On the verge of an anticipated finals campaign, the Richmond Football Club faces a series of headaches, inducing selection dilemmas that share an eerie similarity to those Damien Hardwick and his support team faced ahead of the club’s last finals campaign in 2015.
The date was September 13 2015, when the Tigers played host to North Melbourne at the MCG for the club’s third consecutive elimination final after finishing the season in fifth position.
Richmond took the risk of bringing in underdone key forward Ben Griffiths from a finger injury a month earlier than anticipated, while an underdone Reece Conca also gained selection ahead of in-form young duo Sam Lloyd and Ben Lennon.
It was a risky move from the Richmond selection committee and ultimately one that failed. Griffiths was clearly still struggling with his finger injury and was eventually substituted in the third term after having just the four disposals, while Conca finished with eight disposals after being activated as the sub.
Were these selections the sole reason behind Richmond losing in the first week of September yet again? No. But they were certainly contributing factors and something that all Richmond fans and the selection committee will be fully conscious of across the next fortnight.
Fast forward two years to 2017 and the Tigers have bounced back from a disastrous 2016 to now be in the position of a likely top four finish and face a series of current selection dilemmas that will leave Hardwick with a few sleepless nights.
With just Nathan Drummond ruled out for the rest of the season, the Tigers find themselves in the enviable position of having a fit list of players to choose from, albeit with some of these players only just coming back from injury- including Griffiths and Conca.
Firstly, though, the most obvious inclusion into the senior side would be Josh Caddy’s return from the hamstring injury he sustained in the loss to Geelong. Caddy has emerged as a key member of the Tigers’ best 22 in 2017, averaging nearly 18 disposals and a goal a game as a midfielder and rotating forward. Perhaps Caddy’s most important influence, however, is his ability to take attention off his fellow midfielders and forwards, with Dustin Martin and Trent Cotchin having career-best seasons.
Caddy’s injury raised question marks over how the Tigers would be able to hit the scoreboard with just the one key forward in Jack Riewoldt making the trip to Perth.
Enter unheralded midfielder come key forward, Jacob Townsend.
Townsend has put together a fine VFL season in 2017 but surely shocked even himself with a stunning six-goal haul in the demolition of the Dockers in his first senior match since round 14, 2016.
Townsend’s finals ambitions may rest on Caddy’s return from injury and his own form in the final match against St Kilda.
The sublime form of Richmond’s VFL side and the return of club favourites from injury makes for a set of equally tantalising selection quandaries that will leave Tiger fans across the country in furious debate.
Sam Lloyd has been a consistent feature of the Tigers’ side in recent seasons and despite playing just the eight senior matches in 2017, Lloyd’s VFL return is almost too good to resist. Lloyd amassed 50 disposals, ten tackles and kicked four goals against Sandringham as an inside midfielder, a role he has played little of at senior level. Fan favourite Anthony Miles was similarly dominant with 42 disposals, eight clearances and a goal to further prove that he is a class above the VFL level.
Jayden Short is another player that has taken his game to another level in 2017 with his ball use and dash off halfback in his 16 senior games and his continued form in the VFL is surely keeping him at the forefront of Hardwick’s mind.
While Lloyd, Miles and Short have proven their selection credentials through red hot VFL form, it is the idea of a fit Ben Griffiths and a fit Reece Conca that keeps them in the selection conversation, despite only just returning to fitness.
A fit Ben Griffiths is a genuine asset to the Tigers with his kicking ability and versatility as a forward and ruckman making him an ideal foil to both Toby Nankervis and Jack Riewoldt as Richmond’s second big man. Reece Conca similarly provides added strength, grunt and class to the side.
Questions remain as to whether the Tigers’ mosquito fleet of small forwards will hold up in finals football, making the selections of Townsend, Caddy and Griffiths particularly interesting.
Who goes out for these players is a tough question. However, with the Richmond side currently carrying very few passengers, the selection pressures even further intensified through the returns of small defender Steve Morris and ruckman Shaun Hampson and the impressive form of VFL group Corey Ellis, Connor Menadue, Ivan Soldo, Shai Bolton and Ben Lennon.
What do Richmond do? It seems unlikely that Griffiths or Conca would return immediately, but with the extra week off before the first final, will the Tigers take another risk in the same vein as 2015?
There is every chance the Tigers will simply stick to what has worked and minimise the amount of changes to the team, but equally some of these performances and returning stars make for intriguing selection paradigms as Richmond hope to bury the finals ghosts of years gone by.