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Lower in profile, but a lot larger in premiership impact

Dan Butler (left) and Jason Castagna have made a big difference to Richmond with their forward line defensive pressure. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Lower in profile, but a lot larger in premiership impact

Rohan Connolly    

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that by the time an AFL premiership team mounted the dais late on grand final day to receive their medals, just about every player was instantly recognisable.

Most of them were seasoned types who’d been there and done that in sides chock full of acknowledged stars treading a familiar path. Boy, has that changed.

Much is being made of the fact that on Saturday, not a single one of the 44 players who grace the MCG will have previously played in a grand final. Not that surprising, really, given that Richmond hasn’t made it to the last day of the season for 35 years and Adelaide 19.

Take the recently-hatched Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney out of the equation and by Saturday every AFL club will have played in a grand final since 1999, in itself a big tick for the AFL’s equalisation measures.

But it also means that the days of the “super side” are gone. Even the Brisbane and Hawthorn premiership hat-tricks of 2001-03 and 2013-15 were more about being up at the right time than season-long dominance, the Lions never topping the ladder, the Hawks not raging favourites in any of their victories.

Not that they, nor the Tigers or Crows now are bereft of stars as such. Few players have had as much air time or column inches expended upon them as Richmond’s Dustin Martin this year. Trent Cotchin, Alex Rance and Jack Riewoldt are certainly household names. Even beyond Adelaide, there’s few people who aren’t familiar with Eddie Betts, Rory Sloane or Taylor Walker.

But premiership teams now have a different dynamic. Of course the performances of those key players will be critical to whether Richmond or Adelaide prevails this weekend. But so, almost as much, will those of the bottom end of each 22, the team ethos more important than ever.

It’s a September trend taken to new heights altogether by the Western Bulldogs last year. The very definition of a premiership team, how many even hard core football fans knew much about the likes of Shane Biggs, Zaine Cordy, Josh Dunkley, Joel Hamling or Fletcher Roberts by the time they had premiership medals draped around their necks?

Yet all played important parts in a famous flag win, Hamling and Roberts holding up key defensive posts, Dunkley a tackling machine, Cordy bobbing up with an important goal and Biggs providing valuable defensive rebound.

You can expect much the same on Saturday. Big performances from Richmond’s star quartet or the roll call of Adelaide’s big guns will go some of the way to delivering a long-awaited premiership, but it’s an achievement which won’t happen without significant input from those lower-profile role players as well.

How many Tiger fans at the start of this season, even those who dared to dream this sort of storyline, would have counted upon players such as Dan Butler and Jason Castagna not only being in their best 22, but playing important roles in a surge up the ladder?

How many, as late as mid-July, would have predicted that Nathan Broad, Jack Graham and Jacob Townsend would even be part of a Richmond grand final line-up were the Tigers to make it? None of those three had played a senior game all season until round 17, when Broad came into the side. For the other pair, it was round 22.

All quickly have become valuable cogs in the machine, Broad a couple of times now helping shutdown GWS All-Australian small forward Toby Greene. Graham is just 19, but the hard-bodied midfielder has helped keep the Tigers on top where it matters most.

Townsend played just one game in 37 before coach Damien Hardwick turned to him again. He promptly kicked 11 goals in two games, and has another three from his two finals appearances.

Butler and Castagna, meanwhile, have been crucial elements of the tremendous defensive pressure the Tigers bring to the table, especially up forward, where Richmond ranks No.1 for tackles inside 50, their presence plus that of Daniel Rioli more than compensating for the lack of a key forward target to assist Riewoldt.

Adelaide has a similar story to those of Broad, Graham and Townsend in Paul Seedsman, who nursed groin injuries through pre-season then most of the season proper until returning to the line-up only in round 19.

A big game against West Coast in round 23 and two impressive finals have been the cherry on top of an already firing midfield, his run and goalkicking ability critical in the preliminary final win. Hugh Greenwood is another Crow still little-known outside the club, but who has also added depth and scoring potential to the side.

And while another defensive mid in Riley Knight and small defenders Luke Brown and Jake Kelly have been part of the mix for some time, Brown with well over 100 games to his name, it’s fair to say all could walk the length of Punt Road in their playing gear any time this week without anyone batting an eyelid.

All of them will still have plenty of people reaching for their Record to check their names even in the biggest game of the year watched by millions. And it’s a measure of how AFL premiership teams now take all types that that might still be going on even when they’re running a lap of honour.

1 Comment
  1. What I want to know, though, Rohan, is why in this the most even of seasons, when just a game and a half separated 6th and first, when last had the highest percentage in a long time, when we had the most close games on record… and yet all the finals bar one have blown out to wins by 6 or more goal?

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