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Geelong and Richmond set the standard for excellence, precisely a decade apart

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Expert
30th September, 2019
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So Richmond end the decade as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the AFL, much as Geelong ended the noughties in the exact same fashion.

The similarities between this incarnation of the Tigers and the Cats of back then are eerie.

Mark Thompson became head coach of Geelong in 2000, just as Damien Hardwick did at Richmond in 2010.

Both coached their sides to three finals series in their first six years, but without ever threatening for the flag. In 2005, the Cats finished fifth after the finals series. In 2015, the Tigers finished fifth after the home-and-away rounds.

The future was bright, and they were two sides on the rise.

But the seventh years in charge for both Thompson and Hardwick were their worst.

In 2006, Geelong actually won their first two matches and were on top of the ladder. Four losses in a row followed, and they plummeted out of the eight, where they remained for the rest of the season. It was the era of Sydney Swans and ugly footy – and the brightness had gone out of their game.

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For Richmond in 2016, it was even worse. After their standard opening-round win against Carlton, it was then six losses in a row for the Tigers. They never rose higher than 11th in a season where they played some of the most unattractive football imaginable.

A decade apart, calls for the sackings of both coaches were loud and frequent. Board challenges were mounted. Newspapers ran out of ink with the frenzied coverage. Each day brought a new angle. The fan-bases, starved of premierships for multiple decades, were demanding change.

Read: Cam Rose in 2016: Damien Hardwick must go
Read: Josh Elliott in 2016: Hardwick might get the chop

Ever since the inception of the VFL in 1897, and subsequently the AFL from 1990, sacking coaches has been as much a part of football as kicks and handballs. More often than not, it was a blood sport.

Coaches never got seven years to take their teams into premiership contention, especially when they failed to make the finals in their most recent campaign. Bomber and Dimma were surely gone.

But the leadership at Geelong and Richmond were made of sterner stuff. Stability was the buzzword each time. Frank Costa and Brian Cook backed Thompson in, as did Peggy O’Neal and Brendon Gale with Hardwick.

The respective football departments were re-shaped. Neil Balme was brought in both times to head them up. The senior coaches kept their jobs. Their focus was narrowed. They could go back to doing what they were good at.

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At the Cats, Gary Ablett Jr was told in no uncertain terms he was nowhere close to living up to his talent. At Richmond, Dustin Martin had a poor finals record but had discovered mindfulness and was ready to go. They became the best players in the competition.

Dustin Martin

(Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

No-one could have predicted the turnarounds of each team would be so swift and so triumphant. In both seasons, the other club was a key to the eventual success.

In 2007, the Cats were going just okay in the early stages of the season, but suffered a shock loss to North Melbourne down at Kardinia Park in Round 5.

It was the spark they needed. The next week Geelong took to the winless Tigers with no mercy – they kicked 35 goals on the way to a 157-point win. It was brutally efficient, and started a 15-game winning streak.

In 2017, Richmond weren’t the dominant force the Cats were ten years earlier, but won their first five matches to kick off the season on the way to a third-place finish. The Tigers hadn’t won a final since 2001. Under Hardwick, they had lost three elimination finals, twice as hot favourites. Geelong were Richmond’s opponent in the crucial first final. The Tigers duly saluted by 51 points.

As we know, premiership droughts were broken. Forty-four years for the Cats, 37 years for the Tigers. The city of Geelong was at a standstill for a week. Moorabool Street was rocking. In Richmond, Swan Street was a happy riot. Fans that couldn’t get into pubs broke into bottle shops and started drinking beer off the shelves.

Yet, still the similarities continued.

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Hot favourites going into 2008 and 2018 respectively, the two teams performed accordingly. Geelong lost one game. Richmond finished two games and 15 per cent ahead of its nearest rival. They were Winx odds to go back-to-back, but it didn’t happen. Luke Hodge haunts Cats supporters still. Tigers fans will always shudder when they hear the name Mason Cox.

With lessons learnt about getting ahead of themselves, redemption was the order of business in 2009 and 2019.

Geelong had St Kilda setting the pace all season, culminating in what is widely considered the greatest home-and-away match of all time. Across the year they were Bonecrusher and Our Waverley Star in the 1986 Cox Plate. The Cats were down at each change of the grand final, but found a way as champion sides do. The Matthew Scarlett toe-poke will never be forgotten.

Richmond weren’t even in the eight after 14 rounds, beset by injuries. At one stage they had eight of the previous year’s top 11 in the best and fairest missing. Peeling off 12 wins in a row to claim a storied premiership, they came home like Kiwi in the 1983 Melbourne Cup. Marlion Pickett’s blind turn was the signature move.

Two great clubs did it in different ways, but got the same result.

Dustin Martin

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/AFL Photos/via Getty Images )

Champion teams need a thumping grand final win on the CV. Geelong in their era and Richmond now hold two of the top three biggest grand final margins of all time.

We know what the future held for the Cats post-2009: Bomber Thompson burning out, Ablett departing to Gold Coast, a preliminary final loss amid the fall-out between the two, then a new coach and a premiership after they’d been written off by all and sundry.

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Three flags in five years was a worthy return for their dominance over that period of time.

The Tigers will get back Alex Rance next year, and will get a full pre-season for the first time out of Tom Lynch, Marlion Pickett and Sydney Stack. Their VFL team won the premiership too, after three years at the top of that ladder. The future looks bright.

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The other big similarity between these two teams is that they played a unique style based on attacking handball. No-one else played that way. No-one else could. Both sides played the corridor whenever possible, even though the era was defined by defensive ball movement and boundary use for most teams.

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It’s a style of play that thrilled the fans and made them proud. Winning is always fun, but winning attractively is joyous.

Magic men like Stevie Johnson and Shane Edwards. The best two key defenders of the century in Matthew Scarlett and Alex Rance. Corey Enright and Dylan Grimes alongside. Ablett. Martin. Bartel. Cotchin. All four Brownlow medallists. Tom Hawkins and Jack Riewoldt up forward. Speedy small forwards aplenty on both lists.

Geelong created a dynasty with their third flag. Richmond still has to do the same. But based on how history has repeated thus far, you’d be a brave person to back against them.