If you want to win a game of AFL football, is it better to grind your opponent down by getting the little things of defensive pressure right every time, or blow them away with big, bold strokes of unbeatable superstar play?
If you asked Richmond of 2017 this question, I imagine they’d answer in the immortal words of Tony Stark: “Is it too much to ask for both?”
The Tigers’ premiership victory was built on a foundation of hard work and defensive pressure, but it’d be a mistake to say that this alone was the reason they came home with the flag.
It had to be supported by the stratospheric, game-breaking talent of Dustin Martin and Alex Rance, a superstar combination boasting enough might to make even the staunchest Dangerwood devotee blush.
More likely a focus on suffocating defence will stifle the team that plays in that style almost as much as it does the opposition, a paradigm anyone who has supported a side coached by Ross Lyon would be familiar with.
Going into the grand final against Adelaide, Richmond had both the superior superstar talent, and the better-drilled grunt workers. In retrospect, I have no idea why I was so reluctant to believe they could pull it off.
“But on the big day, Adelaide walked into the exam room armed simply with an expensive pen and visions of exquisite handwriting. The Tigers brought neck tattoos and a baseball bat. And they had a nicer pen too.”
But you need a Martin and a Rance to make it happen. Accept no substitutes.
In December last year I wrote an article titled ‘Planning to copy Richmond? Good luck’, which despite being 2600 words long, you can probably get the gist of from that title alone. Many will try it. Many will fail.
However… there is one from the 17 teams that is not Richmond, that has what it takes. Today, I’ll tell you who it is.
I was interested to read on Friday that, according to co-captain Steven May, the Gold Coast Suns will be modelling their 2018 gameplan under new coach Stewart Dew on Richmond’s 2017 efforts.
“It’s no secret we haven’t been the best defensive side the last few years, so that has been the focus this pre-season,” said May.
“Look at Richmond last year – their ability for their forwards to be laying the most tackles makes the life of the defenders a lot easier. That’s the model we’re trying to implement.”
At this early juncture, it looks like a wise decision on Dew’s behalf to make defence the defining characteristic of his young team, and comes as no real surprise given his coaching influences.
Paul Roos, Alan Richardson and Brendon Bolton are all examples of coaches who have rebuilt lowly clubs from the ground up by focusing on defence first.
There are two key benefits here. Focusing on defence reduces the likelihood of getting absolutely smashed on the scoreboard, leaving players a little more proud of their performance, even if they’re losing most weeks.
And – perhaps more debatably – teaching young players defence first is conducive to establishing a culture of hard work and professionalism, rather than one where talent alone gets you everywhere.
There is a competing theory of course that focusing on attacking footy is the better way to rebuild, something that’s clearly in practice at North Melbourne (ninth for overall scoring despite finishing 15th) and Brisbane (13th for scoring despite finishing last).
We could debate forever which is the right way to do it, and perhaps in five or ten years the success or failures of these clubs will give us evidence with which to do so.
In the meantime, what can be said for certain is that last year’s premiers provide an aspirational example to all those young teams being raised on a defence-diet – but, do any of them have the class-A talent needed to balance it out?
In the case of Gold Coast, it is far too early to tell. The same is true of Carlton, though there are some promising signs. As for St Kilda, I’m worried they simply don’t – but let’s talk about that more another time.
That leaves one team, the one team who can give us a repeat of what Richmond achieved and how they achieved it in 2017: the Melbourne Demons.
Just every now and then I’m able to look back on something I predicted in years past and think that I was onto something at the time.
“In the year 2020, we may be looking at the centre square combination of Max Gawn, Jack Viney, Angus Brayshaw and Clayton Oliver as the hardest to play against in the competition.”
In February 2018, I stand by it. Those are four ultra-hard players who will make opposition midfields fear for their lives. And at Melbourne that approach to the game extends well beyond the four in the square.
After the disaster that was Jimmy Toumpas – a player with more than enough skill but seemingly not a competitive bone in his body – we’ve seen a shift in the Dees’ recruiting pattern towards only picking those players who have impeccable mental attributes.
No one is more emblematic of this than Tom Bugg, a player whose competitiveness might be literally his only footballing virtue, but it runs so strong in him that he almost commands a spot in the team solely because of it.
In time, we’ll come to see Jack Watts’ forced departure from the club last October as the end of an era where there was any kind of toleration for not having the right stuff between the ears.
It’s this kind of attitude across the team that you need to maintain the high volume of defensive pressure that was crucial to the Tigers’ success.
But, perhaps unlike some other sides who practice the same sort of philosophy, the Dees also have the top-line talent needed to make the side not just persistent, but potent.
Dustin Martin? Christian Petracca. Alex Rance? Jake Lever. Trent Cotchin? Jack Viney. Jack Riewoldt? Jesse Hogan. For all of Richmond’s ‘big four’, there’s someone at Melbourne that, in their prime, can be just as good.
It’s pretty rare for a club to have two players who are top-ten quality in the league like Martin and Rance. But if you want to see how highly I rate Petracca and Lever, consider that I included both of them in my predicted top ten AFL players in 2025.
Let’s be clear – I’m not saying this will happen in 2018. So many of Melbourne’s key players are young to the point where that’s just not realistic. But give it time.
Key defender? Small defender? Rebounding defender? Inside midfielder? Outside midfielder? Ruckman? Key forward? Small forward? There isn’t an area on the ground where the Demons don’t have a player that is either already elite, or has the talent to get there.
The Dees might not ultimately decide to go down this path – they might eschew Richmond’s example altogether and blaze their own path towards premiership contention. Regardless, that’s where they’re heading, sooner or later.
And if they decide to do it like Richmond, they just might have the talent and the temperament to pull it off.
Originally published on The Roar.