It’s the question that consumes the football world through the off-season. How do you beat the reigning premiers? Those who claim the ultimate glory know every aspect of their success will be scrutinised and that is why only the great sides win successive premierships.
Richmond’s manic pressure, reliance on small forwards and emphasis on mental resilience were all cornerstones of a drought-breaking premiership and many clubs have tried to mirror at least one of these qualities.
But despite all of that analysis, answers on how to beat the Tigers were not evident in the first eight rounds of the 2018 season. They lost only once, to the Crows at the Adelaide Oval, in what looked like grand final revenge. Richmond may have known it had bigger fish to fry later in the season.
The club’s seven victories came with a minimum of fuss, too, with only North Melbourne giving them a scare, as Richmond sat atop the ladder without breaking a sweat.
That is why West Coast’s convincing 47-point victory over the Tigers on Sunday was so significant.
And you can be sure that key personnel at the 16 AFL clubs not involved will be watching the tape forensically. Why? Because the Eagles provided the blueprint on how to beat them.
A certain inclusion is the fierce forward pressure the Tigers are known for. Of West Coast’s 20 goals, 12 came from turnovers and Richmond’s sloppy ball use often left star defender Alex Rance caught out of position.
He was unable to exert his usual influence on the contest as a result, and Eagles forwards Jack Darling and Josh Kennedy starred. Darling was a clear best on ground, taking 15 marks, eight of which were inside 50, and kicking six goals.
To beat Richmond you also need to be very efficient with the ball. A patient West Coast did that, often piercing through the Tigers’ forward press with precise foot skills at a venue rapidly becoming the hardest place in football to win on the road at.
They refused to be rushed by the premiers and once the Eagles got it inside 50, they usually scored, booting 20.10 from 45 entries inside 50. Richmond, who kicked 12.11, had 58 entries themselves, a statistic that highlights how impressive West Coast’s back six were.
They were organised, resolute and led by the unheralded Brad Sheppard and Eagles skipper Shannon Hurn. They both played key roles because a side as good as Richmond will have dominant periods – even in matches they lose.
The Tigers controlled the second term in Perth and had 23 inside 50s to West Coast’s four. The fact Damien Hardwick’s side only kicked 4.5 in that quarter went a long way to securing victory for the hard-running Eagles.
And if there was a moment that summed up West Coast’s performance, it was Elliot Yeo’s chase-down tackle on Dustin Martin early in the third quarter.
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With just one goal separating the two sides, the Tigers, as they so often do, tried a chain of handballs to break up play across the half-back line.
It came unstuck, though, as Martin’s bid to push away from Yeo was unsuccessful. He was rightly penalised and the tackle quickly led to a Kennedy goal. The Eagles never looked back.
Big wins for Lions, Demons too
All three results on Sunday were notable in their own right, with Brisbane finally breaking its 2018 drought with a 56-point thumping of Hawthorn at the ‘Gabba.
Of Brisbane’s eight losses to start the season, six were by 17 points or less, giving supporters the sense a victory was just around the corner, but even the most optimistic Lions fan could not have seen a thrashing like this coming.
The Hawks controlled the first quarter and should have led by far more than five points at the first change. But it was all one-way traffic after that, with the speed of Brisbane’s ball movement particularly impressive.
Eric Hipwood kicked four goals up forward for Brisbane, who had an even spread of contributors including former Hawthorn champion Luke Hodge.
And Melbourne also enjoyed a thumping victory, kicking 25 goals in a 109-point obliteration of Carlton. With 78 goals in its last four matches, all wins, the Demons are enjoying a good run of form.
Tougher tests will come, with clashes against Adelaide, Collingwood and Port Adelaide on the horizon, but Simon Goodwin’s side now sit third on the ladder, behind only the Eagles and Richmond.
Also winning in Round 9 were Collingwood, Sydney, North Melbourne and Adelaide, while Essendon stunned Geelong to win by 34 points and Port Adelaide were too strong for Gold Coast in Shanghai.