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Which team is in the best position to challenge the champs?


Port Adelaide’s Tom Rockliff gets another handball away. The former Lions has started to his straps at his new club. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Which team is in the best position to challenge the champs?

Rohan Connolly    

Slowly but surely, Richmond continues to put a bit of space between itself and rest of the AFL competition.

Where there were still any number of sceptics about the Tigers’ on-going claims as the AFL’s undisputed best team heading into this season, they’ve long since had to concede. Richmond fans, meanwhile, last year still unused to top dog status, are coming to embrace the tag with confidence.

Why shouldn’t they? Whether it’s the Tigers themselves turning on a power-packed final quarter burst to dispense with another challenger, or the challengers themselves getting the wobbles, right now, if you had to stake your life on correctly choosing this year’s premier, there’s only one choice.

It helps, too, that this season there has been a passing parade of would-be challengers to the Richmond throne.

Three rounds ago, the Tigers were only one of three teams at the top all equal on wins. Then they moved a game clear of four rivals. Now it’s a game clear of three, everyone else at least two wins adrift.

And over the last four rounds, three different teams – West Coast, Sydney and Collingwood – have occupied second spot on the ladder. So who actually is the team best-placed to give Richmond a run for its money?

For starters, there has to be sizeable reservations over two of those three opponents just mentioned.

Sydney itself had a chance to move a game clear on top when it took on the Tigers a fortnight ago. Even away from Richmond’s beloved MCG and under the roof at Docklands instead, the Swans still fell short by 26 points, the Tigers as they have so frequently soaking up Sydney’s best and responding with the final seven scoring shots of the game.

The Swans have now lost a fourth game on their home ground and issues are emerging over their depth, particularly since the loss last Thursday night of veteran pair Jarrad McVeigh and Kieren Jack, and doubts this week over a concussed Isaac Heeney. It’s worth remembering, too, that the Swans have lost four of their past five finals at the MCG.

West Coast should be the obvious main challenger given the Eagles strung together 10 wins in a row and are one of just three teams to topple the Tigers. It’s the scene of that victory, however, which is significant, along with the Eagles’ recent injury woes.

While they knocked over Richmond at Optus Stadium in Perth, even the Eagles would concede the MCG is a different battleground altogether, one on which they rarely get a chance to prove themselves.

This Sunday’s joust with Collingwood will be their second game there this season, the first an unconvincing 10-point win over Carlton. Prior to that, they’d lost five of their previous six games on the G.

So, as grating as it is for their fans, the question mark remains. West Coast might win one MCG final, but would it be able to win a couple? The home ground advantage clearly is more important to the Eagles than any finals rival.

Simply, West Coast has to finish second if it is to be a flag chance, and as gritty as was the Eagles’ win over GWS on Sunday, it desperately needs the injured Josh Kennedy, Jack Darling, Mark LeCras and key defender Tom Barrass back in harness to have a serious chance of getting it.

Currently second, Collingwood deserves to be taken seriously on the flag score. The Pies weren’t terrific in Sunday’s win over Essendon, but their big last quarter was at least a tick for their resilience, and the capacity of midfield leaders Scott Pendlebury, Steele Sidebottom and Taylor Adams to rise to the occasion.

But against Richmond? It’s the midfield numbers and class equation which will make Adam Treloar’s continued absence a crushing blow for Collingwood, and the obvious doubts over his match fitness which will surface even should he make it back comfortably in time for finals.

There were plenty of plaudits for Collingwood’s round six effort against Richmond, when it led as late as the third quarter coming off a four-day break post Anzac Day. That said, the Tigers that week themselves only had an extra half-day’s preparation and did end up blowing the final margin out to 43 points.

Other contenders? I suspect the Western Bulldogs’ flag from the bottom half of the eighth two years ago is going to remain an anomaly, even allowing for the week’s rest before the finals begin. Which means Everest-like challenges for the likes of Geelong, Melbourne or Hawthorn.

That leaves Port Adelaide. And right now, I reckon the Power are as good a prospect to give Richmond a run for its money as anyone. Form certainly suggests as much, Port having now won seven of their past eight games, the one loss by a kick to Hawthorn in Launceston.

Even a relatively unspectacular win over St Kilda at the weekend had considerable upside. While key defender Tom Jonas’s injury is a concern, there is at least key defensive cover in Jack Hombsch.

More significantly, it was a win which saw the Port midfield do enough despite its biggest star Ollie Wines being kept in relative check. And the continued improvement of the band of senior recruits, Steven Motlop and Tom Rockliff getting better by the game, Jack Watts back in the starting 22.

Port’s round 12 win over Richmond could be instructive, too. That evening, the Power produced both their hard-running, attacking best with a seven-goal match-winning burst, but also some impressive defensive steel, in the second half still managing to restrict the Tigers to a losing score and soaking up considerable pressure.

That’s the sort of grind this year’s finals are likely to be, and this version of Port to me appears a significantly more resilient group than its predecessors. And it will need to be. For whoever ends up challenging an increasingly dominant Richmond this September is clearly going to have their work cut out.

2 Comments
  1. As you mention, Collingwood lead in the third against the Tigers. Then, in the space of five minutes, Aish, Grundy and Maynard were all injured. Aish did not come back on. Grundy did but became a shadow of who he’d been in the first half. Maynard also came back on, but would end up missing a month after this game.

    Obviously injuries happen, but with Collingwood playing the Anzac Day game just days earlier (and shouldn’t underestimate how taxing a big occasion like that can be), players going down, and Richmond having a bye the week before (playing Melbourne), it wasn’t surprising the Tigers got on top and blew out the margin.

    Richmond are still the team to beat but that margin flattered them a bit that game because of mitigating circumstances.

    Agree that the Treloar loss is huge.

  2. Just remember in 2008 Geelong was all but ‘guaranteed’ to win the flag by all and sundry. They were far more dominate and were much, much further ahead of the pack than Richmond are … yet they did not win the flag. Richmond is guaranteed nothing.

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