Richmond players celebrate the close win over Essendon. (Photo: AFL)

Richmond’s newest defenders helped to weather the storm of a potent Essendon attack in horrid conditions at North Port Oval.

With the ever-important Rebecca Miller missing due to injury, the Tigers had plenty to worry about pre-game. It was first match she wouldn’t appear in since her debut in Round 1, 2020.

But after a first term controlled by the Bombers, those fears would be quickly allayed.

The second quarter saw the entire team come to life, led by the stone-wall that was the defensive duo of Eilish Sheerin and Libby Graham.

Miller, at 184cm, is typically tasked with the opposition’s most dangerous tall forward. Today, Graham often found herself with the responsibility of star Bombers forward Bonnie Toogood throughout the match.

With Laura McClelland also joining the defensive group, they were crucial in turning the game, giving the midfielders and forwards plenty of opportunity through their rebounding work.

The third quarter saw the Bombers dominate inside 50s by seven, also winning clearances by two.

But with Graham and Sheerin steady at the back, they were able to hold on in the final term and secure the win in a fierce contest.

Speaking to The Inner Sanctum post-game, Graham touched on how the group replaced the presence Miller brings week-to-week.

“She plays such an important role as that anchor and that calming voice back there,” Graham said.

“We’re such a solid unit now, we’ve developed. You take someone out and then you someone bring… we brought Laura [McClelland] in and she was fantastic. She played exactly her role, everyone played their roles.

“That’s all we can ask for, for everyone to compete, everyone to win their one on ones and work as unit.”

Libby Graham goes up in a contest against Bonnie Toogood. (Photo: AFL)

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Graham has become a lock in the Richmond defence, after playing just six games across two seasons at GWS.

It’s easy to forget that the 25-year-old has very little AFLW experience. Her one-on-one work gave Sheerin the ability to play her intercepting and rebounding game.

Blanketing the mighty Essendon attack was a big positive for coach Ryan Ferguson.

“They did fantastically well,” Ferguson said post-game.

“From a couple of years ago we had Harriet Cordner and Bec Miller holding us up strong, and now without either of them to keep a team to three goals, I thought they fought really well together.

“There’s still lots to learn from it, and get better, but I think they’re playing as a really tough to score against unit. It’s impressive having Bec out of that team.”

Sheerin’s journey into the AFLW is unlike most, playing her first season at 29.

Plucked out of AFL Sydney, where she played for the Inner West Magpies, she had previously been a train-on player with GWS before she injured her ACL.

A versatile player, who plied her trade as an inside midfielder in her home state, Graham always knew Sheerin could be a valuable player at the elite level.

“I played a little bit with [Eilish] in Sydney and a little bit against her in Sydney AFL,” Graham explained.

“She brings exactly what she brought there. She’s really competitive, really strong. Her ability to execute skills in those conditions… she’ll break out of packs and hit great kicks.

“I think all of us bring different strengths to the backline. That run off half back for the kind of game we want to play is perfect.

“She’s always been very capable. I knew as soon as she got to this level she’d be exactly like that.”

Sheerin starred with 20 disposals and a mark, while also taking two shots at goal. She’s leading the competition in metres gained (393.6) and intercept possessions (10.8).

Grinding out victory

With storms lashing out across Melbourne all day, it was always going to be a tough prospect for either side to go home with the four points.

The momentum swung at multiple points, and while the Bombers had all the play early, the explosion of Mon Conti after quarter time coincided with the turning of the tide.

Well held in the first term, the midfield superstar was involved in everything thereafter, including kicking one of the goals of the season.

That attitude to shake off the tag and have an impact was something that rippled throughout the whole team.

“You might try and keep [Conti] down for a bit of time, and you might have success with that, but she’s got the work-rate to bust through at some point,” Ferguson said.

“If she sticks at it, which she’s becoming more and more consistent with it, she’s just hard to contain for the whole game.

“I thought we controlled the last quarter, but there were still some moments we could really learn from. Although losses teach you a lot, we like learning from wins.

“After the couple early in the season that we felt like we could have gotten a result, it was great reward for effort.

“I want them to take out how hard they had to fight for it.”

Ferguson had looked for a greater connection between his midfielders and forwards last week against Hawthorn, as they scored their season-high 44 points.

This was after poor conversion and wasted opportunities saw the Tigers kick 1.5 and 4.3, giving up a number of chances to pull ahead at important moments.

And while they still kicked 3.8 today, there was a noticeable improvement in the structure ahead of the ball.

Richmond finished the game with eight marks inside 50, with the return of captain Katie Brennan for her first game of season seven.

The coach was happy to see the next stage of improvement for his forward line.

“[Brennan’s] presence was helpful, and just her footy nous,” Ferguson said.

“Even late, to just take a couple of those nice marks and take the heat out of the game and take her 30 seconds.

“[She didn’t] kick a goal, but she was probably as important as if she kicked three in terms of her effect on the game, so it was great to have her back in.”

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Courtney Wakefield also benefitted with her captain by her side, kicking another two goals in a day where the scores didn’t flow easily.

With five goals in her past three games, she’s leading well from the front.

“[Wakefield]’s in really good form,” Ferguson said.

“Her contest last week was unbelievable. Having KB next to her today, one of them might get you.

“And then having Ellie [McKenzie] floating around at times, just gives us that multi-pronged attack where earlier in the season we were struggling to find goalscorers.

“It certainly helps to keep the opposition guessing with who it’s going to go to and how they can stop them.”

Richmond faces a huge challenge next week against ladder leaders Brisbane at Punt Road Oval.

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