Grimes helping form the best defensive combination in the AFL

Dylan Grimes1IT HAS been a long time coming for Dylan Grimes.

After several injury setbacks — predominantly foot and hamstring problems recently — the reliable Richmond defender is finally reaping the rewards of a full pre-season.

And he’s not the only one at Punt Road.

In a rarity of sorts for the Tigers in recent years, the team has regularly been able to get its three best key defenders on the park at the same time throughout the season.

Alex Rance, David Astbury and Grimes — among the three most in-form key backs in the league — have all played every game so far this year.

And the benefits of such a luxury have been evident.

Richmond’s defence has become the cornerstone of its game in 2017, with the Tigers ranked by Champion Data as the fourth best defensive team in the league after 14 rounds this season.

The AFL’s official number crunchers have Richmond losing just 21.9 per cent of its defensive one-on-one contests — the best in the league — and conceding from only 43 per cent of all opposition inside 50 entries — also clearly the best ratio in the competition.

According to Grimes, such improvement across the board is a result of that continuity.

“It’s something that’s been building for the last few years,” Grimes told foxfooty.com.au.

“Rance is in his prime and Dave is improving every year.

“We’ve seen Dave become an elite defensive player in the competition this year, so from my perspective it makes all three of our jobs easier.

“We’ve got three blokes exactly on the same page, we’ve played a lot of footy together and we haven’t missed a lot of games.

“To have three backs to have not missed a game, it’s really good.”

While it’s Rance who deservedly receives the lion’s share of praise for Richmond’s defensive improvement, the contributions of Grimes and Astbury should not go unnoticed.

Grimes, in particular, deserves a great deal of credit for his individual development.

The 25-year-old has not conceded a goal to his direct opponent in his last four matches.

Playing on a range of opponents from key forwards to smalls — he spent time on Jarrod Pickett during Sunday’s victory over Carlton, but has also spent significant periods on North Melbourne’s Mason Wood and Essendon’s James Stewart — Grimes is in career-best form.

“I’m feeling really good,” he said.

“This is the first year where I’ve finished a pre-season without any injuries and then started the year without any injuries.

“I’m just loving my footy at the moment and the footy club is a great place to be around. We’ve got a lot of good young players who bring a lot of energy to the group.

“We’ve got a really good balance between our leaders, who each bring something so different to the table. And I really feel like our coaching staff have allowed us a bit more freedom on game day, which — from a player’s perspective — is a lot more fun.

“I think the fans are enjoying watching us play as well.”

While Richmond’s key defenders have all contributed individually, a lot of the team’s success defensively is a product of the pressure the Tigers have been able to apply forward of the ball.

Champion Data ranks Richmond second for forward-half pressure acts applied this year — a huge leap from 2016, where they were ranked last.

The Tigers are also averaging 29.8 forward-half intercepts per game which, again, is the best in the competition. Similarly, it’s a huge jump from last season, where they ranked the third worst.

“That’s always a focus for us,” Grimes said.

“If we can get our forwards pressing up the ground and allow our mids to clog up the corridor, it just means us backs can have a bit of an easier job defending.

“(Carlton’s) plays were a lot slower than the quick transition plays — and one thing we’ve got is a really good balance between attacking and defensive mids — so to have our midfield in such good form makes our jobs in the back line a lot easier.”

Now 8-5 on the season following a gritty 26-point win over Carlton on Sunday, Richmond is now out of the top four on percentage only.

However, Grimes believes the resilience the team is beginning to show under coach Damien Hardwick is a big step forward from last year.

And the weekend’s victory at the MCG was evidence of that, with the Tigers unable to put the Blues to bed for large periods of the match — but still holding their nerve to win.

“We’ve had that quite a bit this year — teams coming at us late,” Grimes said.

“We were unlucky to lose a couple of those games, but the good thing about that is that we’ve got an incredibly young side.

“That experience to be resilient in the last quarterWhile Richmond’s key defenders have all contributed individually, a lot of the team’s success defensively is a product of the pressure the Tigers have been able to apply forward of the ball.

Champion Data ranks Richmond second for forward-half pressure acts applied this year — a huge leap from 2016, where they were ranked last.

The Tigers are also averaging 29.8 forward-half intercepts per game which, again, is the best in the competition. Similarly, it’s a huge jump from last season, where they ranked the third worst.

“That’s always a focus for us,” Grimes said.

“If we can get our forwards pressing up the ground and allow our mids to clog up the corridor, it just means us backs can have a bit of an easier job defending.

“(Carlton’s) plays were a lot slower than the quick transition plays — and one thing we’ve got is a really good balance between attacking and defensive mids — so to have our midfield in such good form makes our jobs in the back line a lot easier.”

Now 8-5 on the season following a gritty 26-point win over Carlton on Sunday, Richmond is now out of the top four on percentage only.

However, Grimes believes the resilience the team is beginning to show under coach Damien Hardwick is a big step forward from last year.

And the weekend’s victory at the MCG was evidence of that, with the Tigers unable to put the Blues to bed for large periods of the match — but still holding their nerve to win.

“We’ve had that quite a bit this year — teams coming at us late,” Grimes said.

“We were unlucky to lose a couple of those games, but the good thing about that is that we’ve got an incredibly young side.

“That experience to be resilient in the last quarter, get some momentum back our way and walk away with the four points is crucial.”