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RoCo’s Wrap: Tigers’ flag triumph teaches some lessons

Shout it out loud: Richmond coach Damien Hardwick and captain Trent Cotchin hold aloft the club’s first premiership cup since 1980. Photo: AFL MEDIA

RoCo’s Wrap: Tigers’ flag triumph teaches some lessons

Rohan Connolly    

There are lessons to be learned from any AFL premiership, but Richmond’s incredible triumph on Saturday offers more than most flags we’ve seen in the modern era.

Let’s start with the obvious. That these days in football, dreams actually can come true. Last year, a team won a premiership coming from seventh place on the ladder. This time, it was a side which finished last season 13th, the steepest climb in league history.

But the teachings thrown up by the Tigers’ 11th premiership and first for 37 years run a lot deeper than merely romance. The virtue of patience, for one. Even for the current Richmond administration, this flag has been a long time coming.

It’s more than seven years ago that chief executive Brendon Gale released publicly an ambitious five-year plan that sought by the end of that time frame to be free of debt, have attracted 75,000 members and played finals at least three times.

Widely pilloried at the time, Richmond nonetheless achieved two of those goals and was only 5000 members short of achieving all three. Two years further on, it’s just 1500 members short, is thriving financially, and not just having made finals a fourth time, just also happens to be the reigning premier.

What better justification for staying the course, refusing to buckle to agitation for quicker results, the sort of pot-stirring which for so much of those barren 37 years made Richmond a place good for rabble-rousing but not much else?

Nowhere has that patience been more important than on the field. It took Damien Hardwick eight seasons and 180 games in charge as coach to record his first finals win. Three straight elimination final defeats then the much-discussed blow-out of 2016 could have caused even the most optimistic Tigers to buckle.

And in that sense, the parallels with Geelong of a decade ago are uncanny. The Cats had built towards something substantial in two finals series before it all went pear-shaped in 2006. A thorough review of the football operations kept coach Mark Thompson in his job but revamped the support roles around him and installed Neil Balme as football manager. You know the rest.

That patience and the payoff which has now arrived in itself provides another lesson. That even the most seemingly deep-rooted club cultures can be changed.

In its spectacular fall from grace post-1982, Richmond churned through nine different coaches in 15 years. But if Hardwick continues to coach the Tigers until the end of 2020, and you’d think that’s now a given, he will surpass Tom Hafey as the club’s longest-serving mentor.

That old Richmond catchcry of “Eat ‘Em Alive” used to apply as much to its own as its rivals. But that hasn’t been the case now for some time. And Hardwick has more than repaid the faith, thus serving up another lesson, in adaptability.

Hardwick’s coaching performance over the last 12 months has been remarkable. He’s been candid about the extent of his own self-examination after that disastrous 2016, and that’s been reflected in how his team plays its football.

Out went the over-cautious, possession-based “chip, chip, chip” stuff across half-back. In came a willingness to move the ball on, back his players’ ability to win contests, and to focus on maximising the strengths of what he had at his disposal rather than dwell on what he lacked.

Thus, a forward set-up chronically short of key forward support for Jack Riewoldt became instead one in which lack of size became an asset, the pace and terrier-like qualities of Dan Butler, Daniel Rioli, Jason Castagna and, late in the season, Jacob Townsend, exerting levels of defensive pressure rarely seen and which consistently brought opponent’s best-laid plans undone.

That became a rich source of scoring, which went up a level again during the finals. Richmond finished the regular season ranked only eighth for points scored. In its first 20 games, the Tigers topped 100 points only four times.

But they did it another four times in their last five games, including two finals, simultaneously holding their opponents to uncompetitive tallies of 40, 67 and 60 points, the perfect September balance. Indeed, no premiership team has been as dominant in three finals victories en route to the flag since Essendon in 2000.

Hawthorn in 2008 was close, but didn’t have as convincing a grand final win. Geelong in 2007 won two of its three by more than 100 points but just got over the line in a nail-biting preliminary final. Does that offer another lesson about attitude versus ability?

Few neutral observers would argue that assessed merely on the latter quality, Adelaide had the superior grand final line-up. Grant Thomas, in his usual blunt style, even mused on social media that Richmond had “possibly the worst group of players to win a premiership”.

What the Tigers did have, however, was a commitment and intensity at the contest which none of their finals rivals, the other three best-performed teams of the season, incidentally, could match.

It was attitude that informed Hardwick’s late-season selections, regardless of previous form or experience. Hence premiership medals for three players – Nathan Broad, Townsend and Jack Graham – none of who had played a single senior game for the season until as late as round 17.

Richmond’s best four players – Dustin Martin, Alex Rance, Trent Cotchin and Jack Riewoldt – are undoubtedly four of the best handful in the AFL. There’s a bit of a gap to the rest. But like the Bulldogs last year, intent has won a handsome victory over reputation.

This is another premiership win which gives a whole competition hope. And that’s not just a matter of perception.

The standard at the top of the ladder might not be quite what it was, but so is the standard at the other end better, too. Adelaide’s 15-and-a-half wins was the lowest recorded by a top team since 1997. And wooden-spooner Brisbane’s five victories was the most by a bottom side since 1998.

That’s also a pointer to a final lesson out of this Richmond premiership. That equalisation, or football socialism, has worked.

This was the 28th season of the AFL. Richmond becomes the 13th different club to win a flag in that time, an average of just on one different premier every two years. In the last 23 seasons of the old VFL, only five clubs had triumphed. That’s some change.

What does it mean? It means, St Kilda and Melbourne fans, that as sceptical as you’re entitled to be, your time is coming. And when it does, it will be worth the wait. Just take a stroll down Punt Road or Swan Street over the next few days if you doubt it.

  1. Thanks Ro
    This is probably the most balanced and beautifully written article I’ve found so far, in relation to The Tigers 2017 triumph.
    Always enjoyed your writing and your time on SEN, and this article helps solidify my respect for your work
    Cheers fella

  2. Well done tiges. I think also the draw and a good run with injuries helped. To their credit they won the ones they should have, won 50-50 of the 50-50s and lost the ones they might be expected to lose. They had Carlton, free, and Brisbane twice, which gave them an extra 12 points, and the double chance, beat other thereabouts contenders like Essendon, Melbourne, port, and saints, and lost to the other top4 sides. Impressive was their ability to turn on the really good footy at the right time of the year. A very strategic win

  3. Commiserations to the Crows. The H&A and Finals are becoming more and more distinct every year.

    I think it’s time the AFL more publicly rewarded the team that finishes the H&A on top. Maybe present every player with a medal? Maybe present a trophy to the captain and coach at the start of the Brownlow?

    Otherwise, can we please have a “normal” season next year?!! 😀 One where the premier has had had their share of recent prelim or GF pain, when the best team of the H&A wins.

    But… if things come in three…. get your money on the Dees or Saints.

  4. Chris, why bother playing a finals series if you think the team that has finished on top should be entitled to win the flag? Having some unpredictability in the finals has been very refreshing the last 2 years. If the best side all year can’t produce the same in the finals, they don’t deserve to win.

  5. Early comment on GF Poddie.
    Loved this podcast gents, comments were spot on with solid analysis of the GF. Rohan, I have heard you bemoan the fact that the GF reviews usually dissipate by early Monday arvo these days as the footy world turns its attention to trade week. I agree with you and would love to see one of the commercial (I dont have Foxtel) TV shows, including Marngrook, do one final program to dissect the GF and all the celebrations. Would be good fun I reckon.
    I can remember back in 1990 buying everything I could to celebrate the Pies win that year. (twenty years older in 2010 so not so much!!). One of those pieces I still have from the 90 GF is a double cassette of 3AW’s call of the match. Commentators were Rex, Sam and Bill Jacobs. Great stuff!! So, as I walking along listening to your pod this morning, I thought that it would be great if you two could find some time, big ask I know, to sit down with a drink in hand, watch the game with sound off and do an extended podcast of an entire “commentary”of the GF. Would be great for the Tiges supporters and good fun for the rest of us! Just a thought!
    Thanks for the podcasts and all the work this year!!

  6. A ‘balanced’article. Come on….

    How wonderful it would have been for Adelaide to have played at their home ground. How wonderfully balanced this competition is that the side that finishes lower gets to play at its home ground, a ground that is familiar in playing so has no nerves come the biggest game. What do you think the result what have been had the game been played in Adelaide a ground it was totally comfortable in playing.

    How easy it is for Victorian teams, its a joke

  7. John, go away with your easy draw and good run with injuries b/dust not to mention naming all the sides we played twice and lost to the top 4 sides bla bla bla bla bla bla, your simply another sour graper. We gifted 4 games earlier in the yr by under a kick or we finish top by a mile.

  8. Rohan as usual very nice reflection, and comment you wrote in this article. Good job.

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