Eye of the Tiger: Richmond ready to be 'hunted'

As the Richmond players were put through punishing sessions at their pre-season camp on the Sunshine Coast this week, assistant coach Justin Leppitsch could see the "eye of the Tiger" was as hungry as ever. And Leppitsch, as a key figure in the Brisbane Lions' triple-treat of premierships from 2001-03, would know.

Leppitsch understands the pitfalls that can await a defending champion, whether that be a drop off in determination or attention to detail. But in this 2018 version of the Tigers, he sees a squad ready to again make its mark, as the Lions wanted to do - and did - in 2002.

"I think one thing, and this is where we have similarities to that team - the Brisbane team of 2001 didn't have a lot of retirements, were still a relatively similar team for a few years, and we were all at the age where we were pretty motivated to succeed," Leppitsch said.

"We came back in good condition and still trained hard. I don't think there was anything more to it than that. No hidden secrets or anything like that - it's either the group gets motivated by success or they get demotivated by success. This group like it and want more of it. That's the attitude I am seeing and that's good. There is no resting-on-laurels mentality and that's all you can see from this point on."

Considering what last year's flag meant to a club starved of success since 1980, the Tigers could be forgiven for having an emotional letdown, even if just early in the pre-season. But it appears the partying was banished from the system during the off-season break, whether here or abroad. However, it should be noted it's generally when the season unfolds - and losses accumulate - that it emerges pre-season preparation was not what it should have been, as the Western Bulldogs of last year and the Hawks of 2009 could attest to.

"Obviously, a lot has to go right to get back there [to the premiership] again. We all know that," Leppitsch said.

There has already been an unexpected speed bump, with Ben Griffiths retiring to accept a four-year US college scholarship and hoping to become a NFL punter. Griffiths' head knocks were well known but the Tigers were confident his best football was still to come. Leppitsch, who will again be forward coach, had him pencilled in alongside Jack Riewoldt, despite the success of a smaller, high-pressure attack last year.

"We thought Ben would come back in playing that second role but it will have to be a [Jacob] Townsend or one of the young talls that we have brought in. It's going to be interesting to see what we can do," he said.

"We know that we can play both. We can play the one tall and [ruckman Toby] Nankervis or play the two and rotate - [Ivan]Saldo played there a bit. We know we have got those options as well. It will be interesting to see which way we go. I don't know yet if we are going to play the two talls or one. It's going to be suck and see until we know how we are going."

The Tigers' surge last season was built on defensive pressure, ranking No.1 for pressure applied in general play, according to Champion Data. This began in the front half where Daniel Rioli, back running after off-season foot surgery, Dan Butler and Jason Castagna, with Shai Bolton appearing in six matches, were manic in their tackling and harassment. This meant through opposition turnovers there were more chances to goal.

Griffiths' injury issues and a lack of a suitable replacement contributed to Riewoldt being the lone specialist marking tall, with medium-sized forward Josh Caddy playing a key role. Former Giant Townsend would also emerge in a role as an aggressive, defensive-minded forward.

Opponents will, no doubt, seek to adopt some of the Tigers' style in their own game plans this year, trying to usurp the best. But Leppitsch, who returned to Punt Road last year after a stint as Lions coach, said game plans had to do with personnel.

"It's all well and good to say you want pressure inside 50 but if you play six talls, that's not going to happen," he said.

"You have to commit to it on a lot of levels. Fortunate or not, we didn't have a lot of talls. Shaun Hampson went down, Ben Griffiths went down. We used Toby [Nankervis] full-time in the ruck and those other tall positions were pinch hit between Caddy and [Ben] Elton and then, at the end, Townsend came in and played the role.

"That last spot rolled through for a few different people but the rest of the squad was relatively small apart from Jack, so we thought it was our personnel and we had to maximise it, probably with speed, use our strengths and use our pressure ability. That was the strength of the group."

Such was this strength that the Tigers conceded an average of only 64 points in the final two months of the campaign. The challenge now will be to adjust. Tigers coach Damien Hardwick was an assistant coach at Hawthorn in 2009 when the Hawks realised their superb "cluster" game plan of a year earlier had been picked apart and superseded by fellow premiership aspirants.

Leppitsch said the Tigers were prepared to tinker but retain the philosophy that underlined their stunning year.

"I think tinker is the word. Change is the big thing - tinker is probably the evolution of the game. The game will evolve again this year, no doubt, it always does," he said.

"What works for us this year probably won't work in two, three years time - who knows? But you just have to stay on top of things, see how things are going, what teams are doing. We know we are the hunted a little bit but we also like to play like the hunted, so I think that is a good thing for us."

Superstars Dustin Martin, skipper Trent Cotchin, Alex Rance and Riewoldt will again be pivotal to the chance of the club repeating for the first time since 1974. But Leppitsch understands it's the middle tier where improvement is important.

"The good thing for our team is that there is still improvement in guys like Castagna, Butler and Broad. They have had really good pre-seasons. Nick Vlastuin is training really well. He can step up to the next tier as well," he said.

"Some of the guys at that tier still have some improvement in them. That's the exciting part - we are still a pretty young group still. We don't have a heap of guys staring down the barrel of retirement, so that's a good thing."

Much was made last year of the playing group being more open to each other's foibles and imperfections. Rather than dwell on the negatives, coaches were prepared to focus more on positives. Cotchin was a more relaxed, more natural skipper. Players opened up to each other, beginning in what were called Triple H sessions at the pre-season camp in Mooloolaba, where they got up before their peers and shared three personal tales: one each of a hero, hardship and highlight.

Defender Brandon Ellis' tale was told in Season with Richmond, opening up about his family, his life growing up where he was "reminded every day that I was poor as hell and had nothing" and the schoolyard bullying he endured.

Leppitsch said the Tigers had "more growth in that area" but specific plans for this season, driven by leadership consultant and facilitator Shane McCurry, would remain within the group.

"Obviously, it all came out after the premiership win on what we did throughout the season - Triple H sessions and things like that," he said.

"We have some more things to grow and drive that and take it to another level. Everyone does their own degree of that, of leadership at footy clubs. We probably feel we have a pretty good system in what we do here but, as I said, I won't talk too much more about it - it's all hush-hush."

That, of course, is unless the Tigers go back to back, and more heart-warming tales of success emerge.

This story Eye of the Tiger: Richmond ready to be 'hunted' first appeared on The Age.