Richmond and Geelong played out a titanic struggle on Saturday, with the Cats getting the early jump and the Tigers finishing full of running, to take out their third Premiership in four years.
To make a Grand Final in any year, especially a year with the chaos of 2020, is a great achievement. While Geelong will not take much solace in the days after their Grand Final defeat, to have overcome their Preliminary Final demons is a positive step forward for this group.
For the Tigers, they absorbed everything the competition could throw at them, plus more than a few self-inflicted setbacks, and remain the kings of the jungle.
In the coming days both clubs will begin to review their seasons – for the Cats, how to take the next step, and for the Tigers, how to defend their crown once again.
2nd: Geelong (4th after H+A, 12W-5L, 136.8%)
The Cats owned the footy in 2020, ranking #1 for Disposal differential, #1 for both Contested and Uncontested Possession differential, and #2 for Clearance differential.
In a team containing Hall of Famers Ablett, Dangerfield and Selwood, it was Sam Menegola and Cam Guthrie who had the most disposals for the Cats this year.
Both players elevated their standing in 2020, Guthrie as an inside mid and Menegola as one of the hardest working wingmen in the game.
The form of Menegola and Guthrie, along with Brandan Parfitt and the ever-reliable Mitch Duncan, gave Chris Scott the flexibility to use Dangerfield more as a forward in the last month of the season.
Behind the ball, Geelong had a settled and consistent back six, led by one of the best intercepting defenders in the game in Tom Stewart.
The Cats defenders were well supported by Mark Blicavs, who rolled back from the Ruck to give the Cats seven defenders in general play.
Forward of the ball, the Cats were the #1 scoring team in the Home and Away rounds, led by Coleman Medallist Tom Hawkins.
In their best games, the Cats half forward mix of Miers, Ablett, Dahlhaus, Atkins and Rohan provided a scoring threat and forward pressure.
While Atkins missed out late in the season, the remaining players were important in the Cats’ Preliminary Final win and in the 2nd quarter of the Grand Final, as the Cats built a near four-goal lead.
Geelong was well organised, highly professional and handled the ever-changing circumstances of hub life as well as any club.
What Didn’t Work
The Cats Ruck and 2nd Key Forward setup took half the season to resolve itself.
Darcy Fort played five of the first seven games, including a crucial role in the Cats’ impressive defeat of the Lions in Round 6, while Esava Ratugolea or Rhys Stanley spent time partnering Hawkins up forward.
From Round 8 onwards, Blicavs spent more time in the Ruck, mostly with Stanley taking the centre bounce then drifting forward as part of an on-ground rotation.
Despite this, following the Round 17 loss to the Tigers, the Geelong coaching staff were forced to deploy Dangerfield forward, in order to give the midfield more confidence to kick the ball forward.
While the impending arrival of Jeremy Cameron from GWS gives the Cats the two most recent Coleman Medallists (and Hawkins’ long term replacement), it does not solve the Cats lack of aerial strength in their forward 50.
The impact of Toby Nankervis in the second half of the grand final showed why the Cats need a taller key forward target to compete in the air.
Geelong made it to the Grand Final because a lot of what they do is very good. Their pre-season will reflect minor tweaks rather than full scale changes.
Incorporating Cameron and finding the best way to move the ball to maximise the strengths of he, Hawkins and potentially Dangerfield will be a challenge for the Cats’ coaching staff.
With Harry Taylor’s impending retirement and Lachie Henderson turning 31 in the coming months, the Cats will be looking to bolster their key defender stocks.
If this involved Blicavs returning to a full-time defensive role, the Cats will need a Wing replacement and to settle their Ruck position.
Way Too Early 2021 Forecast
1st: Richmond (3rd after H+A, 12W-1D-4L, 129.9%)
Richmond continued to play their strong sustainable forward half game, finishing the home and away season ranked #1 for Time in Forward Half, and #2 for both Forward Half Intercepts and Points from Forward Half Intercepts.
In Round 13 the Tigers recorded a remarkable 48 more inside 50s than Essendon in the Dreamtime game, while in the Grand Final they scored 76 points (out of 81) from Turnover, with 64 points coming from Forward Half Turnovers, both season highs.
While the Tigers scoring had flat patches through the season, their team defence, the backbone of their Premiership success, held firm.
Richmond conceded 51.4 points a game in the home and away season, only 0.3 points behind Port Adelaide to be the #2 ranked Defence in the game.
The versatile and athletic Noah Balta solidified his position as Alex Rance’s replacement, though he was deployed in Forward and Ruck roles late in the season to good effect.
Pleasingly for the Tigers future, Jayden Short and Shai Bolton took steps forward, now both dual Premiership players. Short led the Tigers for Metres Gained and Rebound 50s, while Bolton ranked top 3 for both Clearances and Inside 50s, as he found a great balance of inside and outside ball.
While Clearances haven’t been a strong suit of this Richmond team, their midfield was outstanding in the Finals, especially from Centre Bounce. After finishing the season ranked 16th for Centre Bounce Clearances, the Tigers midfield reeled off +7, +10, +7 and +6 in their four finals.
Finally it goes without saying that a big part of what worked for Richmond in 2020 was Dustin Martin.
Martin has had a great balance of Midfield and Forward time to maximise his strengths in recent years, but no better evidenced than how he was used in the Finals.
While traditionally playing either deep forward or as a midfielder, Martin played as a higher Half Forward against Port Adelaide in the Preliminary Final. This generated a match up with Darcy Byrne-Jones rather than Tom Jonas after the stoppage, which Martin was then able to exploit.
After a similar tactic failed in the first half of the Grand Final, Martin’s role changed, mostly playing deeper forward, where he was able to kick 3 second half goals, and his 9 score involvements were the most on the ground.
With 244 games, three Premierships, three Norm Smith Medals, a Brownlow, and numerous Best and Fairest and All Australian awards, we are simply witnessing one of the greatest to ever play the game.
What Didn’t Work
On the field it was a slow start to the resumption of footy for the Tigers, kicking only 36 and 39 points in a draw to Collingwood and a loss to Hawthorn in Rounds 2 and 3. Three weeks later the Tigers defeated Sydney 34-26 in a dour affair.
While the Tigers scoring improved in the second half of the season, early on there was clear frustration with opposition teams getting numbers back and preventing the Tigers fast break style of attack.
Damien Hardwick has openly spoken about the difficulties he and his club found prior to the hubs, and their frustration spilt over into a number of on-field indiscretions.
Key forward Tom Lynch was fined for four separate incidents and cleared of one other, as the Tigers flirted with the edge of aggressive and self-destructive football. Over the 2020 season, Richmond were fined more for on-field incidents than any other club.
Only those on the inside at Richmond will know, but the suspensions to Sydney Stack and Callum Coleman-Jones for breaching the AFL’s COVID protocols appeared to be a turning point in their season.
After being lauded in previous years, the Richmond culture was in question after the duo’s Gold Coast breach, which included a $100,000 fine to be deducted from next year’s football department soft cap, a move likely to cost the job of a staff member.
From the Stack/Coleman-Jones suspension onwards, the Tigers appeared to sharpen their focus, losing only one more game on the way to their 13th Premiership.
Three Premierships in four seasons is a remarkable achievement. Damien Hardwick, a coach renowned for finding themes for his players to tap into, will have to find the right motivation to push his players to repeat their success again.
Many Tigers players could retire tomorrow with a fulfilled career, and sporting history says that over time, defending the title constantly eventually wears a champion down.
On the field the Tigers are well placed, with only five players over the age of 30 as of Round 1, 2021.
Key position depth would be one area to look at, especially in defence, as Balta may ultimately end up as a forward, and Astbury and Grimes will be 30 and 29 respectively going in to 2021.
Opposition teams will target the Tigers’ younger players with the lure of more opportunities, and the Richmond list management team will have to work hard to ensure they keep all their required players.
Way Too Early 2021 Forecast