believe it, the Suns having still finished last season 14th and three games out of the eight.
But the current ladder doesn’t deceive, Gold Coast are only outside the top four on percentage only with four wins on the trot and their first quarters against North Melbourne and now St Kilda among the most potent we’ve seen from any side this year.
Consistency over four quarters is still an issue, but a midfield featuring Gary Ablett, Jaeger O’Meara, David Swallow, Dion Prestia, Michael Rischitelli is the envy of most rivals, and up forward, the Suns continue to look potent.
A win over the Western Bulldogs this week at home would make it seven, with perhaps another five needed from the remaining 13 games. And after the Suns’ last month, that has to be very do-able.