It was all coming together. Inches away from a top-four berth in 2013, blessed with a core of stars and other highly competent players seemingly with multiple prime years still to offer, Richmond devotees' pent-up frustration of three lost decades was set to be released through the valve of deep September action ahead.
But halfway through 2014, the script has been discarded, and replaced with a lamentably more familiar tale. Rather than scaling the heights of double-chances and golden spring afternoons, the Tigers lie 13th on the ladder, just a game and percentage from the bottom. The heavily-worn path of high-draft picks looks likely to be traversed yet again.
Though difficult to reconcile in a year replete with embarrassing losses to the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne, not to mention a trilogy of shellackings from Collingwood, Hawthorn and Essendon, Sunday night's disappearing act against North Melbourne might just have been the worst defeat of all.
Sunday night's disappearing act against North Melbourne might just have been the worst defeat of all. Photo: Justin McManus
So just where has it all gone wrong for Richmond, and its 'Paradise Lost'?
1. Contested Footy
It's been drummed in repeatedly by Damien Hardwick throughout this nightmare on Punt Road, and yet again came home to roost in the face of a royal blue and white onslaught at Etihad Stadium. The Tigers rank 17th for contested ball in 2014, and given that the top eight teams in the category also happen to be the first eight sides on the ladder, the area's importance is as plain to see as Ivan Maric's mullet.
The Tigers have been slack at shutting out opposition sides' breaking away from stoppages. Photo: Justin McManus
2. Stalled Stars
It's not that Richmond captain Trent Cotchin or the immaculately-skilled Brett Deledio are having poor seasons, more that neither is playing as well as they have in the past. Cotchin should be spoken about as one of the game's pre-eminent midfielders, but right now he is only just going, proving incapable of breaking stubborn tags. Deledio is as he has been for most of ten seasons in the league: usually good, but rarely great.
3. Depth exposed
Some of Deledio's stutters this year can be excused as he made his way back from the most serious injury of his astonishingly durable career: an Achilles ailment which kept him out of the Tigers' side for the entirety of April. It has been the byproduct of his absence, and those of Maric, defender Alex Rance and even the mischievous Jake King which have led to callow types such as Matt McDonough, Ben Griffiths and Nathan Gordon being given regular senior appearances. Furthermore last year the Richmond fringe consisted of serviceable and seasoned campaigners like Luke McGuane, Shane Tuck and the frequently-vested Matt White- now flourishing at born-again Port Adelaide. All three would improve the side's battling bottom-six.
4. Defensive pressure
As Maric noted on Monday morning, the Tigers have been slack at shutting out opposition sides' breaking away from stoppages. Whether this is symptomatic of a lack of effort, a dearth of discipline or a deficient gameplan is a matter for debate, but in any event it has meant the Tigers have conceded the sixth most points against in the competition this year, having been the third-stingiest team in 2013.
5. Goal-kicking spread
Neither may be fashionable, but last year Aaron Edwards, King and McGuane all averaged comfortably over a goal a game when in the side to complement Jack Riewoldt and the hit-and-miss Tyrone Vickery. With Griffiths proving to be a lame duck, and neither Gordon nor fellow recruit Sam Lloyd in the AFL team, Richmond has been wanting for viable third and fourth stringers up forwards.
6. Losing close games
When it's all said and done, the Tigers' percentage is 94.1, a respectable figure light years ahead of fellow strugglers the Saints', Giants' and Lions' ratios, and one which theoretically should have Richmond sitting mid-table. But whereas last year Richmond won three of its five games by 18 points or less, this year it has prevailed in just one. Had it say not been so wasteful against Melbourne (kicking 9.20) and Brandon Ellis not fallen for wily Bulldog veteran Daniel Giansiracusa's two-card trick in round three, the Tigers would sit 5-6, and while far from perfect, the situation would not seem so dire.