Richmond’s MCG fortress breached again but alarm bells not sounding just yet

There are a number of ways one could choose to interpret Geelong’s dominant victory over Richmond on Friday night. The temptation is always to focus on the winning team. Could this be the triumph the Cats will reflect upon as catalytic in yet another push to the deeper climes of September? At a time when there is an orderly queue of knockers wanting to pick holes in Geelong’s bona-fides, surely this is a shot across the bow from a team very much in the premiership mix. After all, there is arguably no greater scalp in footy than Richmond at the MCG.

In the fullness of time all of this might well end up being true about the Cats. But when a team such as Richmond, one that is gunning for a fourth flag in five seasons, have their pants pulled down at home for the second time in little over a month, the conversation will inevitably come back to them.

In between losing to Sydney in round 13 of the 2017 season and to Collingwood in the 2018 preliminary final, Richmond won 22 games on the bounce at the home of footy. In 2019, the Tigers went 13-2 at the ground. The MCG is their patch. To lose twice there by an aggregate of 108 points inside the first eight rounds of 2021 is to invite the sounding of alarm bells.

“Any heavy loss is worrying,” Tigers coach Damien Hardwick said. “There’s a way to lose and we don’t like to lose the way we did tonight. The Sydney game was a long time ago but the way we lost and got belted around the contest in the second part of the game tonight was incredibly disappointing.”

Worrying, belted, disappointing: hardly the words of a man on the precipice of rarefied achievement. But again, interpretation resides in the mind of the beholder. Some will look at Richmond’s losses to the Swans and Geelong and see the cracks of a falling empire. Others will argue nobody does timing quite like the Tigers.

Richmond are 4-4 roughly a third of the way through the season, nestled anonymously in eighth place and just one win clear of the likes of Adelaide. It’s an ordinary look but one that compares favourably with Richmond’s premiership years. In 2017, the Tigers were 5-3 after eight rounds. In 2019, they were 5-3 at the corresponding stage and would even be out of the eight after 14 rounds. Last year they were 4-3-1 after eight rounds. None of these starts screamed a premiership was in the offing.

“We’re in the hunt. It’s similar,” Hardwick said of his team’s characteristically tepid beginning. “We’ve got some players that we would love to have back in the side but they’re not going to be back for some time. So we’ve got to hang tough but that’s what we do. We’ve got some work to do to catch the very best sides in the comp at the moment because that ain’t us.”

A pillar of Richmond’s dynasty has been their almost freakish ability to be the best team in September, if not necessarily throughout the course of the year. So where some see fallibility, others will look through the transparency of defeat and see a gnarled champion who knows when and where to pick his fight. One of the many things we have learned about Richmond over the past half-decade is they always take the long view.

It’s a view they will need to double down on if Friday night is to be taken on face value. Where Hardwick laments Richmond’s injury woes, Geelong’s Chris Scott will take heart from an aggressive recruiting drive that landed the likes of Jeremy Cameron, Isaac Smith and Shaun Higgins. It’s often said the team with the best players will win the premiership. If the Cats do go on to take the title this year, it will be a triumph in list management and a two-fingered salute to the veritable closing of the premiership window. “Geelong are a very, very good side. They’ve added talent from last year. They’ve got better again. We’ve got to catch them,” Hardwick said.

Though the Tigers might possess the best player in Dustin Martin, albeit one who is yet to hit top gear this campaign, it would make for a heated argument to say they boast the most talented list in the league. Their fortress has been built not around individual quality, rather a system that has been embraced with almost maniacal devotion by the playing group.

It is a system they will want to reconnect with sooner rather than later. The hallmarks of this great Richmond team – pressure, accountability, hunger – were all there on Friday night at the MCG, but they were qualities brought by the men dressed in blue-and-white, not black-and-yellow.

“They’re a well-coached, well-drilled outfit,” Hardwick said of the Cats. “They’re probably the best side we’ve played this year.” They are the sort of plaudits usually reserved for Richmond. The Tigers have been here before, Hardwick knows that, but he also knows time waits for no one. If the champs are bluffing, they’re doing a very good job of it.