I often go to bed thanking my lucky stars that I am not a Richmond supporter. Can you imagine being emotionally pulled from Punt Road to Purgatory more than a loyal Tigers’ supporter has been over the last six years?
The promise of the last three seasons has all amounted to nothing. This is effectively the end of this group into which Damien Hardwick has invested so much time, energy and development. In short, they were not a strong enough playing unit to go beyond the dizzy heights of the first round of the finals.
Part of me feels for them and another part of me couldn’t care less. If the squad hasn’t had what it takes to take on the dominant sides of the last few years then list management, player retention and recruitment are to blame.
Hardwick inherited a basket case and ladder progression of 15th, 12th, 12th, fifth, eighth and fifth is admirable, yet an honest evaluation of the Richmond team of the last five years results in a simple conclusion.
Their chances in big finals against the likes of a Hawthorn, Sydney or pre-2016 Fremantle were always going to be miniscule at best.
In fact their finals losses to lesser teams over the last three years suggests that it is more than just the top four who have been better than the Tigers. The losses to Carlton, Port Adelaide and North Melbourne were honourable, yet those three Clubs weaknesses were also exposed deeper in the finals.
There is a vast chasm between the lists of Hawthorn, Sydney, Geelong and the like and while there has been some great development, it was never going to happen.
Dustin Martin has developed into a superstar this year and finally blossomed. Ivan Maric has been an underrated ruckman and cult figure.
Trent Cotchin and Brett Deledio have played outstanding matches at times and threatened to become the leaders that the fans have so desperately sought.
Solid contributors such as Alex Rance, and Jack Riewoldt have all helped to build a solid team capable of competing well.
Yet players such as Bachar Houli, Brandon Ellis, Steven Morris and other serviceable workers were never going to be able to lift the Club into the elite.
Consistent problems with Shane Edwards’ consistency and the enigmatic Tyrone Vickery also hampered the dream of climbing into the nose bleed section of the ladder.
Bizarre periods of hot and cold footy over recent seasons are symptomatic of a team that lacks the consistent effort and skill in order to challenge the top clubs.
Winning ten in a row in 2014 was terrific theatre, yet needs to be considered contextually with the two wins from their first nine games. Two wins from their first six in 2015 set up a similar scenario.
Even in 2013 where they managed to win ten of their last fourteen, the evidence suggested that the Tigers could play but not consistently enough or when it really mattered. It’s hard to mount an argument that the Tigers have really had a squad to do anything more than what they have actually done.
The AFL and associated media have constantly sought to promote the closeness of the competition and have never been closer to being believed as they are this season. However, the promotion of the Tigers in ‘14 and ‘15 and suggestions they were ready to step up to the top four this year were overstated, misleading and veiled significant flaws within their structure and approach.
In short, the Tigers get plenty of possessions and chip the ball comfortably in a lateral fashion, unfortunately, moving the ball at speed and creating penetration is not their forte.
The season began with an effort to play in this vein yet as soon as the coaching staff realised that the squad is just not deep or skilful enough to perform this under pressure, Hardwick resorted to a similar brand they have played successfully in recent times.
This is not a criticism, more a compliment to a coach who actually sees the reality and plays to that reality. It is a tragedy for those Tigers fans wanting more yet playing with the cards you are dealt must be one of the guiding principles of a head coach. Yet Hardwick did assemble some of the deck.
Fremantle hit far loftier heights than Richmond and Ross Lyon had built them into a powerhouse. Their lack of scoring potential held them back at times and stopped them from achieving a first premiership for the purple haze.
However, Lyon now finds himself in a very similar situation to Richmond. He has a squad that is, quite frankly, just not good enough. The tweaks to the deliberate out of bounds rule, implementation and enforcement of the ten metre arc and an increased emphasis on speed, scoring and a more entertaining product for the fans has left the Dockers in a proverbial football hell.
There were inklings of an effort on Lyon’s behalf to add more potency to their attack yet the Dockers’ attack actually slipped from 13.4 and 13.2 goals per game in ’13 and 14′ to only 12.2 average goals in 2015. Unfortunately, scores at the other end of the field have increased with opponents scoring around three goals per game more this year against the Dockers than they have in the past four years.
Fremantle have watched a proverbial freight train of teams rattle past them with more expansive and attacking strategies that create more opportunities in the forward half and allow players to slip out the back of defences more often.
It is no coincidence that Eddie Betts has racked up 38 goals already this year, he is the perfect vehicle for the new style and approach that many coaches are taking in attempting to create more attacking opportunities.
The defensive and negative approach of Ryan Crowley, Hayden Ballantyne and co. was effective in 2012-15, yet has been superseded by new found attacking zest. The Dockers and Lyon now stand, Richmond like, mouths agape, realising that they cannot compete with many teams above them on the ladder.
Some might express sympathy for Lyon, as he did build a squad that was a fixture in the finals recently. People might feel the goal posts have been moved a little. Others feel that the role of the coach is to keep up with these changes and be proactive are not reactive.
Either way, Fremantle have a squad in need of rejuvenation, flair and youth in order to get them back on track to mount a serious challenge in the near future.
Richmond’s issues are a little different in that the changing nature of the game isn’t so much the cause of their failures this year, rather an aging, stale roster that wasn’t good enough in the past and still isn’t.
Both clubs have so much planning and preparation to undertake in order to claw up an increasingly competitive ladder. Climbing over Melbourne, St Kilda and Carlton would not have been a concern in recent times but that is exactly the challenge they face next year. Those three clubs have moved with the changing game through brave coaching and positive football.
It will be fascinating to see how the Tigers and the Dockers approach the draft, free agent possibilities and the potential moving on of a few senior players. Done well, both Clubs will be improved units next year. Done poorly and more of the same will lie ahead.