As we hit the bye rounds in the AFL season, The Inner Sanctum will be conducting our mid-season reviews of all 18 clubs and assessing the first half of the season and what fortunes may lie ahead.
Up next, Richmond
The fall from the top of the ladder in 2021 after winning the previous two grand finals left many watchers quizzical as to what to expect from the Tigers this year. A four-goal defeat to Carlton in round one wasn’t on the agenda of many pundits, and indeed Richmond spent the first six rounds consistent only in their inconsistency.
They have looked the epitome of the aging heavyweight champion at times, with their midfield, in particular, getting no younger and definitely no quicker. And if the ship has steadied somewhat in the last month, then Friday night’s defeat to Sydney after leading by five goals emphasises that any complacency needs to be stamped on the head immediately if the 2022 season is not to go the same way as 2021 did.
Richmond’s spine has, for the most part, looked just as effective as it did during the premiership years. Jack Riewoldt, with 21 goals, and Tom Lynch with 31 have once again looked as potent as any key forward combination, with the result being that the Tigers boast the second-best attacking record at the halfway mark.
At the other end, a new-look defence has combined serviceably enough. Robbie Tarrant was recruited to play the role that the retired David Astbury filled so well during the glory years, and is doing enough to suggest that he will receive a pass mark from the coaching staff. Noah Balta has looked as solid as any centre half-back in the caper when fit, and pick nine from last year’s National Draft Josh Gibcus has been a revelation, looking every inch a 250-game player in the making.
In the middle, Toby Nankervis has taken to the co-captain role seamlessly. He hasn’t missed a game so far in 2022, and with 289 hit-outs to this point, he has given his midfielders first use of the ball as often as any ruckman in the league.
Trent Cotchin, who relinquished the captaincy, seemed to take on a new lease of life until injury cost him one match and some momentum. This all showed that there was life in the old Tiger yet.
Every club has its injury problems, but the fickle finger of fate seems to have dealt Richmond a tougher hand this season than most. A finger injury delayed Jack Riewoldt’s start to the season, requiring the aforementioned Balta to start in attack. This he did with aplomb, with six goals in the first two rounds, and he looked commanding in his more familiar defensive post before hamstring trouble caused him to be spelled after round nine.
And then there was Dustin Martin. The champion played in round one, then missed six matches on personal leave. No sooner did he come back than Cotchin injured a hamstring of his own, missing only one match but taking another couple to regain the momentum of his early season.
Finally, a hip injury that had cruelled the first half of Kane Lambert’s season once more made its presence felt just before three-quarter time in round ten, about the same time as Tom Lynch hobbled off with a hamstring strain of his own.
It hasn’t necessarily been the number of injuries that have nobbled Richmond as the players and the areas of the ground that have been affected, and it certainly hasn’t helped the Tigers to maintain a consistent challenge in 2022.
Jack Ross began the year with 29 matches under his belt and having not yet cemented his place in the Richmond midfield. In 2022 he has played nine of the 11 matches to this point, and every week he looks more comfortable than the week before.
A fine user of the ball, particularly by foot, the next step of his development is to find more of the ball than the 14.7 possessions per match that he currently averages. Evidence suggests that he has the ability and the constitution to do just that.
Who needs to lift?
A feature of the 2017 and 2019 Richmond premiership campaigns was the output of their fleet of small forwards. Dan Butler has now moved on to St Kilda and as mentioned before, Kane Lambert has an injury that coach Damien Hardwick has stated would have consigned most players to a permanent berth on the physio’s couch.
That leaves Jason Castagna and Daniel Rioli from the 2017 fleet. Both have played every match so far, but whilst Rioli has been very handy further away from goal, 139 disposals and 10 goals are a disappointing return for a finisher of Castagna’s class. Richmond will look for a greater output over the second half of the season.
Best and Fairest contenders
For sheer consistency, it’s hard to look past 2020 medallist Jayden Short, and 2021 joint runners-up Jack Graham and Liam Baker as the early favourites for this year’s Jack Dyer Medal. 26-year-old Short is only getting better, averaging 27.1 possessions and 20.8 effective possessions per game over the eleven matches played thus far.
Baker can play in any sector of the ground that Hardwick needs, and whilst he has particularly shone as a rebounding half-back, he has not been found wanting at any stage. Graham is a coach’s dream: a set and forget player that will fill any role required of him without hesitation or complaint.
Expectations for the second half of the year:
Richmond’s main task for the remainder of the year will be to cement a finals berth. However, the Tigers have shown that if they can put together their best football for an extended period they are as strong a challenger as any for the crown that Melbourne currently wears.
It is whether the aging prizefighters can land enough blows to knock the brash new champion off its feet, that is a question that cannot yet be answered. For the aching bones to be rested and the psyche of the ring weary to be refreshed, the bye may have come along at exactly the right time.
At two wins plus percentage behind fourth-placed St Kilda, a place in the top half of the finals draw may be a bridge too far. Probably two losses in the last 11 matches are the most that they can afford.
That said, their draw is favourable enough that a finals berth should be achieved given the degree of talent still in the squad, and if this does happen there will be quite a few premiership contenders looking over their shoulder at the Tigers come September.
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