Are Richmond ready for the finals?
Richmond players Alex Rance and Dustin Martin celebrate a victory over Hawthorn at the MCG (Photo: Andrew White/AFL Media).
What a difference one week can make. Richmond defeated AFL ladder-leaders Hawthorn by 41 points over the weekend to register win number eleven for the season.
In the process, they all but booked their ticket to the AFL finals, ending an extremely long eleven-year finals drought stretching back to 2001.
The Tigers are just the fourth different team (after Geelong, the Sydney Swans and West Coast Eagles) to beat the Hawks since the beginning of the 2012 season, and only the third (after the Cats and the Swans) to beat them more than once in the same period.
Of course, the last time Richmond played Hawthorn, the men from Punt Road gave the men from Glenferrie a massive 62-point thumping, which appeared to signal their return to the big time.
But it turned out not to be, as the Tigers would eventually miss the finals whilst the Hawks would streak all the way to the minor premiership, before going on to lose the Grand Final to the Swans.
Prior to this match, not many predicted a Richmond victory over Hawthorn – the Hawks were on top of the ladder and had only lost twice to Geelong for the season, whilst the Tigers were beaten by the defending premiers in Sydney last week.
The Hawks, as they have been all season, were at their rampaging best against Essendon last week, as Lance Franklin kicked eight majors in his return from injury.
Meanwhile, the Tigers could only manage nine majors against the stiffest defence in the competition, at a ground where they have now not won at since 2004.
But somebody forgot to tell Richmond, who must have been inspired by their last meeting against Hawthorn, the aforementioned 62-point thrashing back on May 26, 2012.
But what does this victory mean for Richmond and its long suffering supporters?
For the last eleven years Richmond fans have been subjected to being taunted about their team not playing in the finals.
In this period, the team has gone through four coaches (Danny Frawley, Terry Wallace, Jade Rawlings and now, Damien Hardwick), won two wooden spoons (in 2004 and 2007) and finished ninth twice (in 2006 and 2008).
However, in all this doom and gloom, the Tigers have drafted Brett Deledio, Jack Riewoldt, Shane Tuck, Trent Cotchin, Jack Riewoldt, Dustin Martin, Nathan Foley, and to a lesser extent, Ben Cousins.
All except Cousins, who finished his career with two 15th-place finishes at the club in 2009 and 2010, will finally experience finals for the first time in their careers.
But no player has had to wait more than former captain Chris Newman, who has now played the most VFL/AFL games without playing a single final.
The Tigers’ victory over Hawthorn was Newman’s 231st AFL game since his debut in 2002.
Newman now holds the unwanted record of having played the most AFL games without playing a final, having had the tag passed onto him by the late St. Kilda legend Trevor Barker.
Assuming Newman does not suffer any sort of injury for the remainder of the season, Richmond’s (likely) elimination final will be Newman’s 236th AFL game.
The Tigers’ frequency of finishing ninth since the AFL was established in 1990 has become the centre of many AFL jokes in recent times.
The team have been nicknamed “Ninthmond” and the club song has had its lyrics reworded, and retitled to “We finished ninth again”.
Now there is no way that we will hear all those sick jokes again, at least for this year.
All they have to do is win at least one of their remaining four matches to be guaranteed their ticket to next month’s play-offs.
The team could well finish sixth at the end of the season (or fifth, if Essendon are stripped of their premiership points and their right to play in September). Their finals opponent, should they finish sixth, would very likely be Collingwood, the team they beat to win their last premiership in 1980.
Fans are consulting their local travel agents to cancel any holidays that they may have planned for early September, now that it’s certain the yellow-and-black will finally feature in a finals series.
They will get their money back and use it to purchase a ticket to what will be Richmond’s first AFL finals match since being swamped by the eventual premiers, the Brisbane Lions, in a preliminary final match at the Gabba in 2001.
And if Richmond can win its first final, then the money would have been worth spending.
Damien Hardwick deserves all the credit for turning the team around and pushing them up the ladder and the rewards will eventually loom.
The next question will be – can he become Richmond’s first premiership coach since Tony Jewell in 1980?
Anything is possible.
But for now – the Tiger Army are roaring loud and proud, at volumes that haven’t been this high since 2001.