Don't Look Now, But Richmond Might Have Already Rebuilt

If you want to know how an AFL club perfectly executes a draft strategy, look no further than the Richmond Football Club.

Heading into the 2021 NAB AFL Draft with five top-30 picks, the Tigers put a disappointing season behind them with a draft haul that’s set the club up well going forward.

Fresh off a four-year dominance, Richmond came right back to the middle of the pack, finishing 12th in 2021 having suffered through poor form and injuries to key personnel.

When teams have been successful for a little while, history indicates that they either fall off the face of the earth or keep topping up and try to stay relevant for as long as possible.

It looks like Richmond was able to buck both trends.

What made the Tigers such a unique team at their peak were a series of intangibles – there is no measurement for team chemistry, versatility and belief, but watch Richmond from 2017 to 2020 and it was clear these were possessed in spades.

The club had a way they wanted to play and it led to statistical anomalies everywhere, ranking dead-last in clearances on a consistent basis, yet having an ability to win the ball back from the opposition in the middle of the ground, for example.

Clearly though, 2021 was a drop off and there were obvious holes in the squad that became apparent.

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Defence had been a source of great pride at Tigerland, ranked 3rd, 2nd, 4th and 2nd for fewest points conceded between 2017 and 2020, which dropped off to 8th in 2021.

More concerning was the ease in which the opposition scored – Richmond conceded a goal 23.28% of the time the opposition got the ball inside 50, where the highest the number had been in the previous four seasons was 21.93% in 2019.

The Tigers maintained their top-six positioning in least inside 50s conceded, but the one-on-one work was poor as Noah Balta went down, David Astbury aged and absences of Dylan Grimes and Nick Vlastuin were felt hard.

Over those seasons, Richmond also forced their opposition into committing the most turnovers by far across the league of any team yet ranked just 6th in 2021 as the whole-ground defensive pressure dropped off considerably.

Another key indicator that suffered a drop was metres gained. Having been ranked first over the last three seasons, Richmond took a small step off to being ranked 4th, however they were nearly 300 metres off the best team in the competition, Melbourne, where they had generally blitzed the opposition in the statistic.

The final part of Richmond’s game that dropped off in 2021 was the link between the midfield and forward line, with the ability to set up easier shots on goal lacking.

Richmond went from being the second-best team in the competition during their peak seasons to being ranked 7th for goal assists, with the club averaging more disposals per inside 50 than seen in recent memory.

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The Tigers’ hierarchy therefore went into the draft understanding that their goal was to improve any of the key defensive stocks, the speed and ball movement out of defence, or to bring in better pressure and ball use out of the midfield and across half-forward to produce more efficient attacking forays. 

While using the picks to package up into something more favourable may have been desired by the club and fans, the 2021 draft proved to be a turning point in how Richmond will look going forward.

Josh Gibcus was an excellent choice at Pick 9 as the best key defender in the draft crop with great intercepting skills and excellent composure out of defence.

With the signing of Robbie Tarrant as well as the tutelage of Dylan Grimes, Gibcus has sky-high potential and immediately fills the key defensive post for a decade, which Richmond desperately needed.

Having ticked off that area to improve, Richmond reached for Tom Brown at pick 17 knowing Sydney’s interest with the next selection, and have given themselves another versatile, intelligent footballer that can play as an intercept marker, or a defensive-running wingman.

What the Tigers lacked in 2021 that they thrived in previously was the occupation of space, with a bunch of smart footballers able to cover the ground in zones and dissect the opposition when it was time to attack. Brown fits that mould to a tee.

Yet Richmond’s most exciting selection may have actually arrived at pick 28 when theTigers landed the previously top-five rated Tyler Sonsie who'll learn under the player he's most likened to by experts, Trent Cotchin.

No player is cleaner around the contest and his agility and ability to hit targets under immense pressure inside 50 clearly matches Richmond’s ethos. Richmond is the perfect spot to improve fitness and work ethic for any player, which is all Sonsie needs to reach his true potential.

Having already addressed the key areas with the first three picks, Richmond had the luxury of simply adding further to their 2021 deficiencies with Sam Banks and Judson Clarke.

Banks is also a great user of the ball and can play off half-back or on the wing. The Tasmanian loves to get the ball going forward and while he’ll likely take longer than the other owing to his light frame, he’ll suit Richmond’s metres gained and efficient kicking game rather well.

Adding the speedy and smart Clarke to the front half, who can also play spurts in the midfield, simply caps off a remarkably intelligent draft from Richmond’s recruiters, as the former Dandenong Stingray is someone that hits targets beautifully on his left foot and can finds goals with extreme ease.

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When the AFL community sat back and reflected on the Tigers this season it was glaringly obvious that there were clear areas that needed to be improved, but rarely is a club able to address their deficiencies so quickly.

Whether the Tigers choose to shuffle players around is another question entirely. 

Noah Balta’s position is up in the air at the moment such is his usefulness, but in terms of pure solidification of a long-term game-plan, Richmond nailed it.

To reap the rewards of a draft clubs generally must wait a number of seasons, and that may well be the case for Richmond. Expecting more than even two of these five players to contribute immediately is an unrealistic ask.

Yet over the course of two nights in November, the Tigers ensured that they wouldn’t become a bottom-four team after their sustained success, by playing the draft smart and collecting the right assets.

We’ll look back at the 2021 draft and talk about how Richmond re-wrote the script of how to truly fix up a squad in a short amount of time.

The Tigers nailed it and if you’re a fan, you should be excited.

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Dem Panopoulos

Dem is a lover of sport with a keen eye for analytics. A passion for statistics that defies logic given his MyCricket numbers, you can see and hear him share his thoughts and views on Twitter @dempanopoulos

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