Statistics can often be flattering to deceive when it comes to AFL games, but sometimes, as in Richmond’s total teardown at Brisbane’s Gabba, they’re too compelling to ignore.
The Lions finished Thursday night with more than double the number of punts (46-22, to be specific) and an amazing, and I mean AMAZING, 22-5 center-clearance differential.
Even West Coast, the country’s worst punting team of the year by a mile, only lost them 47-37 and 22-11 respectively when wiped out by Sydney last week. That’s how comprehensively the Tigers were outmatched, outstretched and outmatched at source all night.
To do so against a team that had convincingly beaten two midfielders, one of them a very good Fremantle side, in their last two wins at the Tigers was something to put up with.
The Lions essentially looked at what was turning into a Richmond fortress, laughed it off, and squashed them. No wonder they won by 81 points.
This is what Chris Fagan must have hoped the Lions would become after losing their stoppage shine in 2022, when they fell to basically even-money betting with a 13-2-10 record in winning punts per game. And, unsurprisingly, it’s two players added to that rotation in 2023 who are making the most substantial difference.
Of course, with another 10 punts, 15 contested possessions, 34 touches and a couple of blatant blocks, Lachie Neale opened up another gap for the Tigers like he did last year and was clearly the best man on the field. But it’s bigger than just him.
This is the most organized, well-trained and perfectly hummed midfield in the competition. And it’s getting better with each passing week.
The Lions’ strategy is simple: Whenever possible, put the ball in Neale’s hands on stops. His mind is so quick, his handballs so crisp and clean, that for him getting the footy instantly means the most dangerous clearance possible. His impact is why Hugh McCluggage was so unstoppable on the outside; Fueled from within by the co-captain, he would have 34 touches of his own and generate five within 50, four of them to set up the game in the first half.
Neale is the No. 1 total clearance player and comfortable No. 1 central clearance player in the league, but his fellow midfielders deserve a lot of credit for the way they allow him to not only dominate with such regularity, but also keep the best player under wraps. clearance of the opposition.
Tim Taranto has been incredible for the Tigers this year, averaging seven clearances and 32 disposals per game. At the Gabba, he would have 21 alienations and a single authorization for the night. One.
Taranto also ranks fifth in center clearances, averaging close enough to three per game; often, it’s small forward football kicks to kick-start the chaos of the Tigers’ game plan, allowing fast, tough little ball forwards like Liam Baker and Shai Bolton to kick their feet at pace. vertiginous.
He would have a center punt against the Lions, and Josh Dunkley is why.
Throughout the season, but with more success as he has progressed, Dunkley has essentially served as a marker in stoppages, using his bulk to compete with the opposition’s best midfielder and his intelligence to know exactly which direction to push them. keep them away from the contest.
Dunkley headed straight for Taranto on the first rebound on Thursday night, and that’s how they spent a lot of their nights.
This has a double effect: Dunkley knows that Oscar McInerney, if he wins the hitout, will hit to Neale, who has an unbroken run to the ball and ample room to work. Even if Toby Nankervis wins it though, his best bet to get to Taranto is to hit him right at his feet, and Dunkley will back Neale to read that too and get in the way every time.
It turned out that Nankervis, an excellent tap ruckman, was the first to arrive, forcing Dunkley to attack while jostling with Taranto; The other benefit of him is that he is a formidable ball winner in his own right. The ball swings for a while until McInerney activates his last resort plan: he takes the ball and hits it on the foot to avoid trouble.
(As it happens, Chris Fagan apparently hates it when the big O does this instead of giving it to Neale.)
This isn’t exceptional either – here’s Dunkley doing it last week with St Kilda’s main midfielder in Jack Steele…
Here he is against Rory Laird a month ago…
And here’s Dunkley trying to do it to his old Western Bulldogs teammate in Jake Stringer…
You’ll notice that in two of the three situations, Neale walks free: only the Crows’ Jordan Dawson gives him the requisite respect of a token arm across him. He earns that clearance anyway.
Some teams realize this, such as Sydney’s Luke Parker, who chose to position himself alongside the presumed weaker midfielder in Will Ashcroft.
Here though the Lions showed their versatility: Dunkley, unlike the smaller and quicker Tom Papley, moves to block space on the defensive end, knowing that Papley’s first instinct will be to try to push into that space – it falls to Ashcroft , above. from the center circle, to block Parker and try to give Neale a clear run.
These are the first-team, inconspicuous things Fagan raves about; which is why Dunkley’s game against Carlton earlier this year called it one of the best games he ever managed. The former Bulldog isn’t just about winning loads of balls anymore, though he’s still good enough to sit 17th and 18th respectively in total clearances and center clearances this season.
He’s the best defensive midfielder in street play, and in the modern game, he’s pretty much what the tagging role has become.
Dunkley, as is often the case, was substituted after three quarters of time with a bit of a hamstring strain, though he should be back in shape for next week’s *shuddering* West Coast round. That’s why it’s helpful to have Ashcroft services there as well.
Partly because greatness was expected of him the moment he walked through the door, partly because he’s off-Broadway in Brisbane, and partly because he’s yet to turn in an outrageous, flashy performance, Ashcroft’s debut year has passed. unnoticed. .
But to me, he’s not just the clear winner of Rising Star, having almost instantly become a crucial cog in a presidential contender filling a role usually filled by the game’s hardened stars, but he’s having one of the best debut seasons of a recruited midfielder. since Rhys Palmer in 2008 (yes I know, but trust me).
The commentators didn’t make much of this second-term Charlie Cameron assist, but it sums up the teenager perfectly.
Getting the ball full speed going forward but at a slight angle so adjusting to direct it straight for goals would take time, normal first year players would either receive the ball directly into their boot or return directly to Cameron for the pass . and go.
What Ashcroft does, instead, is push himself further, evaluating his options all the time, and then spin around, fooling pursuer Nathan Broad. As he turns, he delivers a perfect handball to Cameron, having opened a path to goal by taking Broad out of play.
The hand ball too, on his non-preferred side, back over his shoulder, allows Cameron to rally without even missing a beat. He is something remarkable.
Another useful boost for the Lions is having a reliable ruckman to go to; McInerney isn’t on anyone’s list of the game’s elite rucks, but he is a born competitor who suits this team perfectly.
His lean frame allows him to stretch his Inspector Gadget arms above just about everyone else in the game to score points, much like he did last week with the totally outgunned Mitch Owens. But at ground level, his follow-up work is equal to any number of bigger ruckmen in the league, including his Thursday night opponent at Nankervis.
Only Reilly O’Brien and Tim English have attended more ruck contests in 2023 than Big O, and it can be learned where the Lions have positioned themselves from in the center rebounds, and specifically which side Dunkley is going to block, which they have previously planned. where he will hit every last detail. And ranking eighth in the league in earned hit rate (44.9 percent) and fourth in lead-ahead hitouts is more than enough when you’ve got a midfield as good as this to hit with.
Dunkley. Neale. Ashcroft. Occasionally McCluggage. Zac Bailey for a blast now and then. And McInerney feeding them all. You can earn premierships with that kind of setup.
It’s at the source that the Lions’ entire game plan is laid out. It leads to dominance of territory, giving the most dangerous forward line in the business ample scoring opportunities – you’re not going to beat the Lions if they get 68 inside the 50s.
Through three quarters, only four of the Lions’ goals came directly from punts, but that’s not the point. If you can trap Richmond on his own defense and have the speed and interception abilities to keep them from getting away, then all you need to do is place him there and then set him up to block. Child’s play for a team as talented as Brisbane.
This allows your defenders, particularly Harris Andrews, to set up to attack: watch Keidean Coleman or Darcy Wilmot come out of the back of center field on rebounds, or push into stops around the field, to win balls from behind and set up . forward raids either changing the game or, failing all else, hitting it long.
You’re also not going to beat the Lions if you only win 38 out of 50.
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The Tigers were lambs to slaughter Thursday night. Say what you want about the shock of the goodbye, or the loss of Brisbane’s superpowers by the time they hit the road, or where they rank among the top contenders.
With a midfield this good, and, it seems, built for the finals with the burly presence of Dunkley added, the Lions have the power to outplay anyone in the competition, especially Gabba.
If they can do it in Richmond, you better believe they can dismantle your team too.