Richmond’s rise from mediocrity to near top eight certainties in 2013 has been driven by an unspoken big three at Tigerland.
First round draft picks Reece Conca, Brandon Ellis, and mature age recruit Steven Morris have become what has been lacking at Richmond over the last 30 years. Depth.
Even in previous failed Tiger rebuilds, they have always had two or three well-established, maybe even A-grade quality midfielders, like Wayne Campbell and Matty Knights. Yet, through a combination of ill-advised contract handouts and wasted player development, the Tigers struggled to bat any deeper than two to three elite midfielders. Today, Conca and Ellis provide the sort of midfield depth that Premiership teams have and that the Tigers haven’t possessed for 30 years. Both developing youngsters have taken their games to another level. Conca is noticeably underrated by the media and he typifies the Tigers’ elite ability to spread swiftly from congestion and deliver the ball inside 50 (averages 4.4 inside 50s and registered 8 against St Kilda on the weekend). Meanwhile, Ellis is a strong mark for a midfielder and is poised at either end of the ground. Both are no where near maximising their ability but both are already forming Richmond’s “other” big three.
Finally, there is one of Punt Road End’s favourites, Steve Morris, who’s burst of speed, ferocity and toughness has turned him into an elite small defender. Before last weeks game against St. Kilda, Morris conceded only six goals to his direct opponent this season. Historically, small forwards such as Milne and Betts inflicted the most pain on Richmond supporters. However, Morris, who made his AFL landing via years in the SANFL, has made that pain history, and only when he was suspended in round five against Fremantle did the opposition small forwards dominate Richmond. In all likely-hood, the Tigers would be 10-3 if Morris escaped suspension.
In 2012, the Tigers hoped for Cotchin, Delidio and Martin to carry the load but this season the “other three” have arguably had more consistent seasons. Cotchin and Delidio are not as productive as they were last year as Cotchin’s disposal numbers have dipped from 27.6 (2012) to 25.4 per game and Delidio’s 27.5 to 24.2. Martin has made the only upward curve in his disposal count.
Richmond’s rise has been determined by a combination of subtle and discernible factors but perhaps no more determinable by the trio of Conca, Ellis and Morris. Last season St Kilda Coach Scott Watters wetted Richmond supporter’s enthusiasm by naming the Tigers’ midfield as the best in the AFL. Watter’s may have jumped the gun but he was foreshadowing the Tigers’ future. Until Conca and Ellis’ emergence as genuinely reliable AFL midfielders, Richmond’s midfield had the flash but lacked the required substance.
Richmond’s fragility in telling moments and meek surrender to opposition forward forays was due to a lack of ingrained toughness and inspired dash. Coach Damien Hardwick, CEO Brandon Gale and even Captain Trent Cotchin capture the praise for reshaping the culture at Punt Road but Steve Morris’ impact on the field in the back half must not be ignored. Morris’ kamikaze assault on the footy and belligerent neglect for his own safety out on the field makes him the Tigers’ toughest competitor. Despite not always polished by foot, Morris represents the new and still developing Richmond identity of commitment to the contest and to the yellow sash.
For so long the Tiger army searched for hall of fame names like Matthew Richardson or Ben Cousins to lead the tiger hoards out of the darkness but it is the “others” and the undervalued who are making the telling difference.