Strange things can happen over the pre-season.
Just ask the Adelaide Crows whose attempt to recover from a Tiger Grand Final mauling ended in bus rides, blind folds and god knows what – all to the apparent soundtrack of the Richmond theme song. But as that song again rang around the MCG on this year’s last September in Saturday, you could not help but wonder what exactly happened at Tigerland in the summer 2016?
How could a football club with such a battered soul be transformed so quickly to a such a supreme sporting powerhouse, in such a short period of time? Whatever Peggy O’Neil, Brendon Gale, Neil Balme, Damien Hardwick, Trent Cotchin, and whoever else, orchestrated in those crucial months has sown the seeds of two premierships and a genuine era of greatness for Richmond. But what makes this team, more accurately this football club, so special is that their glory was not earned in those two hours on Saturday. The Grand Final was more an exhibition of what they already were.
Hindsight shows, that the supremely confident, but not arrogant, Richmond had one hand on the cup before facing an increasingly nervous and vulnerable GWS, who were far from the second-best team in the competition. But more importantly, Richmond already had the intangible success they were craving, as at Tigerland premierships are no longer an apt measurement of success but merely a bi-product. During Grand Final week, captain Trent Cotchin said as much, stating his focus for the week was to continue to develop the club’s culture, not on winning the premiership. This sort of fuzzy language is often eye-roll inducing, yet I believed him. Besides, the proof is in the pudding… I think they ticked both boxes.
Culture and intangibles, such as human connections, spirit, belief and the whole person are publicly spoken about at Richmond more than contested possession, metres gained and hard ball gets. There’s more laughter and smiles than fake earnestness. There’s a lot of real about Richmond. Richmond CEO Brendon Gale has since described it as a “magical time” – reality and magic are a beautiful combination.
On the premiership dais, Trent Cotchin, who now joins only Syd Coventry, Dick Reynolds and Michael Voss as Brownlow Medalists to captain teams to multiple premierships, spoke of his “blood brothers.” In the post-game presser, Damien Hardwick, Alastair Clarkson’s greatest challenger to the AFL’s best coach title, spoke of how “special human connection” is lacking within human society.
“(Human connection) is something that our club really invests heavily in. It is special. I sit there in a team meeting, I was talking to the players today what it looks like to me sitting from the front – they have arms on each other, they have got hands on laps – I feel a little bit uncomfortable about it at times. But it’s who they are. It’s an incredible thing they have got and it’s really hard to replicate.”
This emotional rawness is certainly present within Richmond. The importance of which has been so lovingly highlighted in the football world over the past month after the profoundly sad passing of St Kilda great Danny Frawley. Spud, of course, was Richmond’s finest coach during the Tigers’ 37-year premiership drought – and would have been looking down with pride on the weekend.
Football has certainly changed since Richmond’s glory days of the 1970s and 80s. Layers are added to the game with each passing year in the pursuit of success. Meaningful success is only ever gained when a new aspect of the game is unlocked that gives a side an edge over the competition. It’s why the competition gets harder every year. Layers are rarely stripped away. Football clubs only get better. When coaches are discussing the very essence of human existence after winning flags it shows that every inch of football – and now life – is explored to win premierships.
Of course, the game is ever evolving and something new will be unlocked that will once again add another layer to football and a new superpower will soon emerge. But for now, at least, this is the most complete football clubs have ever been and Richmond are the game’s masters.
And they’ve mastered the game in the best possible way; with a smile.
Such a smile is epitomised by infectious Richmond youngster Jack Higgins, whose genuine excitement and enthusiasm made him a favourite amongst fans. From his famous “snags” debut interview, to last year’s goal of the year, the “my heart is pumping 1,000 minutes per second” line to his pre-game speeches that left his teammates in hysterics.
Higgins underwent brain surgery earlier this month as a result of an abnormality he has had since birth where blood vessels in his brain bled. We won’t see Higgins on the football field again at least for a while, however, he returned to the training track two days before the Grand Final. It would have undoubtedly boosted the morale of his teammates. Higgins was definitely a part of Richmond’s flag. He wore his guernsey in the on-field celebrations after the game, as did the whole squad. It was a typically nice touch from a club that is getting a hell of a lot right.
The newfound Richmond certainly got its lead from the Western Bulldogs of 2016, whose spirit and character was inspiring. There is was also more than a pinch of this intangible ethos in West Coast last year. Moreover, while there’s no premiership as of yet, Collingwood have it in spades as well. Just watch the recent ABC documentary Collingwood: Inside Out if you don’t believe me.
However, Richmond were able to harness these intangibles into something more permanent than the Bulldogs could in the explosion of September 2016. Richmond appear to be a football club obsessed with improvement and aspiration. Brendon Gale’s 2020 three flag mission from a decade ago shows that this starts from the top. Whereas, the Bulldogs have endured somewhat of an identity crisis since their famous flag as articulated typically brilliantly by Bob Murphy’s mid-season article in The Age, “After touching the stars, can the Bulldogs now scale the mountain?”
The Grand Final itself was a massive fizzer which was reflected in the low TV ratings. However, the story of debutant Marlion Pickett was certainly more captivating than the actual game. Marlion Pickett, cousin of 2004 Norm Smith Medalist Byron Pickett, was just another strand of the Richmond fairytale. Richmond CEO Brandon Gale, who may well be running the AFL in the near future, summed up the Pickett story on Offsiders on Sunday.
“It’s a story that really defines us as a club. As a club, as a team, we celebrate the whole person, the whole self, we focus on strengths and we really work hard at building connection and trust.”
Following up from that, in the words of Hardwick, “one thing we do really well at Richmond is celebrate little things, that’s why we’re the best club in the land at the moment.”
Perhaps, that is the core of Richmond’s so-dubbed “Dimma-sty”.
May they celebrate the big things, like premierships, just as well.