‘I don’t think it’s a good look.’
Last Friday night’s Richmond-Collingwood mockbuster had everything you’d want from a game of football except for a good game of football.
It was one of the most poorly played matches you’ll ever see – a chaos of ill-advised decisions and comical skill errors. When Marley Williams wasn’t skying kick-ins to the corridor he was chipping them short to yellow and black guernseys.
Tyrone Vickery and Sam Lloyd, two perfectly capable kicks for goal, were looking to pass off regulation shots inside 50, seemingly afraid that the game’s woeful disease was endemic, and might spread to them in front of 72,000 people. Watching the farce from my seat on the MCG’s fourth level, my biggest regret was that the stadium didn’t extend to a fifth, eighth and 17th level which I could escape to in order to distance myself from the game’s stench.
But the beauty of football is that a player, a team, or a match has the ability to find redemption in a single minute.
When Jack Riewoldt capitalised on some miserable Jack Frost defending to goal at the 21-minute mark of the final quarter to put the Tigers up 17 points, the game was over. Collingwood were getting dominated in the clearances and possession count, and on the occasions that they did find the ball they explored new and exciting ways to butcher it, as is their custom.
They’d eked out a mere ten goals for the entire match to that point, their midfield lacked any semblance of fluency and their forward line was hopefully disjointed. There was nothing to suggest that they could kick the three straight goals they needed to win the match. Nothing except Richmond.
When the Pies did the impossible, and I wondered aloud to myself at the final siren, ‘Wait, do Collingwood actually get four premiership points for this?’ the only thing louder than the Magpie euphoria at the MCG was the silent, accepting desolation of the Richmond fans walking to the exits. They knew this was coming.
When Riewoldt kicked his last goal I turned to The Roar’s Cam Rose and started talking about what this loss would mean for Collingwood’s season, and how they would really need to win their next three games (St Kilda, Melbourne and Essendon) to get to 3-2 before a trip to West Coast. He cautioned me with a sad grin: “Jay, if you think this game is over, you don’t know a thing about Richmond.” It turns out I didn’t.
Defeat often becomes so engrained in a club that it starts to emerge as a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the ball bounced to Stephen Milne’s right, of course it did, this is what happens to the Saints. When Tony Liberatore celebrated his potentially game-sealing goal in the 1997 preliminary final, of course it was called a behind, this is what happens to the Bulldogs.
We don’t think of Richmond in the same breath as St Kilda and the Dogs because the Tigers have a huge following and ten premierships in their history. But the reality is that Richmond haven’t won a flag since 1980 and they’ve won just two finals in the past 33 years. Since the dawn of the AFL in 1990, Richmond have been the competition’s worst team.
More than three decades in a desert of losing and drinking from the false oases of Aaron Fiora, Clinton King and all their other failed draft picks has led Richmond fans, justifiably, to expect crushing disappointment. Walking out of the MCG last Friday night there was very little anger on the faces of Richmond fans – instead they were plastered with bleak, knowing smiles. Of course they’d lost the game that was impossible to lose.
The Tigers have oscillated between mediocrity and abject dreadfulness in their first two games this season. They pinched a victory against a team widely tipped to finish in the bottom two, and then they threw away the game against the Pies, who have been the worst team in the AFL in the competition’s first fortnight. For a team with top four aspirations, it’s been an uninspired start.
But the Tigers aren’t the Tigers yet. Brett Deledio, Ivan Maric and Shane Edwards, three of the team’s best players, will come back, and Chris Yarran, the dynamic off-season recruit, is yet to debut. Richmond aren’t perfect with their list construction but they have very few holes.
Alex Rance, when he isn’t gifting the opposition multiple goals in the dying minutes, is still the league’s most influential defender. Riewoldt and Vickery form a 1-2 key forward punch that stacks up to most in the competition. The midfield is not a devastating force, but it’s honest enough, and finds a healthy balance between stars and role players.
But the real reason for Richmond optimism, the tattooed glimmer of hope shining through 36 years in the wilderness, is the man who lives free and dies freer.
Rance is Richmond’s best player and Deledio is their most well-rounded and versatile. But the Tigers will only go as far as Dustin Martin can take them.
Martin was last Friday night’s most dominant figure, and his entire palette of talents was on full display. He glides around the ground with a smoothness that belies his build and a grace that belies his haircut. We tend to associate the ability to ‘break the lines’ with foot speed, but the ball moves faster through the air than the feet do on the ground, and Martin is a line-breaker with his incisive kicking ability. He rifles passes low and hard and he lofts goals long and high.
And then there’s his strength. Dustin Martin is a FORCE. In the clutter of nervousness and juvenile skills on display last Friday night, Martin and Scott Pendlebury were the two most composed figures, and their composure came from opposite sources.
Pendlebury is an artist, a feathery football scientist who eludes the opposition with timing, deftness and sleight of hand. He sees events before they occur. Martin on the other hand sees the events right as they occur and tells them to go to hell. His composure isn’t as cunning as Pendlebury’s but it’s every bit as majestic, and much more imposing. He takes more time than most players with the ball because he knows that he’ll always have the strength to create extra seconds for himself when he needs to.
Magpie guernseys came at him from all angles all night and he fended them off with ease, like a 17-year-old palming off a slew of desperate 12-year-olds. The one time the Pies did bring him down, late in the second quarter, it took three of them to do so.
Martin is not flawless. He has ranked first and third in the competition for clangers per game the past two seasons and is prone to the occasional shanked kick. But the clangers also just point Martin’s greatness – he is totally fearless, unafraid of the contest and unafraid of pulling the trigger on a bulleted pass through traffic in the corridor. He lives free and dies free with his decision making, and he lives more often that not.
While beautiful kicks of the ball like Pendlebury, Robbie Gray and Brendon Goddard went through last season handballing just as much as they kicked, Martin kicked the ball twice for every handball. In a midfield that is often defined by Trent Cotchin’s suffocating conservatism, the aggression of Martin, physically and mentally, gives Richmond life going forward.
The Tigers’ #4 is already one of the competition’s elite players. He’s increased his disposal tally every season he’s played, and he’s kicked at least a goal per game in each of the last five seasons. Patrick Dangerfield has only done that once in the past four years, Nat Fyfe once in the past six, and Pendlebury has never done it.
Martin’s off-field behaviour isn’t exactly presidential, but it’s all part of the package. You can’t have the audacious fend-offs without the chopstick assault threats (well, maybe you can). But Richmond don’t need someone to calmly and politely guide them forward. They need someone to punch history in the face and drag them back to success. It’s hard to think of many better candidates for that role than Dustin Martin.