Despite rampant recruiting by last year's AFL finalists, it’s going to take a huge effort to prevent the Tigers from winning four flags in five years, writes Ronny Lerner.
FOR THE THIRD time in four years, we head into a new Australian Football League (AFL) season asking the question: “Can Richmond be stopped?”
To think that since the start of 2017 the only thing that has come between the Tigers and the premiership cup has been a freakish individual performance by a 211-centimetre-tall Texan by the name of Mason Cox, is sobering, to say the least.
The planets certainly aligned on the preliminary final night in 2018 when Richmond happened to produce arguably the worst performance of their current golden run to ensure Collingwood safe passage to the grand final that year.
But outside of that blip on the radar, finals time has largely belonged to Richmond coach Damien Hardwick’s men. Even when Brisbane landed one on their chin in last year’s qualifying final, Richmond dusted themselves off and overcame St Kilda, Port Adelaide and Geelong in consecutive weeks to make it back-to-back flags for the club for the first time in 46 years.
In fact, never in the Tigers’ 114-year association with the VFL/AFL have they ever won three premierships in four years. This is certainly a special time in the club’s history and this is certainly a special team.
Richmond still has a large core of players (17 all up) who featured in the 2017 grand final. These players are not only still part of its best 22, or thereabouts, but they also contribute at a high level — including one of the greatest players of the modern era, Dustin Martin, who claimed an unprecedented third Norm Smith Medal last year for best afield in the grand final against the Cats.
The Tigers will be hard to stop this season purely by virtue of the fact that their superstar No. 4 is still running around at the peak of his powers.
So, who are the contenders that might be able to stop Richmond from claiming an historic "three-peat" in 2021?
The obvious one that stands out is Geelong.
The Cats have pushed all their chips into the middle of the table after recruiting former Greater Western Sydney (GWS) Coleman medallist Jeremy Cameron, along with silky veterans Shaun Higgins and Isaac Smith from North Melbourne and Hawthorn respectively.
Chris Scott’s men looked to be on the verge of winning the 2020 flag when they led Richmond by 21 points late in the second quarter, but just as they did in the 2019 preliminary final after trailing by the exact same margin, the Tigers ran over the top of the Cats.
As good as Geelong is, the one thing that has got in the way of the team winning its first premiership since 2011 has been Richmond in recent times.
The Tigers have become the Cats’ arch-nemesis, beating them in six of their last seven meetings, including three-from-three in finals. But there’s no doubt that the inclusions of Cameron, Higgins and Smith give Geelong a different look and a huge opportunity to finally get over the yellow-and-black hump.
The Brisbane Lions certainly can’t be discounted from this discussion either. Since making consecutive top-two finishes – after the home-and-away season at least – and reaching their first preliminary final last year since 2004, coach Chris Fagan has this team primed and right in the sweet spot of premiership contention.
With a star-studded midfield led by reigning Brownlow medallist Lachie Neale, a rock-solid backline spearheaded by All-Australian defender Harris Andrews and now a forward line that features former Essendon star Joe Daniher – and potentially talented ex-Cat Nakia Cockatoo – the Lions are locked, loaded and ready for a genuine tilt at the flag.
And then there’s Port Adelaide, who fell six agonising points short of a grand final appearance last year following their thrilling loss to Richmond in the penultimate weekend of the season.
Like the Lions, the Power’s list was already brimming with talent heading into the off-season and then they went and added gun ex-Sydney defender Aliir Aliir as well as classy goalsneak Orazio Fantasia from Essendon.
Finalists St Kilda and the Western Bulldogs (Doggies) have also loaded up on talent since the 2020 season finished. St Kilda picked up former Adelaide ball magnet Brad Crouch, ex-Richmond goalsneak Jack Higgins and Mason Wood from North Melbourne, as well as veteran key position players James Frawley and Shaun McKernan from Hawthorn and Essendon respectively.
Meanwhile, the Doggies added gun former Collingwood midfielder Adam Treloar and ex-Brisbane ruckman Stefan Martin to their engine room. They now boast arguably the best on-ball brigade in the competition, which also features Marcus Bontempelli, Jack Macrae, Tom Liberatore, Lachie Hunter, Bailey Smith and Josh Dunkley.
West Coast Eagles can’t be dismissed either. With a large chunk of their 2018 premiership side still on the list, 12 games at Optus Stadium and the recruitment of Alex Witherden (ex-Brisbane) and Zac Langdon (ex-GWS), they look as though they still have at least one more genuine crack at a flag left in them.
Interestingly, while most of last year’s finalists have got themselves involved in an arms race by adding players from other clubs to their list in a desperate bid to catch up to the Tigers, the reigning premiers have done no such thing.
In fact, Richmond was rather quiet on the recruiting front. So, will it be a case of them standing still and being overtaken by their replenished rivals? Or are the Tigers just that good that they are going to back in their current crop and get extra improvement from within by way of unheralded youngsters?
Time will tell. But one thing is for certain, with the man they call "Dusty" showing no signs of slowing down, it’s going to take a hell of an effort to prevent the Tigers from making it four flags in five years and joining the pantheon of the greatest ever VFL/AFL teams.
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