‘We are in the game’: Tigers believe season is not lost

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Richmond will host a reunion of their famous 1973 premiership side on Saturday, with former players hoping the toughness and creativity of that team can seep into Damien Hardwick’s men at the MCG against West Coast.

The Tigers were legitimate finals aspirants heading into the new season, with some pundits believing they could even push for the top four. After seven rounds, the Tigers sit third last with only one win (against Adelaide in round two) and, coming off a dire loss to the Gold Coast, a top-four finish is all but out of the question.

Dejected duo Liam Baker and Dylan Grimes after Richmond’s loss to Gold Coast.Credit: Getty Images

While they are 10 points outside the top eight, a victory over bottom-placed West Coast on Saturday – if it occurs – would keep the Tigers in touch with finals. However, they then face Geelong, Essendon and Port Adelaide, all at the MCG, and will probably need to win at least two of those three games to still have September aspirations.

The Tigers made a statement at selection, axing forward Noah Cumberland, at least from the starting 22, coming after coach Damien Hardwick recently questioned “how bad he wants” an AFL career, with body language one area to work on. The return of premiership stars Dion Prestia and hardnut Jack Graham are important. Trent Cotchin has been rested.

While the Tigers are on a tightrope, Neil Balme, the club’s chief advisor, and a member of that ’73 redeem team, insists fears of the team’s demise have been overblown.

“The way Damien has approached it, particularly, has been outstanding. It’s still challenging, the things we are not doing well, but we are being very positive about what we can do well. We have been really disappointed with some of our performances and results, but we are still doing a lot of things right,” Balme said.

“We still think we are in the game, but that’s us. We have a pretty good history over the last few years, we just have to get back onto it. The emotional things, like connection and attitude and trying hard, are all happening, it’s really only our execution. We are not quite getting the kick right, we can’t quite kick the goal, we don’t make the handball, and we fumble a little bit.

“I think a lot of that is almost because we are almost worried about making a mistake because it is so important to us. We just have to get on top of that. It sounds over-simplistic, but that’s what I think we need to do.”

Areas that were once a strength have become an issue. Last year, they outscored their opponents by 17.8 points from turnovers, ranked second. This year they are 16th. Last year, they ranked in the top three in scoring and scoring goals once entering the forward 50. This year they are 16th for scores, and 17th for goals since round three.

Injuries have hurt. Veteran key defender Robbie Tarrant has not played this season. The Tigers still believe they could have toppled Melbourne in round six had ruckman Toby Nankervis and back-up Ivan Soldo not been sidelined through injury. The Demons won by 18 points on the back of the dominance of Max Gawn and Brodie Grundy.

Dion Prestia has a key role to play if the Tigers are to reinvigorate their 2023 campaign.Credit: Getty Images

The Tigers also point to Tom Lynch’s serious foot injury, which has potentially been underplayed by the public. He is the orbit around which his fellow forwards flow, and booted a team-high 63 goals last year. While he is now back in the fold, a fragile backline was not helped by Nathan Broad’s four-game suspension for a crude sling tackle earlier in the year.

The Tigers have made it clear they want to replicate Geelong’s model of being a consistent threat, the Cats having missed the finals only once (2015) under coach Chris Scott. But the danger is they end up becoming Hawthorn, having unsuccessfully topped up in their years after their premierships, and are now in a full rebuild.

In a bid to smooth the divide between young and old, backed by the belief they could still contend, the Tigers traded for Greater Western Sydney pair Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper. The Tigers handed over two first-round picks, a second rounder plus an extra future first rounder to snare both men on seven-year deals. The Tigers owe the Giants a first-round pick in this year’s draft. If they continue to struggle and remain near the foot of the ladder, that pick could be top five, sparking debate whether the Tigers have mortgaged their future in a bid to win now, misreading that they are no longer in premiership mode.

Taranto is fifth in the league for total disposals, averaging a team-high 30.7, and leads the Tigers for contested possessions and clearances, and most likely their best-and-fairest count. Hopper is averaging 24 disposals and four clearances a game.

Balme said Taranto and Hopper had done what was required, declaring “they were what we needed”.

“We just need to work better around them, and help them, so we get more impact from them, but they have been very good,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Tigers have several important decisions to make in the latter half of the season, and through the summer. Club greats Cotchin and Jack Riewoldt are likely in their final seasons, while how much does co-captain Dylan Grimes, 32 in July, have left in the tank? Dustin Martin’s mammoth contract expires after the ’24 season. Does he remain, or seek a twilight cameo at another club? What do the Tigers really want? Martin, 32 in June, is happy at Punt Rd, but is no longer the consistent threat he once was. What is certain is that if he remains, his contract will be heavily reduced.

Off the field, the biggest question facing president John O’Rourke and chief executive Brendon Gale is whether Hardwick should be recontracted. Hardwick is also out of contract after the ’24 season, which would be his 15th year. The man who has coached the Tigers more than any man has reincarnated himself at least once through his time, famously adopting a more positive manner and leading to three flags in four years, and insists he still has the energy to be the man to usher in a new generation.

Hardwick was at his chippy best at his weekly press conference on Thursday, when questioned whether he had “lost” his players.

“I know Damien was a bit annoyed by some of the media talk. We understand how it happens, but it’s not happening inside. None of the players are worried about how engaged Damien is. He has been outstanding. I can guarantee that. I have seen all the meetings,” Balme said.

Balme said Hardwick’s long-term future was not the focus – it’s what is happening now.

“That’s more important than anything else – it’s what we are doing this week. He has been particularly well engaged and terrific connection with the players. It’s just that we are not quite executing. I reckon we can still have an influence this season, for sure,” Balme said.

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