Does influx of stars mean a brutal call for Trent Cotchin?
The countdown to Round 1, 2023 has officially begun – so throughout January, I’ll be looking at all 18 AFL clubs and doing my best to put together an optimum team for the new year.
I’ll take injuries and suspensions into account, but this won’t be a predicted team for Round 1 – think of it more as a guide to what your team’s best 23 (the 22 starting players plus the new unrestricted substitute) could look like as the year unfolds.
Today, it’s time to take a look at Richmond. Check out the links below if your team has already been done.
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The Tigers are among the premiership favourites heading into 2023 – and rightly so.
On paper, their greatest weakness – the midfield – has at a stroke become a strength, with the arrival of former GWS on-ballers Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper bringing an instant mix of talent and muscle at stoppages that wasn’t even a strength during their 2017-2020 dynasty.
The Tigers have always tended to win in spite of clearance and contested possession limitations, making 2023 a fascinating transitional year now that they, at last, have a chance to really hurt teams out of the centre. With a fearsome forward line at their disposal, plus an array of speedy, elite kicks that cut swathes through opposition teams last year from half-back, there’s a whole lot to like about Richmond going into this year.
History says that things are rarely as simple as teams plugging weak areas with star power and instantly becoming better for it; but for a side full of veterans ready to have one last hurrah at another pemiership, and a coach in Damien Hardwick still as hungry as ever for success, it could very well be Tiger time again in the not too distant future.
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The Tigers were a side vulnerable to transition in 2022; in a cruel reversal of the style that won them three flags, teams would regularly cut them up on the turnover and expose an at times vulnerable backline.
The Richmond defensive unit was a pillar of strength and consistency through their era of success, but with David Astbury retired and Dylan Grimes and Nick Vlastuin both missing clumps of games through injury, things didn’t always gel inside defensive 50.
The major positive was that Josh Gibcus now has a full season under his belt, and looked more than capable as either a pure stopper or intercept-marking second or third tall.
Among young key defenders, Sam De Koning rightly won the lion’s share of the attention for his spectacular 2022 for the Cats, but I’d argue Gibcus, in a far more exposed position at the Tigers, was very nearly as impressive on a regular basis. If Grimes in particular can return to full fitness and form, having appeared close to the cliff at times last year, Gibcus will be a major beneficiary.
With Noah Balta now likely to take command of the backline for the foreseeable future after an ill-fated attempt to swing him forward last year, there might no longer be a spot in the team for Robbie Tarrant.
After a nightmare first month or two during which he was repeatedly exposed on the lead and looked every bit his 33 years, Tarrant was exceptional as the Tigers’ primary key defender. But now a year older, with Gibcus likely to need less looking after defensively, Balta locked in, Ben Miller improving all the time and Grimes nearly certain to return, there aren’t a whole lot of spots left available to him – though as a back-up instantly capable of slotting in if and when injury strikes, he’s still capable of fulfilling a key role.
Grimes is an interesting case, though – at 31, the co-captain was a long way off his exceptional best even before a hamstring injury prematurely ended his season. His role at his best made him arguably the premier two-way defender in the game, capable of both shutting down opposition talls and smalls while also an outstanding intercepter.
Lose a yard of pace, though, and either of those roles, much less both, become much more of a challenge. The Tigers are going to have to make some difficult calls one way or another on a series of premiership heroes and club legends; Grimes, for the first time in perhaps a decade, goes into a new year with his spot in the team not set in stone.
Daniel Rioli was one of the stories of the year as he entrenched his transformation from bit-part small forward to one of the best dashing defenders going around. His presence added an extra, ultra-aggressive dimension to the Tigers’ rebounding skillset, and even meant Jayden Short was tried at times as an on-baller.
I’d expect to see both of them at half-back throughout next year: Rioli as the line-breaker dasher with licence to take the game on, and Short as the prime distributor to kick-star more sensible build-ups where appropriate.
The interesting floater is Liam Baker: he’s been trialled everywhere throughout his career, from small forward to defence to even at centre bounces. I’m foreseeing more of a logjam for Tigers’ small forward spots, both next year and beyond given an influx of young talent, so it would surprise to see Hardwick use his experience, grit and precise ball use back in defence, perhaps as stopping cover to allow Short and Rioli to give their direct opponents slightly more legrope than they’d otherwise allow.
Sam Banks is the other option: a recently drafted mid-sized defender, Banks will most likely have to wait his turn for a senior team gig behind Grimes, Vlastuin and co.; none of whom are getting any younger, but he has nothing but time on his hands to develop.
Change is coming on the ball for Richmond in 2023, and not a minute too soon.
The Tigers were the second-worst side in the game for clearances last year, ahead of only Hawthorn. Bizarrely, it wasn’t a problem at centre bounces, where they ranked second behind the Western Bulldogs, but rather everywhere else where they were simply out-hunted for the ball.
The Tigers were never a high-possession side during their 2017-2020 run of dominance – quality, not quantity, was always their mantra. But the weakness meant that in the elimination final, when Brisbane ruckman Oscar McInerney went down with concussion in the opening five minutes, their midfield group was incapable of taking advantage of a complete ruck dominance. Toby Nankervis and backup Miller landed 55 hitouts to the Lions’ 16, yet clearances were lost 46-40, mostly to Lachie Neale (15).
The arrival of Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper has the capacity to change Richmond’s whole gameplan. Now blessed with two powerful, primed on-ballers, neither of whom can or should really play anywhere else, the Tigers should be able to break even in clearances more often than not, and capitalise on mismatches when they arrive (though Nankervis will likely need to tap it to them first).
Dion Prestia, too, is simply too good to leave out of the mix, and the presence of other guns on the ball should hopefully ease the pressure on his injury-prone body. Shai Bolton won’t, in all likelihood, be required at 56 per cent of centre bounces like he was in 2022, but he probably should: his pace, ability to find space and elite football brain are a strong counterpoint to a Tigers midfield with more of an emphasis on power and tackling strength over defter attributes.
The problem is that leaves the rest of the existing crew in the lurch, and needing to find other roles. Jack Graham is the obvious victim: for years now he’s looked ready to assume the mantle of the number one Richmond midfield, yet he still – for lack of a tank or lack of trust from coaching staff, whichever one you prefer – spends most of his time at half-forward. Now that Taranto and Hopper have arrived, his place in the midfield rotation is under more pressure than ever: little wonder, then, he entertained the pursuit of a move to Port Adelaide in the off-season.
But if Graham and Dustin Martin (remember him?) still have designs on rotating through the midfield group, where does that leave Trent Cotchin? The former captain had something of a resurgence last year, playing 19 games and attending nearly three-quarters of the Tigers’ centre bounces: clearly, Hardwick still sees him as crucial around the ball.
Only Bolton, Prestia and Nankervis had more contested possessions at the club last year than Cotchin – but all finished between 205 and 211. Prestia is younger and Bolton more dynamic, which leaves Cotchin as the one to make way for the Giants duo if push comes to shove.
No doubt Cotchin’s experience and still-unmatched desire to win the ball will still be useful for the Tigers, but they also would be reluctant to risk the likes of Graham, Tyler Sonsie and Jack Ross seeking new opportunities elsewhere after being underplayed compared to a mid-30s stalwart.
Equally, Cotchin is 13 games shy off his 300-game milestone, and if Shane Edwards was given the chance to get there last year before retiring, Cotchin, who seems further away from the end now than Edwards was 12 months ago, will surely get there too.
Perhaps the best option would be to ‘do a Marc Murphy’: in 2021, Carlton literally carried a flatlining Marc Murphy to the 300-game milestone, naming him medical sub in four of his last six games before hitting the mark.
Given the rule now enables teams to sub in a player anytime, cuold Cotchin’s last great act for Richmond be to limit his involvement to a quarter and a half each match, come on, give everything in his being as he always does, and see if he can snag one last flag on the way out?
As for the wings, Kamdyn McIntosh has one locked in after a super season streaming behind the ball and presenting as an outlet option for kicks coming out of defensive 50. I’d love to see the pacy Hugo Ralphsmith have a chance at the other: the grand final sprint winner struggled to find a role in defensive 50, given another speedster in Daniel Rioli was already there and had the virtue of being a superior kick. But using his raw pace and attacking mindset further afield, driving the ball inside 50 rather than rebounding from defence, seems to suit him down to a tee.
No side scored more points in the 2022 home-and-away season than Richmond: and you’d think that with a stronger midfield up ahead, the likes of Tom Lynch and Jack Riewoldt would only get more chances to thrive.
The thing is, though, that the Tigers, despite those shoddy clearance numbers, averaged the second-most inside 50s of any side in the league last year, behind only Geelong. A lack of supply has never been an issue for the Tigers, given their excellence on the counter from turnovers and Rioli-inspired dash out of defence in 2022.
Lynch is, in my view, the best key forward in the game: he led the AFL in average contested marks last year, and would have won the Coleman Medal but for missing three games with injury. There are few general colossusses in the game, and he’s one of them.
Riewoldt, despite having now turned 34, is still the obvious second. All the attempts to make Balta into a forward just highlighted how much attacking craft the veteran has, and how little his younger teammate possesses. He won’t be crashing many packs anymore, but if Jack can find some space inside 50 on two or three occasions per match, that’s how many goals he’d expect to snag as well.
The Tigers’ smalls are more interesting to discuss, primarily because they have so many for so few spots. You’d expect both Martin and Bolton, plus a score of resting mids, to spend plentiful time in attacking 50 this year – good luck defending Dusty AND Shai in one-on-ones, defenders of the AFL!
Of the rest, Maurice Rioli caused as many goal-scoring turnovers as anyone in the game last year, and is well on his way to becoming the league’s premier pressure small. He’s an upgrade from the more limited Jason Castagna, who lacks Rioli’s menacing closing speed, nose for goals and sheer presence.
Noah Cumberland barely put a foot wrong either in 2022 when he broke into the senior team mid-year, bagging 19 goals in nine games including a haul of five. Cumberland leads hard, kicks powerfully and just like Rioli, has presence in attack.
The Tigers got by in their glory years with their forwards’ main role being to supply pressure and force turnovers for their talls to fast on. Cumberland and Judson Clarke are now officially in selection considerations; with both possessing the knack for a goal, a desire to tackle hard and pressure frequently, they could easily be a long-term, fruitful forward line partnership.
Richmond Best 23 2023
Backs: Dylan Grimes (c), Noah Balta, Nick Vlastuin
Half-backs: Daniel Rioli, Josh Gibcus, Jayden Short
Centres: Kamdyn McIntosh, Dion Prestia, Hugo Ralphsmith
Followers: Toby Nankervis (c), Tim Taranto, Jacob Hopper
Half-forwards: Maurice Rioli, Tom Lynch, Jack Graham
Forwards: Shai Bolton, Jack Riewoldt, Dustin Martin
Interchange: Liam Baker, Noah Cumberland, Jack Ross, Tyler Sonsie
Substitute: Trent Cotchin
Emergencies: Sam Banks, Jason Castagna, Judson Clarke
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