One of my personal favourite memories as a footy fan is North Melbourne’s 2015 elimination final win over the Richmond Tigers.
I distinctly remember sitting down at the Pancake Parlour in Melbourne Central (I’m a lifelong pancake lover) on the Saturday beforehand and reading every article in the paper related to the game.
There were plenty – and they were all of them about the Tigers. All of them declared how Richmond, finally, were ready to break their finals duck.
I probably read 20 or 30 articles about the game in advance of it that week. And the only one I found about North was a half-hearted attempt to explain why so little of the coverage was about North (and in looking to make this explanation, talked mostly about Richmond).
I went to the MCG with a feeling of absolute certainty that Tiger-loving news pundits be damned, this was going to be North Melbourne’s day.
The North banner proudly stated “Tigers don’t win finals – we do!” on one side, and “NMFC welcome refugees” on the other. Never has a club banner inspired more pride in me.
I had managed to secure a seat in North’s cheersquad bay and had just about the best view of the action you could ask for in an MCG packed with more than 90,000 fans.
The first half wasn’t the ideal start though – Richmond kicked nine goals to six and came away with a 13-point advantage at the halftime break.
I knew from watching the game that despite the scoreboard, we had been the better team. We had two more scoring shots and many of Richmond’s goals had come from free kicks – not that the free kicks weren’t there, but the Tigers weren’t setting up genuine opportunities, they were being given them by a few poor mistakes.
Coach Damien Hardwick even said sometime after that the coaching team knew the halftime lead was a “false positive”. They were being outplayed by the Roos, it just wasn’t reflected on the scoreboard yet.
In the second half, it was. North kicked five goals to three in the third quarter to take a four-point lead, then four to two in the final term to run out the winners by 17.
There are key moments from that day that I have remembered with a smile on my face since and will do so for years to come.
Robin Nahas catching Troy Chaplin with the ball. Jarrad Waite kicking four to sink the Tigers’ finals hopes (and not for the first time). Brent Harvey revving up the celebrating North cheersquad post-game after every other player had left the ground.
In the end though, nothing could beat the satisfaction of knowing that, despite the hype, Richmond were just not that good, and it had been my team who was lucky enough to deliver the AFL world a reminder of that.
Does that make me sound like a classic North fan with a chip on my shoulder hating the big, much-talked-about Tiges? Probably not an unfair label. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a bit of footy schadenfreude every now and then if you know where the line is.
At the time Richmond were my most hated opposition team, the one I loved beating the most.
It frustrated me that I had never in my life seen them do anything worthwhile on the footy field, but they still got ten times the press of my beloved North, who were a halfway decent team at the time but getting little to no love for it.
Those days are over now, because in 2017, after 37 years of slumber, the sleeping giant finally stopped hitting the snooze button.
The story of Richmond’s 2017 campaign has been told and retold enough times that there’s no particular need for me to go into it here.
Besides, it’s not like there’s even the remotest chance I could ever sum it up half as good as Jay Croucher’s epic longread “Destruction Tour: How the Tigers eviscerated the rest of the AFL and everything we thought we knew”.
(Give it another read, Tiger fans. You know you want to.)
What is interesting to me lately is not just the fact that Richmond won in 2017, but how they’ve turned that victory into the launching pad for what could be an era of absolute domination.
For the last decade or so, Hawthorn, Geelong and Sydney have been the ‘glamour’ clubs of the competition.
These teams have won a remarkable nine of the last 13 premierships, with West Coast, Collingwood, the Bulldogs and now the Tigers the only other teams to taste flag success in that time.
Since 2006, the Hawks, Cats and Swans have qualified for finals 29 times out of a possible 33. They’re all in with a strong chance of playing in September again this year.
When a smaller club wins a flag, we often ask the question of whether or not they can convert their success into becoming a larger fixture in the AFL landscape.
It was asked of North Melbourne when they won two in four years in the late 1990s and it might well have happened if the club’s greatest era hadn’t been derailed by scandal shortly after.
It was asked of the Western Bulldogs in 2016 but it doesn’t look like happening. The Dogs just didn’t have a list ready for sustained success.
Richmond, though? Richmond have taken their breakthrough flag as a chance to move permanently up the AFL foodchain. Perhaps right to the very top.
Case in point: this year they’ve signed up 97,331 members. That’s an improvement 24,662 on their 2017 numbers.
Their new members alone outnumber the entire membership base of the Gold Coast Suns (11,477) or the Greater Western Sydney Giants (23,332), and are so very, very close to also overtaking the Brisbane Lions (24,730).
They made a profit of $3 million last year, have cash reserves of nearly $10 million, and a net asset position of $27 million. They’ll probably make an even bigger profit in 2018, considering membership is up by 33 per cent.
Oh, and did I mention that they’re (well, I’m tipping this at least) going to go back-to-back this year? There’s maybe one team in the comp who has half a chance of knocking them off at the MCG (more on that some other week), and they’re a serious longshot.
They’ve even gotten pretty hard to hate these days. It’s difficult not to respect the leadership of Trent Cotchin, the class of Alex Rance, the passion of Jack Riewoldt, the power of Dustin Martin, the flair of Daniel Rioli.
More than anything else, I see a bond between the playing group as strong as any that has ever been, and I admire it – am sometimes even blown away by it.
Nothing sums it up better than the great man Cam Rose’s latest Twitter bio: “The old Richmond can’t come to the phone right now.”
Why? Oh… cause it’s dead!
In short: the Tigers are poised to become the AFL’s apex predator. And they might be big enough to dominate the league to an extent that no club before them ever has.
How will we know? A second flag will go a long way, but the real race for supremacy might be found in October instead of September.
Right now, Tom J Lynch is deciding between Melbourne’s three biggest clubs – Collingwood, Hawthorn and the Tiges – for where he’ll play his footy in 2018.
(I guess he could also be considering staying with Gold Coast, if you happen to believe in the tooth fairy and other such things.)
Each club has its own drawcards.
Hawthorn has Alastair Clarkson, the best coach in the league. They also have, as pointed out by Mitch Cleary this week, some good history in keeping players on the park – of worthwhile consideration to a bloke whose season has ended early with a PCL injury.
Collingwood has both the allure of Lynch being able to play for the team he grew up supporting, and the promise of direct access to the opportunity to build a massive media profile through the assistance of club president Eddie McGuire.
Richmond, well, Richmond has everything I’ve already said here.
Which would you pick if you’re a footy player right now – not just wanting to have some success in what’s left of your career, but also hoping to set yourself up for life after footy by building your public profile and gaining some valuable media experience?
There are other machinations that come into it of course – most of the salary cap variety. It sounds like both Collingwood and Richmond will have to accept losing other players if they’re to sign Lynch, so at some point one or both of those clubs is going to have to choose to bite the bullet.
We’ll talk about that another week, too.
But if you were to pick right now which club you’d like to be the face of, which will be the dominant club in Victorian football for the next five or so years to come? You’d find it hard to say no to Richmond.
And if that happens, Heaven help us all. We’ve seen how Hawthorn and Geelong have been able to maintain sustained success by continuing to attract top-tier talent home to Victoria from interstate.
The Swans have done plenty in this respect too – and their success in luring players has been all the more admirable for the fact that moving to NSW goes against the grain for many, and that the AFL has actively tried to block them from doing it.
If the Tigers rise to the top of the pecking order for incoming trade talent – of which, it seems, there will always be plenty – then be afraid, very afraid.
We’re looking at a Tiger Time with length like a Westeros Winter.