Richmond VFL "wasn’t able to get exactly what they wanted" out of an interrupted 2021 season, but captain and development coach Steve Morris is proud of the positives the Tigers showed given the myriad challenges they faced.
The 2019 premiers finished 11th on the ladder following 10 games played across 16 weeks, as the league dealt with COVID-19 outbreaks across the country, before the final home-and-away round was cancelled.
The stop-start nature of the season, coupled with a shift in focus for Richmond’s VFL program, provided plenty for the Tigers to navigate in 2021.
"It was difficult to get that continuity as we navigated the inconsistent format of the season, as an extremely young side as well," Morris said.
"We had a four-week break at one stage and a few weeks at another. It’s hard when you’re managing bodies and getting training into players, and then training and revisiting game styles to make sure we’re all on the same page.
"We look forward to next season being a bit more smooth."
Having had to adjust to limited resources as well as the turbulent season, Morris is confident the group will grow from the experience.
"The silver lining was that our players started to understand that they really have to be self-drivers more than ever before, and I think that will hold them in good stead moving forward," he said.
"They were confronted with some real adversity and had to display a lot of resilience to continue to turn up and play their best footy and work at improving their game."
It was a new-look side for the VFL Tigers, who in 2021 developed a new core group to complement those coming in from AFL level.
Sixteen VFL debutants ran out in the Yellow and Black for the first time throughout the course of the season.
Acknowledging that it was a much younger squad than previous years, Morris said the club will "continue to pour our energy into these players and give them opportunities to achieve their goals".
"We’ve had to have a shift of focus from performance to development, and we still aspire to perform at a really high level, but we had an extremely young group and I think we got some real benefit out of getting game time into these young players," he said.
"And our young AFL-listed players were given the opportunity to play in positions that would accelerate their development at the quickest possible rate, which is really important for our AFL team moving forward.
"Although we didn’t finish right at the top of the ladder, there were some really encouraging signs given the shift in our focus as a VFL program this season."
The 2021 season saw a number of VFL Tigers take their game to the next level, including the emergence of Angus Hicks as a leader within the program, and some of the more experienced players such as Lachie Street and Garrett McDonagh.
Showing VFL players a pathway they can aspire towards, Tiger Sam Durham was selected by Essendon at the mid-season draft with pick No. 9.
Following an impressive debut at AFL level, the 19-year-old went on to play seven games for the Bombers in the back half of the season, including last weekend’s elimination final against Essendon.
"I think that’s a really good example for our program and for these kids, that if they put their head down and their backside up, you never know what you’re capable of achieving," Morris said.
"Sam improved in leaps and bounds being a part of our program and we’re really proud of what he’s been able to achieve."
With the expanded VFL competition including clubs from Queensland and NSW this year, it was a new experience for all involved.
For many of the VFL-listed Tigers, Richmond’s trip to the Gabba to take on Brisbane was their first interstate trip to play football. The weekend, marked by a convincing 62-point win over the Lions, was a valuable chance for the group to connect.
"It was a really good opportunity for our group to bond, and with a lot of the same young players again on board next year, I think it will hold us well for the connection for our team as well," Morris said.
And for the AFL players trying to break into the senior side, who, for the second year in a row, had limited game opportunities to prove themselves, Morris spoke highly of their attitude and ability to adapt.
"It’s a massive credit to the young players that we’ve got on the AFL list, they came with the best attitude, particularly towards the end of the season when they were playing scrimmage matches," he said.
"Their application to come and play the style of footy that we wanted them to play, and the attitude we wanted them to come with, saw them get the best out of those opportunities that they had towards the end of the season.
"It was really pleasing to see them go out at AFL level and show their strengths, and give our supporters a glimmer of hope for what the future might look like for our young players coming through."
The Tigers started to jell towards the end of the season, as they rounded out the year with a win over Frankston following a draw with Williamstown and a narrow loss to Collingwood.
As Morris looks towards season 2022, those performances were a strong indicator of the side’s ability to compete against quality oppositions.
"Anyone who was watching those games would have watched and thought the quality of VFL footy is a really high standard of footy these days," he said.
"That gives me real confidence moving into next season, that we’ve got a group that understands the level they need to play at to be competitive.
"We’re really keen to have the boys back on board for next season and are really confident that there’s a lot of growth and a real hunger to improve."