The Tigers have been starved of success for well over 30 years. Featuring in only two finals series since 1982, the Tiger faithful has had very little to cheer about. The completion of the 2012 AFL home-and-away season is only one round away and much to the disappointment of Richmond fans; their heroes will be watching from the sidelines during September. Despite all this, 2012 has seen the Tigers take a step in the right direction, delivering enough to suggest that the outfit will be a highly competitive force in the seasons to come.
This year has seen a major improvement in Richmond’s consistency and their ability to stay with teams for the whole four quarters. Aside from the 44-point loss at the hands of Carlton in Round 1, the Tigers’ greatest losing margin was only 22 points late in the season to Fremantle at Patersons Stadium. A full pre-season will only improve the fitness levels of players and with that, the many “honourable losses” suffered during the year should turn into wins.
At the end of Terry Wallace’s coaching tenure in 2009, the club was the fourth worst team in contested possessions and significantly lacking quality inside players. Coach Damien Hardwick was renowned for his toughness and capacity to win the hard ball as a player. He has drastically focused on this area as coach and several players have vastly developed their inside game. Richmond is now the fifth best team in contested possessions, with players such as Trent Cotchin, Brett Deledio and Shane Tuck establishing themselves as fine products of winning their own footy.
There were many games that the Tigers simply let slip this year and many believe that it has cost the team a place in the finals series. In Round 5 against the Eagles at Etihad Stadium, the club failed to capitalise on a final quarter lead and lost by a mere 10 points. The same took place three weeks later, when they allowed Essendon to storm home in the last quarter, despite hitting the lead at the 10-minute mark of the final quarter. The young side also blew a home-ground advantage to the Dockers in Round 11 and lost by two goals. The hearts of many Richmond supporters were broken, as they watched their team lose by a combined eight points from rounds 16-18 to Gold Coast, North Melbourne and Carlton. All three games were very winnable, but the young side struggled to convert in the dying minutes.
The Tigers have improved on last year’s efforts, producing some exceptional football throughout the 2012 season. The most pleasing aspect was the fact that they managed to gain two top-four scalps against Hawthorn and Sydney. In recent years, Richmond has had an inability to perform and most importantly, win games against the better teams. Those two victories proved to the football world that they can match it with the competition’s best and has ultimately set the benchmark for years to come. They also broke the nine-year drought to St Kilda in spectacular fashion and got within 10 points of last year’s premiers at Simonds Stadium.
Depth on the playing list has considerably lacked in the past for Richmond. Hardwick has worked tirelessly to change this and has managed to establish a well-balanced and versatile list of players, whilst showing faith in the youth. He recruited and traded tremendously well during the off-season. Ivan Maric from Adelaide proved to be a revelation in the ruck, as he set up the Richmond midfielders at centre bounces and stoppages with his delicate palm work. The inclusion of mature-aged recruit Steven Morris added hardness to the backline and his uncompromising nature as a footballer saw him regularly feature in Richmond’s side this season. Brandon Ellis also showed why he was a first-round draft pick in last year’s draft, showing courage and poise in the Tigers’ back half.
Richmond’s midfield at full strength is one of the most attacking and dangerous in the competition. Cotchin is in contention for this year’s Brownlow Medal after a stellar season and Deledio is establishing himself as one of the league’s elite midfielders. The ball-winning ability and work-rate of Tuck is first-rate, while Reece Conca and Dustin Martin are developing into lively players. Add in the experience of Nathan Foley and Daniel Jackson, along with the outside work of Shaun Grigg and the midfield is virtually complete. The amount of depth in the midfield has made it increasingly difficult for players like Matt White to cement their sport in the team. The ruck stocks are fairly limited and the Tigers could benefit from securing an experienced back-up ruckman, which would provide Maric with the help he needs and allow Tyrone Vickery to play more up forward.
Led by Jack Riewoldt up forward, it is clear that he needs the support of another key-position forward. This will ease the pressure off him and provide the midfield with more options to kick to up forward. Instead of trading for another key forward, the answer could well be Ben Griffiths. Hardwick played Griffiths in defence for the second half of the year, where he strung together some respectable games. At 198cm, having played most of his junior career as a forward and sporting one of the longest kicks in the game; that vacant position at centre half-forward could well be his for the taking. Riewoldt has the support at ground level, with Shane Edwards, Jake King and Robin Nahas all natural readers of the play and have the capability to chip in with a goal or two each game.
Richmond’s defence was undermanned and undersized for much of 2012, but it battled hard and showed some promise. Morris and Bachar Houli provide great run out of the back half, and are both terrific users of the footy. The leadership of veteran captain Chris Newman in the backline is crucial, as it lacks experience following the retirement of Kelvin Moore and the potential move of Luke McGuane to the forward line. The talks of Troy Chaplin coming to Richmond from Port Adelaide would be ideal. He provides experience and could slot straight into the centre half-back position. Alex Rance advanced further as a full back this year, taking and often shutting down the No.1 key forward each week. Dylan Grimes has shown potential and will provide some much-needed height when he returns from injury.
Things are starting to look bright for the Richmond Football Club. 2012 has successfully laid the foundations for an exciting future and the club’s lengthy finals drought looks set to be broken come 2013. The hurt of missing the finals for the eleventh consecutive year will only make the playing group stronger, especially knowing that they had the aptitude to challenge the top teams. The thousands of loyal and passionate fans deserve to see their boys from Tigerland achieve some triumph as a football club. After more than three decades in the wilderness, success is finally coming their way.
Mitchell Wood is a first-year Bachelor of Sport Journalism student at La Trobe University. You can follow him on Twitter: @Mitchell_Woody