Richmond Is The AFL’s First Empire To Be Imagination Powered

The world’s greatest artists are regularly able to shock and inspire their audience, re-imagine their industry and elevate a society’s senses. 

They’re also, invariably, tricky beasts that prove endlessly challenging to those trying to interpret their work.

These days, there’s no question that the Tigers are the AFL’s indisputable great artist. They’re also its most confounding.

You could ask 39 different footy people their views on what makes Richmond so incredible, and you may well receive 39 different responses. While a good smattering of Dustin Martin will likely feature, it’s Richmond’s lack of classification that makes them so devastatingly good. And so perplexing. 

Hawthorn, the league’s previous all-conquering Goliath, were a little easier to pin down. 

They were the AFL’s equivalent of FC Barcelona; a possession and territory-obsessed leviathan fuelled by some of the game’s greatest technicians the sport had ever collectively assembled. From Luke Hodge to Shaun Borgoyne to Sam Mitchell, the Hawks were consistently able to call upon obscene skill to service footballing royalty in Lance Franklin and Jarryd Roughead up forward. 

On the rare occasion the Hawks didn’t have the footy, the sport’s greatest-ever defensive forward in Cyril Rioli would appear in an opponent’s rear-view mirror, and in their nightmares too. 

The Tiger footprint isn’t as distinct. 

There’s of course certain trademarks which highlight their art, such as a revolutionary approach to stoppages and perhaps the best counter-attack the AFL has ever seen, yet Richmond’s legacy has instead been principally constructed upon improvisation, adaptation and imagination. 

And it’s these traits that not only set them apart and make them so profoundly unique, but threaten to grant them a more durable premiership window shelf-life than your more garden variety AFL behemoth.

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Richmond’s lack of a defining identity positions them uncomfortably among the AFL’s previous legendary artists, and is perhaps why the footy world has been reluctant to embrace them as an all-time great. And so restless to write their obituary.

It’s why so many have been quick to get their hands on the Bulldogs frighteningly re-energised and reloaded album, and while so many are so keen to dance with the undefeated Demons. The spotlight remains bright light where Port Adelaide are concerned, while Geelong have just returned Patrick Dangerfield to lead vocals and will soon be able to add Jeremy Cameron’s blistering guitar to its sound as well.

Unlike previous footballing monoliths such as the early-millennium Lions, Geelong or indeed the Hawks, Richmond’s discography isn’t treated with the same reverence which not only seems odd, but highly complacent. 

While sure, the Bulldogs and Melbourne have looked more menacing in the early stages of 2021, Richmond’s best songs aren’t usually found at the start of their albums anyway, while those who have tuned in so far have likely noticed some ominous new themes emerging from this constantly innovative force. 

In last Thursday’s 86-point mauling of St Kilda, the Tigers not only produced an hellaciously sharp, and round best 11.44 disposals per scoring shot, but it was an efficiency powered by a re-modified midfield set-up that actually dialled up it’s highest clearance differential (+16) in more than seven years.

Speaking of clearances, Richmond are actually ranked 3rd this season for centre clearance differential with their +2.2 number easily the club’s best since its 2017 metamorphosis. 

And this time round, it’s the likes of Shai Bolton and Jack Graham leading the way, with both so far producing career-defining campaigns that have added a completely different texture to a usually brilliant group.

While Bolton leads the Tigers for total clearances and ranks 3rd for inside 50s, Graham is one of just three players in the league along with Tom Liberatore and Andrew McGrath averaging at least 19 disposals, 5 tackles and 25 pressure acts per game.

What makes Damien Hardwick such an exceptional coach, and the Tigers such an irrepressible force is how incredibly diverse its talent is and how exceptionally multifaceted they are from a strategic point of view.

This is a club who refuses to be pigeon-holed into a defined style of game, and who is obsessed with extracting every last drop of talent from its list. 

It’s precisely why someone like Jayden Short has jumped off the club’s rookie list to become a best and fairest winner in a premiership year, and why he’s now regarded as one of the league’s most damaging defenders. It’s indeed why so much Tiger talent has risen from obscurity to become vital members of this all-conquering club. 

At a time when the sport is changing so much, and where games are being influenced more than ever by whiteboards and from within the coaches box, Richmond’s absolute prioritisation of imagination provides them with a distinct advantage.

While art and imagination don’t sit comfortably with AFL traditionalists, Richmond are more than happy to be under-appreciated, preferring to keep busy adding premierships to the trophy cabinet, while bending the sport in all manner of directions.  

The Tigers have constructed the AFL’s first-ever dynasty built on imagination. It’s what makes them spectacularly weird, often misunderstood, but ultimately, endlessly inspiring. 

* This article first appeared on Rohan Connolly's FOOTYOLOGY website

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James Rosewarne

James is a writer and Managing Editor at Stats Insider. He likes fiction and music. He is a stingray attack survivor. 

Email- james@thehypometer.com for story ideas or opportunities.

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