IF Richmond goes on to win the premiership, it will be on the back of an unconventional structure that has literally caught oppositions flat-footed: the 1-5 forward line.
Richmond’s small forward line — in which Jack Riewoldt is the solitary tall target — has weaponised an attack that contains no other elite player (albeit Daniel Rioli has elite talent). It has given the Tigers superior front-half speed, which, in turn, has given them a potent method for both scoring and defending.
The Tigers only have to win two more games with this unorthodox set-up of Riewoldt flanked by Rioli, Dan Butler, Jason Castagna, the mid-sized Jacob Townsend and a rotating midfielder.
In all likelihood, this one tall and five medium/smalls structure won’t be sustainable from next year, as rivals work out how to negate and exploit it.
Richmond also recognises that it this system — born of necessity and the result of improvisation rather than careful planning — could prove ephemeral. The Tigers only went small because they didn’t have a viable second tall.
This set up, thus, has only a brief premiership window. In this way, it is similar to ‘Clarkson’s Cluster’ — the rolling zone that Hawthorn deployed successfully to win the 2008 premiership, which was soon overtaken by St Kilda and then Collingwood’s more aggressive ‘forward press’.
The forward press, too, was soon imitated and overtaken — the fate of nearly all tactical/structural advances.
Brad Sewell, a key member of Hawthorn’s unexpected 2008 premiership, said the Tigers had to make the most of this temporary advantage for the short time it lasted: “Richmond has to capitalise now.’’
Sewell posed the question of whether, for instance, opposition sides had yet attempted to physically work over Richmond’s small forwards — an approach Sewell said the Hawks had successfully used against Carlton’s (now departed) small forward trio of Eddie Betts, Jeff Garlett and Chris Yarran.
Sewell recalled how the Hawks of 2008 were “one step ahead’’ of the opposition when they were using the rolling zone. “And they (oppositions) were trying to work out what we were doing while we were perfecting our craft.’’
But by 2010, if not earlier, Clarkson had seen the Cluster’s last stand, and it was replaced, in the middle of 2010 with a compacted zone closer to that of St Kilda and Collingwood. If Clarkson hadn’t changed tack, he could well have been replaced, too.
The Tigers, at this stage, should be premiership favourites, simply because they’re best placed to be there on the big day. Their prospective preliminary final opponents are far friendlier match-ups than Sydney would be to the Crows and vice versa.
Should they prevail, it will be not only an unexpected flag, but a half accidental one. If Damien Hardwick had not been contracted for 2017 (and 2018), he probably would be gone, and who knows how the Tigers would have fared under a new coach, with or without an infusion of capable assistant coaches and football boss Neil Balme.
Similarly, would the small forward set-up be thriving and creating such havoc — forcing turnovers galore and holding the ball in Tiger territory — had the Tigers not lost Ben Griffiths to repeat concussions?
Hampson still has some chance of getting back, more as a back-up ruck than a forward, but the Tigers will stick with their mosquitos who buzz at the feet of Riewoldt (himself relatively small for a tall forward).
It’s not entirely original, as Mark Maclure would remind everyone — he was the token tall whom the Blues surrounded with the likes of Wayne Johnston, Ken Sheldon, Jimmy Buckley, Alex Marco and Rod Ashman in the storied premierships of 1979, 1981-82.
While quick small forwards aren’t so easily caught, in due course the competition will catch up with them.
However long this edge remains, the Tigers need it for only another four hours.