Richmond players expected to take the next step from their 15-win season in 2013 and have been left bewildered by their collective atrophy this year, according to midfielder Brett Deledio.
Speaking on Monday in the aftermath of his side's third-consecutive loss, this time to rapidly improving Melbourne on Saturday, Deledio suggested the Tigers' playing cohort had anticipated things would click into place. "I suppose you do expect to [improve] because you spend six months in the pre-season training hard; it's only natural," he said.
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.
The inaccurate Tigers wasted many opportunities in front of goal in their 17-point defeat against the Demons, and Deledio identified the inability to finish in front of goal as one of the team's primary stumbling blocks.
"You kick 9.20, you don't deserve to win," he said. "We're having opportunities, we've had more scoring shots in the last quarter compared to the teams we've played, so it's obviously not a fitness thing, it's just a composure thing and taking our chances."
Deledio conceded that he, like coach Damien Hardwick, was bereft of clear ways to rectify what is swiftly becoming a nightmare season at Punt Road. "I can't really put my finger on it," he said. "I think blokes were trying hard, it's just that for whatever reason, we've lost those one-on-one battles, both forward and back and some in the midfield."
But he contended a top-eight finish was still not beyond the side, despite its predicament: "Absolutely, we can [make the finals]. We won't be giving up on those aspirations. We know it's going to be hard work but that's what you play the game for."
The No.1 draft pick of 2004 will play his 200th game on Saturday afternoon against the GWS Giants, a milestone realised with remarkable speed considering that Deledio has played just a solitary final in a decade at the club. Reflecting on the landmark, he attributed his exceptionally good run with injuries to genetics, and indicated that despite a career littered with false dawns at Richmond, the Tigers would always hold a special place in his heart.
"I've been through some tough times here at the Tiges, but ... I love this place. I forever will, I suppose," he said.
Deledio also outlined how his experience in dealing with disappointment had been called upon in recent weeks in a mentoring role with young players trying to cope with the side's stutters.
"I've been there before and I know what it's like, and it's just talking to them and seeing how they're going. I don't have the answers all the time, but I can offer a shoulder or an ear to listen."