BATTEN down the hatches, the Tigers are looking scary good for deep September action, Richmond’s super-impressive win over the reigning premier last Friday has them well in premiership contention.
Destined to finish 5th at the end of Round 23, they will probably need to make the first Saturday in October via the Cape, but there is no team they fear and there is no team they cannot conquer.
After successive losses to Melbourne, Geelong and then North Melbourne, no-one since has a better record, accruing just the perfect form to do damage in September right at the appropriate time.
Gusty wins over Freo in Perth, Sydney in Sydney and now Hawthorn, they are ticking off all the boxes that have them viable as to be the first team to win four finals since the Crows of the late 90s.
Nine wins from their last twelve, they have a forward line that produces a score, a midfield carrying no passengers and a stingy defence that inevitably will be a difference-maker come the finals.
It’s incredible, the loss to the Demons had Hardwick’s future in question, and at that point justifiably so. Paul Roos has done a so-so job as the saviour, so a team looking to bury their own demons from last year’s finals can’t afford to be dropping games to such an opponent.
The loss to North was particularly telling, really not giving a yelp when the game went up a notch and pundits had already labelled the season a failure not yet a third of the way through.
The turning point was the final term against Collingwood in Round 7. It was only a five point win but the football they played and the conviction in holding on to the victory was telling.
The ability of Hardwick to throw a few things around, which inevitably worked, showed he had a side capable of mixing it up, something which is crucial in finals, to arrest the momentum of the other side or to play with a point of difference which often proves the clincher.
It was the first time in the season all of Trent Cotchin, Dustin Martin and Brett Deledio played well. It just wasn’t possible to curtail all three at once, particularly the latter who was dangerous going forward, hitting the scoreboard and critically wounding the Maggies.
One of the key factors to the Tiger’s assurgance has been that all three have maintained their form and don’t look like slowing down. Add in the career year of Brandon Ellis, an All-Australian smoky, and the real emergence of Anthony Miles, and the midfield possesses real finals-winning grunt.
The Hawthorn midfield didn’t scare the Tigers one iota and you’d have to believe that whilst the Hawks would go in slight favourites should a rematch occur in September, you wouldn’t have too many fears about the Richmond engine room holding their own again.
The forward line around Jack Riewoldt works, it relies on very few and holds many tricks. Sure Riewoldt has kicked 43 goals and no other Tiger has eclipsed 20 but with a defence like they have, 11-13 goals at the business end of the year will do them well more often than not.
Alex Rance is the best key backman in the game, unequivocally. No matter if its Jaryd Roughead or Lance Franklin the Tigers faithful are the only fan base who can be confident an opposition key forward should not be the difference in a big final, and that matters, such is the Rance factor.
He is beautifully supported by a cast of able lieutenants, Bachar Houli and Nick Vlaustin on the ground, Dylan Grimes and Troy Chaplin in the air. Adding in the rugged Jake Batchelor and it’s a beyond workmanlike back six, it’s incredibly effective and cohesive.
Hawthorn have been averaging over 116 points a game, Richmond’s backline kept them to 53.
And in terms of battling the other contenders come September, Richmond would fancy their chances.
The only two sides with winning records against Hawthorn since 2012 are the Tigers and the Cats. Hawks fans will be confident as anything playing anyone else in September, but these two sides and the cockiness subsides somewhat, and with good reason. Usually this is Geelong, but in 2015 its very much Richmond.
The Tigers against Sydney, again, the second half of their only meeting for the year would give them no fears of repeating the dose should the meet once more in September, and who would blame them, it became emphatic.
Finally, the two Perth sides, Fremantle and West Coast, Richmond should once more see nothing near impossible about either challenge.
The Dockers are a lock to be minor premiers but the Tigers had them on toast in Perth and then threw a second win away at the MCG last month. Two wins against the minor premier always holds you in good stead.
And the Eagles are the only contender the Tiges are yet to defeat, however, and bless them for what they’ve been able to accomplish, the West Coast would do extremely well to keep up the run they’ve had and not let inexperience and injury catch up to them eventually.
So Hardwick has the personnel, he has the gameplan on song and importantly possesses enough variety to shuffle things in-game; very few sides have that luxury.
His best players are having career years and when stacking up their chances against the other premiership contenders, no-one really stands out as a challenge too great. If anything they would have credible confidence against anyone.
As it stands the only issue would be missing the top four. In that instance it would require a Sydney trip in Week 2 and then Hawthorn or Perth in Week 3. But remarkably you couldn’t put it past them
However, if the maths somehow works and they finish top 4, clear your October schedule Tiger fans, you’re on!