With about five minutes to go in the third quarter of AFL football in 2019, one of the worst nightmares of Richmond fans came to pass. Coming down after a contested marking contest, Alex Rance landed badly and tore his Anterior Cruciate Ligament, requiring season-ending surgery.
Rance may or may not be universally considered to be Richmond’s best player, but he is certainly their most consistent. He is also undoubtedly the core of the strongest part of their game in their current premiership era – their defence.
The Tigers haven’t won a game without Alex Rance since April 17 in 2014. That’s 1806 days and a football era ago. If Richmond are to live up to their lofty preseason predictions, they must learn quickly how to win without him.
First, an apology
That 1806 days figure up above is misleading – the Tigers have only played three games between April 17 2014 and now without Rance. However, Tigers are a very different beast now to what they were back then.
The last time Rance missed action, in 2016, the gap was filled by Troy Chaplin, Steven Morris and a host of others no longer on the Tigers list. In these two games they were hammered by Hawthorn and Port Adelaide. The absence of Rance wasn’t the only difference – in both games they were belted in the middle. And in 2016 the Tigers copped a few smashings even with Rance in the team. It’s safe to say their form back then isn’t a useful guide now.
The secret transition
Undoubtedly, all sides carry out plenty of contingency planning during their December to February spread. Worst case scenarios are discussed, at least broadly, and concepts are explored in how they will be mitigated. Given his durability, the Tigers coaching staff may have spent a little less time this season contemplating Rance’s absence than others, but even so, the 2018 season potentially saw the first extremely tentative steps to a future without their backline star. Rance, of course, is due to turn 30 by the time the 2020 season starts, and time remains undefeated against football players.
On paper, 2018 was another stellar “Alex Rance; All Australian full back” type season for the defender. He was top five for intercepts per game, his mark numbers held steady, and his name was still first in the conversation for “best defenders in the game”.
If you dig a little below the surface, however, signs were present that there was a shift in the Tigers’ defensive practice. His intercept count went up slightly, but this was offset significantly by a jump in total team intercepts for the Tigers. The Tigers came to lead the league in intercepts in 2017, evidence of the kind of strategy they focus on:
As a result, Rance’s increase intercepts did not even quite keep pace with the Tigers’ overall growth in the measure. Rance obtained the lowest proportion of his team’s intercepts since 2015:
The Tigers defence isn’t beholden to the idea of sticking to the one man for the whole game, often zoning between different matchups depending on location and circumstance. Certain assignments may be preferred, but their flexibility is a key to their strength as a unit.
Rance, Astbury, Grimes and Broad all stand between 192 and 195cm, and tip the scales between 89 and 96kg. A step down, Vlastuin and (this week’s Rance change) Markov are 187 and 188cm tall medium defenders, respectively. All six, at least situationally, are big enough to cover off all bar the tallest of key position forwards and the quickest (and smartest) of small forwards. Once you add in Bachar Houli, Jayden Short and Brandon Ellis as smaller specialists and rebound options, plus occasional moonlighter Kamdyn Mcintosh (at 191cm and 91kg), the Tigers can adapt to pretty much any opposition forward set up, and still have weapons to create attack from defence.
However, this ability to share the load has (at least on paper) lessened the individual influence required by Rance. Compared to earlier in his career, the Tigers rely on him less to cover up for the mistakes of others, with a more egalitarian approach proving to be more effective. Rance still racks up his numbers – but others get in on the act too.
For the Richmond faithful, this provides some hope that they can stem the tide defensively with minimal loss.
On the attack
One area that Rance’s impact has clearly been muted is his impact as an attacking defender. Where a few years ago he was clearly one of the most effective attacking KPDs in the league, now his rebounding contributions are part of a wider and more equal spread:
While Rance clearly still gets more than his fair share of intercepts, he is less involved than ever in the scoring forays. Additionally to chart above, Rance’s score launches (the first touch in a chain resulting in a score) have been declining year on year, in line with the score involvement figures shown.
This is all good for the Tigers.
Relying on multiple players rather than just one is good practice for a side that lives on forcing turnovers and creating attacks off the rebound. The more predictable the paths out of defence and toward goal, the easier they are for opposition units to adjust to. Football teams chew film these days, and the hardest thing to prepare for is a side that can go towards goal in pretty much any way.
Rance’s lack of offensive involvement should be the easiest aspect of his loss for the Tigers to cover – because they had already started that process.
In line with his peers
So how does Rance’s statistical importance stack up with his peers, the elite tall defenders of the competition? Good question, hypothetical reader!
Again, while Rance’s dominance of his team’s stats stands out in 2015 and 2016, he seemingly played a proportionally lesser role than many other elite KPDs last year, especially on the score involvements side of things. As Richmond got better, they were able to lessen the load on their star. Other clubs, not blessed with as many options, were unable to do so and have been stuck putting the world on someone’s shoulders.
The tactical question
Of course, all this statistical analysis ignores the obvious question – how much of Rance’s declining contribution was due to Richmond’s choice, and how much was dictated by their opposition.
What’s clear is that Richmond tinkered with their defensive set up on their way to the 2017 Premiership and through the strong 2018 campaign. This undoubtedly had some influence over Rance’s relative impact declining within the Tigers’ defence. Diversity for a football team is a good idea, and makes them harder to beat.
What is harder to measure is whether Rance’s mere presence has made those around him more effective, and if so, how much. Take for example the question of opponent decision making. Have sides begun to make a conscious decision not to bomb it near Rance, in fear of his intercept ability? Have they made the decision to attack his area only in the situations where it is unlikely that he can create a counter attack? Do they prefer to kick to more marginal opportunities (such as 1 v 2 or 2 v 3 contests) away from Rance’s area?
The answers to all of these questions are “probably some, but not a quantifiable amount”. To the extent Rance is exerting an intangible indirect impact over proceedings, it would reduce his personal intercept count and his score involvements, while strengthening the Tigers as a whole by forcing less optimal opposition behaviour.
Rance’s true impact is probably not properly measured by the collected statistics, but they do a fair job in showing his general importance. By the same token, the underlying strength of the structures of Richmond’s defence, and his contribution to maintaining those structures with leadership and voice, probably make up a component of his numbers, and the amount they do so is hard to specifically state.
It’s likely that Richmond will not have one particular replacement for the totality of Alex Rance, instead relying on a “committee” approach. Sometimes, Grimes or Broad will float off their defenders to intercept, other times Houli may float into the gap. Vlastuin has been their fastest rising defender, and probably most closely matches the speed and intercept marking ability of Rance. The cooler older heads of Houli and Astbury may have to step up to keep things organised.
Whether this approach works or not will be quickly apparent in the coming weeks.