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The beginning of the end of Richmond - or is it?

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Roar Guru
14th August, 2021
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As the saying goes, “all good things must come to an end”.

One of the greatest dynasties in modern AFL history is about to be over, with Richmond’s 39-point loss to the GWS Giants on Friday night seeing the club all but eliminated from finals contention for the first time since 2016.

It was an era which saw the Tigers claim three flags in four years, as well as produce numerous All Australians, a first-time triple Norm Smith Medallist and a Brownlow Medallist in Dustin Martin, and a sustained long period of on-field success.

The club had previously lost a hat-trick of elimination finals between 2013-15, before a dismal 2016 season saw the future of coach Damien Hardwick thrown into severe doubt before he narrowly avoided the axe following a brutal review of the club’s operations.

The following pre-season saw an aggressive recruiting drive which saw Toby Nankervis, Dion Prestia and Josh Caddy arrive at the club from the Sydney Swans, Gold Coast Suns and Geelong Cats, respectively, while the much-maligned Tyrone Vickery was offloaded to Hawthorn.

In addition, Justin Leppitsch also returned to Tigerland, following three unsuccessful years as coach of the Brisbane Lions.

There was nothing much to expect of the Tigers going into 2017, but they would surprise many by winning their first five games of the season, marking their best start since 1995.

Though they would promptly lose their next four matches, three of them by less than a kick (including last-gasp losses to Fremantle and the GWS Giants which led to Footy Classified’s Caroline Wilson labelling them a “laughing stock”), they would finish third at season’s end – their best result since 2001.

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Going into the finals series, many questions were going to be asked about how the Tigers would handle the heat of September football, having lost their previous four finals matches dating back to a loss to the Brisbane Lions in the 2001 preliminary final.

However, after being held on a leash by the Geelong Cats for three quarters, Damien Hardwick’s men would break the shackles in the final quarter, winning by 51 points to advance straight to the penultimate weekend of the season.

A 36-point win over the GWS Giants in the preliminary final saw them qualify for their first grand final since 1982, where they would meet the Adelaide Crows, who had been the most dominant team of the home-and-away season and were rampaging hot favourites to claim their first flag since 1998.

The Tigers went into their first decider in 35 years as huge underdogs, but after a poor first quarter, they would run riot thereafter, restricting the usually high-scoring Crows to their lowest score of the season, in the biggest match of the year, to win by 48 points.

It was during that season which Dustin Martin produced the greatest season mankind ever witnessed, becoming the first man to achieve the triple of winning a Brownlow Medal, a premiership medal and a Norm Smith Medal in the same calendar year.

While Gary Ablett Jr was, to that point in time, the most recent Brownlow Medallist to then feature in a premiership team in the same week, he was pipped for best-on-ground honours by Paul Chapman in the 2009 decider.

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The Tigers’ triumph put an end to 37 long years of mediocrity, during which the club was subject to speculation surrounding its future, taunts about narrowly missing the finals (thus giving rise to the nickname “Ninthmond”) and its failure to perform in September.

They went on to finish on top of the ladder the following season with an 18-4 record, going undefeated in Victoria right up until the preliminary final where they suffered a shock 39-point thrashing at the hands of Collingwood.

season 2019 started poorly for Damien Hardwick’s side, losing two of their first three matches, before going on to finish third on the ladder and qualify for their second grand final in three years.

Again led by captain Trent Cotchin, the club would win its 12th flag in a landslide, thrashing the GWS Giants by 89 points with Martin winning a second Norm Smith Medal and Marlion Pickett winning a premiership medal in his debut match.

The club’s 2020 campaign would be rocked by the global coronavirus outbreak, which was declared a pandemic just prior to the start of the season, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison outlawing non-essential mass gatherings of over 500 people for an initial six-month period.

Prior to the season starting, Hardwick proclaimed that the 2020 flag would be “the greatest premiership won”, given the challenges that COVID-19 was expect to present to the entire league.

This meant the Tigers played their season-opening game against Carlton, a blockbuster which would normally draw up to 90,000 people, behind closed doors, before the season was suspended for nearly three months due to the uncertainly surrounding the pandemic.

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Upon resumption, the club restarted the season poorly, not winning until Round 5, after which all ten Victorian clubs were forced to evacuate as a devastating second wave of coronavirus cases smothered the state.

Despite having to relocate to Queensland until the end of the season, the Tigers continued to play tough and well, and like the Brisbane Lions and Hawthorn before them, had to take the long way around after losing their qualifying final against the Lions.

Subsequent wins over St Kilda and Port Adelaide (in Adelaide) saw the club advance to its third decider in four years where they faced the Geelong Cats, who also had to take the long way around having lost to the Power in its qualifying final, at the Gabba.

The Tigers appeared down and out in the second quarter, trailing by as much as 22 points going into halftime, before a Dusty-inspired second half saw them conjure a 53-point turnaround to win by 31 points.

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Martin entered the record books as the first man to ever win three Norm Smith Medals, as his club joined the likes of the Lions, Cats and Hawks in winning at least three flags this century.

Going into this season, many questioned whether the Tigers could win a third flag in a row, something only the Lions and Hawks have done since the turn of the century.

After Round 12, the club was in eighth place with a 7-5 record, and were well poised to make a strong charge towards a top-four berth in the second half of the season.

But it would not be, with the Tigers losing seven of their last nine matches as injuries to key players plagued the side, the worst of them being Dusty’s kidney injury which he suffered in the Round 18 win over the Brisbane Lions on the Gold Coast.

Other players such as Dion Prestia, Bachar Houli and Toby Nankervis have also missed considerable portions of the season as well.

Bachar Houli

Bachar Houli (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

The worst of the losses in this period was a 40-point loss to St Kilda at the MCG in Round 15, in which the Tigers could only manage two majors for the whole game – a 126-point negative turnaround from when they won by 86 points at Marvel Stadium in Round 5.

A shorter pre-season than usual, due to last year’s grand final being played in late-October rather than on the traditional last Saturday of September, could also be a telling factor in the club’s poor season; they had only 145 days from then to prepare for Round 1 this year.

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Even then, the Tigers won their first two matches before being upstaged by an up-and-coming Sydney Swans side at the MCG in Round 3; only once thereafter did they win consecutive matches, in Rounds 11-12, both away from Victoria.

Friday night’s loss to the GWS Giants, in which they conceded seven goals in the first quarter, leaves them in deep trouble going into their final round clash against Hawthorn next week.

If Essendon and the West Coast Eagles beat the Gold Coast Suns and Fremantle respectively today, then the Tigers’ finals hopes, and by extension premiership era, will all but come to an end, and thus render the match against the Hawks a dead rubber.

The Tigers look dejected after loss.

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

They are set to become the first club since the Western Bulldogs in 2017 to miss the finals twelve months after winning a flag, and just the second to do so this century after Hawthorn failed to make the top eight following its premiership win in 2008.

The challenge for Damien Hardwick’s side in the short-to-long term is to avoid the same fate that befell the Brisbane Lions and Hawthorn, whereby these clubs endured (or are enduring, in the Hawks’ case) prolonged periods of poor on-field performances this century.

It is easy to forget how dominant the Lions were in the early part of this century, when they won a hat-trick of flags between 2001-03 and fell short of a fourth straight flag when Port Adelaide defeated them by 40 points in the 2004 decider.

The club subsequently slid down the ladder, finishing 11th in 2005 after suffering a record 139-point loss to St Kilda at Marvel Stadium in the final round of the regular season.

By the time the club returned to the finals in 2009, several club legends such as the Scott brothers, Michael Voss, Jason Akermanis, Martin Pike, Justin Leppitsch, Shaun Hart, Alastair Lynch and Marcus Ashcroft, among others, had either moved on or retired.

Leigh Matthews, who masterminded the club’s premiership era, had also resigned as coach the previous year, saying “the time was right”.

That year (2009), the Lions came from behind to beat Carlton in an elimination final at the Gabba before losing to the Western Bulldogs by 51 points in the semi-final at the MCG. It was to be their only appearance in September between 2005 and 2018 inclusive.

Ashley McGrath was the final player from any of the club’s 2001-03 premiership sides to retire, bowing out at the end of the 2014 season.

The Lions’ fall from grace culminated in three consecutive bottom-two finishes between 2015-17, the first two of them under Leppitsch as coach, and a wooden spoon in current coach Chris Fagan’s first season in 2017.

However, under Fagan’s watch, the club has seen a return to the upper echelon of the ladder, finishing second in 2019 and 2020, and despite recent poor form plus injuries to key players including reigning Brownlow Medalist Lachie Neale, will again play finals this year.

Lions coach Chris Fagan

Chris Fagan (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Likewise, the Hawks are also undergoing an ongoing transitional phase which will see legendary coach Alastair Clarkson hand over to his assistant Sam Mitchell at the end of this season.

The club has not won a final since winning its hat-trick of flags between 2013-15 and will miss the finals for the fourth time in five years, with a fourth-place finish in 2018 its best result in that period (even then, the club crashed out of the finals in straight sets that year).

Only four players who played in each of the Hawks’ 2013-15 flags – Shaun Burgoyne, Luke Breust, Jack Gunston and Liam Shiels – remain at the club today. With Burgoyne’s retirement at season’s end, that will decrease to three.

In contrast to the Lions and Hawks’ woes, the Geelong Cats remain a model of consistency since their most recent flag in 2011, regularly featuring in premiership contention despite gradually having many of its premiership stars move on to other clubs or retire.

Their grand final loss to Richmond last year is the closest they have gone to winning another flag since, and this year they are well in the mix with current captain Joel Selwood eager to lead his side to one before he retires.

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This takes us to the present now, where several Tigers players will face questions about their future, with veterans Trent Cotchin, Jack Riewoldt, Dustin Martin, Bachar Houli and Shane Edwards, among others, all on the wrong side of 30.

The lure of bringing up 300 games late next season will surely be what drives Edwards on to play next year, while Cotchin and Martin will bring up their milestones at some point in the 2023 season, if they play every match from here on in.

It also remains to be seen whether the inevitable has indeed arrived, that being the end of the Tigers’ premiership era, or whether they can bounce back in 2022 and return to the upper part of the ladder.

What is certain, though, is that several of its premiership stars will gradually ride into the retirement sunset in the coming years, and this will give the club’s younger players more exposure to AFL level and usher in a new era of success for the club.

In the short term, the Tigers’ focus will turn to the final round clash against Hawthorn, which will also double as a significant occasion as it will mark the final time Alastair Clarkson, under whom Damien Hardwick was an assistant between 2005-09, coaches the Hawks.

While missing finals may be frustrating for the Richmond Football Club and its supporters, at least the players will be able to benefit from a longer off-season, during which they can refresh and start launching their assault on the 2022 season.

Perhaps next year we’ll know whether this season was only a fork in the road in their premiership era, or whether their gradual and inevitable on-field decline will continue.

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