TO WIN the premiership after finishing 13th in 2016 was an outstanding achievement by Richmond, but the Tigers shouldn’t get carried away dreaming of back-to-back flags.
Winning a premiership relies on a number of factors to go right: game plan and style, individual player form — and a healthy list.
This year, Richmond had nearly a full list to choose from for the entire season and didn’t make one change to its team throughout the finals series. You need continuity to win a flag and that’s exactly what the Tigers got.
On top of that, this Richmond side played for one another far more than they have in the past. There was a really strong bond among the group and that was evident in the way they played every week, whether it was in Round 3 or on Grand Final day.
This was a team, not individuals placed within a team environment like Richmond sides have tended to be in the past.
The key point for Richmond exceeding expectations this year and delivering on potential after years of disappointment and finals failures was that it finally got improvement from its second-tier players, the guys under those four stars.
To achieve the ultimate success clubs need those four elements — game plan, form, consistency and a healthy list — plus a mixture of 12-15 A and B-grade talent performing every week.
Finally, the likes of Bachar Houli, Brandon Ellis, David Astbury, Nick Vlastuin, Shaun Grigg, Shane Edwards and Dylan Grimes were able to elevate themselves from C-grade players to C-to-B-graders who help form the nucleus of a consistent football side.
Astbury’s development in particular was critical, allowing Rance to play more as a sweeper, impacting as the third-man up and also setting up play from the back half.
For years the inability of these types of players to step up is what has held Richmond back. They were inconsistent and too much was left to Martin, Cotchin, Rance and Riewoldt.
The addition of Dion Prestia, Josh Caddy and Toby Nankervis also added to the depth of talent within that second and third-tier bracket. Each of the trio proved important contributors in their own different way in various parts of the season.
That was really smart recruiting — each of those players was brought in for a specific need. Nankervis to bolster the ruck, Prestia to be a grunt player to release Cotchin and Martin and Caddy to be the flexible forward/midfielder who kicks goals. A lesser Brett Deledio type with the role he plays.
And Daniel Rioli is a genuine star of the future whose development will continue to go from strength to strength.
Then there’s Kane Lambert, Kamdyn McIntosh, Dan Butler, Jason Castagna, Nathan Broad, Jack Graham and Jacob Townsend, who were the wildcards in a fairytale season.
Can each and every one of these players — including Martin, Cotchin and Rance — produce the same level of football next year?
These players had career-best seasons and as we saw with the Bulldogs this year, staying at the top is an extremely hard task when 17 other clubs all want to beat you. It takes its toll both physically and mentally.
There is some depth on the list with Anthony Miles, Reece Conca and Sam Lloyd but I want to see big improvement and development from Shai Bolton, Connor Menadue, Oleg Markov and Corey Ellis next year.
Those guys are the future, whereas the first three are more the past — the good, honest players who took Richmond to the finals but weren’t good enough to be the difference when it mattered. They are depth players.
That’s why I think the Tigers were able to enjoy success this year because they moved away from those role players (including Taylor Hunt, Steve Morris and those types who have now been delisted) — who Hardwick knew what he was going to get from every week — in favour of younger, more energetic players and unpredictable players who are still developing but bringing a whole different dimension to the team.
Richmond’s improvement will come from Bolton, Menadue, Ellis and Markov challenging the bottom six — Butler, Castagna, Broad, Graham, Townsend and McIntosh — for their spot in the best 22.
WHAT THEY NEED
Despite the form of Nankervis this year I still think the Tigers need to bolster the ruck department.
Shaun Hampson will return from injury next year and could be the No. 1 ruckman with Nankervis as a forward/ruckman because I think he can thrive in that role.
We saw this year his marking prowess around the ground and there’s no reason why he can’t do that inside forward 50, he may just need to improve his endurance. He’s also pretty mobile for his size.
Hampson is a great tap ruckman who can really add more potency to the midfield mix, giving Martin, Cotchin and Prestia first use. So if those two are playing, Ivan Soldo is the back-up and I’d like to see another developing big man come onto the list.
Using Hampson as the No. 1 ruckman with Nankervis forward will also help the structure up forward alongside Riewoldt and the small forwards. I still think Richmond needs another tall inside 50 to help Jack Riewoldt despite the success of the smaller forward line this year.
The Tigers also need more outside speed. They are well off for inside players but more run and dash off half-back would be ideal.
UNDER THE PUMP
Miles, Lloyd and Conca are all under pressure in 2018. It is time to prove they can be more than just depth or C-grade soldier-types who just fill a spot in the 22.
It’s also last chance saloon for Ben Griffiths. He’s had so many injury problems and concussion issues but the facts are even when he does play he doesn’t have much of an impact. He’s very inconsistent and I’m not sure whether he is part of the Tigers’ future.
Hampson must get on the park next year. He’s also on his last chance. If he has another injury-riddled season then the club’s list management team might look for a more durable option as either the No. 1 or back-up ruckman to play alongside Nankervis.
Even though he produced a stunning six or so weeks to be part of the premiership, Townsend is also under the pump. Until Round 22 — and he has admitted this — he was looking for a new job because he was going to be delisted.
He’s earned himself a one-year deal but he’s under extreme pressure to hold his spot in the side. Yes, he ended the year in brilliant fashion, but five matches doesn’t make a season and he wasn’t even in the discussion before Round 22.
Jayden Short is another one. He fell out of favour after playing every game from Round 2-18 and wasn’t part of the premiership. He has that dash out of defence that the Tigers need but is he the man to fill that role? I’ve got my doubts especially with the likes of Markov, Menadue and Ellis coming through.
BUCKY’S LIST CHANGES
Ivan Maric has retired and Chris Yarran comes off the list now after his retirement at the end of last year, while Jake Batchelor, Todd Elton, Taylor Hunt, Ben Lennon and Steve Morris have been delisted.
I think Castagna and Soldo should, and will, be elevated on to the primary list after being rookie-listed players this year, which would leave five available spots on the list at the draft, which is probably enough changes for this year.
Nathan Drummond is one player at risk who could be part of a further list change given his history of serious knee injuries. It’s harsh but often those are the guys who make way if the club needs an extra list spot.
Richmond’s game plan — born out of necessity because of the injury to Griffiths and no impact from Elton — worked this year, but is it sustainable? Damien Hardwick will need to evolve his game plan to try to stay ahead of the pack because what worked this year might not work next year as clubs study how the Tigers played.
They did catch teams off-guard this year. Clubs work out how to combat certain styles very quickly so that planning is imperative for the Tigers over the off-season.
The development of the like of Houli, Vlastuin, Grigg and Lambert has given Richmond’s list an evenness about it and a far better spread of talent, but given the club had a dream run with injuries this year only time will tell whether this has just been a year out of the box or whether this is what we can expect as the new normal from the Tigers.
This group has now set the standard for themselves and it’s the level of performance the club, coaches, fans and football world will expect in 2018 and into the future. Can they maintain it? I think they should still be a top-eight side and potentially pushing for top four but if they get some injuries then that will affect their standing.
If Martin, Cotchin, Rance or Riewoldt is struck down with a serious injury, how much damage to this team would it do? It’s a major question mark because they lift every single other player around them and so the performance level of the team goes up. They make other players better.
That’s the concern.
Can the Tigers win the flag again next year? Everything would need to go right, just as it did this year.