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What is the AFL's greatest modern dynasty?

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Roar Guru
30th October, 2020
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With their grand final victory over the Geelong Cats last week, Richmond became the fourth team this millennium to win at least three flags.

They joined the Brisbane Lions (2001-03), the Cats (2007, 2009 and 2011) and Hawthorn (2008, 2013-15) among the most successful teams of the 21st century, and Trent Cotchin joined his contemporaries Michael Voss and Luke Hodge as triple-premiership winning captains.

Further, Cotchin also became the first man in Richmond’s history to lead his side to three flags, and he was joined by 13 other players, including three-time Norm Smith Medallist Dustin Martin, as well as Jack Riewoldt, Shane Edwards and Bachar Houli, among others.

But where does Richmond’s premiership dynasty rank among those in the 21st century?

Let’s check out some of the previous dynasties in the AFL before we look back at Richmond’s, and settle on which I think was the best this century.

Brisbane Lions

Premierships: 2001, 2002, 2003
Coach: Leigh Matthews
Captain: Michael Voss
Played in all three flags: Chris Johnson, Michael Voss, Craig McRae, Luke Power, Marcus Ashcroft, Alastair Lynch, Jason Akermanis, Martin Pike, Mal Michael, Jonathan Brown, Simon Black, Justin Leppitsch, Clark Keating, Shaun Hart, Darryl White, Nigel Lappin
Who’s left: No-one

Before the dynasty
The club contested their first season as a merged entity in 1997, qualifying for the finals in eighth position before losing their qualifying final to St Kilda and therefore exiting September in the first week.

The following year, the club crashed to the bottom of the ladder, and coach John Northey lost his job, being replaced in the interim by Roger Merrett before 1990 Collingwood premiership coach Leigh Matthews was hired to reverse the club’s fortunes.

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The Lions shot up the ladder in 1999, finishing third on the ladder and reaching the preliminary final where they bowed out to eventual premiers the Kangaroos.

Despite having to play their first four games away from home due to the Queensland summer heat, they were the only non-Victorian team to qualify for the finals in 2000. They reached the semi-finals, only to be thrashed by Carlton by 82 points at the MCG.

The dynasty
In the lead-up to the Lions’ Round 10 clash against reigning premiers Essendon at the Gabba, Matthews used a famous quote from the Predator film: “if it bleeds, we can kill it”.

It inspired the Lions to a 28-point win over the Bombers, and it would be the first match of a 15-match winning streak that would take them to the grand final and a showdown against the previous year’s premiers.

In the week leading up to the decider, the first for the Fitzroy part of the merger since 1944 and the first for the Bears part, Jason Akermanis claimed the Brownlow Medal, joining his teammate Michael Voss in claiming the game’s best individual honour.

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The Lions trailed by 16 points at halftime, but would kick ten goals to four in the second half to win their first flag – for the Fitzroy half, it was their first premiership since 1944.

Proving that their 2001 flag was no fluke, the club successfully defended their flag by defeating a brave Collingwood side by nine points in the 2002 grand final, before thrashing the Pies by 50 points in 2003 to complete their premiership hat trick.

In the latter year, Simon Black won the Norm Smith Medal after earning 39 possessions – the most by any player in a grand final.

What made their dynasty so impressive?
Firstly, the fact that in their first grand final, they defeated the reigning premiers, Essendon, who had only lost 11 games since the start of the 1999 season, and only one in their all-conquering 2000 premiership season.

They also defeated the Pies for their two other flags, meaning that the Lions won their three premierships at the expense of two of Victoria’s biggest clubs at the MCG.

This also made them the only non-Victorian club to ever win three consecutive flags, and given the difficulty some interstate clubs have endured on grand final day in recent years, the feat achieved by this mighty Brisbane Lions side will likely never be matched for the foreseeable future.

By the time they won their third consecutive flag in 2003, they had gone from wooden spooners to triple premiers and the greatest team of the noughties.

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That 1998 team featured players such as Michael Voss, Jason Akermanis, Alastair Lynch, Chris Johnson, Clark Keating, Craig McRae, Darryl White, Justin Leppitsch, Luke Power, Marcus Ashcroft, Nigel Lappin, Shaun Hart and Simon Black.

All 13 then played in each of the club’s 2001, 2002 and 2003 flags. Another three players – Mal Michael, Jonathan Brown and Martin Pike (who won a flag with the Kangaroos in 1999) – were not at the club at their lowest ebb.

Prior to the 2001 grand final, they already had one Brownlow Medallist in Michael Voss, who shared the honour with James Hird in 1996. During their premiership dynasty, Jason Akermanis and Simon Black also won the game’s highest individual honour.

Shaun Hart (2001) and Black (2003) claimed the Norm Smith Medal, while the award went to Pies captain Nathan Buckley in 2002.

What happened after?
The Lions would advance to another grand final in 2004, but after being forced to play a home preliminary final against the Geelong Cats at the MCG, the northerners faltered against Port Adelaide, losing by 40 points and being denied a four-peat.

But as Anthony Hudson said in commentary for Network Ten that day: “you can never call the Brisbane Lions losers”.

Had the Lions won the 2004 premiership, they would’ve not only matched Collingwood as the only team to have won four consecutive flags, but also cemented themselves as the greatest AFL team of the modern era.

Additionally, 11 of the 13 players mentioned above could have become four-time premiership players for the club, the exceptions being Marcus Ashcroft, who retired at the end of 2003, and 2001 Norm Smith Medallist Shaun Hart, who missed the match due to injury.

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Martin Pike, on the other hand, could have won a fifth premiership medallion.

As their premiership stars entered the twilight of their careers, so too did the Lions as a team, crashing to an 11th-place finish in 2005 after losing their final game of the regular season against St Kilda by a record 139 points.

Michael Voss retired the following year, while Jason Akermanis was traded to the Western Bulldogs after falling out with coach Leigh Matthews.

Jonathan Brown was the last remaining player from each of the club’s three flags to retire, when a head knock suffered in a match against the GWS Giants in mid-2014 accelerated his retirement from the game.

Ashley McGrath, who only played in the club’s 2003 premiership, was the final remaining player from any of the club’s 2001, 2002 or 2003 flags to hang up his boots.

Geelong Cats

Premierships: 2007, 2009 and 2011
Coaches: Mark Thompson (2007 and 2009), Chris Scott (2011)
Captains: Tom Harley (2007 and 2009), Cameron Ling (2011)
Played in all three flags: Jimmy Bartel, Andrew Mackie, Brad Ottens, James Kelly, Joel Corey, Joel Selwood, Steve Johnson, Matthew Scarlett, Paul Chapman, David Wojcinski, Corey Enright, Cameron Ling
Who’s left: Joel Selwood

Before the dynasty
Despite boasting a talented playing list, the Cats were seen as somewhat of an underachieving club. After reaching the finals in 2000, the club missed the finals for three consecutive seasons.

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It was during that time they picked up some of the cream of the crop, landing the likes of Jimmy Bartel, Steve Johnson, and the biggest name of them all, Gary Ablett Jr.

The club exceeded expectations to finish in the top four and reach the preliminary final in 2004 – their first since 1995 – where they lost to the Brisbane Lions by only nine points.

The following year, the club finished sixth on the ladder, and reached the semi-final stage where they were sunk by the Sydney Swans and a miraculous Nick Davis goal at the death.

Despite high expectations entering the 2006 season, the club underachieved and missed the finals, throwing coach Mark Thompson’s future into severe doubt. The club started 2007 poorly, losing three of their first five matches, until…

The dynasty
On that magical night at Telstra Dome on May 6, 2007, following a week of soul-searching during which the players questioned each other’s attitude and commitment, the club ran riot in a match against Richmond, kicking 35 goals as they won by 157 points.

That was the first of a 15-match winning streak that took them to the top of the ladder, and with three rounds of the regular season still to go they had the minor premiership under lock and key.

In Round 21, the Cats suffered a pre-finals hiccup when they lost to second-placed Port Adelaide at home in the penultimate round, after Domenic Cassisi kicked the match-winner for the Power at the death.

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You could bet that the Cats were keen for a rematch against the Power in the grand final, and that’s exactly what happened.

In contrast to that heart breaker at Kardinia Park, the decider at the MCG turned into all things celebration for the Cats as they won by a record 119 points – smashing a 44-year premiership drought in the process.

Steve Johnson, who copped a club-imposed five-match ban at the start of the year for an incident during the off-season, capped off a season of redemption by claiming the Norm Smith Medal as the best-on-ground.

The following year, the Cats won 21 of 22 matches (the only loss being by 86 points against Collingwood in Round 9) to finish as minor premiers for the second consecutive year, and again qualified for the grand final.

However, it was not to be for the Cats on this occasion, as they fell to Hawthorn by 26 points in one of the biggest grand final upsets of the 21st century.

Mark Thompson’s side were quick to bounce back, winning their first 13 games of the 2009 season and ultimately finishing second on the ladder behind St Kilda, the club they’d face in the summit match.

With the match in the balance with only minutes remaining, a piece of brilliance from Matthew Scarlett set up Gary Ablett Jr, who claimed his first Brownlow Medal in the week leading up to the match, to send the Cats forward, with the play ending in Paul Chapman kicking a goal.

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The Cats won by 12 points, with Chapman winning the Norm Smith Medal on a count back from Jason Gram.

Tom Harley retired following the grand final, while Mark Thompson suddenly quit as coach following the end of the 2010 season that concluded with a disappointing preliminary final loss to the eventual premiers that year, Collingwood.

Chris Scott, who played in two of the Brisbane Lions’ three flags (missing 2003 due to injury), was hired to replace Thompson as coach and with the club having retained most of the players from their 2007 and 2009 flags, they managed to land another flag at Kardinia Park.

In the grand final, they kept the Pies goalless in the final quarter to win by 38 points, securing the club’s ninth (and to date most recent) flag. Jimmy Bartel joined royalty by winning the Norm Smith Medal to go with the Brownlow Medal he won in 2007.

What made their dynasty so impressive?
During their premiership era, the Cats turned Kardinia Park into a fortress, winning 29 matches in a row from Round 7, 2007 to Round 20, 2011 inclusive.

This included a pair of matches in late-2011 that were won by a combined total of 336 points, the first a record 186-point demolition of Melbourne and the other a 150-point thumping of the Gold Coast Suns, who were missing captain Gary Ablett Jr that day.

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The Cats’ Jimmy Bartel attributed the club’s dominant record on their home turf to being one of the few clubs who play on the same ground as they train on.

The club also had the best young players at the time of their premiership dynasty, with Ablett, Bartel, Steve Johnson, Joel Selwood, Tom Hawkins and Harry Taylor shining lights in an experienced team that also featured Paul Chapman, Joel Corey, Corey Enright and Matthew Scarlett, among others.

Even after Tom Harley’s retirement from the game in 2009 and Mark Thompson’s sudden departure 12 months later, the club still found a way to remain dominant, as evidenced by the 2011 premiership.

What happened after?
Despite having not won another flag since then, the Cats have remained up there among the contenders for the flag, year in, year out, but developed a habit of under-performing in finals matches, including crashing out of the 2014 finals series in straight sets.

In the meantime, several of the club’s 2007, 2009 and 2011 premierships rode into the sunset, and in the case of Steve Johnson and James Kelly, played two seasons at the GWS Giants and Essendon respectively before hanging up the boots in 2017.

The club has only missed the finals once – in 2015 – after which they landed Patrick Dangerfield from the Adelaide Crows and welcomed Gary Ablett Jr back to the club after seven years at the Gold Coast Suns for one final shot at a premiership.

They certainly had the chance to win their tenth flag in the historic grand final played at the Gabba, only to be denied by Richmond and a colossus named Dustin Martin.

Current captain Joel Selwood is the only player left from each of the club’s 2007, 2009 and 2011 flags (Harry Taylor and Tom Hawkins both didn’t play in 2007, while Gary Ablett Jr had left for the Suns when the Cats saluted in 2011).

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Hawthorn

Premierships: 2013, 2014, 2015
Coach: Alastair Clarkson
Captain: Luke Hodge
Played in all three flags: Jarryd Roughead, Jordan Lewis, Sam Mitchell, Josh Gibson, Shaun Burgoyne, Bradley Hill, Grant Birchall, Luke Hodge, Isaac Smith, Brian Lake, Jack Gunston, David Hale, Luke Breust, Ben Stratton, Liam Shiels, Paul Puopolo, Cyril Rioli
Who’s left: Isaac Smith, Jack Gunston, Luke Breust, Liam Shiels

Before the dynasty
Having already claimed a flag at the expense of the Geelong Cats in 2008, Hawthorn became the first club since the Adelaide Crows in 1998-99 to miss the finals the following year, and were in dire straits with only one win from seven matches to start the 2010 season.

Knowing that another loss would potentially cost him his job, coach Alastair Clarkson would turn his side’s fortunes around quickly, taking them to the finals in 2010 where they fell at the first hurdle, losing to Fremantle by five goals in an elimination final at Domain Stadium.

The club shot up the ladder the following year, winning 18 of 22 regular season games to finish third on the ladder before losing a heart-stopping preliminary final against Collingwood by three points, after which Clarkson was seen punching the shelter on the MCG bench.

Better came in 2012, when the club finished on top of the ladder for the first time since 1989 and qualified for the grand final, only to lose to the Sydney Swans by ten points.

The dynasty
After the heartbreak of 2012, Hawthorn entered the 2013 season as premiership favourites, and performed well above expectations winning 19 of 22 regular season matches (with the losses being to the Geelong Cats, twice, and Richmond) to again finish on top of the ladder.

The Hawks then dismissed the Sydney Swans in the qualifying final, winning by 54 points before coming from 20 points down to defeat the Cats by five points in another heart-stopping preliminary final to qualify for the grand final once again.

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There, they faced first-time grand finalists Fremantle, and kept them goalless in the opening quarter en route to a 15-point victory. Brian Lake, brought to the club from the Western Bulldogs via a trade, won the Norm Smith Medal for his efforts in containing the Freo forwards.

The club was then hit with the bombshell news that Lance Franklin had left the club, joining the Sydney Swans as a free agent.

Still, the Hawks managed to remain up there among the favourites for the flag, and in 2014 they came up against Franklin and the Swans in the grand final, which was to be the most anticipated for years.

But for all the expectation of an exciting match, the Hawks exacted revenge for their 2012 defeat, winning by 63 points to earn back-to-back flags for the first time since 1988-89. Luke Hodge claimed the Norm Smith Medal for the second time, after also winning it in 2008.

The club then completed their hat trick the following year, reversing a qualifying final defeat to the West Coast Eagles with a 46-point win in the grand final, with Cyril Rioli claiming the Norm Smith Medal and James Frawley shutting down Coleman Medallist Josh Kennedy.

What made their dynasty so impressive?
As of season 2020, Hawthorn is the most recent team to win a grand final the year after losing one. The previous team to do that were the Geelong Cats in 2008-09.

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They say it is harder to reach the grand final than to win the match itself, and after the devastation of the 2012 loss to the Swans, the Hawks were more than determined to bounce back and not waste their opportunities with the premiership window wide open.

It was their experience that proved to be the difference in their premiership hat trick. In 2013, they came up against a Fremantle side that were playing in their first grand final, while in 2015 they faced the West Coast Eagles, who were contesting their first decider since 2006.

All up, the Hawks’ average winning margin in their premiership hat trick was 41.3 points.

By the end of 2015, six players became four-time premiership Hawks: Luke Hodge, Sam Mitchell, Jarryd Roughead, Cyril Rioli, Grant Birchall and Jordan Lewis. None remain at the club today.

What happened after?
While Hawthorn again managed to finish in the top four in 2016, it was starting to become clear that their successes were starting to catch up to them.

After finishing third, the club crashed out of the finals series in straight sets, first losing to the Geelong Cats in the qualifying final, in which Isaac Smith missed a shot at goal after the final siren, and then bowing out to eventual premiers the Western Bulldogs in the semi-final.

Who knows what would’ve otherwise happened had Smith’s shot on goal been successful. The Hawks’ failure to reach the grand final for the first time since 2011 meant that the four-in-a-row record set by Collingwood in 1927-30 again remained intact.

The club fell down the ladder in the ensuing years finishing 12th, ninth and 15th in 2017, 2019 and 2020, respectively. In 2018, they again finished in the top four, but again bowed out of September in straight sets.

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Only four players from the 2013-15 premiership class remain: Isaac Smith, Jack Gunston, Luke Breust and Liam Shiels. And it won’t be long before no player is left.

Richmond

Premierships: 2017, 2019, 2020
Coach: Damien Hardwick
Captain: Trent Cotchin
Played in all three flags: Nick Vlastuin, Dylan Grimes, Dion Prestia, Dustin Martin, Jack Riewoldt, Trent Cotchin, Shane Edwards, David Astbury, Bachar Houli, Daniel Rioli, Kane Lambert, Toby Nankervis, Nathan Broad, Jason Castagna
Who’s left: All of them

Before the dynasty
Under Damien Hardwick, an assistant to Alastair Clarkson at Hawthorn, Richmond rose from perennial strugglers to regular finalists, but would bow out at the first hurdle in 2013, 2014 and 2015, losing elimination finals to Carlton, Port Adelaide and North Melbourne respectively.

The 2016 season saw the club suffer a dismal season on the field, which culminated in them losing their final game against the Sydney Swans by a whopping 113 points at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Despite calls for his sacking and a board overhaul, Hardwick was retained as coach for the 2017 season.

The dynasty
With a new game plan and with several recycled players having joined the club, Richmond started the new season with five straight wins, marking the club’s best start to a season since 1995, before losing their next four games, three of them by less than a kick.

The club finished third on the ladder at season’s end and then smashed two hoodoos in the qualifying final against the Geelong Cats, defeating them for the first time since 2006 with a 51-point victory and ending a 16-year wait between finals victories.

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The Tigers subsequently defeated the GWS Giants in the preliminary final to book a grand final showdown against the Adelaide Crows, who had been by far and away the best team of the 2017 season and went into the match as premiership favourites.

However, after trailing at quarter-time, the Tigers produced a devastating performance on all areas of the ground to grind out a 47-point victory, putting to an end a long 37-year premiership drought.

Dustin Martin completed the most dominant individual season ever seen, becoming the first man to win the Brownlow Medal and Norm Smith Medal in the same year – something not even anyone from the Brisbane Lions or Geelong Cats could achieve in their dynasties.

The Tigers went on to win the minor premiership in 2018, but would fall at the penultimate hurdle, being thrashed by Collingwood in the preliminary final.

That only fueled the hunger for the years to come. After a poor first half of the 2019 season, Richmond roared home winning their final 12 matches of the year, culminating in an 89-point thrashing of the Giants in the grand final.

Again, Dustin Martin was best on ground as he won the Norm Smith Medal for a second time, but the biggest story was the debut of Marlion Pickett, who became the first man to win a premiership in his debut match since Francis Vine in 1926.

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And this year, the Tigers backed it up with another flag in extraordinary circumstances, with the club having been forced out of Victoria after Round 5 when a second wave of coronavirus infections hit the state.

Still, they managed to get the job done, beating the Geelong Cats by 31 points in the grand final, which this year was played at the Gabba.

And yes, you guessed it – Dustin Martin was once again the best on ground, and entered immortality by becoming the first man to win three Norm Smith Medals.

What’s made their dynasty so impressive?
Several changes had to be made after the embarrassment that was the 2016 season – and coach Damien Hardwick knew it.

Four years after very nearly copping the axe from CEO Brendon Gale, the former Essendon and Port Adelaide premiership defender has become the club’s greatest coach of the modern era – and that would not have been possible if it wasn’t for some changes made at the end of 2016.

Trent Cotchin’s leadership has also vastly improved after earning the captaincy in 2013, while Dustin Martin picked himself up from the canvas to become one of modern footy’s great immortals.

Other players such as Toby Nankervis, Dion Prestia and Bachar Houli, who started their careers at the Sydney Swans, Gold Coast Suns and Essendon respectively, are now Tigers greats, and will be for life.

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In each of their three premiership victories, the Tigers were ruthless in every sense. In 2017, they kept the high-scoring Adelaide Crows to their lowest score of the season, while in 2019 they kept the GWS Giants to a miserly three goals – and their lowest score ever in history.

All up, the Tigers’ average winning margin in their three grand final victories was 56 points – just less than the Geelong Cats’ average winning margin in their 2007, 2009 and 2011 premiership victories (56.3).

What will happen after?
Inevitably, like the Brisbane Lions and Hawthorn before them, Richmond’s premiership era will one day have to come to an end.

But given how they have dominated the competition in the past four years, it’s hard to see them slowing down any time soon, even with Trent Cotchin turning 31 next April and Martin turning 30 next June, while Jack Riewoldt has just turned 32.

While all three still have some good footy left in them, several others such as Dion Prestia, Liam Baker, Jason Castagna and Shai Bolton will have to step up regularly as it won’t be long before Riewoldt, Cotchin and Martin are no longer left at Tigerland.

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So who’s dynasty was the best?
It’s hard to go past the Brisbane Lions, who under the coaching of Leigh Matthews rose from wooden spooners in 1998 to become modern footy’s invincibles with their hat trick of premierships in 2001-03.

What made the Lions’ feat all the more impressive was the fact that they faced, and defeated, two big Victorian clubs at the MCG, not least the Bombers, who were the defending premiers, had rarely lost since the start of 1999 and were aiming for a record 17th flag in 2001.

They also showed the ability to bounce back against adversity. In 2003, the Lions had to take the long way around after losing their qualifying final against Collingwood at the MCG, and subsequently won two consecutive finals away from home to claim their third straight flag.

This included running away from the Sydney Swans in the final quarter in the preliminary final, after the match had been evenly poised up to three-quarter time, and then thumping the Pies in the big one at the MCG.

If it wasn’t for the controversial MCG finals contract that forced the Lions to play their home preliminary final against the Geelong Cats in Melbourne, we could possibly have been talking about them as only the second four-peat team in VFL/AFL history, but it was not to be.

Still, they remain one of the most successful non-Victorian clubs in the AFL, with only the West Coast Eagles winning more flags (1992, 1994, 2006 and 2018).

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Do you agree with the Lions’ dynasty being the best? Or were the other three teams better? You be the judge.