The Tigers aren’t as tall or brawny as most sides. They don’t value kicking skills to the same extent as most finals sides, and while other clubs have copied their “surging” style, no team really plays quite like them.
If on grand final day, the margin between Richmond and the exhausted Giants was a misleading 89 points, the points of difference between the Tigers and the rest are still notable – encompassing recruiting priorities, their Indigenous environment and culture of “connection” and, despite the flattery of imitation, how they play.
Size doesn’t count, running does
On Thursday night, when the Tigers meet the Victorian club that has probably become their fiercest comtemporary rival, Collingwood, they will field a 22 that has eight players who are below 180 centimetres – Jack Higgins’ return increasing that tally. Jack Graham (181) and Shane Edwards (182) are what we might call Richmond six-footers.
As current and past officials have observed, the Tigers place a heavier emphasis on running fast and long, prizing both speed and endurance.
Dion Prestia, while just 175 centimetres, is a power runner, as are unfashionable forward Jason Castagna, defender Nathan Broad, quicksilver Daniel Rioli (179) and the indefatigable Kane Lambert (178). Shai Bolton (175) is a pocket rocket insiders think is ready to elevate his game.
This unusually large mosquito fleet was not, however, the result of a deliberate recruiting policy. The Tigers never set out to be small.
Rather, what it reflects is they will not pick a player simply for size’s sake and that running – covering ground quickly and often – is paramount in their system.
“We don’t pick them on their size. We pick them on what they do,” said Neil Balme, the senior football operations official at Richmond. Balme noted that these sub-six-footers were “very competitive in the air”.
In the rookie draft of 2018, when the Tigers’ needs mandated that they select a taller player, they still chose Liam Baker, a 173-centimetre small from Nat Fyfe’s home town, who made the grand final team last year.
Kicking isn’t everything
Unlike Hardwick’s coaching alma mater (Hawthorn), the Tigers don’t place a massive premium on precision kicking; if they were placing a job ad, it would be preferred, but not essential.
While Dustin Martin and Bachar Houli are excellent by foot, the bulk of the side are average in kicking capability and a few – Castagna, Broad and Ivan Soldo included – are probably below par for premiership players; they have other valued traits.
Richmond play a territorial game, in which they surge the ball, tapping it on, and as one opposition coach put it, “keeping it alive” rather than seeking a stoppage in their forward line as many clubs do. They rank high for forward entries (third last year) and moderately for kick-to-handball ratio (12th) and kicking efficiency (11th).
This style, chaotic-looking but built on organisation and discipline, requires speed, competitive work in the contest and clean hands. It doesn’t mandate precise kicking.
One experienced opposition assistant coach felt that, to this day, no other side played quite the Richmond way. “I don’t think there is,” he said, adding, “Essendon (now guided by ex-Richmond coaches Ben Rutten and Blake Caracella) are doing a lot of similar things to Richmond.”
In 2017, after that painful and necessary review by chief executive Brendon Gale and Ernst & Young, the Tigers forged a team dynamic that was more open, tolerant of shortcomings, and enjoyable. Players, as insiders noted, were given more freedom.
The sharing of vulnerabilities among the playing group and deeper connections – introduced by Ben Crowe, a confidant of Trent Cotchin and Hardwick – has been chronicled by media and in detail via Konrad Marshall’s book on the 2017 season.
If this part of the Tiger template has been influential in the AFL, Richmond remain market leader.
While they’re far from the only team to prize Indigenous talent, they are the only club that houses a school – the Melbourne Indigenous Transition School for year 7 kids – plus the government-funded Korin Gamadji Institute for Indigenous learning that the club believes has created a cultural environment that makes it a touch easier for young Aboriginal footballers to feel comfortable.
Gale said their Indigenous players were “talented and they work hard” and while the KGI had no direct link to football, he felt some of the work the KGI did in building leadership for Indigenous young people “washes through our entire club” and “creates a culturally safe and supportive environment”.
The Tigers, certainly, are the club that profited most from the introduction of the supplementary selections and mid-season draft from last year, as Sydney Stack and Marlion Pickett’s rise attests.
It is not surprising, in view of their success with Indigenous talent that the Tigers are the club that has pushed back hardest against the AFL on the issue of forced football department budget cuts; they contend that, if the lists and budgets are slashed, Indigenous opportunity could well be reduced accordingly.
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age.