THERE are several good stories out of every weekend of AFL football. Not so often do arguably the two biggest emerge from the same match. But that was the case at the MCG on Saturday.
You could argue about which was the better yarn - Richmond's power-packed performance or the extent of Hawthorn's laziness and sloppiness. Both, however, in the context of the 2012 season, appeared far more significant than merely delivering another winner and loser.
First, to the positive. If the Tigers haven't yet officially arrived, they have definitely grabbed their luggage from the overhead lockers and are standing impatiently in the aisle, waiting to disembark. Damien Hardwick's team has managed to score the odd upset over the past couple of years, but Richmond hasn't beaten a team as highly rated as the Hawks so emphatically for a long, long time.
And it was the circumstances of the victory that spoke just as loudly as the crushing 62-point margin. The full extent of Richmond's midfield capabilities was on show, the roll call of Trent Cotchin, Brett Deledio, Dustin Martin, Nathan Foley and Shane Tuck all on song, and even the Hawks' biggest names simply unable to match it.
Ruckman Ivan Maric has become a real key to Richmond, bringing the stars into the picture more consistently with his hitouts and his strong presence at the stoppages. But there's a fair bit more besides. The weakness in both contested ball and clearances that was holding the Tigers back even early this season is being corrected, and Richmond won both against the Hawks, the contested stuff handsomely.
The defence, so often an Achilles heel, is vastly improved, a tremendous understanding developing between the back six. Steven Morris is an important addition, Alex Rance is growing in maturity by the week and was superb on Lance Franklin on Saturday, while Ben Griffiths, with his booming kicking, is the latest fillip.
There's a lot more to like about the offensive side of Richmond's game, too, Jack Riewoldt's six goals against the Hawks more the icing on the cake than the whole cake. Jake King has become a really important defensive forward and genuine goalkicker and there's more goals being produced from the midfield contingent, either in that role or, as Martin and Cotchin are beginning to do consistently, while ''spelling'' up forward.
It's all about balance, and Richmond is finding a lot more of it. It's also about consistency of effort, and perhaps that's the greatest single pointer to the Tigers' improvement. Even in defeat this season they've been close to the mark, avoiding those morale-sapping thrashings that smack of immaturity that, in experience terms across the board, the Tigers still are.
Perhaps that made Hawthorn's lack of effort even more stark. What is becoming patently obvious, though, is the gap between perception and reality with a side making a habit of becoming the AFL's great tease. And some telling signs that there are too many Hawks too satisfied with their reputations.
Put aside for a moment Franklin's chronic inaccuracy and Cyril Rioli's ''deliciousness'' masking an average of just 14 disposals and an engine insufficient to exert a badly needed explosive midfield presence. Both are important factors in the Hawks' largely unconvincing form this season.
But just as worrying for coach Alastair Clarkson is the manner of his team's four losses, three in which they led at half-time before being overhauled by hungrier, harder opponents. The pivotal area each time was the midfield, where opponents who'd been beaten early wrestled control away from the Hawks' seasoned crew.
In Saturday's fourth defeat, Hawthorn trailed at the long break, but came off with plenty of hope after an important late goal from Rioli. When Jarryd Roughead kicked the first of the third term, there was the expectation they'd trample over the Tigers. But every Hawthorn punch was answered with one just as lusty. And the tell-tale sign that it had all got too hard for the Hawks came in Richmond's five-goal rush at the start of the last quarter.
Hawthorn plays North Melbourne, Port Adelaide and Brisbane before a round-13 bye, then Carlton, GWS and Western Bulldogs. The natural expectation is for the Hawks to win at least five, and possibly all six. Interestingly, Clarkson himself used the ''E'' word a couple of times post-game on Saturday. The Hawks hadn't anticipated being 5-4 at this point, he conceded. ''We had the expectation that we'd be high up the ladder and challenging seriously,'' he said.
It's a dangerous word in football, expectation. Perhaps it's time Hawthorn forgot about what is supposed to be the case, and deal with what actually is. And that's a so-called premiership fancy that has a win-loss record only a fraction better than 50 per cent, and which clings to a spot in the top eight by a very slender thread.
Rohan Connolly, a senior football writer for The Age and radio broadcaster with sports radio station 1116 SEN, has been covering the game since 1983. A multi-AFL Media Association award-winner known for his passion and love of the game, he analyses the AFL for the newspaper and contributes a blog and weekly video, "Footy Fix", for The Age's football website, Real Footy.
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