Tiger Den

The “other” big three

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.

The big three

As Richmond look to surge up the ladder this year and beyond, there are three unheralded players who hold the key to their resurgence.

The rise to stardom from the likes of Trent Cotchin and Dustin Martin is almost inevitable but from other young Tiger talents, it’s not so obvious and clear cut.

Tyrone Vickery, Ben Griffiths and David Astbury’s development as key position players may be the difference between the Tigers becoming premiership contenders or pretenders down the track.

All three have shown ability and all three have endured setbacks in their short but promising careers.

Vickery, the eldest of the three, enjoyed a breakout season last year as a foil to Jack Riewoldt. Unfortunately for the Tiger Army, season 2012 resembles more of 2010 where he looked lost and incapable of imposing himself on a game.

While Damian Hardwick has publicly complemented Vickery’s unnoticed hard work off the ball, the point remains that he must become more than just a decoy lead up forward.

Perhaps, a reason for Vickery’s struggles this season can be linked to the more sophisticated ball movement by the team. In Hardwick’s first two seasons, the ball movement patterns were highly predictable and easy for the forwards to read and react. Led by the rebounding defenders of Chris Newman, Brett Delidio and Bachar Houli, the Tigers would generally move the ball into the forward line with a very direct and long kicking game. If one compares Richmond’s ball movement to Ross Lyon’s St Kilda in the previous two years, you would notice how the Saints’ offensive patterns took the form of zig-zags, meanwhile, the Tigers’ ball movement was very much direct and simple with long forward entry kicking once the ball was 60 to 70 metres out from goal.

Vickery thrived off simple ball movement last season. However, if the Tigers hoped to become a better side and not so easy to defend, Hardwick had to further develop his game plan. Which he did.

Season 2012, we see the Tigers’ aggressive spread from the packs and their use of the width of the ground. Richmond like to use lateral handball until they find space to use their kicking skills. Hence, the Tiger forwards have to be able to read the play and know when to make their leads.

In Vickery’s case, he seems to have struggled to do this. Contrary to what some might think, Vickery has good agility and a strong pair of hands. What he must rediscover is an “edge” to his game, more willingness to compete and a clearer grasp of his role in the forward line.

If Vickery can find his 2011 form and add a few more tricks to his bow such as being a reliable second ruck, than the Tigers will become a more daunting side.

The other two “big” players are a slightly different story.

Griffiths has the physical attributes to be an elite centre-half-forward or back. Standing at 200cm, Griffiths has the size and athletic ability to worry any opponent. Add a booming kick and strong hands, his upside is huge. The key for him is his durability and game understanding. Since, his primary school days, he has endured shoulder problems in particular. Already, in his first two seasons, Griffiths has had surgery and his form fluctuated due to a lack of continuity.

Astbury enjoyed a promising debut season in 2010. He showed a coolness in the defensive end that had Richmond so excited that he received the number 12 before season 2011. Despite a good pre-season campaign in 2011, his form declined once the season started and then suffered a season ending injury midway through the season against the Sydney SwAt the moment Astbury is returning to football via the VFL and by all reports his progression has been slow.

All three young key position players all have enduring football qualities, yet, at the moment we can only speak of them as promising talent. They have teased but if the Tigers want to be a respected side, these big three must stand up in the coming years or Richmond will still have significant holes in the most important positions on the ground.

2012 Richmond season preview

So here we go again. Should I say it?

The f…f-f… I just can’t. I know this situation all to well.

Regrettably, we all know this situation.

The Richmond Football Club has been on the up under the coaching of Damien Hardwick and the ambitious Brendan Gale.

With steady improvement and some young talent that hasn’t been lurking at Punt Road since the wonderful ’70s, there is genuine belief within the headquarters at Punt Road and in the outer that they are finally getting it right.

Dustin Martin, Trent Cotchin, Jack Riewoldt and Brett Delidio all have the potential of becoming the best Tigers of the last 30 years. When you think of Richmond players over the last decade, you think of Wayne Campbell, Matthew Knights, Matthew Richardson and yeah, even Nick Daffy. Despite Campbell playing close to 300 games, he was no more than a “good” AFL footballer. He was a smart and hard working midfielder but his disposal was sometimes sloppy and he lacked explosion to truly dominate games. Knights was a wonderfully gifted and polished footballer whose career is underrated by many. Richo was a great player, yet, not a champion. Then there is Daffy. Well, er, he had his moments.

So, here we sit on the verge of another season of expectations. Perhaps, “hope” is the more appropriate word from a Richmond supporter’s perspective.

The heart has been ripped out far too many times.

Somewhere between dismantling opposition teams in the late ’60s to early ’80s, and becoming the laughing stock of the AFL, Richmond’s modern history has become one of failure.

Sections of the Richmond faithful and media expect the Tigers to fill one of the final few spots of the final eight.

This prediction is not so absurd as in previous years. As Hawthorn premiership coach Alistair Clarkson pointed out, he finally believes there is genuine stability down at Richmond. This “stability”must be largely credited to Brendan Gale. Unlike previous CEOs of the club, he came in with ambitions and carefully laid plans. Importantly, he has set them in motion. He has tried his upmost to bring in the right people, from coaching staff to board members, so that the Tigers can compete on a commercial and on-field level.

However, a close look at Richmond’s playing list and there are still a few holes to fill that may hamper their ambition of playing finals in 2012. Some of the cracks in the list are more due to age than anything else. For the most part, the pieces are there but they need to be connected.

Richmond’s midfield is growing in class and importantly in depth. We all know the likes of Cotchin, Martin and Delidio will hold the key to the Tigers’ future. Yet, below centre stage lies the foot-soldiers who will make the Tiger’s climb from just outside the eight to a genuine finals team, far easier. The forgotten man, Nathan Foley is finally fit and healthy, ball-magnet Grigg, Edwards, the ever improving Nahas, youngsters Conca, Ellis and Heilbig, veterans Jackson and Tuck- all form the nucleus of a strong and potentially elite midfield.

However, where the most immediate problem lies is in the back-half. The Tigers enjoy quality rebounding defenders. Last year, Bachar Houli found consistency as a dangerous long kick from the defensive 50, Skipper Chris Newman remains a sure-foot, and first year player Jake Batchelor plays the medium defensive backman who can create offense well. Now add mature age recruit Steve Morris to the mix and the Tiges look dangerous rebounding out of the back 50.

Perhaps, the most important position in the back-line is yet to be filled. The centre-half-back position remains vacant at Richmond. Short term, this spot is likely to remain vacant. Luke Mcguane has been tried but clearly his days at Punt Road are limited. They continue to experiment with Jayden Post but he simply is not up to the grade. He currently lacks intensity, speed, agility and football IQ to hold down the position. Youngster Dylan Grimes is promising but he resembles more of a third defender. On the other hand, Dave Astbury holds the key to long term hopes, who is coming off a knee reconstruction from last year. He has the size and know-how to play the position for the next 10 years. But at the moment his youth and lack of a full pre-season might play against him in 2012.

Richmond will continue to rely on Alex Rance to shoulder the monster tasks of duelling with the best forwards in the game. Despite Rance having a breakout year in 2011, the jury is still out if he can consolidate himself as a quality fullback. Too often at Tigerland do players let themselves down with a poor year following a career best season. If Rance can raise his game to another level this year than the holes in the back line can be temporarily covered up.

So again the footy public ask, can the Tigers break the seemingly never ending finals drought?

The bright future is genuine at Richmond but we may just be one year premature in tipping the Tigers for a finals berth.

The Lone Hand

Another typical Richmond fade out on a Saturday night provoked a very familiar feeling of woe as broken hearts swept through the tiger tribe. Halfway through the third quarter it seemed Richmond had their foot on Essendon’s throat and even the most pessimistic tiger supporter couldn’t hide their smile. 45 minutes later and Richmond were Richmond of the last 30 years. 10 unanswered goals to Essendon marked another weak Tigers performance.

However, where there is darkness, there is sometimes light. Trent Cotchin has been the beacon of light for many Richmond tragics. Cotchin lacks the elite foot speed and explosiveness of a Chris Judd. And is yet to build reach peak endurance due to interrupted pre-seasons. Yet, he possesses great balance and toughness that cannot be taught and a rare ability to win his own ball in the clinches and create for his teammates. Again, Cotchin was a lone hand for the Tigers last night. A 27 possession game with a goal and half a dozen inside 50 entries. Of the 44 guys who ran out on the MCG last night, he stands at another level to any of the combatants. Cotchin’s underdeveloped endurance doesn’t allow him to amass big numbers like a Swan or Ablett. For the first time this pre-season, he was injury free. With another 2-3 pre-seasons under his belt he will reach statistics of an Ablett or Swann.

Cotchin is destined to be Richmond’s next captain. With Dustin Martin and Brett Delidio by his side, Richmond have a dangerous midfield trio. Just a few more contributors in the current Yellow and Black guernsey would be nice.

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