Go ahead, scoff - Richmond's shocker proves they are Dusty reliant

MELBOURNE -- When Richmond declared star midfielder Dustin Martin unfit for its Round 3 clash against Hawthorn, the number crunchers at TAB.com.au began scrambling to adjust the betting odds.

The Hawks, who had opened at around $2.80, shortened to the $2.35 mark, while the reigning premiers went out from $1.35 to $1.57. For an AFL game, this was a significant price movement, one which would suggest the Tigers are a side heavily reliant on Martin.

Of course, just tabling the idea the competition's premier outfit over the past three seasons could be a little too Dusty dependent would be met with immediate criticism and cynicism. How could they be? After all, so much praise is heaped on the club's lesser lights. But the bookmakers were telling us what the numbers said. They were telling us the truth.

Just as they did against Collingwood seven days earlier, Richmond began Thursday evening's clash with a noticeable lack of pressure and intensity. Their defensive structures continually broke down as Hawthorn's midfielders -- particularly Isaac Smith, Jaeger O'Meara and Tom Mitchell -- controlled the centre of the ground and carved out opportunities for a deadly accurate front six.

For the second game in a row, the Tigers were held goalless at the first change. Jack Riewoldt, Tom Lynch, Daniel Rioli and Jason Castagna had managed just one kick between them by the time Damien Hardwick stormed out of the box and down to ground level.

Against the Pies, and with Martin in the side, Richmond was able to wrestle its way back into the contest and force a draw. But this week was a little different - there was no Dusty insurance policy.

"You're taking one of the best players, if not the best player in the league out of your side ... you'd prefer to have him than not," Hardwick later said. "Don't get me wrong, he's a very important player [but] Dustin's just one player, he's not the Richmond Football Club."

The dual Norm Smith medalist has been a thorn in Hawthorn's side in recent years. The last time he faced them, he secured the three Brownlow votes with a dominant 37 disposal, 10 clearance and two goal display.

Many of us have convinced ourselves over the past few seasons the Tigers are well stocked in the talent department to fill the void left by one player, even if that player happens to be Martin, but the truth is they may not be. Without him, they looked lost and low on confidence.

The usual free-flowing, run-and-carry game style they have suffocated teams with was nowhere to be seen, nor was the high octane pressure which has become synonymous with the Tigers in recent years. But the biggest problem was there wasn't a player who could spark any sort of momentum run.

The Hawks opened up a 38-point lead in the second quarter before the floodgates opened after halftime. At one stage, the Melbourne Cricket Ground scoreboard read 14-63, in favour of the Hawks. It was an inconceivable scoreline.

Richmond saved face late in the game but the contest was long over. The eventual 32-point margin was not quite a fair indicator of how lopsided the contest was for the bulk of the evening.

"It was an unRichmond-like game, especially the first half," Hardwick said. "We pride ourselves on a number of things we do, but none of those things showed tonight. It's not to our level of expectation. It was disappointing and it's not working for us at the moment."

All superstars are irreplaceable, but a team is only as good as its ability to cover the loss of a star. Ask yourself this, would you like Richmond's chances of winning the flag, or even finishing in the top four, if Martin missed the full season? I didn't think so.

Not only does Martin bring enormous quality to the Tigers line-up, but it's clear he boosts confidence and makes his teammates walk taller, run faster and tackle harder. Without him, they aren't the same side. You could argue they aren't even at a top four level.

The reality is if Martin returns to the side and can stay fit, the Tigers will likely remain the premiership favourite and this discussion is a moot point. But don't kid yourself; Richmond is a heck of a lot weaker without him. In fact, there may not be another player in the competition who is as valuable to his team as Martin is to the Tigers.

With that said, the Hawks deserve some credit for their performance on Thursday night. An unfriendly draw had Alastair Clarkson's squad facing three top four sides from last year in the first three rounds. To emerge 2-1 is a massive result and, in a shortened season, sets them up nicely for a return to September action.

The Tigers now have nine days to regroup and prepare for a clash against a much improved St Kilda team, before travelling to the Gold Coast and facing West Coast at Metricon Stadium. All eyes at Punt Road will no doubt be on their No. 4.