Don't get sucked in by Richmond's form, they're still the team to beat

Dunkley: Fans often provoke AFL players on nights out (2:52)

Western Bulldogs star Josh Dunkley says players need to be able to enjoy a night out without being harassed, revealing some of the treatment he's witnessed. (2:52)

HERE WE GO again. "Is Richmond's era coming to an end?" "Are the Tigers still hungry enough?" "Will injuries derail the Tiger train?" "Is the club's famed culture fraying at the edges?"

You've heard it all before. In fact, we've heard it almost annually since 2017 at around the same stage of each season. And the wash-up? Three premierships and a losing preliminary final. That's a fairly convincing rejoinder.

So here, in order, are my answers to the above questions. No. Yes. No. And an emphatic no.

I still think Richmond will win this year's premiership, becoming the third side of the 21st century to win three flags in a row, and the first to win four in five seasons since Melbourne of 1956-60.

I still think the Tigers will finish top four. But I'm not overly worried if they don't. Because they proved last year they're capable of playing four finals to win the flag.

It's a confidence I don't have about any other team in contention. Maybe it's over-confidence. But of all the great teams we've seen in the modern era, Brisbane, Geelong, Hawthorn, I have even more faith in this Richmond outfit's capacity to keep drinking from premiership well for a while yet. For a number of reasons.

This is hardly the first time the Tigers have hit a snag along the journey. Sure, they're 4-4 and just clinging on to eighth spot. Last year after eight rounds (in a shortened season) they also had just four wins (and a draw). Indeed, in 2019, they were only 7-6 and coming off three straight losses as late as Round 13. How did that turn out?

Next is the injury factor. Yes, they've hit Richmond particularly hard. Trent Cotchin, Dion Prestia, Kane Lambert, Shane Edwards and Shai Bolton is some roll call, a huge swathe lopped from the midfield rotations.

But injuries, too, has been a recurring theme over the last few seasons. Each time, the Tigers have found a way through it with replacements who have been able to do a job and hold the fort. In fact, there's an argument those performances against adversity have helped forge the spirit which has enabled a fuller-strength line-up to go on with it later.

And Dylan Grimes's return from concussion this week is huge to a defensive structure which looked unusually disorganised in the second half against Geelong.

The cultural question will undoubtedly get another run this week in light of the incident involving Bolton and Daniel Rioli, regardless of the circumstances surrounding it or the culpability of either player.

Again, I think it's barking up the wrong tree, borne of a tendency to zero in on any possible chink in the armour of a club which has stayed successful for this long. Remember the kebab incident on the Gold Coast last year involving Sydney Stack and Callum Coleman-Jones? Didn't count for much in the end, did it?

What else is there? Well, the rest, as it so often has proved in Richmond's case, is as much about hunger as it is personnel. Is it still there? It's certainly been apparent more sporadically so far in 2021.

And yet, even in the belting against the Cats, when the Tigers had an adequate degree of hardness at the ball and defensive pressure, the method was good enough to give them a three-goal quarter-time lead. To me, that remains a significant takeaway from a result which superficially was a disaster.

At the heart of Richmond's style is commitment to work hard defensively. That's not just about winning the contested ball, but the discipline to work hard off the ball with defensive running, the greater the numbers zeroing in on opponents with the ball, the greater the pressure, and the greater the chance of a turnover.

And those turnovers inevitably land with players wearing a yellow-and-black jumper, most notably defenders like Grimes and David Astbury, but also midfield and in the forward 50. Because one thing no one still does like Richmond is positioning, a favourite Tiger mantra "position not possession".

Those sorts of attributes are those which can come to the fore whether individuals within the system are A-graders, or in peak form with the actual football. And needless to say, it's a focus which also lends itself perfectly to finals football.

More so, I'd argue than the way the likes of Melbourne, the Western Bulldogs, Geelong, Port Adelaide, Brisbane or West Coast ply their trade, as impressive as most of them have been at stages this season, or in the Demons' case, right the way through.

Importantly, all of those five big Richmond names currently sidelined through injury will be back at some stage. Which means the Tigers doesn't need even now to mount a huge winning streak to remain a flag chance, they need merely to stay in contention.

If you accept the the Tigers are still a chance regardless of where they finish in the eight, they could feasibly do it even were they to win only eight more of their remaining 14 games. And their run home is more than handy. There's just four of those 14 games against sides currently in the top eight.

This week presents one of the tougher of those assignments, a Giants' outfit which has won four of their last five games. Lose this one, and that will make it five losses from the past seven. You can back it in, even less than halfway through the season, you'll start seeing the obituaries penned for Richmond.

But not by me. The football world is always eager to look for signs of decay in a long-standing power. Too quickly, I think, and sometimes, too forensically. And I think doing so in Richmond's case, in May, might only lead to some red faces come September. Again.

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