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Tigers v Demons: no debate now

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If a week is a long time in football these days, a little over a year is an eternity. And nothing will underline that better than when co-tenants Richmond and Melbourne face-off at their MCG home on Sunday.

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For an improving Richmond, eyeing off a long-awaited finals spot, this is not only a chance to jump to within a hair's breadth of the top four, but build some handy percentage in the process. That's because the Demons, should they turn up with the attitude which saw them humbled by Gold Coast last week, will provide all the opposition of a set of training cones.

It's a far cry from when these same teams clashed in round three last year. Back then, as hard as it is to believe now, they were two teams whose developmental curve was constantly being compared, the debate about which would emerge to a position of strength quicker.

Both had finished 2011 with the same records – eight-and-a-half wins apiece. Indeed, that wasn't seen as good enough by the Demons, who'd sacked coach Dean Bailey and replaced him with Mark Neeld. And going into the game, Richmond coach Damien Hardwick was hardly sitting too comfortably either.

The Tigers hadn't been blown away in two losses to Carlton and Collingwood, but some key indicators had plenty at Punt Road concerned about just where their team was headed.


Richmond, ranked a lowly 16th for clearance differentials (numbers compared to its opposition) at the end of 2011, had slipped to outright last. Its poor rating of 15th for contested possessions had fallen to 17th.

At half-time in round three, little appeared to have changed, Melbourne having hit the front during the second term, and the Tigers just eight points up at the long break. But that would prove the moment the bigger-picture argument about whose long-term prospects were better changed for good.

And so far has the gap widened since then, that for Demon fans, the fact there ever was a debate is another stark reminder of how dire their situation has become.

Richmond turned up the gas that afternoon with a nine-goals-to-one third quarter, the lack of committed opposition as notable as the scores registered, the Tigers eventually cantering to a 59-point win.

Including that Saturday afternoon, Richmond has won 14 and drawn one of 27 games for a winning percentage of nearly 54. Melbourne has won five in the same period at 18 per cent, four of those five victories coming against the fledgling Greater Western Sydney and Gold Coast.

What's changed? Well, the Tigers have picked up a couple more handy recruits, but mostly it's been about effort. Melbourne? The Demons have largely the same personnel, only three who played that afternoon – Clint Bartram, Matthew Bate and Stefan Martin – no longer on the list. But what effort there was seems a distant memory.

Those poor clearance and contested ball rankings for the Tigers have progressed steadily upwards. By the end of last season, the clearance numbers had risen from 18th to third. On contested possession, Richmond climbed from that early low of 17 to outright second. And the numbers have remained steady in 2013.

Melbourne was 15th for contested ball when it took on Richmond in round three last year. It finished the season 16th. Now it's 18th. On the clearance front, the Demons went into that April game 16th. It finished the season 18th. It's still 17th.

Over the last year-and-a-bit, Richmond has been able to concentrate more on ironing out the rough edges in its make-up, finding some goalkicking alternatives to Jack Riewoldt in attack, and improving the quality of its disposal coming out of defence.

Melbourne doesn't have that luxury when it can't even count on making it to football's first base, having a genuine crack.

As Demon recruit Chris Dawes wrote in his column for Fairfax Media on Thursday: “We can't afford to be wasting time coaching one of the fundamentals of any professional endeavour. We need to get better quickly, and a week of remembering how to compete is frustrating because it takes away from time learning how to play finals football.”

And how distant that goal must seem right now. Indeed, if early last season seems a long time ago, consider these words penned by former Melbourne champion Garry Lyon in August 2010, on the eve of another Richmond-Melbourne clash.

“Which of these two young sides, both of which have been so positively embraced by the football community in recent weeks, will further justify the borderline rave reviews bestowed upon them? Lyon asked.

“I think it's fantastic that supporters of both teams can go along tomorrow full of hope and expectation, rather than resignation and despair. I would love to be able to argue with my Richmond mates about the relative merits of our respective lists in the coming years.”

And so would an army of long-suffering Melbourne people, Gaz. But it ain't going to happen. Because this is one football debate well and truly done and dusted.