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Any ‘real deal’ or is it all just a race for second to Richmond?


“Stop right there,” says Dustin Martin. Does any rival this season really have what it takes to challenge Richmond when it matters? Photo: AFL MEDIA

Any ‘real deal’ or is it all just a race for second to Richmond?

Rohan Connolly    

At what point these days in AFL football is it safe to profess a team the “real deal” in terms of premiership aspirations?

Never, some would argue, and in the current state of play it’s scepticism which is fair enough.

In fact, now it’s even possible to continue debating the credibility of a team which has already won a premiership, as has been the case for much of the 18 months or so since the Western Bulldogs’ famous 2016 flag.

The Dogs’ subsequent struggles have only strengthened the perception that they were a side that turned in the best four performances of their modern history at the perfect moment. Their triumph effectively rewrote the premiership playbook.

That’s great for lovers of unpredictability. Not so great for those of us whose attempt to read some sort of meaning into the five months and 23 rounds which precede the last month of the football year.

Worth remembering as we commence the run into September. Because, frankly, if one was to use the traditional measures right now as a guide to 2018’s most likely premiership team, the only conceivable conclusion would be that having broken a 37-year flag drought last season, Richmond is about to make it two in a row.

In the 2018 flag race, the Tigers remain arguably the only dependables. Even they have had the odd reversal this season, but having now moved a game clear on top of the ladder, Richmond is clearly the safest bet to be in the mix come grand final day.

They underscored so again last Thursday night with a typically methodical eclipse of Sydney in a clash of the top two teams, soaking up a challenge from the Swans which closed the gap to just four points only a minute into the last term, then responding with 3.4 to no score for the rest of the game.

Richmond’s ability to withstand that sort of pressure is yet to be matched by any rival. And as the Tigers stay strong, the would-be contenders keep leaving room for doubt.

You wouldn’t have said that about West Coast only a month or so ago, the Eagles having dispatched of Richmond in Perth on their way to 10 wins in a row.

That, however, was before the Eagles lost not just one but both key forward targets in Jack Darling and Josh Kennedy. Their loss, and now that of another key goalkicker in Mark LeCras, has no doubt been pivotal to West Coast’s subsequent loss of three games in a row.

And while none of the defeats at the hands of Sydney, Essendon or Adelaide have been emphatic, the weakening of the Eagles’ structure has been obvious.

Now third rather than top of the ladder, West Coast can only hang tough until the return of the casualties. Just one more loss to GWS this week could leave them fifth, good enough for a home final were they to begin now, but critically, without a double chance.

And what of Melbourne? The Demons were third on the ladder only a month ago having won six games in a row by a whopping average of 65 points. Three consecutive losses later, they’re seventh, and inside the top eight on percentage only.

The crushing nature of those half-dozen wins was enough to make Melbourne look a very legitimate premiership contender.

But what in retrospect seems more significant is the fact they were wins against Essendon, St Kilda, Gold Coast, Carlton, Adelaide and the Western Bulldogs, not one of them currently a top eight team. The Demons have so far played only four teams in the top eight. And lost every time.

That in itself should provide a cautionary tale for Collingwood, the latest flavour of the month in terms of potential challengers to Richmond’s crown.

The Magpies are the third side in as many weeks to move into second spot behind the Tigers, and deservedly so after, like the Demons, six mostly emphatic victories in a row.

The other similarity, though, is more sobering. Of those half-dozen wins, only Melbourne now occupies a position on the ladder any higher than 13th. In fact, nine of Collingwood’s 10 wins in total have come against teams now 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th (twice).

The Pies have met just four current top eight teams to date, and lost to three of them. Food for thought as they approach arguably the defining period of their season, a five-game stretch taking on in succession an in-form Essendon, West Coast, North Melbourne, Richmond and Sydney.

The rest? Sydney is always thereabouts but the Swans these days are also regularly enough shown to be mortal. GWS is finally starting to hit stride. And Port Adelaide has now won six of its past seven games, the one loss by less than a kick.

Perhaps if the Magpies do stumble over the next month it will be the Power picking up the baton as the next would-be conqueror of the reigning premier. And Port did beat Richmond only three weeks ago.

But in a strange sort of AFL season, lately it seems being dubbed a contender is little more than tempting fate and the forerunner to a spate of ill-fortune.

Richmond is going to be mighty hard to topple this September. And if it is going to happen, maybe you’d rather be, like the Bulldogs two years, relatively free of expectation, than another in what is becoming an endless production line of supposed “real deals”.

*This article first appeared at SPORTING NEWS.

2 Comments
  1. After round 13 last year, Tiges had lost 5 out 7 of their previous games.

    So, altho the Tiges look good you can’t really be sure. As many teams have shown, flags are won in September.

    And as a Swans supporter, there’s only one game that matters in the end.

  2. Every time this comes up, I reflect back to the Adelaide Crows in 2006. They were absolutely annihilating everyone in their path. They were two games clear on top of the ladder and nobody had kicked more than about 70 points against them all season.

    They went to Perth and West Coast beat them by nearly 100 points, kicking 26 goals in the process.

    Nobody saw it coming. The Crows fell in a massive heap and didn’t make the Grand Final, despite looking the most dominant team
    in the competition up to the end of July.

    You’re only ever able to make the determination at about the 25 minute mark of the last quarter in the Grand Final. And if you’re a Swans supporter, it’s not actually until the siren goes (’05, ’06, ’12).

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