A year is a long time in football. In 2016, the Richmond football club was in crisis. After three successive finals appearances in 2013-2015, the club bottomed out to finish in 13th last year. A rebel group of challengers threatened to spill the board with one of their number, the 1980 premiership captain, Bruce Monteath, saying the club sat at a “35-year crossroad”. Saturday’s 48-point pummelling of Adelaidein a captivating finale to this season was vindication for those who refused to panic and lent their backing to the coach, Damien Hardwick.
For 37 years Richmond has notoriously underperformed, misstepped, drafted poorly, and been ridiculed for the implementation of their infamous “five year plan”. Yet the last laugh belonged to Hardwick’s team as the Tigers’ plans belatedly, gloriously, came to fruition in front of 100,000 fans at a feverish MCG. These Tigers embodied the spirit of captain Trent Cotchin’s reflection on a markedly different 2017, a season when he says he has felt “free”.
The Tigers were not freed up until later in this game but once they were, the dam wall broke, thanks in large part to its $8.75m dollar man, Dustin Martin. After a season of unrelenting contract speculation, the man who Leigh Matthews argued had had the best season of any AFL footballer achieved the incredible feat of becoming the first player in historyto win a Norm Smith, Brownlow and premiership medal in the one season. He was also the winner of the 2017 AFL coaches’ champion player of the year, the AFL players’ association MVP and was All Australian in a season where he averaged 30.3 disposals and kicked a career-best 32 goals. Although the field was remarkably even on grand final day, Martin was a deserved winner with two goals and 28 disposals.
Remarkably, a man who has played more finals than home and away matches, Jack Graham, topped the goal-scoring with three, including two in a one-sided third quarter. Jacob Townsend, the man who managed just four games in his first season with the Tigers before kicking 11 goals from 19 kicks in rounds 19 and 20, added to his fairytale run with a couple of his own. Together they epitomised a changing of the Tigers guard; a team playing with trust and connection, and in turn playing out of their skins.
By the third quarter, the Crows had panicked, and looked bereft of answers, despite starting the game with superior poise and composure. Jack Riewoldt’s three behinds in the first quarter typified the Tigers’ nervous start. The Crows came into the game ranked No1 for attack, with Richmond third for defence but, seemingly aware of the mantra that defence wins premierships, the Crows sought to beat the Tigers at their own game. That forced several mistakes under perceived pressure, most notably Nick Vlaustin’s nervous fumble that gifted a goal to Eddie Betts. At the end of the first quarter, Jacob Townsend lined up for goal only to kick into the man on the mark. The Tiger Army took their collective breath.
They need not have worried. The second quarter belonged to the Tigers, who tore free after a tense, low-scoring beginning. Alex Rance was at his intercepting-best, blanketing the Crows’ forays forward, diving and desperate with a sure fist. Up forward, Riewoldt finally broke his duck with an unconventional snap across the body that spoke of lost confidence in his set-shot drop punt. And, to bookend the quarter, a man who needs no introduction – Martin – emerged from the square to body a hapless Luke Brown. These Tigers had strut.
In the last, president Peggy O’Neale was seen with tears in the stands, shaking her head as if in disbelief as her club edged closer to victory. O’Neale was one of those who refused to blink in the shadows of 2016. Along with CEO Brendon Gale, they steadied the ship, trading once prodigal son Brett Deledio to GWS for a first and third-rounder, while bringing in Dion Prestia from Gold Coast, Josh Caddy from Geelong and Toby Nankervis from Sydney. All three played on Saturday. It was yet another vindication of the choice to go with a Tiger tweak over yet another rebuild.