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How player unavailability could be masking recent premiers' natural declines

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Matt Walsh & Jake Michaels discuss the disappearance of tagging in the AFL, and if the role could limit recent dominant performances from midfielders. (1:23)

We've seen enough golden eras in the AFL already this century not to presume that success in the game is only ever fleeting. Nonetheless, the conclusion of those periods can arrive swiftly, and in brutal fashion.

Melbourne's stunning ascent last year and its continued dominance early in 2022 has rightly grabbed much of the attention of the football world. But how about its predecessors?

It's fair to say the winners of the four AFL premierships prior to Melbourne's 2021 triumph aren't exactly firing on all cylinders right now. Richmond's start to the new season has been less than stellar. West Coast's has been, frankly, a nightmare.

Are either or both lists in terminal decline? Quite possibly. Yet the backdrop to both the Eagles' and the Tigers' struggles has made a more definitive judgement complicated. And when the waters are muddied for long enough, eventual clarity can deliver a bit of a shock.

In fairness, the pundits were hardly bullish about West Coast's prospects this season, even before its horror off-season on the injury front, Jack Darling's vaccine reticence, then a complete disaster with COVID protocols. But this is also a side which should have finished top four in 2020 and only just missed finals last year.

Barely a pundit didn't have Richmond bouncing back hard in 2022, meanwhile, the rationale for its 2021 demise laid squarely at war-like casualty list with which the Tigers finished off last season.

Come the eve of Round 4, the Tigers could instead finish the weekend two games adrift of the top eight. And the Eagles? Well, they'd have to at this stage be a short-priced favourite for the wooden spoon.

Is it all about the ravages struck by COVID and at Punt Road, an overflowing medical room, though?

West Coast's official injury list numbered a ridiculous 25 the other week. This week, that has been reduced to 17, but glancing through the names is a revealing exercise.

Take out the COVID isolation cases and the relative greenhorns and where are the key players? I'd argue Dom Sheed, Elliot Yeo, Jamie Cripps, Tim Kelly and Oscar Allen, and that's about it.

Yet the absence of those five on overall performance has been catastrophic. Remember when West Coast managed to win a premiership without any of Nic Naitanui, Andrew Gaff and Brad Sheppard?

The second-oldest playing list in the AFL (behind only Geelong) was having enough issues transitioning into a new generation anyway before COVID protocols started to get in the way. Perhaps we shouldn't assume overall performance is going to improve markedly even when those stars are back in the mix?

As for Richmond, well, 2022 seems to be delivering a similar conversation about the Tigers as did much of last year, namely a recitation of a list of big names unavailable, which last week read: Dustin Martin, Jack Riewoldt, Kane Lambert, Dion Prestia and Nick Vlastuin.

That in itself, though, isn't all that unfamiliar a scenario at Punt Road. Indeed, the Tigers won the 2019 flag after a similar catastrophic run of ailments. And the phrase Richmond chief executive Brendon Gale chose to describe their 2020 success was "the hard way".

What looks different now, though, is the capacity of what's left over to at least hold the fort in the absence of those big names.

In those other seasons, the likes of Shai Bolton, Noah Balta and Liam Baker not only were able to fill the breach, but firstly establish themselves as regulars, then stars of a still-imposing line-up. Who's their equivalent now?

Jake Aarts might be one. But the signs are it's going to take some time yet for the likes of Riley Collier-Dawkins, Thomson Dow, and Hugo Ralphsmith to be able to impact on games in a manner which keeps Richmond up there with the best even in the absence of their stars.

That's not even a criticism. Maintaining a list is tough, tougher when you're a victim of success and players even the quality of Brandon Ellis, Mabior Chol, Dan Butler and Jack Higgins look elsewhere for either more opportunity or security of tenure.

It means that the premium on the durability and performance of those big names is greater than ever. And the tale of their absence might well have come in the way the Tigers crumbled late in both their defeats thus far against Carlton and St Kilda. In 2022, Richmond might not only need all hands on deck, but close to 100% to be a chance of going somewhere.

Success can come quickly in the modern game, as the Western Bulldogs, Richmond itself and Melbourne have demonstrated in recent years. Yet so can a demise.

The Tigers and the Eagles have a lot of handy players to come back into the mix. Yet as every week goes by, you can't help but think that even their returns won't have us talking about their teams in the same manner we pretty recently did.

You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at FOOTYOLOGY.com.au