The ball is bounced to start the second half of the preliminary final and the Tigers trail 50-29.
Rhys Stanley and Ivan Soldo leap into the air to no avail and the ball falls to Joel Selwood. Immediately, Selwood has Dion Prestia’s limbs draped around him and dishes a contested handball forward to Stanley, who is confronted by Shane Edwards as soon as the ball finds him. He looks to offload but from nowhere comes Trent Cotchin, hunting Geelong’s ruckman after Edwards has stolen his attention, disposing of Stanley and steering him to the ground.
From the wreckage the ball spills meekly off Stanley’s body before he can get a hand to it. Josh Caddy scoops it up and Prestia, who started this chain – the chain that will set Richmond on the path to its second premiership in three years – spreads into space and receives Caddy’s handball. He wheels around and kicks inside 50, where Tom Lynch has a step on Harry Taylor. With the ball coming in so quickly Taylor never has a chance, and Lynch marks Prestia’s well-weighted kick out in front.
Lynch’s shot for goal never looks like missing, and from here, the Tigers never look like missing out on a 12th premiership.
50-29 felt like the game might be over – 35-50 felt like it was over. It happened so fast. Geelong would not get a chance to breathe again. Suffocate and surge – that is Richmond’s game. Make it feel like there’s no space, then make it feel like there’s too much space, a transition that happens in a split second.
It took a half of football in the preliminary final for Richmond to find themselves. In the first half they were rattled and undone by Geelong’s physicality, bludgeoned by Selwood, Tim Kelly and Patrick Dangerfield. Outside of one three-goals-in-three-minutes blitz at the start of the game, the Tigers had been completely overwhelmed.
But that blitz gave them a cushion and kept the game alive. Collingwood’s 44-point lead at half-time of the 2018 prelim was a death sentence – Geelong’s lead of 21 was an opportunity.
It had taken Geelong a half of near-perfect football to build that lead and it took the Tigers one passage to make it feel like a deficit – it was never going to be enough. Suddenly, Richmond resurfaced – this time as Richmond. They remained themselves for the rest of the night and the next game too.
The premiership was effectively decided when the Cats couldn’t bury the Tigers. The grand final was a formality. The Giants matched Richmond for a quarter but no longer. The game turned into a procession – a slaughter and a celebration. It was the best team against sixth.
Even when the scoreboard was in the balance, when the Giants kicked the first goal and withstood Richmond’s initial charge, it always felt like only a matter of time. Richmond’s physicality and readiness were irrepressible.
A telling moment came early with Trent Cotchin’s vicious and beautiful tackle on Shane Mumford, which given their differences in size presented a strange and awesome visual phenomenon, like a Japanese tourist body slamming an alligator. A champion Japanese tourist, but a smaller man all the same.
The pressure and, more to the point, the handball releases forward into space were just too much. Early on, the Giants matched the Tigers around the contest, but there was no fluency in their movement, no sense of danger. The Tigers were all danger – every time they broke into space it felt like the game was about to end.
And so it did – with Daniel Rioli’s quarter-time goal probably. The game was replete with moments after that, but most of them only Tigers fans will remember in a few weeks. The exception was Marlion Pickett, who will always be remembered now.
His selection was inspired and his performance even more so. He played his first game of AFL football in a grand final in the midfield and looked infinitely more comfortable out there than Josh Kelly and Lachie Whitfield.
A context of team dominance helped, but Pickett transcended that – his freedom, grace and confidence were eerie, playing like an entrenched 200-gamer, who knew all the cadences of the ground and his teammates.
His 360 spin on Whitfield was a delight and his goal, for everyone, was powerful. He broke into space over and over, finding the ball and teammates, slinging passes around the ground. He was prominent in a game where a cameo would have been a success.
It’s absurd that he played so well, but perhaps also predictable – the quality of Richmond’s infrastructure just needs to be trusted now. If they picked him, it was going to work.
It is a strange, frightening world we are living in now where Richmond are the closest thing we have to the New England Patriots and the San Antonio Spurs.
For whatever reason, they still don’t seem to be accorded the appropriate amount of respect. It was only Round 16 when the Tigers, at close to full strength, were less than five-goal favourites against the Suns.
Press your ears to the wall and you can hear stray voices scoffing at this Richmond being a two-time premiership team. It’s a product of the quality of some of the names on the list still not resonating with the public, coupled with a fading but still present effervescent mocking, left over from when the Tigers were a cute, lovable loser instead of two-time premiers who just obliterate everyone.
But we all need to wake up now. The Tigers aren’t just a two-time premiership team, making up the numbers on that list – they are one of the most dominant two-time premiership teams. Across this three-year run they have crushed every team they have played in finals, except for the one night they didn’t. Outside of Collingwood, no team has come within three goals of them in a final in the past three years. The Tigers have covered the line in all seven of their finals victories in this stretch.
Public expectations are here, and reality is a distant there. This team is historic.
The coronation should have come a year earlier, in 2018, a year where everything went right for Richmond. Instead, it came in 2019, a year where everything went wrong.
Richmond’s health across 2017 and 2018 was blessed until it wasn’t, with an ill David Astbury and a hobbled Dustin Martin exposed in the preliminary final. This year, health regression looked like defining the season.
Alex Rance went down and some thought the Tigers might be finished without him. Pivotal, foundational pieces in Jack Riewoldt, Trent Cotchin and Toby Nankervis missed half the season. In the early going Tom Lynch played wounded. Bodies kept on missing games – only thirteen Tigers played 20+ games, after sixteen and eighteen did the two years prior.
The lack of continuity burned. Richmond only lost six games all year, but they lost all of them by five goals or more. When they looked off, they looked lost.
Adjusting to post-Rance life was a steep hill. In the first two games without him, Collingwood and GWS handled the Tigers, kicking a combined 36 goals on a confused, grieving defence.
Richmond settled, though, with the first signs of 2019’s swagger coming in a season-shaping win as rank outsiders on the road to Port Adelaide, winning without Rance, Cotchin, Riewoldt or Martin. Dylan Grimes was a titan on the night, turning the final quarter into a series of defiant, bruising intercept marks on the last line.
That night laid the foundation. The season would not be lost. The win in Adelaide kicked off a sequence of six wins in seven games, which gave the Tigers the buffer they needed to survive until the softer part of their draw. They would drop three in a row in the middle of the year to North Melbourne, Geelong and Adelaide, all blowouts, all with their team decimated by injury, to fall to 7-6, but they’d done enough to keep their season alive after it looked like falling apart without Rance.
In the last game before the bye, where a tired, injured Tiger squad were overwhelmed by the Crows, in the final night of moderate triumph for this Adelaide non-dynasty (sent, of course, initially into its death spiral by the Tigers), it was hard to tell whether Richmond were merely bravely staying alive, or were perfectly poised to make their move.
Since that night, they still haven’t lost.
They came back after the bye healthy and rejuvenated and eased into their stride with a pair of clinical wins over the Saints and Suns, before a stretch of seven straight at the MCG. Richmond’s ascent was quiet and almost eerily gradual, with little emphatic about their victories aside from the blowout on the Gold Coast, just professionally notching wins as they went.
The first real announcement came against Collingwood, in a blockbuster that fell flat because Richmond were too good. For the first time all season, against unambiguously quality opposition, the Tigers looked powerful.
The doubts that they could look like that in 2019 were finally dispelled. They played a brand that would hold up against anyone, the scything blend of fury without the ball and fury with the ball ending Collingwood quickly.
The season’s final fortnight presented two more tests, both of which were passed. West Coast jumped the Tigers early with clearance dominance and cruel efficiency to create a healthy lead. Gradually, though, the Tigers wore them down, controlling territory and establishing the game on their terms. In the end, a goal defeat flattered West Coast.
The following week there wouldn’t be as much drama, with Richmond this time executing the early blitz themselves as Brisbane’s youth showed. The Tigers locked themselves into the top four and across the competition you could hear the collective sigh: “why didn’t we bury this team when we should have?”
The September path to the grand final wasn’t as easy as it was in 2017. The Tigers are a great team, but they can be overpowered. When they’re on the ropes, though, you have to knock them out.
Collingwood did in 2018 but Brisbane and Geelong couldn’t this year. The qualifying final will be washed away like most 47-point wins are, but the Tigers were under siege at the Gabba. Brisbane couldn’t capitalise and all their forward territory dominance did was clear space for Richmond to slingshot the ball to Lynch, Riewoldt and Martin one-on-one inside 50.
This Richmond era properly began on a Friday night in September at the MCG against Geelong, so it was fitting that their biggest test this year came on the same stage.
In the 2017 qualifying final, Richmond came into the game underdogs, and optimism was only speculation. By the end of that night, a 51-point win punctuated by Trent Cotchin’s finest moment – that brilliant, violent pack spin into hacked left foot goal in the final term – the Tigers confirmed themselves as real. This year, against the Cats, the Tigers took the most important step forward to confirming themselves as historic.
In 2017, the Tigers played furiously, propelled by a youthful, uncaged energy. They weren’t always clean, but they were unrelenting and emphatic. They would keep coming and coming until they smashed a goal through like Cotchin did against the Cats.
The 2019 version, by September, was a more finished product – more polished and mature than previous iterations. In 2017, the Tigers played as though excited by what they didn’t know about themselves. In 2019, they played like they knew themselves completely.
On grand final day, in the build-up, it was easy enough to talk yourself into the Giants. As soon as the ball was bounced, though, all you saw was the Richmond Football Club at the MCG on a perfect day against a small team that had never been there before. The black and yellow looked immense, the orange and white looked misplaced.
The game played out that way – even when the Giants were ‘in it’, they looked devoid of ideas. Their forward movement looked like a child just learning to run for the first time, a confused, stunted gallop against a Tigers side of adults who moved with the ease and confidence of a run-through at training.
Everything GWS did was self-conscious and overly thought out – everything Richmond did was natural and automatic. The Giants forgot their words and the Tigers sang effortlessly.
It was Pickett’s day, but it was Martin’s too – again.
Martin is a visual feast. With the shaved sides of his head, the triangular tip of hair sliding down his forehead, the splattered tattoos on all limbs, and the built, unusually upright pose, he looks completely distinct from every other boring person on the field, like Darth Maul walking through Eastland Shopping Centre on a Tuesday afternoon.
He is the best player in the game. His brute strength always creates space and his quiet but destructive speed exploits it, the feet pattering away with the body, again, so upright, like a more fun, less Calvin Klein-ish version of Cristiano Ronaldo on the move.
Martin looks completely distinct from every other boring person on the field, like Darth Maul walking through Eastland Shopping Centre on a Tuesday afternoon.
It’s the brain which makes him so transcendent, though, with his vision and awareness unparalleled for someone with his physical advantages. Martin’s moment came in the second quarter of the grand final, with what felt at the time like the clinching goal.
Pickett whipped the ball inside 50 with an elastic left leg and Martin led Sam Taylor to the pass. At some point on his lead, he realised he wasn’t going to meet the ball at the drop, but kept on running hard at the ball anyway, to lull Taylor into following him. Taylor overran it, and with a superhuman change of direction, Martin gathered the ground ball, fended off a broken Phil Davis with ease, and dribbled through a crushing goal.
Not even Brian Taylor’s crazed shrieks of “He didn’t want the contact”, as though desperately trying to convince Australia or at least Cameron Ling of the gravity of what had just happened, could oversell the moment.
But then, perhaps none of the above is true – maybe Martin just read the ball late like Taylor but had the athleticism to make the turn and run onto the ball.
Whatever. The myth of Martin is such now that it’s easier to believe in genius than it is to believe in luck.
In the previous two years, there was a big four at Richmond – Martin, Cotchin, Riewoldt and Rance – and then the rest. There was limited star power, and then an excellent cadre of role players, even if the label was a horrible disservice to the likes of Houli, Edwards and Grimes.
This year, the line between stars and role players became a lot more blurred. In the absence of Rance, Grimes made a leap (or perhaps was just noticed more in a more prominent role – he’s been a star for some time now), establishing himself as one of the three or four pre-eminent defenders in the game, a devastating mix of bravery, deceptive pace and ability in the air and on the ground.
Dion Prestia, now a Best and Fairest winner in a premiership year, improved from ‘very good, solid midfielder’ to ‘Luke Shuey clone’, with his clearance work and damaging ability in space allowing Martin to go forward more often. Bachar Houli’s class and dash were so vital again, and his showings in September re-affirmed his place as one of the best big game players of recent years.
And then there is Tom Lynch, who made the team unfair. Lynch was the perfect addition, the last piece to make this team unstoppable and complete. Riewoldt needed a foil after playing so gallantly and singularly well in the preliminary final last year. Enter Lynch, a classical and quintessential key forward, uncontainable one-on-one.
Power forwards are more valuable at Richmond than anywhere else – no team, surely, grants its forwards more opportunities isolated inside 50.
The Tigers give lip service to the importance of clearances, intent to allocate bodies in more ideal positions to win the ball back, instead of around stoppages. The idea is simple but vital – you’re better off winning the ball back from your opponent than winning it anywhere else, because counter-attacks are more efficient and deadly than hacked kicks forward from congestion. It’s like an advanced version of an older child handballing the ball to a smaller kid just so he can tackle him with feeling.
The Richmond gameplan is an advanced version of an older child handballing the ball to a smaller kid just so he can tackle him with feeling.
Implementing that idea and succeeding with it requires expert defensive structures, relentless pressure to force turnovers, and speed and decisiveness on the break – all of which Richmond have. They have the personnel, the coaching and the buy-in.
In Lynch, they had the final piece, a figure to ensure that the counter attacks were capitalised on, able to use leading space efficiently and outmuscle a flat-footed, desperate defender at the end of a Tiger fast-break. In Riewoldt, Lynch and Martin, the Tigers had an abundance of finishers – they were just too much for opponents inside 50 during finals.
Everything worked in the 12-game winning streak that culminated in the club’s 12th flag – the plan was perfect. The defenders held up, silky users like Houli and Jayden Short distributed from half-back, the mids applied unbearable pressure, pace was everywhere, and the three-headed monster in the forward line couldn’t be stopped.
Damien Hardwick, who was on the chopping block for so long that a part of you feels that he actually was let go at some point, has cemented himself as a coaching great, second perhaps only to Alastair Clarkson of the actives. The Richmond game style has changed football, or at least forced a serious re-evaluation.
There will always be a time and a place for contested ball and clearance work – it can never be made irrelevant – and the Tigers in the past have been, if only for stretches, overwhelmed in matches because of deficits in those areas, mainly by Collingwood and Geelong. But it’s not like they’re forfeiting those domains – they’re only being economical in their resources.
In establishing the Richmond brand, and having the team play at such a remarkably and consistently high level for three straight years, Hardwick has achieved what few coaches have. This stretch stacks up with any this century outside of the three-peat Hawks and Lions.
Next year they will get Rance back, Pickett with a preseason, and likely a better run with injuries. The past is undeniable and the future is ominous.
The Hardwick Tigers have won their finals in the past three years by the following margins: 51, 36, 48, 31, 47, 19, 89, and there is no way Adelaide only lost that grand final by eight goals.
The minus-39 versus Collingwood can’t be forgotten, and is the only thing separating this team from immortality. But that’s the way it goes – like Geelong’s 2008 and Essendon’s 1999, great teams will slip up. Outside of that night the Tigers have not. They have crushed the competition, making annihilations on the biggest stage routine.
Marlion Pickett had the best quote after the grand final. He said he didn’t feel nervous: he felt at home because footy is home.
Domination has become home for the Tigers, and whatever happens from here, 2017 and 2019 will always be powerful, cherished places for their fans to go back and visit.
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.
Design and editing by Daniel Jeffrey
Image Credit: All images are Copyright Getty Images unless otherwise stated.