AFTER four years of floating on air, Richmond hit the deck with a thud in 2021.
Injuries first decimated the midfield, then the backline, and the much-vaunted high-octane game style was stymied – in part affected by the new "stand" rule.
It's not all doom and gloom – the Tigers were still in the running for finals until their round 22 loss, young players like Hugo Ralphsmith, Riley Collier-Dawkins, Callum Coleman-Jones, Thomson Dow and Rhyan Mansell got games under their belts, while Dustin Martin is set to return next year after a horror kidney injury.
After losing a string of next-tier players to other sides (Jack Higgins, Dan Butler, Oleg Markov), Richmond's remaining generation next took big steps forward. Liam Baker proved to be one of the most valuable and versatile players in the squad, Jack Graham took his game to new heights and Thomson Dow's fancy footwork late in the season got fans excited. Retaining Shai Bolton was a big tick after his flying form mid-year, while Daniel Rioli and Sydney Stack's moves to defence paid off.
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly how it all went wrong for the Tigers. It was most likely a cumulative effect of injuries (particularly to the backline, with David Astbury, Noah Balta, Nathan Broad, Bachar Houli and Nick Vlastuin all hurt), the evolving game styles across the competition and simple exhaustion – both from having four straight shorter pre-seasons and the simple matter of playing through a pandemic, which has affected everyone. The disconnect between the midfield and forward line was also a serious issue at times.
Key forward Jack Riewoldt has arguably been Richmond's most consistent player this year, alongside rebound defender Jayden Short and utility Liam Baker. The veteran will top the club's leading goalkicker for an 11th time and finished third in the Coleman Medal. He won a few games off his own boot, and his competitiveness was on show in the final round, desperately scrabbling to kick the last two goals to tie a dead rubber match.
Having struggled to make an impact in his traditional small forward role, Daniel Rioli was dropped to the VFL, where the coaching group decided to try him off half-back. Since returning to the side in round 17, he's been a shining light, showing composure, neat skills and speed.
It's been another lean AFL year for Josh Caddy, compounded in part by the lack of VFL continuity making life tough for those on the fringe. After starting the year in the side, playing the first three games, the Tigers opted for Marlion Pickett and Kamdyn McIntosh on the wings. Caddy played eight games last year, and has only added six this year (as well as three unused medi-sub matches).
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Shai Bolton looked to have sewn up the Four'N Twenty Mark of the Year against Geelong, until Jack Riewoldt decided to win a match against Adelaide off his own back. In the final 10 minutes, Riewoldt hauled down a spectacular, multi-element grab, before booting three goals to drag the Tigers over the line.
Following a heartbreaking loss to West Coast, Richmond was expected to come out of the bye full of zip. Instead, the Tigers kicked 2.10 against St Kilda, losing by 40 and setting the tone for a horror few weeks ahead. Defenders Noah Balta and Nathan Broad also suffered season-ending injuries.
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Following the retirements of David Astbury and Bachar Houli, there's a few defensive spots up for grabs. It'll be interesting to see if the Tigers back Ryan Garthwaite and Ben Miller, or maybe look at Daniel Talia for one last flag tilt, while Rioli has that rebounding role sewn up. There's also outside interest around tall forward/rucks Mabior Chol and Callum Coleman-Jones, but with Riewoldt closer to the end than the beginning, at least one has to be retained.
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Early call for 2022
The list is more than capable of returning to finals if it can shake off its form funk and injury woes. Just how high the Tigers can go will depend on the success of any gameplan tweaks made by the brains trust.
5/10. A few decent wins, more than a couple of horror losses, and falling from premiers to 12th is a demoralising fall.