Max King, the hero last week with four final-quarter goals, only escaped the leash when Tigers’ co-captain Dylan Grimes hobbled off in the third term. Grimes has been replaced by Ben Miller, 22, this week. His absence will hurt, for he is the central piece of an orbiting defence now requiring Robbie Tarrant, the veteran Kangaroo in his first year in yellow and black, and draftee Josh Gibcus to be key pillars.
Dustin Martin remains on personal leave, with no time frame to return. At his best, he remains a match winner, but he couldn’t sway the result against the Blues in round one.
Midfield hard nut Dion Prestia (hamstring) and veteran forward Jack Riewoldt (fractured thumb) have been named to return this week, while injured fellow premiership stars Nick Vlastuin and Kane Lambert are closing in on a return.
The Tigers’ game plan remains much the same. The Saints say they fell into the trap of playing “ping pong” footy in a free-flowing first quarter last week but had the game on their terms when they were more considered in their approach. How will the Tigers respond the next time this happens? One thing they must do is cut the ill-discipline which has frustrated coach Damien Hardwick.
They aren’t winning the hard ball they once did, with Hardwick this week urging a lift in effort for pre-clearance work and behind the ball. It won’t be easy against the deep Bulldogs.
Noah Balta has been a success up forward. He has eight goals in three games, and the Tigers scored seven of the 10 times he was the target against the Saints. Some observers suggest he should be thrown into the midfield.
“We are really happy with our offensive game. We are scoring well when we get the ball in there. I think we are one of the most efficient scoring sides in the AFL at present,” Hardwick said.
“What’s probably happened in the last couple of games where we have lost is that we haven’t had the opportunity to score because it hasn’t gone in there.”
All is not lost for the Tigers should they slip to 1-3 (Adelaide and Melbourne await over the next fortnight) but the premiership aura will lose another layer of its glow. The core of this side was there in 2013 when the club returned to the finals for the first time since 2001. Yes, the real run began in 2017 but for Trent Cotchin, 32, Shane Edwards, 33, Riewoldt, 33, Grimes, 30, and even Vlastuin, 28 this month, there are many miles on the legs.
Cotchin is not running out games the way he once was. He needs more help in the midfield. That he disposed of the ball 17 times by hand – and only six by foot – last weekend was a questionable balance. He had 12 kicks and six handballs a week earlier in the win over Greater Western Sydney.
For a handful of Tigers battling Father Time, they know this may well be their final premiership run. Riewoldt told The Age in February this could be his final season. Neil Balme, the club’s senior advisor, said at the time the Tigers were “desperate” for another flag but, like Hardwick, already the club’s longest-serving coach and contracted until the end of 2024, acknowledged there’s a two-tiered approach they must now follow.
The Tigers began the season with 19 players aged 22 or under and need to determine whether they can potentially be a part of the next wave of premiership stars.
“We have got one eye firmly on the now but we have also got an eye firmly on the future as well,” Hardwick said.
The Lions, as Brown relayed, fell into the abyss for years from 2005. The Tigers are determined to avoid this.
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