Richmond fans have revelled in the success of the last three years, a time that has delivered two premierships and brought joy to a great many thousands of people.
The Tigers barnstormed their way to the 2019 flag without Alex Rance leading the defence, and will now have to make permanent the adjustments they made in order to win without him.
Rance’s retirement decision on Wednesday was a surprise, but not a shock. He had flagged the idea of early retirement half a decade ago, when he was only in his mid-20’s. Rance is a spiritual man of devout faith, and he feels the time has come to pour all of his energy into areas of his life beyond football.
As a player, Alex Rance was an undisputed champion and will be inducted into the Hall of Fame as soon as he is eligible.
He was one of only four players to be named All Australian five consecutive times this decade, with the others being Gary Ablett, Patrick Dangerfield and Scott Pendlebury. It’s rare air. He had claims on being the best player in the game at his zenith, something afforded to very few backmen in the history of the sport.
Rance was a perfect blend of attack and defence, and it’s arguable his instincts as to how and when to switch between the two are the sharpest we have ever seen. These instincts were honed over a period of years; the young Rance was a source of much frustration.
Countless opposition forays met resistance in the form of Rance. His signature move, far easier to appreciate at the ground than on TV, was to come from nowhere to effect a diving spoil. He would often be 30 metres or more away, usually standing a man, and make a split-second calculation to sprint to the anticipated landing area if he thought an opponent was best placed to win the ball. Rarely did his maths let him down.
Richmond fans, indeed all football fans, were often left gasping at these feats of athleticism; sometimes there were four or five of these plays back-to-back. There were times where he simply would not let the opposition score, using sheer will. Determination and desperation were not just part of the job description – they were at Rance’s very core, embedded in his football DNA.
It’s extremely difficult to shape a match from full back, but so many games revolved around Rance. He played several match-winning quarters of football, protecting a lead against an opposition charging home. Ryan Buckland would often liken him to a Jedi knight, and it did seem at times he was one with the Force.
Lance Franklin has been the best forward this century has seen, and if you had to build a prototype to play on him, it would take the form of Rance. Their battles through the years were worth the price of admission. They have both had the honour of being named All Australian captain, which conveys their status in the game.
In Round 14 of 2014, Sydney played Richmond in a dreary contest that the Swans won 62-51. The only highlight was Franklin vs Rance, and was one of those rare occasions that you walked away thinking two opponents were their respective team’s best player. In fact, they were the two best players on the ground that night.
Rance was just reaching his peak then, 24 years old and would win his first AA jumper later that year.
In the latter part of his career, Rance was employed as the last man in defence no matter the opponent, so played on a variety of them.
He was a key defender, but because of his speed and agility could also play small. His opponents could range from strong men like Josh Kennedy and Tom Hawkins, athletes like Franklin and Jeremy Cameron, talls like Ben Brown and Mason Cox or explosive players like Jake Stringer and Jordan de Goey.
One of Rance’s weaknesses in his early days was decision-making with ball in hand. He drove many Tigers supporters to drink with his low footy IQ, as much as his bull-at-a-gate attitude was respected. To his credit, and under the coaching influence of Damien Hardwick, Justin Leppitsch and Troy Chaplin, he matured to become an offensive weapon without the risks and turnovers.
Rance was also courageous to a fault, as evidenced early in his career when suffering a sickening head clash with the equally brave Troy Selwood. It was just his sixth senior game.
Looking at key backmen in the AFL era, Steve Silvagni and Glen Jakovich dominated the 90’s, Matthew Scarlett was without peer in the 2000’s and Brian Lake crossed decades. It’s a group in which Alex Rance comfortably sits. Is he the best of them? It’s a conversation, even though Silvagni was named in the AFL team of the century in 1996.
But if you want to say Rance was better than Scarlett in front of Geelong fans, you best be wearing body armour.
Similar to Scarlett, Rance’s legacy at Richmond goes beyond feats on the field. Scarlett was revered within the walls of Kardinia Park, and was a key plank if not instigator of the Cats drive to be a powerhouse from 2007 onwards, a position they still hold today.
The Tigers would not be the dominant force of the competition that they currently are without Rance driving the all-important messages of vulnerability and connectivity – you hear the players and employees talk about these messages as the key to their success. He has always been authentically himself, and the impact of his leadership to help others develop and grow to be the best versions of themselves is clear.
Tiger players talk about what it is to be a “Richmond Man” and all that it embodies. Alex Rance will always be one.