Concussion controversy, the next Ginnivan and a ‘pretty crappy’ match for even the players

There were moments in the MCG on Thursday night when it felt like the Tigers of yesteryear were back.

With choking pressure, an electric velocity from the ball’s forward motion and interception marks all over an impenetrable backline, Richmond kicked five straight goals in the first quarter to break open play. Then, after losing the lead to Port Adelaide in the final term, Tiger’s old despair resurfaced, denying the Power any semblance of easy possession, brazenly and with a game winner round the ball – this time Liam Baker played the part of Dustin Martin to perfection.

In between, however, the Tigers stick with the sides battling for the last places among eight in 2022. Their best was compelling, but the Power was probably the better side for most of their game. But had they gotten a horrendous kick to their front 50 in the first half they would have taken the lead much earlier than the last quarter and probably could have held on.

But the Tigers are the ultimate could, might, might side. Yes, it was “pretty crappy,” as Jack Riewoldt admitted after the game: but the Yellows and Blacks rode this game plan to three premierships against the odds. If they can still produce it, it will still be a feast for the eyes.

All five of those first quarter goals came from turnover – the Tigers either forced a foul with unbridled pressure on the ball carrier, or mopped up quirky long kicks from Port with ease. Nick Vlastuin marked everything that came his way in the first term and claimed three in that term alone, as he made the most of a mismatch with Steven Motlop; while Dylan Grimes also combined the odd strong point with an excellent defensive job on the dangerous Robbie Gray.

Then, forward, was the Judson Clarke show. Remember this man: In three weeks, opposition fans will despise him as much as Cody Weightman or Jack Ginnivan. Brilliantly skilled, clearly having the time of his life and – yes – he immediately showed the ability to drop the knees and win a high contact free kick for his first goal, it’s everything supporters love and rivals love to hate.

If the Power thought Charlie Dixon’s return would immediately deliver the haphazard entries within 50 that marked their 0-5 start to the year, this was a reality check. Things remained dire – that the Tigers won the inside 50’s 20-12 in the first term, despite the Power well overtaking the hold and the amount of possession contested was a sign of how easy it was to get out of their 50.

After two early goals for Todd Marshall and Karl Amon – both coming from players who lowered their eyes and found targets 40 yards from goal instead of bombing and praying – the Power barely seemed to score for the next half hour. Every forward attack ended in much the same way: a hacked kick to the front under pressure, or just a high speculator with not enough forward representation, and a Tigers turnover. Connor Rozee and Trent Dumont were among the main culprits, repeatedly going wayward rather than using their pace and wiles to try and find a safer option.

Sure, part of that was Ken Hinkley’s fault. Given the game plan, his attacks seem to work, their structure both in front of and behind the ball was bizarre. On just about every occasion, the Tigers seemed capable of generating additional numbers at will: In defense, Marshall and Dixon were rarely within 50 when the ball came in there, and when the Tigers returned with it, there was plenty of room for Shai Bolton’s electric pace to to panic the Port defenders.

Judson Clarke of the Tigers celebrates.

Tigers’ Judson Clarke celebrates after kicking his first AFL goal. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

The Power’s operation seemed to be Tom Jonas or Tom Clurey and Aliir Aliir guarding behind the ball, both on one wing. So the Tigers just switched the game to the other side, and no one was quick enough or aware enough to cross over to fill the space. It was depressing how repetitive it all was.

So what caused the difference? Well, it started simple: don’t bomb the ball in until there were options to get it. Marshall, the only forward to give a scream in the first half, kicked it off and picked a highly contested point to break the Power drought midway through the quarter.

By halftime, the oft-maligned tall had three of the Power’s five goals, and was simply amazing. Never possessed with the brute strength of a Dixon, Marshall has often been unable to assert himself in a contentious marking situation in the past; but his hands are clean, he can read the ball in mid-air, and he found himself an opponent in the young Tiger Josh Gibcus whose athleticism belied his rawness in a stunning debut year.

The kicking then got better: a beautiful pass found Dixon, deep into the offense at 50 for once, in a one-on-one with Robbie Tarrant, and using his power to mark was the easiest thing in the world. A goal, and as half-time sounded, the Power, for all their struggle, was left just eight.

As for the Tigers, it was noticeable how much their pressure, especially around the ball, had diminished. This isn’t the Premiership-winning Richmond of yesteryear: While they’ve made mistakes in their frenetic attack on the ball in the past, they’ve been able to ride the waves thanks to their brilliant defense and a strong midfield capable of swinging the ball . game in itself. Those breakers, Trent Cotchin and Shane Edwards, are shadows of the players they once were, while in defense Tarrant just wasn’t the asset they hoped he would be.

Hinkley’s biggest bet of the evening, without putting in a recognized ruckman against Toby Nankervis and Ivan Soldo, also started to pay off. The Tigers dominated the hitouts, as anyone could have foreseen; but Jeremy Finlayson’s athletic ability on the ground, as well as his follow-up stoppages, meant the credit was shared for most of the match.

Just as crucial was the Power’s defensive work when the two rucks jostled; clearly, Hinkley had no intention of dumping a ruckman without doing something to fight hitouts with advantage. It worked: only two of Nankervis’ first 15 taps were to a Tiger, while three of the first four were to Finlayson.

After a third run of largely incremental gains for both sides – the Tigers suddenly took a leaf out of Port’s book by checking things around the ball, but started hacking aimlessly within 50 to mop up Aliir Aliir or Dan Houston – and led narrowly in three quarters of the time. Even Jayden Short’s usually laser-like right boot was brought back to Earth, a horrendous kick deep into the defense 50 that led straight to a Power target.

When Sam Powell-Pepper scored a goal from a quick ball from the first central bounce of the latter after winning a free kick, the Power was ahead.

But Damien Hardwick knows his team through and through, and with Dustin Martin still a long way from his dynamic best and Shai Bolton horribly butchering the ball all night, he had to inject someone else into the midfield rotation. Enter Liam Baker.

With 13 hits over the half defender in the first three quarters, the number 7 was hardly inconspicuous; but moved to half-forward with stints on the ball in the latter, forcing himself to be the best man in the field. In the last term alone, he would have 13 tricks again; so elusive was he that Jonas and Zak Butters lashed out at each other in an attempt to get hold of him.

Also influential in a new role was Josh Gibcus, moving from Marshall and trading with Noah Balta for the last term. Immediately, his height provided a free-kick to the smaller Ryan Burton’s soft grip; an instant later, and Gibcus had repeated what he had done against Sydney, kicking an important goal in the last term. A swing man for life?

All credit also to Tarrant, who came out great in the last quarter with a number of telling points at crucial moments. Perhaps able to take less responsibility with the bigger, stronger Balta out there, unlike a youngster who needed guidance like Gibcus, was the answer, but the former Roo turned what could have been a nightmare into a perfectly solid evening at the office .

But in the end it was sealed with a touch of irony. A rare hit from Nankervis to the advantage within 50 was skillfully driven by the brilliant Baker, who rolled through a target. The Tigers were home after an almighty battle.

A quick word to wrap up the controversy surrounding the apparent lack of a concussion test, or at least not a thorough one, for Jonas and Butters after their collision. I think it’s still pretty clear that the general public, the AFL and its clubs are still on completely different wavelengths about concussion.

We saw in State of Origin on Wednesday night that NSW was criticized for not removing Isaah Yeo from the field after a similar hard knock that staggered him. But we’re asking for trouble if we still leave concussion decisions to the discretion of the clubs.

That’s no shot at the Port doctors, who certainly wouldn’t do anything to endanger the health of their players. According to them, all the boxes were checked to return and they showed no obvious signs of a concussion.

But the 20-minute concussion test, which you occasionally see earlier in matches, would have eliminated Butters and Jonas for the rest of the match, even if it turned out they’d been okay. Can you blame doctors for being more inclined to go the faster, but potentially more misleading route?

But it’s worth noting that the mandatory 12-day concussion period mandated by the AFL stems from the fact that we simply don’t know enough about brain injuries to allow players to resume. Steve Smith, if you recall, passed the protocols to return after being scored by Jofra Archer at Lord’s in 2019, but his condition deteriorated enough after that to make him miss the next test.

Lauren Wood of the Herald Sun sums it up nicely: at this point, provided the player is reasonably self-aware, he can be patched up and sent back five minutes after the initial incident. If that’s the threshold for a concussion, then we’ve got a long way to go.

https://twitter.com/LaurenHeraldSun/status/1534864588105056257

It probably wouldn’t have helped Butters either, when a strong tackle from Tigers shortly after he came back knocked him to the ground.

As long as the current systems are in place – and the Power had already used their medical sub, which at one point was considered the solution to making sure teams could check for a concussion without any numerical disadvantage – there will always be suspicion around teams who abuse it, especially when games are at stake, like tonight.

If the AFL is serious about concussion, it needs to take it hard with more than the half-hearted “medi-sub” that’s been around for 18 months and hasn’t solved anything. And that shouldn’t change, even if it turns out that Jonas and Butters were always right.