Richmond got its season back on track on Friday night and now sits ninth on the ladder with the same number of wins as the eighth-placed Bombers.
But the win was soured by a season-ending kidney injury to Tigers superstar Dustin Martin – the last player the Tigers could afford to lose.
The triple Norm Smith Medallist, as well as Kamdyn McIntosh, joins Noah Balta, Shane Edwards, Bachar Houli, Dion Prestia and Nick Vlastuin on the sidelines, with all players having different return time frames.
Watch the 2021 Toyota AFL Premiership Season Live & On-Demand on Kayo. New to Kayo? Try 14 Days Free Now >
It strikes a devastating blow to Richmond’s season – which was already on thin ice – and provokes two fascinating questions: Can the Tigers still contend for the title this year? Or do they have an opportunity to make bold and creative changes that set them up for a deeper run beyond 2021?
As important as Martin has been for this Tigers team, dual All-Australian Leigh Montagna pointed out it gives them a chance to prove they don’t have to rely on his brilliance in the finals.
“There’s been a lot of talk for a number of years that Dusty’s won them flags and without Dusty where would they be?” Montagna asked on Fox Footy’s First Crack.
“Now they get an opportunity, they found a bit of form, they played really well actually, they were terrific.”
The Tigers next face flag contenders Geelong, but then, interestingly, have games against the Dockers, Kangaroos, Giants and Hawks – teams they’d all fancy themselves against.
“I think they’re very well placed to get back into the eight,” legendary Hawthorn goalkicker Jason Dunstall told Fox Footy’s AFL 360. “But can they do any damage without Dusty? You’d be a brave man to think they can go all the way and beat the top teams without Dustin Martin playing.”
If the Tigers finished eighth, you would understand why the team that finishes fifth would be a touch nervous, for Damien Hardwick’s men could do some real damage in an elimination final showdown.
But as AFL 360 co-host Gerard Whateley pointed out on Monday night, it’s a different proposition for the Tigers now without Martin, who would’ve been capable of playing four straight best-on-ground finals.
And if there was ever a time to get the Tigers in finals, it’s this year.
So if they do sneak into the eight and are eliminated in the first or second week of the finals – or finish outside the top eight – the next few Martin-less weeks are crucial for Richmond and how it shapes its future.
Foxfooty.com.au assesses the key factors for the Tigers‘ unlikely flag tilt how it’ll shape their future.
THE NANK EFFECT
Richmond ruckman Toby Nankervis returned on the weekend for his first game since Round 11 after recovering from a knee injury. And boy was his impact profound.
The big man finished with 22 disposals – 18 of which were contested – seven clearances, four tackles and 25 hit-outs.
Richmond simply looks like a different side when the big man is bullocking its ruck division and more like the one that’s won three of the last four flags. They hold a 7-5 record with him in the team this season.
While he doesn’t necessarily give them a major advantage in the ruck itself, it’s his follow-up work and competitiveness around the ground that gives Hardwick’s side an immense boost.
Speaking on Fox Footy’s On The Couch, Brownlow Medallist Gerard Healy labelled Nankervis “one of the more underrated players right throughout that premiership era,” while Saints champion Leigh Montagna said the ruckman was his side’s “barometer”.
“He starts the ball rolling with their surge football,” the dual All-Australian told First Crack.
“He has presence and I just think he’s enormous for this footy club. We roll our eyes when clubs say we’re missing a certain player. But watching Nankervis the other night, he is so influential.”
It feels like Nankervis has been around forever, but is only 26 years old and plays a position that most can well into their 30s.
While he in some ways holds the key to their current fortunes, he’s also a big part of their future. If Hardwick looks to steer the game plan into a more clearance heavy direction, it all centres around this man.
A point of difference, several clubs – and even some contenders – are crying out for a big imposing ruckman of Nankervis’ ilk. The Tigers have one and might need to start thinking about different ways to best utilise him for the way they want to play in the coming seasons.
THE NEW FORWARD MIX
The domino effect of Nankervis’ return allows Mabior Chol – who’s out of contract – to play his preferred forward-ruck role. Friday night highlighted that the Tigers may need to secure his signature more urgently than first thought.
Chol was also excellent against Brisbane, kicking a career-best four goals to go with 10 disposals and four marks to give his side more flair in the forward half.
Montagna noted how more effective Chol was backing up Nankervis, comparing his “explosive” game style to Eagles star Nic Naitanui’s.
“He played only played 53 per cent game time on the weekend. He’s a bit like ‘Nic Nat’, he’s power, explosive athlete who can’t play a full game,” Montagna said.
Triple premiership Lion Jonathan Brown said Chol was “that third forward they’re looking for”.
“They’ve constantly spoken about Callum Coleman-Jones supporting (Tom) Lynch and (Jack) Riewoldt, (but) they’ve found their third forward Mabior Chol there,“ the triple-premiership Lion told On the Couch.
It highlighted that Chol has a key role to play for their charge towards September as well as long-term. The Tigers need to replace Martin’s 1.2 goals per game from somewhere, and based on Friday night, Chol is the most logical avenue.
Further, Jack Riewoldt was sensational in his six-goal 300th game, but at 32 years of age, isn’t getting any younger.
A future forward combination of Lynch, Coleman-Jones and Chol playing as a Jack Gunston-like third tall should excite Richmond fans. Now they just need to lock away the latter two to new deals, who’ve both been the subject of interest from rival clubs.
The Tigers wouldn’t want to lose their key forward pillars of the future.
THE TIGERS OF OLD
True to their club song, Richmond looked much more like the ‘Tigers of Old’ – or in their dominant recent seasons – on Friday night.
The Tigers’ hallmark pressure was back as they played with more intensity and competitiveness around the ground. In the first half, 32 of the Tigers’ 46 points came from turnovers. But it was their capacity to start winning the midfield battle in the second half – they won the contested possession (+12) and clearance (+7) counts – that really launched them to victory.
Brown highlighted how much better the Tigers looked on Friday night playing “chaotic football”, while Melbourne champion Garry Lyon said the Tigers will be a dangerous team to play on the run home.
Friday night’s game proved if the Tigers can get both their turnover and midfield games going at once, they’re a serious threat. And now without the match-winning prowess of Martin to at times individually lift them, Hardwick may look to re-jig his system to prioritise contest and winning it at the coalface.
And coming up with a ‘Plan B’ when things aren’t on their terms. Do they forge more of a focus around utilising Jayden Short’s kicking in a quarter back role? Never a high possession team in the past, do they begin to ask for a Jack Graham to try and go get 30 touches every week and leave Trent Cotchin to do the gritty stuff?
Or now coming towards the end of his career, is it time for Cotchin to switch onto a half back flank and start grooming Jack Ross in the skipper’s current role?
The Tigers have weapons on every line and coming up with better ways to maximise their skill sets may be the pathway forward instead of relying on a system that has broken down throughout 2021. Let the role players do their thing and allow the stars to shine more.
The ‘Tigers of Old’ are effective – three flags proves as much. But Hardwick might need to start adding more layers to his game plan to try and prolong one of football’s most dominant reins.
A FUTURE SKIPPER EMERGES
Another player who stepped up on the weekend was midfielder Jack Graham, who’s emerged as a potential future captain.
The 23-year old finished with 19 disposals – eight of which were contested – seven tackles and two goals against Brisbane, including the match-sealing goal in the fourth quarter.
Montagna said he saw captaincy potential from Graham in the final term.
“I just saw something from him in that last quarter that says to me this bloke is future captain,” Montagna said.
“They love what this bloke does internally. He stood up for them in big moments, he captained the South Australian U18s side as a junior.
“He’s now played 71 games of football, he’s coming into his sixth season next year. Don’t be surprised if he’s the next captain of the football club.”
Asked when they will change the captaincy, Montagna: “I think they’ll keep ‘Cotch’ on for one more year as captain and then Jack Graham will take over the year after in 2023.
Foxfooty.com.ausenior reporter Tom Morris added: “There’s a reason why the Crows wanted Jack Graham so much last year. They really rate him and so do the Tigers clearly.”
Asked if Richmond could have Trent Cotchin and Graham as co-captains in 2022, Montagna said: “Yep, absolutely.”
With Cotchin below his best form and Martin and Prestia sidelined, Graham – largely the future of their midfield – turning in more performances like Friday night is critical for Richmond’s outside flag hopes.
SHAI TIME AND THE FUTURE
Losing arguably the best player in the competition with an already lengthy list of injuries is a savage blow for Richmond.
The match-winner for them on so many occasions – particularly in big finals – some players are simply irreplaceable.
As impactful and important as Martin has been for this Tigers team, dual premiership Kangaroo David King said it provided Shai Bolton with the perfect opportunity to flourish in the Brownlow medallist’s absence.
“The Dustin Martin role now will be handed over to Shai Bolton and they’ll say: ‘You play the same way, with the same aggression, the same influence, the same attack,’” he said on First Crack.
“They’ll manage around that, to allow him to play that role. Over now to the next wave of stars. If Bolton’s the player we think he is, well come and show us again.”
Regardless of if he‘s handed Martin’s role, the out-of-contract Bolton gets a massive chance to prove his value – both short-term and long-term.
Yes, Bolton may only be 22 years old, but if he‘s the superstar in the making and face of Richmond’s future that we all think he is, the next five rounds will shed some light on that. And if he’s worth the lucrative contract his manager Ralph Carr is no doubt trying to get on ink.
As big a void that Martin leaves, the reality is that he won’t be around forever. This gives Hardwick his best opportunity yet to find out plenty about the rest of his troops and who are ready to make that next step.
We saw what happened with Hawthorn when Buddy Franklin left Hawthorn in 2013 – its attack became more unpredictable, and as a result, more holistic, effective and threatening, allowing several other stars to shine. A micro version of this scenario presents itself to Richmond.
More onus will also fall on the likes of fellow off-contract Tigers including Liam Baker, Daniel Rioli and Jason Castagna, Coleman-Jones and Chol – all of which are playing for their next contracts, and in some case, futures at the club.
It could even push Riewoldt up the ground to play more of a connector role to try and improve the overall function of their forward line. We know the Tigers’ defence is rock solid and simply undermanned, but finding creative new ways to score and be more a threat up forward through system should be a priority. Not just for an unlikely flag tilt, but with an eye for the future, both in 2022 and beyond.
Martin’s injury, like all their other casualties, also opens up opportunities to youngsters to gain more exposure and fast-track the development of Richmond’s next wave of talent.
The Tigers have unearthed five debutants in 2021 in Rhyan Mansell, Will Martyn, Riley Collier-Dawkins, Hugo Ralphsmith and Samson Ryan. Look for these youngsters and potentially others to get their chances to shine and be exposed to bigger roles as the future of the club.
https://www.foxsports.com.au/afl/teams/richmond-tigers/afl-news-2021-richmond-tigers-premiership-chances-without-dustin-martin-kidney-injury-injuries-damien-hardwick-plans-toby-nankervis-mabior-chol-jack-graham-shai-bolton/news-story/507f6aae066b7601a3c52ee02f102a49 | The ‘next wave’ of Tigers stars with a point to prove – and what Dimma can try in Dusty’s absence