When we look back on the 2015 season, Round 6 will be a memorable one.
Amongst some exhilarating highs and some brutally honest lows, the AFL season and its ladder began to take shape.
It was a weekend of unpredictability, with West Coast stunning Port Adelaide at their fortress, and Carlton, according to their coach, “bottomed right out”, after succumbing to the lowly Lions in Melbourne.
The Bulldogs bandwagon also came to a screeching halt at Etihad Stadium on Saturday afternoon, with the Saints coming back from a record-equalling 55 points to win. And the Giants, well, they became giant-killers, putting premiers Hawthorn to the sword in front of a parochial western Sydney crowd.
With regeneration currently such an interminable task for AFL clubs, there’s a certain beauty about watching these young groups eke out rare and unexpected wins. For their fans, these achievements aren’t worth a mere four premiership points, but more like 50, providing hope of what’s to come and a reason to keep on the beaten track.
But on the other side of the coin, unexpected losses have the opposite effect for supporters, provoking serious concerns over the direction of their football teams. And, for ones starved of success like Richmond and Carlton, the blowtorch is ignited to maximum.
For Richmond Football Club, now sitting 13th, the heat is starting to burn.
It was always going to be a tough task for the Tigers against North Melbourne in Hobart, but after the previous week’s poor effort against Geelong, and the return of Brett Deledio, big – or at least better – things were expected.
Despite having more of the ball,leading the forward 50 entries by 50-41, winning the lion’s share of free kicks, clearances and contested possessions, it was another brain fade that cost the Tigers.Making matters worse, up to three-quarter time, North had obtained 11 of their 13 goals directly from Richmond turnovers.
Following a similar lapse last week, the Kangaroos slammed home seven goals to one in the third term, gifting the Roos a 44-point lead going into the final quarter, and in the end, a comfortable 35-point win.
The Tigers’ game-plan is currently characterised by short, sideway chip-kicks – but unfortunately they’re unable to hit targets. The group’s signature dash of years past has been largely non-existent and their best forward line structure is anyone’s guess.
The Tigers’ handball count also bizarrely equalled their kicks (178) on the weekend, indicative of a team over possessing the football.
For an ever-exasperated Damien Hardwick, the strain of three straight defeats is starting to show, suggesting for the first time that he might look to inject some new faces ahead of next Sunday’s crucial clash against the Pies.
“I will still back all of my players in, (because) at stages they can play better than what they have today, there is no doubt about that,” the coach lamented.
“But we have also got to be looking for those players who are prepared to play how we want to play and take the game on and play at a standard that is acceptable at AFL level.”
For Hardwick, in his sixth season with the club, 2015 has, so far, been a sorry tale.
For a side that finished fifth in 2013, and seemed destined to press forward, the team and its fans again find themselves in a tricky spot.
“It’s an interesting one. We’ve just got to take stock, we’ve got to look at the tape, we’ve got to find guys playing at our VFL level – they had a good win today – that are capable of taking us forward, because at the moment the inconsistency of performance of some of our players is not good enough,” Hardwick said.
“We’ve got to find players that are prepared to put their hand up and play the Richmond way.”
The Richmond way? At least the coach seems to know what that statement means, because from the outside looking in, it’s hard to put a finger on it.
Gifted what seemed to be a dream draw with games against Carlton, Western Bulldogs, Brisbane and Melbourne to get the ball rolling, the Tigers found themselves with two wins and two losses after the first four matches.
In both losses they were outworked and out-enthused by opponents they were expected to beat.
Following another set of defeats against Geelong and North, tough assignments against Collingwood, Port Adelaide, Essendon and Fremantle now await this team.
Unlike the Saints and Giants, Richmond is no longer looking for the occasional uplifting victory, it is instead searching for sustained success.
After getting slaughtered at the hands of Port Adelaide in an elimination final last year, it was clear vast improvement was still needed for the group to take the next step, but for the moment it seems they’re going in the opposite direction.
Foundation draftees such as Trent Cotchin, Brett Deledio, Jack Rieowldt and Dustin Martin have now all accumulated well over 100 games, and, in a much-discussed strategy, recycled players such as Shaun Grigg, Bachar Houli and Troy Chaplin have come on board in a bid to complement the side.
With emerging teams like the Bulldogs and Giants now sitting in the eight, and Richmond languishing down below, the question of whether this group has already hit its peak is now being posed.
It’s an excruciating query for Richmond supporters, but with Hardwick signalling his intention to try new faces, unfortunately it’s a valid one. To think that the best of this group has already come and gone, for Tiger fans, is a very, very dark thought.
If the first six weeks of the season weren’t important enough, the next four weeks before the bye are critical for the players and their coach.
On current form no coach in his sixth year can be safe, but for a club now with 60,000 members and an already downtrodden supporter group, on Punt Road a bad situation can easily become a calamitous one.
However, after stringing together nine wins in a row last year to claw their way into the finals, it’s not beyond the Tigers to turn things around. But the overwhelming disappointment for Richmond supporters is the fact that this is the task ahead once again.
For years, and in the preseason just gone, we’ve been hearing that this year it really could be ‘Tiger time’. Now, for this group of men, with so much effort and energy laid into them, it’s not only ‘Tiger time’, it’s their time.