Can ‘young Alex Rance’ claim Grand Final scalp?
Perfect specimen Noah Balta has been hailed as Richmond's next big thing as the 20-year-old prepares to lockdown on Coleman Medallist Tom Hawkins in Saturday night's Grand Final.
The boom fullback is the only Tiger in coach Damien Hardwick's best 22 still looking for his first premiership medal after a breakout season stopping the AFL's best power forwards.
Balta celebrates his 21st birthday on Friday but is set to be the youngest player at the Gabba, giving away 247 games and almost 12 years to Hawkins.
Hardwick described Balta as a "young Alex Rance" earlier this year and defender David Astbury has been stunned at the St Albans boy's rapid improvement this season.
But Astbury warned he wasn't the reincarnation of five-time All-Australian Rance, with the Tigers tweaking their defensive system since Rance's 200th and final game.
"I understand why there's this perception that Noah's the new Alex Rance, because he's the bloke who fills the void alongside Grimesy (Dylan Grimes) and myself," Astbury said.
"But the game just evolves so quickly and we don't play exactly as we did when we had Rancey.
"You can't just get a 20-year-old like Noah to come in with the expectation that he does the job of Alex Rance.
"But they're both physically remarkable and just do things that people like myself just will never be able to do. When they get set in a certain mindset they're impossible to stop."
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Balta kept Hawkins to one goal without the aid of Astbury in Round 17 and has also beaten Charlie Dixon and Jeremy Cameron in 2020.
Balta has stacked on 5kg since he was drafted at pick 25 in 2017. At 100kg he is now a shredded athlete bursting with power.
"You draft this raw, athletic beast and it takes years and years to refine someone like that to get to where you think they can get to," Astbury said.
"He's only just scratching the surface on what his potential is. Physically, we don't see specimens like that - they don't come around built like that too often.
"I'm really grateful to have some time up here to connect with him on a more personal level, and it helps create a relationship that's more conducive to teaching, and he just wants to soak up as much information as he can, and he wants to improve as quickly as he can.
"He asks a lot of questions and, in terms of what he could produce for this football club for a long time, it's very exciting.
"I think he's going to be a very, very good player for a long time."
Astbury explained that he and Grimes had shared Rance's load over the past 18 months.
"When we played with Rancey it was my responsibility to take the biggest tall," Astbury said.
"He would play the deepest and Rancey, once in a generation defender, he could play on anybody.
"At the moment we're keeping Noah's role as simple as we can so he can learn, and elements of myself and Grimesy are probably doing what Rancey did for a long time."
Jack Riewoldt attributed Balta's emergence to his mental maturity and willingness to learn this year, while Astbury said the opportunity to improve around the clock living in the hub would prove to be "enormous".
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WHICH SORE TIGER WAS ON LIGHT TRAINING DUTIES?
Richmond's stable coaches' box will finally crack following Saturday's Grand Final, with outgoing assistants Justin Leppitsch and Craig McRae set to depart after serving a combined 16 years at Tigerland.
Forwards coach McRae and backline coach Leppitsch have earned rave reviews from their star pupils as coach Damien Hardwick prepares to reshuffle his box for 2021.
McRae played a critical role as development coach, nurturing the young talent at Punt Rd before he was promoted to take charge of the forwards this year.
"'Fly' (McRae) has been awesome," spearhead Tom Lynch said.
"Across the industry there's going to be guys move on, and he's obviously moving on to a great opportunity at Hawthorn.
"He cares about you individually and just wants to set you up to play the best footy you can.
"He's been a fantastic coach at Richmond for a long time, well before I got here, and he'll be missed."
McRae starts work under Alastair Clarkson next month after spending the past five seasons under Hardwick, which could deliver a third AFL premiership this week.
The member of Brisbane Lions' 2001-03 three-peat coached Richmond to last year's VFL flag and clocked another three years at Richmond from 2007-09.
Defensive coach Leppitsch has spent eight of the past 11 years at Richmond, either side of his stint as senior coach of the Lions.
"Leppa's moving on his own accord, which is different to what the circumstances are for a lot of people," defender David Astbury said.
"He's been in the industry for (28) years and he's been a remarkable mentor, particularly for myself, Grimesy, Nick (Vlastuin), Bachar (Houli) and before that Alex Rance.
"He's a great footy personality. He's someone I'll certainly miss and will certainly stay in touch with."
Leppitsch and McRae attended one of their final Richmond training sessions at Metricon Stadium on Tuesday.
Sore midfielder Kane Lambert carried a limp on Monday and warmed up away from the main group on Tuesday, on light duties with Marlion Pickett and Kamdyn McIntosh.
But Lambert is certain to play the Grand Final and also looked ginger last week before turning it on with two last-quarter goals in the preliminary final.
The Tigers have undergone their final COVID-19 tests, with each player and staff member subjected to close to 60 swabs this year.
The tests cost $100 each, with the AFL shelling out close to $6 million for testing across the league.
McRae told the Herald Sun earlier this year to keep an eye on developing ruckman Callum Coleman-Jones, who is suspended until Round 5 next year for a serious COVID-19 protocol breach.
"His last six to eight games (in the VFL) last year were really above the level," McRae said.
"Contested marking is a real feature of his, and his ability in the ruck to get to multiple contests. He's a high-possession ruckman - he could get 20 possessions playing as a genuine ruck.
"He's got the ability to get around the ground as an extra midfielder."
LYNCH: WHAT EVERYONE GOT WRONG ABOUT HOWARD KNEE
Richmond spearhead Tom Lynch says aggression brings out his best and has described a couple of his reports this year as "overblown".
Lynch, who crushed Grand Final opponent Geelong with five goals in last year's preliminary final, claimed on Monday that he did not mean to drop his left knee into Dougal Howard's shoulder in the semi-final.
The $1 million recruit has become public enemy No. 1 this year and was sledged by Port Adelaide youngster Xavier Duursma in Friday night's preliminary final.
Lynch has been charged by match review officer Michael Christian five times in 2020, but the key forward has paid only $3250 in fines and has not been suspended.
He was cited for striking Michael Hurley, Sam Collins and Jarrod Witts and for misconduct against Alex Witherden and Howard.
"A couple of incidents might've been overblown," Lynch said at Metricon Stadium, his old home ground, on Monday.
"To be honest, I actually didn't mean to (knee) Dougal Howard. I know it looked bad, it wasn't a great look for the game, (and) I don't want to be portrayed as that.
"(But) I didn't actually realise I did it on the day. People probably won't believe me, but it doesn't really matter.
"You're going hard at the football so sometimes small things may pop up.
"I know I play my best footy when I'm aggressive going for that footy."
In 10 years the former Gold Coast captain has been suspended for just one match - a rough conduct charge which came in the 2015 pre-season.
Lynch has been heavily booed this finals series and is set to cop it from Cats fans at the Gabba on Saturday night.
"I don't think you want to be disliked, but to be honest you just value the people you care about the most," he said.
"It can be false when people love you and they don't know you or if they hate you and they don't know you.
"I don't think you can read too much into it, but the main thing is the people that know you closest you care about what they think and their opinions of you."
Lynch is shooting for two flags in as many years since leaving the Suns and has the chance to kick the Tigers to back-to-back premierships for the first time in 46 years (1973-74).
The spearhead is expecting to reunite hostilities with Harry Taylor, who he kicked four goals against in the 2019 preliminary final.
Dustin Martin appeared to calm Lynch down with a joke as he lined up for goal during Friday's triumph at Adelaide Oval.
"He just told me to kick it to my mate in the back," Lynch said.
"It was a bit of a joke at training, we were saying we'll get one of our mates behind the goals.
"It was true - aim for something small and kick through it."
HEARTBREAK LOOMS FOR CAT-TURNED-TIGER
Josh Caddy looms as this year's Grand Final heartbreak story with the impressive finals performer set to be overlooked against his old side and in the state he called home at the start of his career.
Caddy, 27, suffered a hamstring injury in Round 7 and was then dropped after Round 11, playing just one out of the Tigers' past nine games.
Caddy hit the scoreboard in only one game this season although he will be thankful the ink dried on a two-year extension just before the AFL implemented the COVID-19 contract freeze in March.
VFL recruit Jake Aarts also shapes as a hard luck story after playing 14 games this year before getting dropped for Tom Lynch in the semi-final.
The Tigers look set to enter Saturday night's decider unchanged, with David Astbury every chance to join Shaun Grigg as the most unlikely premiership ruckmen.
Astbury has helped give Toby Nankervis a chop-out in the past two finals victories, and Nankervis's dominant last quarter in the preliminary final has the Tigers confident he can get the job done one-out again.
Nankervis, Nathan Broad and Marlion Pickett are all uncontracted, as well as depth players Aarts and Oleg Markov. Club boss Brendon Gale has guaranteed veteran Bachar Houli will get another one-year deal.
Caddy was drafted by Gold Coast and in 2016 he was traded by the Cats to Richmond, despite having two years to run on a contract and recently purchasing a house in Geelong.
The move proved the ultimate win-win as Caddy helped Richmond secure two premierships in three years and the Cats drafted Brandan Parfitt with the Caddy pick (No. 26).
Caddy played 71 games for Geelong, one more than he has managed in yellow and black.
Parfitt has been Geelong's best player this finals series and has emerged as a genuine matchwinner this year.
Recruit Jack Steven worked his backside off at a running session last week in a desperate bid to overcome an untimely hamstring tear.
But coach Chris Scott all but ruled a line through St Kilda's four-time best-and-fairest winner, who was dropped for the qualifying final.
"He'll be touch and go. He'd have to really improve quickly to be in consideration, unfortunately. It's tough for him," Scott said.
The wild inconsistencies of back-up big men Esava Ratugolea, 22, and Mabior Chol, 23, mean they are set to miss out.
Chol does the freakish so regularly at training that the Tigers think he'll blossom into a star, but he didn't have a kick in the first half of the qualifying final and desperately needs to bridge the gap between his best and worst.
Socks-up midfielder Sam Simpson, 22, won Geelong's VFL best-and-fairest last year but couldn't crack the AFL side.
But Simpson - who tore his hamstring against Port Adelaide in Round 12 - is on the verge of a fairytale premiership in just his 15th game after winning a recall in the semi-final.
"They're always overnight successes that have taken three years, because we see it every day and the work he's done," Scott said.
"He's had his fair share of injury problems, so I understand it was a bit of a surprise that we brought him back - but it wasn't a surprise internally.
"He's more than fulfilled his part."
Simpson was taken in the 2017 rookie draft and is the son of 1990s Cat Sean Simpson.
Originally published as Can 'young Alex Rance' claim Grand Final scalp?