Reigning premiers Richmond still team to beat in the AFL

The gap between Richmond and its nearest September rival has grown wider in 2018.

The gap between Richmond and its nearest September rival has grown wider in 2018. Photo: AAP

You know how dramatically the pendulum of power in the AFL has swung when Richmond defeats Collingwood by 43 points and much of the post-game talk is about how good an effort it was from the Pies.

But you also know how some things in football – like Sydney’s continued presence in the ladder’s upper echelons – remain a given when the Swans win a third straight engagement at the most formidable away venue in the game and no one bats much of an eyelid.

Richmond and Sydney are currently the two most consistent teams in the AFL. Since this point of the AFL season a year ago, each have won at least three more games than the competition’s next best-performed teams. And you could have had pretty decent odds on that state of affairs at the end of round six in 2017.

Richmond had just been demolished by 76 points in Adelaide, and would go on to lose four games straight, albeit the next three each by less than a kick. It looked like the same old story. But it wasn’t. A fairytale premiership was in fact how the Tigers’ script would pan out.

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Head-scratching post-game reviews interpreted Collingwood’s 43-point loss as a confidence booster. Photo: AAP

Sydney was an unthinkable 0-6, a point of no return. Except the Swans did return. To reach finals for a 14th time in 15 seasons, on this occasion from a lower point than any side previously.

They were major rolls of momentum, neither now seeming likely to come to a halt for some time yet.

And round six provided two more cogent examples via two power-packed final quarter bursts, the Swans’ seven-goal effort against Geelong on Saturday turning a 22-point deficit into a 17-point win, Richmond’s eight-goal effort against Collingwood on Sunday doubling the tally it had managed in three previous quarters.

The Magpies certainly pushed the Tigers pretty hard for three terms. But as has become the Richmond modus operandi, a pressure-packed tight squeeze evolved into an emphatic win as the dam wall eventually busted open.

There were some puzzling interpretations of the result immediately afterwards, a view that the seven-goals-plus final margin hardly did the Pies justice, and that it would indeed be they who came away from the game with a bigger boost of confidence.

That in itself is a kind of backhanded compliment to Richmond. But it also plays into a continued popular post-premiership narrative that the Tigers can’t possibly get any better, that their reserves of luck on the injury and durability front will run dry, and that there are other prospective premiers out there with perhaps more complete armoury.

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To say the 43-point defeat of Collingwood did it justice is a backhand to Richmond. Photo: Getty

But are there really? I can’t help wondering whether the gap Richmond put between itself and its nearest rivals last September hasn’t, if anything, actually grown a little wider since.

Such has been the focus on Richmond’s pressure game we perhaps have tended to overlook the finesse which comes with it.

Particularly in the Tigers’ two wins against Melbourne and Collingwood over the past week, there’s been a cleverness of thought in all the harassing, tackling, taps and knock-ons forward towards goal.

Damien Hardwick’s team has become a very efficient unit. It currently ranks second for percentage of scores from inside 50 entries, of which, on the differential rankings, it earns more than anyone. Those opportunities are the direct result of a tackle ranking of No.1, but they are quality forward thrusts, Richmond also No.1 on the differentials for marks inside 50.

And no statistic better illustrates the quantum leap an already adept side took in the final few games before last year’s finals than scoring. By the end of round 21 last year, the Tigers had only topped 100 points in four of 20 games. In the 11 they’ve played since, including three finals, they’ve done it nine times.

With two home and away games left to play in 2017, Richmond was ranked only 12th for scoring, at an average 85.8 points per game. Its average over the 11 games since is 109.9, a whopping four more goals.

It’s not just the “terrier” types like Dan Butler and Jason Castagna locking the ball in the scoring zone, either. Jacob Townsend and Josh Caddy have become the strong-bodied “mediums” kicking goals either from marks or ground level, a role Dustin Martin was already filling superbly in his spells out of the middle.

And in the current low-scoring environment, that extra four goals the Tigers are now getting is a massive difference. Combined with a stingy defensive mindset whose credentials have long since been hailed, it gives some insight into why the reigning premier may have got even better again.

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No Buddy worries as Sydney’s youngsters line up to fill the goal-kicking void. Photo: AAP

Sydney, meanwhile, not for the first time, delivered a stunning rejoinder to the latest set of doubts over the Swans which followed a home loss to Adelaide and the absence of both Lance Franklin, an alleged one-man forward band, and key midfielder Dan Hannebery.

The Swans simply made do with what was at their disposal. Nine of their match-winning 12-goal tally were booted by the hardly household names of Will Hayward, Ollie Florent, Robbie Fox and debutant Ben Ronke.

But the biggest statement came from skipper Josh Kennedy. His past two outings had been among the poorest of his Sydney career, held to just 15 and 13 disposals.

Against Geelong, Kennedy was back to his prolific best with 33. And if there’s been a better individual quarter played this season than Kennedy’s last on Saturday, I haven’t seen it, the midfield bull picking up 13 possessions and winning six clearances.

Kennedy finished with 13 clearances all up, his seven out of the centre bounces more than double the next biggest contributor on his team, as were his nine inside 50s. It’s not often either Patrick Dangerfield or Joel Selwood are outshone to the degree their most dangerous midfield opponent did so this time.

He’s back, as is his team. Neither are ever down for long. And right now, you’d give Sydney perhaps a better chance of slowing the Tiger train than anyone. Because when it comes to consistency at least, at this stage both Richmond and the Swans have the rest covered.

Read more from Rohan Connolly, formerly a senior football writer for Fairfax, at Footyology, or watch Footyology TV here.

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