OPINION

West Coast-Richmond: a potential classic in the making and maybe an AFL grand final preview, too

West Coast's last stay in an interstate hub didn't exactly go according to plan, losing three games straight at Metricon and the Gabba. Photo: Paul Kane/Getty Images
West Coast's last stay in an interstate hub didn't exactly go according to plan, losing three games straight at Metricon and the Gabba. Photo: Paul Kane/Getty Images

There's not too much AFL clubs don't know about each other given the amount of scouting and analysis which goes into preparing for a game against every prospective opponent.

But it's also true that clubs are more familiar with some rivals than others. And it's extra intriguing when two, whose histories against each other are more fleeting, happen to be a fair chance to play off on grand final day.

That's the backdrop to Thursday night's eagerly-awaited clash between West Coast and Richmond, perhaps the most legitimate "grand final preview" yet this season.

The Eagles and Tigers have been top dogs in each of the past two years, yet for some time now have managed largely to avoid each other, relatively speaking.

Perhaps remarkably, they have met just once each season going all the way back to 2010. Discounting Gold Coast and GWS (which entered the AFL in 2011 and 2012) it makes West Coast versus Richmond the AFL's equal least-played match over that whole period.

Even the elements conspired against the pair coming head-to-head this year, their game originally scheduled for Metricon Stadium in round five, before Victoria's second wave of coronavirus cases led to tightening of quarantine arrangements and a hasty adjustment of the fixture. But if anything, the extra wait, the closer proximity to finals and the form of either team have added even more spice to what was already looming as a terrific contest between the two official flag favourites.

Even what history there is between the Eagles and Tigers can't be split, those 10 clashes since 2010 producing a 5-5 scoreline, each team having won three of those five in their home state and two on the road.

At the neutral Metricon Stadium, it's Richmond which will go into this one a slight favourite - the Tigers having won seven of its past nine games compared to West Coast's eight victories straight. But that doesn't mean there aren't still significant "ifs" around either side.

For the Eagles, it's all about location. It seems a long time ago now, but West Coast's last stay in an interstate hub didn't exactly go according to plan, losing three games straight at Metricon and the Gabba.

It recovered to knock over two strugglers in Sydney and Adelaide before returning home for a six-game stretch. But its next four games are split between Metricon and the Gabba, three of them against fellow top eight teams in the Tigers, Western Bulldogs and St Kilda.

At home, the Eagles would start favourite in every one of them. On the other side of the continent, that may not be the case. And while, with 12 games played, they have a game in hand over every other member of the current top eight, their fourth position could look a lot worse should they drop more points than they pick up over the next month.

Venues don't present nearly as many concerns for the Tigers, who play their next three games at Metricon, where they have now won in each of their last six visits.

Richmond's tried and trusted system, however, featuring relentless defensive pressure on the opposition and frantic forward movement by any means possible, isn't ticking over quite as smoothly as it has.

The Tigers still have no issues creating opposition turnovers, from which just on 60 per cent of AFL football's scores are now generated. But they aren't scoring nearly so freely from them anymore.

Indeed, everything about these two teams right now screams potential classic.

At the other end, the Tigers' defence appears still as stingy. Ranked fourth last year for fewest points conceded, they're still fifth.

But that's more about preventing the ball from getting inside the danger zone than repelling it once it's there. Because whereas in 2019 Richmond ranked second for lowest percentage of scores conceded from opposition forward 50 entries, it is currently only ranked 15th.

Actually get the ball inside Richmond's back 50 right now, and you're a reasonable chance to convert. That's encouraging news for the Eagles, ranked fifth for average points scored, with key forward pair Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling both in the AFL's top 11 goalkickers.

Not that the Tigers are too shabby on that front themselves, still sixth, just behind the Eagles, for average points scored, and boasting Jack Riewoldt and Tom Lynch. That pair's battles with West Coast premiership defenders Tom Barrass and Jeremy McGovern shape as critical to the outcome.

As do the midfield duels featuring some of the biggest names in the caper, like Eagle ruckman Nic Naitanui, on fire at the centre bounces, Luke Shuey, Andrew Gaff and Dom Sheed, opposed to Richmond's ground level stars, the peerless Dustin Martin, Trent Cotchin, Kane Lambert and Shai Bolton, arguably the AFL's most improved player in 2020.

That's another area in what will be an absorbing contest difficult to split. And given that the last time these two teams met, it was a game decided only by a kick and was now just over a year ago, throw in a bit of the unknown as well.

Indeed, everything about these two teams right now screams "potential classic" on Thursday night. Let's hope we get it. After a season of slog, we're probably due.