Perhaps the extended break – the one game in a month caused by the pre-finals siesta – impacted on Richmond’s arousal levels in early in the match, when they were dominated by Geelong in trial facets, especially ground balls.
But the most troubling signs, aside from the score and patterns of play, were that neither of Richmond midfield playmakers, Dustin Martin or Cotchin, were as productive as usual, and Jack Graham had dislocated his shoulder and could barely raise that arm when he came back on. Cotchin was, at that point, restricted by an apparent knock to the shin, though he seemed to overcome that in the second half, when his attack on the ball early in the third quarter was important.
Martin wasn’t as effective as he has been in every final bar last year’s preliminary final. His kicking was strangely awry – missing a crucial second-quarter goal when the Tigers had a surge of entries, and botching a couple of kicks to forwards that he typically nails.
That the Tigers overcame that 21-point deficit – which was wiped off rapidly in their third-quarter surge – and won a berth in the grand final was due to a variety of players, to a lift in pressure around the ball, to the excellence of Bachar Houli in defence, to Cotchin’s leadership.
But no player in this match was more telling and towering than Richmond’s trial forward and recruit Tom Lynch, whose five-goal contribution was pivotal to Richmond’s survival in a game that was close to slipping away, bearing in mind Graham’s shoulder and a concussion in the third term to Nathan Broad that ruled him out of the game and will have him doubtful for the grand final against either Collingwood or the Giants.
Indeed, should the Tigers go on to win the premiership next Saturday, the landing of Lynch, ahead of Collingwood, will represent the most important free-agent signing in the seven-year history of free agency.
As yet, none of the blockbuster signings of superstars in the past dozen years have yielded a premiership. Dangerfield, like Chris Judd and Lance Franklin and Gary Ablett (both leaving and arriving back at Geelong) have not won flags after making the big move.
trial forwards find marks hard to take and goals scarce in finals – there are so many numbers behind the ball, kicks tend to be scrambled. Lynch grabbed several in contests, out-pointing the likes of Harry Taylor. In the third quarter, he took one mark between a pair of Cat defenders.
In the opening quarter, Lynch booted two goals against the tide from strong marks, one when he edged Taylor under the ball with sufficient skill to avoid giving away a free for a push.
Gold Coast’s role in Richmond’s passage to the grand final was not confined to Lynch, when you consider that Dion Prestia, too, was outstanding, surpassed only perhaps by Lynch and Houli for influence by Richmond players.
Geelong’s supremacy in the first half was based upon a significant territorial edge. They locked the ball in their attacking territory with repeat entries – the Richmond template.
In the absence of Tom Hawkins, Chris Scott deployed Lachie Henderson as a foil to Esava Ratugolea, who was lively in the opening period. But the first-half damage was on the deck, where Ablett – subdued in the first two finals – rose from his September slumber and Gryan Miers was exceptional, booting two goals.
The Scott strategy was clear – get the ball to ground in the attacking territory, preferably deep. It didn’t matter that there were few marks taken. The ground-ball victories were sufficient to build a lead that would prove insufficient, as the Tigers owned the second half.
The Cats didn’t have enough legs, talent or belief.
And, without Hawkins, they had no one of Lynch’s ilk.
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age.