MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 07:  Brett Deledio of the Tigers in action during the round two AFL match between the Collingwood Magpies and the Richmond Tigers at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on April 7, 2012 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Hamish Blair/Getty Images)

Brett Deledio. Photo: Getty Images

DUSTIN Martin, Trent Cotchin, Brett Deledio. That's an impressive trio of Richmond stars. Shane Tuck, Nathan Foley, Shaun Grigg. There's some handy support. Daniel Jackson, Shane Edwards, Reece Conca. Reasonable depth for what should be a pretty decent midfield.

Now let's ponder some important numbers. Clearance differentials? Richmond ranked 18th. Contested possession? Richmond ranked 17th, ahead only of a hapless Gold Coast, and well behind the even newer kids on the block, Greater Western Sydney.

And, for Tiger fans, here is what's proving to be a depressingly recurring bottom line. A 0-2 start to the new football year, a must-win match against fellow struggler Melbourne this afternoon at the MCG, and the prospect of the critical blowtorch being pointed yet again squarely in their direction should they lose.

AFL Round 1. Richmond v Carlton.Richmond's Dustin Martin in action at the MCG.29th March 2012.Picture Sebastian Costanzo. The Age.

Dustin Martin. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

It's been a tough start to the new campaign, facing Carlton and Collingwood, both seen as flag contenders. And Richmond wasn't disgraced in either loss. But already much of the momentum generated during a promising pre-season appears to have dissipated.

And if it's the midfield that should be the foundations for the on-going on-field renovations at Punt Road, then they're looking more than a little wobbly.

For Richmond's brains trust, this is hardly breaking news. Coach Damien Hardwick, speaking on the eve of the season, volunteered that the Tigers' ranking last year of 16th for clearance differentials as evidence of the pressing need for his side to harden up.

“Effectively, it means if we weren't winning clearances, it was going straight inside their 50. It was putting a young defence under pressure,” he said. And last Saturday night's loss to Collingwood provided almost the perfect case in point.

The damage was all done in a seven-minute burst by the Pies immediately after half-time, in which they scored five goals, three of them coming directly from centre-bounce clearances, effectively rendering the other 100-odd minutes of action a moot point.

On average, about 13 per cent of a team's score comes from a centre-bounce clearance. In Collingwood's case last weekend, it was a whopping 40 per cent. That set the alarm bells ringing in the Richmond coach's box. As has a failure to arrest the continued midfield slide.

While few would argue Richmond is setting itself up more effectively now for a realistic tilt at success over the longer term, when it comes to those “hard” indicators, the Tigers appear to have gone backwards.

In Hardwick's first season at Punt Road, Richmond averaged 2.2 more clearance wins than its opponents, ranking it fifth in the competition. The numbers fell to negative 4.4 (16th) last year. And in 2012, albeit with only a two-game sample, the Tigers are averaging 10 fewer clearances, the ranking stone motherless last.

Richmond began 2010 ranked fifth for contested ball differentials, winning nearly two more than its opponents. That fell to negative 8.4 (15th) by season's end, a lowly ranking duplicated last year, and with an average 16.5 conceded to the Blues and Magpies thus far in 2012, only Gold Coast is failing to win the hard ball more.

It's been some reality check for the Tigers, having spent a large chunk of the pre-season working harder than usual on midfield set-ups and spread. But as midfield coach Danny Daly says, while not looking for excuses, the difference between midfield dominance and a “pantsing” can often be a pretty fine line.

“I think we've been guilty of letting ourselves down for five- or 10-minute periods,” he says. “Against Carlton, in the last 15 minutes of the game, we got smashed for contested ball and clearances, and then obviously in that first 10 minutes of the third quarter last week. If you look outside those periods, it was about even, so it's a lot about our boys' ability to keep in the game mentally for the whole time.”

Even that deflating burst by the Pies last week had a few “what ifs” about it, Daly pointing out that in three of those centre bounces, it was the Tigers who got hands to the ball first, but failed to control it.

“In the first one, Brandon Ellis came in off the wing at 100 miles an hour, tried to take someone out, but missed, so that created space for [Dale] Thomas [who ran on to kick a goal within 13 seconds]. The next one, we had control but turned it over. They kicked it back, our defenders couldn't halve the contest, they take a mark, then another. It's about a number of things, not just the actual clearance. And little things add up to big things.”

What opponents are noticing on a broader level, however, is that even Richmond's brightest stars have significant weaknesses which make them, as a midfield group, vulnerable.

One major one is the dependence upon Cotchin to win first possession, something at which he routinely excels, but doesn't necessarily get much support.

That allowed Collingwood last week to smother his supply with Scott Pendlebury, even better at the same skill, and allow the other Magpie midfielders to do their stuff relatively unimpeded.

Dustin Martin, while a thumping and damaging kick out of the centre square traffic, remains a less-than-elite endurance runner, unable to go with the likes of a Chris Judd or Marc Murphy for long enough.

Says one opposition strategist, whose club is yet to play the Tigers but is, you sense, eagerly awaiting the opportunity: “He's so damaging with those 60-metre roosts on the run out of the square. The problem is because he's not an elite runner, he's almost becoming a forward who can play in the midfield rather than a mid who can play forward, because he just can't cover the territory often enough.”

Daly concedes it's an issue, but one Richmond and Martin are working tirelessly to change. “He really went hard at it over summer and shed a few kilos, but it's also about him knowing his threshold. Sometimes he stays on the ground too long, and we as coaches need to make sure we rotate him a bit more and keep him a bit fresher.

“A lot of the work with our midfielders has been on their reaction times from offence to defence. That's an area where we ride 'Dusty' a bit, so he's working really hard on that. Whether that's having a bit of an impact on him in terms of his ball-winning ability, I'm not too sure, but hopefully it will come together for him pretty soon.”

Opposition coaching groups seem to agree that for now, the excitement generated by the roll call of Richmond “names” like Martin exceeds the reality, and that there's significant structural issues.

Deledio, for example, has become such an important part of the defence in terms of quality ball distribution, that he can't be played in midfield for as long a spells as the Tigers would like. Foley can be a damaging runner, but has a tendency to creep ahead of the ball too much for a spot of “downhill skiing”.

Then there's the likes of veteran Tuck, who continues to bob up just when Richmond seems to be phasing him out, a clear legacy of his more youthful cohorts not winning enough of their own hard ball.

Jackson has borne the brunt of much of the early criticism of the Tigers this year. It's not about his capacity to play a role, which Daly says he does “better than just about anyone”, last week tagging the Magpies' Heath Shaw and reducing his effectiveness.

But Jackson's problems with both decision-making and disposal were underlined in a more free-wheeling role against Carlton in round one. “Too slow and can't kick”, was one particularly brutal opposition assessment of that performance. The same source calls Grigg “a slightly better version of Jackson”.

Of course, Richmond has copped the rough end of the deal in the contested ball area against Carlton and Collingwood, so far ranked Nos. 1 and 2 respectively, and in clearances, where the Blues and Pies are second and third on the differentials.

But Hardwick, Daly and his midfield line coach cohort Brendon Lade are keen not to be seen making excuses.

“They're obviously more seasoned than us, but the likes of 'Tucky', Foley, 'Jacko' and even 'Lids' [Deledio] have been around for seven or eight years now, so they should be able to match it with those guys for a sustained period of time,” says Daly.

There's no magic remedy for this problem, either. Just more of the same medication, hard work on the training track.

“We just keep working on them. We've probably done a lot more stoppage work this week than we have the previous few weeks. It's about making sure the guys play their role, and we've probably let ourselves down a bit with guys going outside their roles at times.”

For Hardwick, who made a specific issue publicly of his team toughening up in the hard indicators, this has been a particularly galling couple of losses. And all the more reason that not just a win over Melbourne today, but a performance which has “tough” written all over it, is essential.

“He's obviously let our mids know, and myself and Brendon as midfield coaches know, that it's just not acceptable to be 17th in the comp for contested ball,” Daly says. “He understands we've still got a bit of work to do in that area, and that we've played probably the two best sides in the comp at it, but it's no excuse. We just need to make sure that over the next three or four weeks, we move up the ladder in that area.”

Daly, like most AFL coaches, knows that it's in midfield, “between the arcs”, that the game is generally won or lost. Fix the issues, starting today, and Richmond can actually begin to climb a ladder given far more attention than merely the contested ball and clearance rankings.

And, with that, it hardly needs be said, finally start turning some of that much-vaunted potential into reality.

BY THE NUMBERS

RICHMOND

CLEARANCE DIFFERENTIAL

2012     -10.0      (18th)

2011     -4.4      (16th)

2010     +2.2      (5th)

2009     +1.5      (6th)

RICHMOND CONTESTED

POSSESSION DIFFERENTIAL

2012     -16.5      (17th)

2011     -9.7      (15th)

2010     -8.4      (15th)

2009     +1.8      (5th)

Rnd 1      v Carlton     -15 Con Poss     -7 Clearances

Rnd 2      v Collingwood     -18 Con Poss     -13 Clearances