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Tougher Tigers pass test

There was rich symbolism indeed in veteran Tiger Chris Newman having the ball in his hands when the final siren rang at the MCG on Sunday.

Next week, Newman, in his 240th game, will equal an unwanted record he will share with St Kilda great, the late Trevor Barker, as the men to have played the most games of football without a single finals appearance.

But barring injury, the record will be Newman's alone for only five weeks. Because that same siren also sounded the end of a major drought for the club he has served so well for so long.

Richmond's gritty 27-point victory over an injury-depleted Fremantle has all but made certain of the Tigers' first finals appearance since 2001, the year before Newman made his senior debut.

With 11 wins and a three-game buffer to ninth-placed Carlton, Richmond probably needs only one more win to start organising its finals tickets. It could lose its next four and still pick that up against Greater Western Sydney in round 22. But there's prospects of more than a token finals appearance if the Tigers play their cards right.


Sure, they've got Sydney and Hawthorn over the next fortnight, and Carlton and Essendon in the last three rounds. They will also never meet a top side as vulnerable as were the Dockers, already without skipper Matthew Pavlich, key defender Luke McPharlin and the energy of Hayden Ballantyne, and then the late withdrawal of Aaron Sandilands.

But while the talk all week had been about Richmond needing to bag a big scalp, this was as much a win in which the Tigers battled and managed to defeat their own demons.

No Ross Lyon-coached side, relying heavily on a system rather than personnel, is ever going to lie down simply because it's missing a quartet of its biggest names. In fact, Lyon has shown repeatedly - not only with the Dockers but in his St Kilda days - the bigger the challenge, the more emphatic the response.

So out came the usual weapons. The manic defensive pressure. The predictable clamp down on Richmond architect Brett Deledio by Ryan Crowley. The late releasing of the handbrake. But the Tigers withstood them all.

At least four times, Fremantle came hard at them. And each time, the Tigers passed the test, kicking three of the last four goals of the third term, and again dominating the last after the Dockers had again crept within eight points. That wouldn't have happened last year, perhaps not even earlier this season.

It's becoming a recurring theme, though, the Tigers perhaps trading in some flash for a larger dose of fortitude, their recent wins hardly spectacular but, in a credibility sense, more convincing.

Fremantle's capacity to control the tempo and maintain possession had it a clear No.1 in the AFL for uncontested marks, but the Tigers put on enough heat to comfortably win that statistic, as well as beat Freo for contested ball and nearly double it on the clearance count.

But for one hell of an off day against North Melbourne a fortnight ago, it's that sort of solid, resilient spirit Richmond has shown since it flunked a test against Essendon in round nine. No longer can you foresee things spiralling out of control after some error. And there were plenty against the Dockers.

Some bad misses from Dustin Martin. Some ill-discipline from Jake King. The odd turnover from Alex Rance and Daniel Jackson.

But the latter pair, maligned at times - even recently - for cracking under pressure, poor decision-making, skills, or all three, still ended up among the best handful of players on the ground because rather than letting heads drop, they just shrugged off the setbacks and went again.

As outstanding as skipper Trent Cotchin was, it's the likes of Rance, tremendous in defence, Jackson, whose season out of the box continued with some tough clearance work and a critical late goal, and youngsters Brandon Ellis and Nick Vlastuin whose contributions are helping spread the load.

Enough so that while Deledio was quietened again by Crowley, this time the result wasn't a nail-biting loss such as in round five, but in the end a strong victory.

Top four for Richmond remains an achievable if unlikely prospect given the difficult run home.

And only a romantic would aspire to any more than that for the Tigers.

But the gradual improvement under Damien Hardwick has been far more pronounced in 2013. And this September, Richmond will actually get a taste of the crops they look likely to be harvesting for a few years yet.


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