Image Description: Richmond player, Trent Cotchin
By Campbell Williamson
The opening game of a season invariably provides some insight into rest of the year, but it can also clarify the past. These crystal ball-y insights are often dubious at best, but hey, let’s speculate anyway shall we…
The AFL’s opening game between Richmond and Carlton revealed a few things to me about the future. Richmond will likely be a force again this season, Carlton showed something but still might struggle, and the Coronavirus remains a thing. None of this is particularly interesting.
But the game did crystallise something of interest. It showed how Richmond went from 13th to 1st in under one year (from 2016 to 2017) and then continued their success with a casual premiership in 2019. So, two premierships in three years is a pretty quick turnaround. How did they do it?
Richmond tap the ball. It’s a real trap card.
Ok, what does that mean, Campbell? You’re crazy. Explain yourself!
Well historically, a contested ball situation involves several players vying for possession. To move the ball forward requires a player to take possession of the footy before quickly passing it to a teammate who can then move it towards goal. You get the idea. The process takes time and involves certain risks such as being caught holding the ball.
However, what Richmond do when they tap the ball is remove a lot of this risk. By tapping the ball, the football moves faster into a teammates hands and the opposition rarely have the chance to block it. There’s also no chance of giving the opposition a free kick because you never took possession of it in the first place. Cool beans, right?
Well what’s even cooler beans is that this tactic has been adopted in the past by certain AFL players (i.e. Cyril Rioli), but never in my twenty-one years have I seen it so systemically applied to an AFL team. In Richmond, almost every player seems to frequently use this tactic and almost every player is awake to its use.
This means that whoever’s receiving the ball is already on the move when it’s tapped their way. Therefore, receiving players have relatively more time to make decisions, which generally improves the efficiency of passes and the team’s connection overall.
On Thursday night, it again contributed to a significant number of Richmond goals (I don’t know how many don’t ask me for stats, please). Tapping the ball is useful whenever the ball is in dispute, which is a lot.
And it’s got a few other effects.
Psychologically, tapping the ball helps focus the team’s culture to one of commitment for the group over the individual. Normally when players get rid of the football, they will earn a stat that the pundits will see and talk about, saying things like “hey nice stat”. Contrastingly, tapping the ball effectively robs each player of this stat but achieves the more important task of getting the ball closer to goal. It prioritises group success over the stats of any individual.
If you were watching on Thursday night, you might have also noticed that Carlton used this tactic as well, just less often and less well. Since Richmond’s 2017 premiership, tapping the ball has very gradually spread around the AFL. However, Richmond’s systemic tapping is yet to be matched in frequency or finesse, and that my friends is no small part of why they’re the team to beat this season. In March.
Campbell isn’t bitter about those eggs. Stop asking.