Richmond are currently enjoying the best start to a season the club has had since 1995. In the 21 completed seasons since that famous year for the Tigers, they have never won four straight matches to start the season. Yet, there are still a fair amount of detractors that doubt Richmond are the real deal in 2017. There are a couple of reasons for this point of view, but there are also a few counter arguments.
Most of the negative opinion regarding Richmond's finals potential stems from their diabolical 2016 season, and it's hard to disregard that. The Tigers finished last year with only eight wins to their name. Their best stretch of form during the season, in which they beat fellow cellar-dwellers Fremantle, Essendon, Gold Coast and Brisbane in a six-week period, saw them climb to 11th spot on the ladder. They would finish the year two spots lower.
After making the top eight in each of the three previous seasons, a finish of 13th was incredibly disappointing to say the least, but we may be too hasty to sound the death knell on the chances of this group of players.
Recent history gives us a few examples of clubs that have enjoyed some finals success before a sudden fall down the ladder, followed immediately by more finals campaigns. The most notable example is the Brisbane Bears/Lions of the late 90s and early 2000s. In 1995 the Bears, under coach Robert Walls, snuck into their first ever finals series which ended in the first week wiht a hard fought loss to eventual premiers, Carlton. The following season Brisbane built on their momentum with 15 wins and a draw for 1996, a third place finish after the home and away season and two finals wins. They lost the preliminary final, again to that year's premier, North Melbourne.
Another top eight finish followed in 1997 for Brisbane, now known as the Lions, but by the end of that year poor form had set in. In 1998 the captain, Michael Voss, broke his leg in a round 11 game against Fremantle. At that stage they had two wins and a draw from their previous 16 games. The coach, John Northey, who had taken over from Robert Walls in 1996, was sacked following that game and replaced by former captain, Roger Merrett. Brisbane finished the year on the bottom of the ladder with five wins and a draw.
Leigh Matthews was brought in as coach for the 1999 season and the rest is history. A preliminary final that year, a semi final in 2000, followed by three consecutive premierships between 2001 and 2003.
The story of Brisbane between '95 and '04 is not an isolated case from which Richmond can find precedent. Adelaide performed a similar feat, while not with the same ultimate success, after a disappointing 2004 season. The Crows had also played finals in the previous three seasons but after slumping to 4-9 in 2004, Gary Ayres was replaced as coach by Neil Craig. They finished that season with eight wins, but finished 2005 on top of the ladder.
2005 and 2006 saw the Crows reach the preliminary final, and they made the top eight every season until 2009. Their run ended against Collingwood in that year's semi final, thanks largely to a famous goal by Jack Anthony.
Another team that followed the pattern, with arguably more success than Adelaide, was St. Kilda around the same time. With a talented group of youngsters assembled thanks to some high draft picks, the Saints started 2004 in blistering fashion. At the end of 2006, though, Grant Thomas had fallen out of favour as coach despite having guided the team to three successive finals series. Under Ross Lyon in 2007, the club managed 11 wins and a draw and finished 9th. They went on to play finals every year from 2008 to 2011, including grand finals in 2009 and 2010.
So, with history as a guide, Richmond's very poor 2016 need not discount them as a contender in 2017 and possibly beyond. Compared with the three teams mentioned, Richmond this season are closest to Adelaide circa 2005 with regards to age and experience. Their top five players who, for argument's sake, are Trent Cotchin, Dustin Martin, Alex Rance, Jack Riewoldt and Bachar Houli, are on average around 27-28 years of age with around 170 games experience. Adelaide's top five at the time (Andrew Mcleod, Simon Goodwin, Mark Ricciuto, Tyson Edwards and Scott Thompson) were 27-28 with 175 games. As mentioned before they were genuine contenders in 2005 and 2006, but were making up the numbers to an extent after that.
Brisbane of 1999 and St. Kilda of 2008, on the other hand, had an average age of around 24 and experience of 100-120 games in their top tier. They had a few more years before their premiership window closed. Richmond's premiership window will be open for the next three years maximum.
One thing Richmond don't have in common with the other three teams mentioned is that they still have their coach. This is mainly due to the club extending Damien Hardwick's contract before the season even started in 2016, but it could also have an upside in maintaining some stability in trying times.
Rather than sack the coach as Adelaide and Brisbane did during their horror seasons, Richmond addressed Hardwick's support staff, bringing Justin Leppitsch back from the Lions, Blake Caracella from Geelong and Xavier Clarke from NT Thunder in the NEAFL. Steadying the ship somewhat is Neil Balme, one of the most experienced and successful football managers in the game. These are all good football people that have experience with teams going deep into September. Some fresh ideas, particularly a gameplan largely devised by Caracalla, combined with Hardwick's familiar face seems to be working.
Since the AFL introduced the top eight in 1994, 87% of teams that won their first four games went on to play finals. Richmond play Melbourne this week, on form its a game they should win. That puts them at 5-0. Since 1994, 28 teams have started 5-0, all but two have played finals. Thats a percentage of almost 93. The numbers are overwhelmingly in favour of Richmond at least making the eight. That's where the next argument comes in.
Last year North Melbourne won their first nine games but by the time the finals came around they were cooked. No one with a even a passing interest in footy could mount a case for North being a good team.
North's lack of quality can't necessarily be used as an argument for Richmond's lack of quality though. In North's first four games last year they beat one team that would go on to plays finals, Adelaide, as well as Brisbane, Melbourne and Fremantle. Their wins over Brisbane and Freo, both of which finished in the bottom three on the ladder, were modest victories by around five or six goals. Meanwhile, it took the Roos' biggest score of the year to get the better of the Dees. Sure, North were 4-0, but it was a largely unconvincing 4-0.
Richmond, on the other hand, just look better than North did last year. They've had what is arguably their equivalent of North's win over Melbourne, the Round 2 get-out-of-jail win over Collingwood. Their Round 3 win against West Coast could be seen as an equivalent of North's defeat of Adelaide last year. It is their wins over Brisbane and Carlton that show their potential improvement. Top eight sides are expected to cynically dispose of bottom sides and that is what Richmond have managed to do. Racking up 30+ scoring shots from 60 inside 50s against both the Blues and the Lions, Richmond have inflicted both clubs' biggest losing margins so far this season.
Those games are good examples of where Richmond's overall game has improved. Last season they ranked 17th in the league for inside 50s, at just under 46 per match, while they currently rank second in that area, with 59.5. They have lifted their average score from 78 points per game last year to 106 this year and their points against has dropped from 98 to 75. All of this stems from a more direct game style, less moving the ball backwards and more getting the ball into the hands of the players that can use it well. The Tigers look to be playing with the confidence of a team that can control possession in the middle of the ground and back their good players in to deliver out forward.
Let's not forget that Richmond do have a lot of good players. West Coast is the only other club in the competition that can boast having both a Brownlow winner and a Coleman winner among its ranks. Richmond can also lay claim to the best defender in the game, Alec Rance, and currently the best midfielder in the game, Dustin Martin. Bachar Houli is showing signs of returning to his best form after an interrupted season last year. Shaun Grigg has taken the step from good ordinary player to good player. As well as gathering quality disposals, he is making his mark on the scoreboard with a goal in every game so far and is moving the ball forward. He ranks third at the Tigers for inside 50s, behind only Cotchin and Martin.
Throw into the mix some handy midfield additions in Josh Caddy and Dion Prestia, a ruckman in Toby Nankervis, and a young wildcard who looks to poised to tear the competition apart in Daniel Rioli, and you've got the bones of a decent team.
Of course, it's still early in the season and anything can happen between now and round 22. Let's face it, if any club can go 4-0 and miss the finals it's Richmond, but all signs are pointing to a top eight finish. What happens from there is anyone's guess, but to make the finals and not win a final would be bitterly disappointing for the Tigers' faithful. First things first, they need to take care of Melbourne on Monday night and, if they do, they head to Adelaide the following week for a top of the table clash between two (likely) undefeated teams. Who would've thought?