Tight bonds behind Tiger's AFL breakout

Shai Bolton has enjoyed a breakout year at Richmond, becoming a fixture in the Tigers lineup.
Shai Bolton has enjoyed a breakout year at Richmond, becoming a fixture in the Tigers lineup.

Anyone watching Shai Bolton practising his goalkicking pre-game with close mate Daniel Rioli at the Gabba two weeks ago would have had no idea how nervous he was.

The 20-year-old Tiger was stepping out for his first AFL final, determined to remain unfazed by the big occasion, when the butterflies hit.

But he and Rioli had a winning strategy - "go out and have fun" - and they did just that.

"I tried to treat it like another game but when I came to the game I got a bit nervous," Bolton told AAP this week.

"Obviously it's a big game and I normally don't get like that during games ... but once the ball went up I was all good."

Bolton played his role in the win, kicking a goal and compiling 13 disposals as Richmond blitzed Brisbane to set up their third preliminary final in as many years.

For the flashy West Australian, it was another high point of a breakout year that started with a self-imposed brutal pre-season.

Heading into 2019, Bolton had just nine AFL games to his name and his future was uncertain.

"I had to really focus on getting fit. I don't think I was as fit as I could be," Bolton said.

"So that's why I went home and focused on trying to get as fit as I can."

Seventeen AFL games later, Bolton has made his finals debut, signed a new contract and become a fixture of Richmond's side - playing every game since round 15, earning a Rising Star nomination and kicking 14 goals.

"He's obviously got an enormous upside and his his best games are as good as anyone's," teammate Shane Edwards said.

"Having someone there on the half-forward line that can also rotate through the midfield, puts on enormous pressure, really great finisher and a great team player is everything you want in a half-forward.

"And he's still really young."

Edwards and Rioli were two mainstays in Richmond's 2017 premiership team - and this year, the Tigers have reaped the rewards of their faith in two other young indigenous players in Bolton and Sydney Stack.

While Stack quickly took on cult hero status - playing 17 games and finishing third in the Rising Star, Bolton's rise has been slower but arguably just as impressive.

The 20-year-old is quick to credit Edwards for his role in his development.

Edwards is the first Indigenous player at Richmond to reach both the 200 and 250-game mark And has long set the tone on and off the field.

In rounds 16 and 17, the Tigers fielded a club-record five indigenous players - Edwards, Rioli, Bolton, Stack and Derek Eggmolesse-Smith. The milestone was a far cry from Edwards' early years, when at times he was the only Indigenous player at the club.

"He's been a big influence. The longest Indigenous player to have been at Richmond - he's a big role model to all us Indigenous boys that are here," Bolton said.

"All of us pretty much look up to him.

"When I've played a bit of midfield, he's given me some pointers on how to play and how to set up in the midfield."

While the Tigers are knwpon for their tight-knit playing group, Bolton is particularly close to Rioli.

"Me and Daniel are pretty tight, we have a kick after training all the time and then go get some breakfast together," Bolton said.

"But we're all a pretty tight unit, especially us Indigenous boys, we're pretty close."

It was that close bond that helped Bolton decide that his future lay at Punt Road.

He had been linked to a move to West Coast, but resisted the lure of home and family and made the "easy" decision to sign with Richmond until the end of 2021.

"There was a chance of me going home but I just love it over here ... I just love what the boys bring here, we're all a close unit - we're all like brothers," Bolton said.

"There was a little bit of a chance of me going home, obviously with family but I'm not homesick or anything.

"I love Melbourne, my family will come over whenever they can so I see them, so I didn't see really any point going back home."

Australian Associated Press