Richmond. 6am Sunday morning. The first day of October. The streets are bare, the light is grey, the sun about to rise. An empty Punt Road Oval is to the right, Melbourne’s largest church behind it.
Coming up to Richmond Station, Punt Road gets a little less vacant. There still aren’t any cars or people, but the pavement is covered in rubbish. Turning onto Swan Street, there’s more and more of it, paper and plastic turning to glass around the Precinct Hotel.
Two teenage girls walk along the sidewalk in short dresses, tired faces telling of a long night. They struggle along in heels, grinning and blowing smoke, the blankets around their shoulders and faint daylight suggesting that home, finally, is next.
The rest of Richmond is subsided carnage, something between an inoffensive warzone and the remnants of a sloppy high school party. Close your eyes and it’s impossible not to see the night before, the scarfed maniacs jumping on cars, clumsily climbing on top of roofs, and just generally being loud, stupid and marvellous.
The scene of this smiling crime, perpetrated by the fans, is not unlike the one their team left across the road. The Richmond players were the battering feet on the pavement, the Crows a helpless Swan Street.
But it wasn’t just Adelaide that Richmond reduced to rubble – it was the rest of the AFL. The Tigers’ run to the flag was one of the most incredible, unlikely and comprehensively dominant in football history. In their wake, all that was left were empty streets and floating trash.
Often it’s easy to get so caught up in the football that we forget the bigger picture. It’s also easy to do the opposite. The 2017 Tigers will be remembered as the team that erased 37 years of woe, a group that provided a profound emotional catharsis to one of Australian sport’s most tortured fan-bases. But the story takes the football a little out of focus – and it’s the football that makes these Tigers so improbable. Richmond didn’t just exorcise demons – they unleashed football hell on everyone they faced.
They are not last year’s Bulldogs. This was not a fairytale – it was much too brutal. Too clinical, too punishing, and, more than anything – too foregone. Fairytales are narratives – they require suspense. The Tigers were too good for suspense.
What is so breathtaking is not the fact that they won – it’s that they never came close to losing. We kept on waiting for ‘Richmond’ to surface, for them to finally blow it, to feel history, to become themselves. But they never did, and then it became clear:
‘Richmond’ is dead. The Tigers are here.
It’s halfway through the fourth quarter of the Grand Final. The Tigers lead is 87-54 and what seemed impossible has begun to feel inevitable. On the far wing, Taylor Walker, so often a figure of power, swagger and chest-protruding confidence, kicks the ball forward with a look of hopeless anguish. His strut has been broken.
Eddie Betts takes a spectacular mark inside 50. But like so many of his teammates on the day, he loses his composure. He needlessly plays on and handballs to Charlie Cameron, seemingly unaware that Shane Edwards is right on Cameron’s trail. All day the world has been too fast for the Crows, an unhappy, unending montage of black and yellow blurs.
Cameron is in Edwards’ grasp before he has a chance to think. The tackle rotates Cameron so that his back is turned to goal. He frees his arm for a moment, but in that split second he sees no teammate, only Tigers. By the time Betts reappears running past it’s too late. Edwards secures his grasp and knocks the ball from Cameron’s hands to the ground. As he falls meekly to the turf, frail and desperate, Cameron looks in the umpire’s direction, a confused cry for help. Holding the ball.
Edwards takes the free kick and drives the ball long and wide. Jack Riewoldt doesn’t win the contest with Daniel Talia in the air but he brings the ball to ground, creates separation from Talia, wins possession and booms a kick forward.
Daniel Rioli chases the ball inside 50, outnumbered three to one. He wins the ball and somehow escapes Luke Brown in a playground tussle so furious it breaks Rioli’s foot. Jake Lever is next and Rioli can’t shake his tackle. Lever has him, except he doesn’t. Rioli contorts his body to perform a strange, frantic bicycle kick while still in Lever’s grasp, twisting desperately on his broken foot, managing to somehow propel the ball forward 15 metres towards the pocket. Jacob Townsend follows it, a Crow hot on his tail, and ushers it out across the line.
The ball is locked inside Richmond’s 50 at the MCG. It’s locked in there again, where it seems destined to be, and for much of the Grand Final, the preliminary final and qualifying final, it seems never to have left.
The Tigers did not kick a goal from this particular forward thrust. The Crows hacked the ball out of defence, briefly broke into space and then ran out of ideas at half forward. As they did all day, they reached a point where they could only see Tiger jumpers, and then they did something silly.
Richmond repelled that drive forward with a counter-attack that led to a Bachar Houli set shot. He missed. But then from the kick in David Mackay chipped it short to Jacob Townsend, directly in front of goal. Had Townsend not taken the mark, Jack Riewoldt might have. What Mackay saw, who knows – it were as though the Tigers were so in his head that they were literally all he could see.
This passage is the essence of Richmond. Their victories were not predicated on highlight reel moments or devastating blitzes – short timeframes where they’d blow the game open. Instead, their dominance was gradual but ever-present and, more than anything, unrelenting. Every game was an arm-wrestle that they always held a slight but undeniable advantage in, slowly wearing the opponent down. And then, after the opponent’s will was broken, the body quickly gave way.
Townsend’s goal, his second for the day and the one that put to rest the tiniest shreds of doubt over the result, was built on a tackle, a forward bringing the ball to ground, a scrubbed kick to the boundary, a maintaining of defensive shape, a clearance, a missed shot at goal, an intercept mark and then, finally, a goal. This is how Richmond operated. Their beauty was in the grind – it was in the knowledge that wherever the ball was, whatever the state of play, they were always just a little bit harder than the opposition, and a little bit smarter.
In the Grand Final, it felt like every bounce, every ricochet, every blind kick forward was going in Richmond’s favour. But then, as it kept happening, you began to realise that this wasn’t luck. When you play with fury and structure, these things inevitably break your way over time. Richmond’s premiership was, ultimately, built on endurance – the club’s willingness to stay the course, from board level decision-making down to Kane Lambert’s gut running.
Their beauty was in the grind – it was in the knowledge that wherever the ball was, whatever the state of play, they were always just a little bit harder than the opposition, and a little bit smarter.
It was a flag that came as a result of a series of small moments – perhaps as long a series of small moments as any flag has been built upon. But when you sit back and view the small moments in their entirety – the David Astbury intercept marks, the desperate Dion Prestia clearances, the Shane Edwards tackles – what you see, incredibly, is the most dominant finals run that any football team has had since 2000.
Richmond won all three of its finals by at least six goals, crushing all three remaining members of the top four. In each final they kicked ten goals in the second half – their opponent never kicked more than four.
What was most remarkable is that at no stage in any final did they ever really look like losing. The only time alarm bells rang – and the ringing was faint – was in the first half of the preliminary final, where GWS played the game on its own terms. It was the only stretch where Richmond lost its identity, allowing GWS to play the game out in open space. But even so, most teams – even historically great teams – will have entire finals where they lose themselves then have to eke out a result at the death. The closest the Tigers ever came to capitulation was a slightly nervous opening half where they took a lead to the main break before winning by six goals. The completeness of their dominance was absurd.
So too, though, was Adelaide’s leading up to the Grand Final. But on the big day, Adelaide walked into the exam room armed simply with an expensive pen and visions of exquisite handwriting. The Tigers brought neck tattoos and a baseball bat. And they had a nicer pen too.
The Grand Final wasn’t just a battering – it was an evisceration. It was physical and mental, the Tigers tearing down Adelaide’s resistance until there was nothing left, only Charlie Cameron captured and standing helpless in Shane Edwards’ grasp under the twilight sun as Richmond fans roared in celebrating all the prisoners their men had taken.
On the big day, Adelaide walked into the exam room armed simply with an expensive pen and visions of exquisite handwriting. The Tigers brought neck tattoos and a baseball bat.
Some Grand Finals are decided in the opening moments. When Jarryd Roughead crushed Dan Hannebery at the start of the 2014 Grand Final, you could tell it was over. Likewise Heath Shaw smothering Nick Riewoldt in the 2010 Replay. The Crows, though, got the jump. They had the perfect start, booting the first two goals while Jack Riewoldt kicked three behinds. They weathered a Richmond storm and then finished the first quarter with a flurry, goals at the top of the square to Rory Sloane and Hugh Greenwood opening up a healthy Adelaide lead. The game was going as so many had envisioned it – Richmond controlling territory but being wasteful with their disposal, while the Crows were clinical with fewer opportunities going the other way.
But then all that stopped. And all that was left was Richmond controlling territory. It wasn’t so much that Adelaide stopped scoring – it was that they never looked like scoring. There was no rued lost moment – no Nat Fyfe missed set shots, no Jack Darling dropped marks. There was just Richmond, and then more of them.
Adelaide’s deterioration was slow but undeniable. They started with swagger and ended with disorientation. By the close, Paul Seedsman was opting to handball to 50/50 contests in defence, Andy Otten had disappeared from the face of the Earth, and Josh Jenkins was the most broken of them all. And yet, unlike Port Adelaide in 2007 or West Coast in 2015, it didn’t feel like the result was pre-ordained from the first bounce. Adelaide did not start this game in their own heads, defeated as they walked out. Richmond did this to them. They took the alleged best team in the competition and flattened their bodies and then their spirit. They turned determined men into hapless occupiers of air. It was, in a crushing way, beautiful.
Comparisons to the Bulldogs are inevitable. But Richmond’s story is so much more improbable. The Bulldogs were euphoric; the Tigers are nonsensical. The Bulldogs made you feel better about the world; the Tigers make you feel like the world no longer makes sense and things need to be investigated. It felt as though the Bulldogs’ history was driving them at every moment towards the flag – throughout Richmond’s finals campaign their history felt like a paper plane they were tossing into the bin. Where the Dogs story came with its own heart-warming, immediate closure, the Tigers make you want to open your laptop and study past midnight where all these no-name players came from, what are their heights and weights, did Kamdyn McIntosh and Jason Castagna really just win a premiership?
Richmond finished 13th last season and appeared to get worse over the offseason. Their coach had been in place for seven years, all their stars were established, and one had just fled to Western Sydney, to go somewhere he could actually contend for a flag. A mini-era of semi-contention – three finals campaigns, zero finals victories – had come to a soundless end. A rebuild was likely in order. And the rebuild did happen. It took one summer.
Richmond’s journey from 2016 to 2017 is a magnificent football lesson that will likely go unlearned. Fans will look at Richmond’s list and then look at their own and think that they can win the flag next year. They’ll think that they’re only a player or two away – if we just slot Tom Rockliff in here, and Jake Lever in there, then… But does it ever go that way?
At the end of last season, the Tigers lost Brett Deledio, Ty Vickery, Troy Chaplin, Chris Yarran and pick six in the draft, and gained Dion Prestia, Toby Nankervis and Josh Caddy. At the time, on paper, would anyone have considered that a meaningful upgrade for 2017?
The enduring legacy of these Tigers, perhaps, will be that ‘on paper’ is almost meaningless. Football goes beyond a depth of game-breaking, rounded elite talent. The Tigers are proof of that. You look at their list and beyond the top four there are no All-Australian candidates, and no one you would consider a top 50 player in the competition. Maybe not a top 75 player. But what’s more valuable? Josh Kelly, Jonathon Patton, Toby Greene, Tom Scully and a wealth of blue-chip talent, or total buy-in from 22 players to a game plan and having not a single one of them be a defensive liability? Your Dylan Shiel caveats notwithstanding, we saw the answer.
Richmond has forced us to redefine how we conceive of ‘talented’. Our scouting eye is naturally lazy. A player like Daniel Menzel is undeniably ‘talented’ because he fits the classical mould that so few Richmond players do: skillful, elegant and dynamic. We don’t think of players like Kane Lambert, Kamdyn McIntosh and Jacob Townsend as uniquely talented, because what they do is so utterly distant from the Menzels of the world. But just because their strengths are not easily understood by a Danish person watching an AFL clip on YouTube for the first time, that doesn’t make them any less talented. It’s a talent to run as Lambert does, further and more gut-wrenchingly than anyone else. It’s a talent to be as mean and relentless as McIntosh is, an incurable itch for opponents. And it’s a talent to lay a tackle like the one Townsend laid on Matt Crouch early in the Grand Final, which lifted his entire team like no expertly dribbled goal from the boundary ever could.
The Tigers had talent. They had droves of it. They built a team in the image of three specific talents: speed, physicality and determination. Then they had buy-in, and that gave them connectivity. And connectivity is the one thing that all the great teams share. The 2012-15 Hawks might have been made special by their foot skills, the 2010-11 Magpies by their forward pressure, the 2007-11 Cats by their free-flowing corridor ball movement, but ultimately, they were all special for the same reason: whatever they did well, they did together and in perfect unison. The Tigers, for whatever they weren’t, were clearly united – by far the most united in the competition. They hunted the ball in harmony and spread from the contest in perfect synchrony once they got it. Other teams had better individuals – no team had a better collective.
You look at the names on Richmond’s list and beyond the first four there is nothing that screams out greatness. But then you watched the unheralded names take the field and all you saw was greatness. There is ‘whole greater than the sum of its part’ and then there are the 2017 Tigers. By the end it was comical and, ultimately, believable – the best teams in our land were going to be sent to destruction by the hands of Jack Graham, Jacob Townsend and Nathan Broad. It’s hard to know what’s more surprising – that these were the destroyers, or that by the time it was all over there was no shame in being destroyed by them.
Those three – and Jason Castagna, Kamdyn McIntosh, Dan Butler, Shaun Grigg, Kane Lambert and David Astbury, among others – were undervalued by the public because we didn’t know them or we thought we knew them. None of these players were first-round picks for Richmond, and only McIntosh went as early as the second round. They didn’t have pedigree, but that didn’t mean they were lacking talent. Or class, for that matter. As the smoothest, most efficient team in the game collapsed in a heap at one end in the Grand Final, at the other Grigg, Lambert, Graham, Butler and Castagna were finishing as cleanly as Jason Akermanis and Matthew Lloyd might hope to. These five combined for eight shots at goal in the Grand Final. The result: eight goals, no behinds.
These players, the nameless Tigers whose names will now be known for decades, were able to thrive because they were put in positions where they could best succeed. All their strengths were accentuated, all their weaknesses obscured into irrelevance. There was a sense that Adelaide’s team-wide advantage in foot skills might be decisive in the Grand Final. Midway through the second quarter it became clear this wasn’t going to be Adelaide’s avenue to victory. Richmond’s pressure was always such that you could never be your best self by foot. And when the Tigers drove forward themselves, so often it was Dustin Martin and Bachar Houli, exquisite users and decision makers, penetrating the defence, which, you couldn’t help but feel, must have been by design.
The Tigers on-field operation never seemed hierarchical though. Martin inevitably possesses a certain aura and football gravitas – around his teammates and all other life forms – but other Tigers never seemed to defer to him out of necessity or responsibility, not the way that Gold Coast players do for Gary Ablett. They fed Martin because he was the guernsey to feed, not because he was Dustin Martin. And Martin fed the ball right back to whoever was in best position, the most perfect link in an otherworldly food chain of football altruism.
Every single Richmond player was empowered. They didn’t play like they needed to target Riewoldt every time forward, always transition through Alex Rance or give backwards handballs to Dustin Martin because these are big name players and big name players get the ball. They trusted one another, whoever it was, and every time that a teammate succeeded – which by the end of three successive six-plus-goal finals victories was quite a lot – the trust grew greater. By the end, that trust and connection were so unbreakable that the Crows were left in a million little pieces.
Cohesion, though, is only oil. It needs magic to set it alight. Most premiers have eight or nine magicians. The Tigers only needed four.
Jack Riewoldt seems perpetually unhappy on the football field. When he is elated, his teeth only become more gritted. It’s not hard to envision him as a tragic figure, chasing something unreachable, forever in need, the type of player who is destined to kick three first quarter behinds in a losing Grand Final. But Riewoldt, whose presence and impact were merely functional the week prior, gripped his destiny against Adelaide, strangling it and the game into something else. He combined the best elements of his younger days with those of his more seasoned. He was explosive and electric, taking hangers and slotting goals, by far the most forceful and present forward on the day.
But he also sacrificed, content to be a link and a pillar, not a focus and main attraction. He crashed packs and brought the ball to ground for Richmond’s smalls to dominate. He demanded defensive attention whenever the ball was in his vicinity, the threat of his magic enough to worry defenders that he might win the game. In the past he might have indeed tried to use that magic to win the game himself – and he’s so talented that he might have succeeded. But he played the percentages, always did the team thing, sacrificed so others could prosper, and as a result he got a performance with The Killers to go with his Colemans.
Trent Cotchin, you suspect, would not be caught dead with The Killers. Exactly why, it’s hard to know, but almost certainly because he’s: a) far too cool or b) not nearly cool enough, with no in between. Cotchin is Richmond’s greatest enigma, which is ironic, because he’s also, arguably, their most consistent and reliable performer. He has lived many football lives, from incandescent phenom and potential saviour to weary, battered disappointment to, finally, inspirational captain and lifeblood of his team.
After a long, difficult journey, Cotchin has finally reached his destination. There is no more confused captain who kicked into the wind against Port Adelaide, man who had nine touches against North Melbourne. There is only a Brownlow medallist and premiership captain, and a player worthy of both those honours, a champion who launched himself at every contest this year like his life and honour depended on it and lifted his team with every bruise suffered and inflicted. Everyone will have their own defining image of Richmond’s finals series. But perhaps the most enduring is that of Cotchin attacking the ball and the man with furious intent, a maniac unleashed, his perfect haircut and suit dissolved in lava, the only remains a beast with one plan.
If Cotchin is fire, Alex Rance is ice. The best defender of his generation by an accelerating stretch, Rance is, in a lot of ways, the most impossible player in the AFL. How can one man be everywhere all the time? Livewire forwards kick goals from geometrically divine angles and powerful midfielders burst through and past packs of elite athletes like they are nothing but glorified air. But the defender who absorbs it all, who can see the future and crush the opponent’s present, is perhaps football’s most inspired creature. That is Rance, who was the most vivid symbol of the Crows’ plight. Every time they went forward, he was there, looming ominously. At times it feels like his mass consumes the entire 50, through the ethereal, borderline suspicious combination of his size, pace, vision, courage, decision-making and overall genius. In the modern game, where defensive structure and playmaking is so decisive, there are credible arguments to be made that Rance is the best player in football.
If not for his teammate.
The Tigers are so much more than Dustin Martin. They are Dylan Grimes – reliable to the point of cliché, a man who has never looked like losing a contest, and if he does, you suddenly feel confused and afraid. They are Bachar Houli – no longer the most underrated player in the AFL, because how could you be after you played the game of your life in the Grand Final, a steady beat to all his movements, so smooth, poised and composed, a cauldron of pressure doing nothing to lift the temperature of the ice water in his veins.
They are Shane Edwards – perhaps the new most underrated player in the AFL, a late-era Luke Ball type with more explosive menace, a ferocious tackler and a delicate, expert in-close wizard by hand. They are Josh Caddy and Toby Nankervis – the type of recruits that win you premierships, hardened players that colour in the sketched outline of a contender.
They are Nick Vlastuin and Brandon Ellis – the heartbeats of any great team, the brave corporals in defence who lift their teammates with every collision absorbed and dealt. They are Kamdyn McIntosh – a punchline for so long, who somehow shared midfields in finals at the MCG with the likes of Patrick Dangerfield, Josh Kelly and Rory Sloane, and not for a moment looked like he didn’t belong. They are Daniel Rioli – the spark whose preliminary final was as good as any Norm Smith his relatives might have.
But more than anything, they are Dustin Martin. The qualifying final was his, the preliminary final was his, the Grand Final was… probably Bachar Houli’s, Shane Edwards’ or Alex Rance’s, but it was Martin’s too. And then the competition was his, and the city as well.
Martin is not the best player the game has ever seen, but when you watch him you question how anyone could play it better. He is a beast-freak and a world-class violinist, someone who makes brutality look delicate and finesse look cruel. The sight of his wide, powerful frame accelerating through the middle of the MCG, purposeful, upright, arrogant and wonderful, is surely the game’s most perfect image. The endpoint of those runs, though, is rarely obvious, rarely cinematic. It’s always so much better.
In the past, Martin was exquisite but uneven, too young to know how to control or harness all of his powers. He tried check-siding goals from 50 when there were free teammates waiting, tried taking players on when a lateral handball was the play. But he learnt. He didn’t have to – he was at a level of quality where refinement would never be a survival instinct. He could have remained raw and still been a top ten player in the game. But he got smarter and he got fitter. He was already a freak – then he slowly became a professor.
Watching the gears of Martin’s mind is every bit as enthralling as watching him fend men off into oblivion. The fend-offs are popcorn – the processing of situations is There Will Be Blood. As that perfect image moves, as Martin drives himself forward through the middle of the ground, the straightness of his torso somehow mimicking the sharp angles of his haircut, you can see him crafting a new masterpiece.
His first instinct is always altruistic. He wants to feed the ball to a teammate, but he knows that his body is so powerful that he can always defer that moment until later. That, really, is the beauty of Martin – that his body allows the genius of his mind to reach its maximum potential. Want to imagine the things that Scott Pendlebury could do in traffic emboldened by the knowledge that no man can bring him down? You don’t have to anymore.
As that perfect image moves, as Martin drives himself forward through the middle of the ground, the straightness of his torso somehow mimicking the sharp angles of his haircut, you can see him crafting a new masterpiece.
How Martin finishes these sequences is what football is all about. Passing up a good shot at goal for a great one. Weighting a ball perfectly in front of a forward’s lead that only begins as the ball is already airborne. Slicing a pass so low and sharp that you can almost feel the blades of its flight making the air bleed.
Martin just had the most decorated season possible, and right now, he sits atop a peak that perhaps only Michael Voss, Chris Judd and Gary Ablett Jr have reached this century. Martin, though, is somehow more special than any of them, more fascinating. Voss and Judd were so professional and polished, and Ablett has always been a little weird. Compare them to Martin, who just gave the most painful and authentic Brownlow medal speech you will see. He is not a brand or a sculpted ambassador – he is a guy who dropped out of school at 14, hates talking in front of people and just happens to be the best football player in the country.
On field, he was a force powerful enough to take a knife to Richmond’s fatalism. The gap between he and Rance is smaller than the hype suggests, but in 30 years, when we see highlight montages of the end of Richmond’s premiership drought, the screen will always flash to Martin, as it did when the siren went in the Grand Final. He will be the player forever most associated with this flag, the way Tony Shaw is with 1990, Leo Barry with 2005, Marcus Bontempelli with 2016. Unlike those players, though, Martin didn’t just rise to the absolute pinnacle in September. He spent the whole season there – September was just life continuing as it was.
It’s a testament to Martin that he was able to get himself there, but also a testament to his club. One suspects that had Martin been drafted by Brisbane, or a couple years later by Gold Coast, he would still be unfulfilled potential, on his second club by now, someone’s reclamation project. Richmond’s infrastructure, though, was strong enough to deal with Martin’s complexities and allow him to realise his ideal football self.
This premiership, ultimately, is about that infrastructure. It’s about staying the course and having a plan. Last year Damien Hardwick was a dead man walking, someone whose coaching future existed on the same plane as Justin Leppitsch and Nathan Buckley. Peggy O’Neal, Brendon Gale and the club believed enough in Hardwick and stuck with him. They saw, like he did, that this Richmond team wasn’t one that had run its course like most figured. It was one that had made finals three years in a row then simply had one bad year. A renovation was in order, not a demolition.
Hardwick has always been one of the game’s most likeable coaches, articulate, candid and, in an almost odd way, exceedingly warm. His genuineness makes it easy to doubt him – deep down, we always suspect that nice guys will finish closer to last than first. He doesn’t carry the obvious, archetypal coaching gravitas of an Alastair Clarkson, Ross Lyon or Luke Beveridge – he’s too honest, too accommodating. But behind what appears to be an exceptionally decent person is an extraordinarily capable coach. Beveridge’s achievement last year was the finest coaching accomplishment in decades. That title lasted only 12 months.
What Hardwick has done, and overcome in the process, is a football marvel of historical proportions. No one has ever done more with less.
This flag is a testament to the power of coaching, to the possibility of a cohesive collective having the strength and force to tear down more talented individuals. It is a realisation of sport’s greatest, most seminal story.
Written by Jay Croucher.
Jay Croucher has been a Roar expert since 2015, specialising in Australian Rules Football, American Football and NBA. From MSG in New York to the MCG in Melbourne, Jay has spent his adult life travelling the world, indulging in sport and approaching it from the angle of history and pop culture. Follow him on Twitter @CroucherJD