WHEN a reigning premier misses the finals the following season (albeit with a year’s gap in between), there are always questions around what went wrong.

For Richmond, it happened at both AFL and VFL levels, with the VFL Tigers slumping from a dominant 18-2 premiership campaign to fall all the way to 11th in the truncated 2021 competition with just four victories and a draw from 10 games.

The Tigers still had some impressive results, with those four wins coming by an average of nine goals, but there were equally emphatic defeats, particularly the 59 and 81-point hidings from Casey Demons and Werribee early in the year.

However, there were overriding factors.

Richmond wasn’t a one-season wonder in either grade, winning three out of four flags in the AFL, while the VFL team lost the 2017 Grand Final by a kick before claiming the 2019 title and losing the 2020 season to COVID, with fatigue from being up for so long undoubtedly playing a part.

Coach Xavier Clarke said the AFL’s cuts to the soft cap had hit his team hard, with VFL-listed players in particular having their time at the club reduced.

Xavier Clarke addresses Richmond's VFL side in Round 1, 2021.

"We were hit pretty hard by the soft cap changes so we changed the direction of our program in terms of how many nights a week the VFL boys joined us for training, and credit to Steve Morris and those guys who took most of the VFL training on that one night a week," Clarke said.

"I think we only signed 25 (VFL-listed) players in total and a lot of those guys were our big players, but change is sometimes a good thing because you find out different things – the reality is we had a lot of significant injuries throughout the AFL season that affected us badly.

"Some games we had most of our (AFL) backline out and others we had most of our midfield out – if you had one or two from each line you could cover it better, but I think it was a combination of everything and it has been a long four or five years."

The silver lining from those AFL injuries was the elevation of some VFL regulars which showed the Tigers they still have plenty of quality on the list.

Will Martyn won the best-and-fairest in his first season at VFL level and earned two AFL matches, while Rhyan Mansell, Callum Coleman-Jones, Riley Collier-Dawkins, Thomson Dow, Hugo Ralphsmith and Ryan Garthwaite played several games and Maurice Rioli Jnr, Samson Ryan and Ben Miller also got chances at the top level.

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"We had injuries at AFL level but it created opportunities for guys like Ryan Garthwaite and Benny Miller, who have played VFL footy for a couple of years, to play AFL footy, and they really held their own," Clarke said.

"'Garthy' has always been a great leader, he’s got great qualities in terms of the way he goes about his footy – he hates getting beaten in one-on-ones on game day or at training, and he demands a lot from his teammates.

"Dave Astbury has pulled the pin and Bachar (Houli) as well, so there’s an opportunity for Garthy to slot in there … another big pre-season from him and hopefully he gets a bit of a run at it."

Clarke said he took plenty of positives out of the season, headed by the 62-point away win over the Brisbane Lions in round six.

"The AFL played the night before and didn’t quite get the result we wanted and the VFL boys flew up on the Friday, stayed the night and played on the Saturday morning," he said.

"It was the first time the players got to go away and for a lot of them it was the first time they had been on a plane for 12 months because of the restrictions, so to be able to get away as a team and play on the Gabba and get a significant win was the biggest highlight in terms of a game.

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"The boys continually turned up, especially the VFL-listed boys. We had a draw against Williamstown, which I thought was a fantastic game, and we had a fair crack against the Bullants … we got beaten in the end but we just kept fighting.

Clarke said those VFL-listed players thrived on getting the opportunities they hadn’t previously had and was confident the exposure had put Richmond in a good position to rise quickly.

"Angus Hicks has been here for three years – he was close in his first year and broke his ankle in a practice match, then last year couldn’t play because of COVID, but he got his opportunity this year and played every game," Clarke said.

"Lachlan Street was the 23rd player in our premiership year and he stays on and finishes second in our best-and-fairest this year – he played multiple roles and he loves being a part of the program.

"Joel Nathan is a 22-year-old who played down back who reminds me of Jason Blake at the Saints who will just do anything – he’s very robotic but he didn’t do much wrong and hardly ever got beaten in the contest.

Joel Nathan in action for Richmond's VFL side in Round 10, 2021.

"Garrett McDonagh is another one who jumps out, that raking left foot kick off half back, he played some fantastic footy and finished (sixth) in our best-and-fairest. He’s just an elite local footy player who wants to play at a higher level and continue to grow his game.

"They're the stories we enjoy, giving those guys an opportunity to play at state league level and improve their footy.

"You attract good players and good people to your program (by being successful) and Anthony Fagan has done a power of work as our football manager for the past three or four years behind the scenes.

"The biggest thing that came out of the VFL program this year was the young kid Sammy Durham (who was taken by Essendon in the mid-season draft).

Sam Durham in action for Richmond's VFL side in Round 1, 2021.

"Him and Dylan Cook drove down from Seymour to train (since the 2020 pre-season) – they do a full day’s work, drive down, train and drive home and work again the next day … and Sammy played in an AFL final (last week for the Bombers).

"Jakey Aarts was part of the VFL program for a long time and is now a regular in the AFL team … you can attract good players and good people through creating opportunity and having a good environment and a good program that people want to be a part of.”

Clarke hopes a young big-bodied Oakleigh Chargers midfielder will be among the next group of Tigers to take that opportunity.

"Young Fraser Elliott is a solid boy at 19 who played (two) games for us – he can find the ball, and we’d like to think he’s got a taste of what the program can offer and what he can do at VFL level, (while) Will Bravo is a young enthusiastic kid who just wants to tackle people and create chaos.

"They’re kids we’d like to attract to our program if they don’t get drafted and create an opportunity that playing AFL footy is still within their reach and they can still improve their game."

4-5-1 win-loss, 11th

What went right: The season started well with a comfortable win over Sandringham in round one that made it look like it was business as usual. The consecutive huge wins over GWS (home) and Brisbane Lions (away) were vintage Tigers. Getting games into young players will stand them in good stead for next year, as shown in the last game against Frankston.

What went wrong: The injuries to key AFL players robbed the Tigers of their depth, but the beltings from Casey and Werribee early signalled that this wasn’t the same team as 2019, while their finals hopes evaporated with the consecutive away losses to lower-ranked teams in Sandringham and Northern Bullants. The serious knee injury to emerging midfielder Brad Melville was another setback.

Best and fairest: Richmond took Will Martyn with their third pick in the 2019 draft and he claimed the Guinane Medal in just his second season at the club while also earning two AFL games. Martyn polled 28 votes to beat Lachlan Street (24), Derek Eggmolesse-Smith (22), Callum Coleman-Jones (21) and Samson Ryan (20).

Will Martyn in action for Richmond's VFL side in Round 1, 2021.

Best young players: Martyn, Ryan and Noah Cumberland were plucked from the Brisbane Lions Academy (as was Mabior Chol), proving the Tigers have an eye for talented Queenslanders, and all look to have big futures. Angus Hicks, Street and Joel Nathan played every game and had excellent years, while Bailey Henderson also impressed.

Coach status: Xavier Clarke is contracted and has his hand up to continue for a third (and hopefully first uninterrupted) year at Punt Rd, but must wait for the club to decide whether to continue with the same coaching structure in 2022.

Derek Eggmolesse-Smith celebrates a goal for Richmond VFL in Round 10, 2021.