Few things are as Australian as a democracy sausage, but for an event that brings out national pride, Dreamtime at the G has to be up there.

Celebrating the indigenous people in our own indigenous game at the greatest sporting ground in the world is an experience every Aussie should have, even if you’re from Sydney or prefer a game invented by Englishmen, you can enjoy the Australian-made product over the import.

On a night where “Australia decides” was flashed around everywhere, it’s reassuring that with so many voices wanting to talk politics, 70,000 Aussies decided they’d rather go to the footy, and why not? Who needs three-word slogans when you have the Dreamtime match putting on a full all-you-can-eat buffet of some of the greatest things about Australia. A democracy sausage is all well and good, but it’s no hot four’n’twenty at the G.

With that minor distraction behind us, let’s get onto the game.

The week

Essendon’s week involved a lot of speculation on the mental and physical toughness of the side. Luke Parker’s taunt of Dylan Shiel filled plenty of airtime on the various panel shows, with a majority of players viewing it as a valid critique and tactic to put an opponent under some pressure, while many career journos expressed alarming levels of disgust that someone put the torch on a player while in a position for them to respond, rather than do it from the safety of their home office in a football column.

Let’s be frank here Dons fans, whether Shiel was hearing footsteps or not, if you have a chance to put doubt in the mind of an opponent, you’ll do it, just as every Essendon hard man has done since the day the league came about.

The Velvet Hammer himself Matty Lloyd questioned why no one remonstrated with the taunt, prompting Rutten to express support for Shiel and calling for a more ruthless, hard edge. His team seemed to take that on board and for the most part, tried to bring some physicality to the game.

The other big story was Anthony Mcdonald-Tipungwuti announcing his retirement. A visibly emotional Walla announced it to the playing group, supported by teammates and supporters alike. Walla is one of the few players that I can honestly say I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about. His story is a unique one, coming in during a low point of Essendon’s history and providing many, many highlights during his time in the red and black.

On one hand, it’s a shame that we won’t be able to see him excite the crowds anymore, but on the other, it’s comforting that he’s made the call for his own reasons, at the time he wanted to. At 29, he could absolutely play on if he felt the need, but he’s calling time as a one-club player, and on a weekend that means so much to his community and with the team taking the field in a guernsey he helped design. No doubt the club will be happy to have him back in some capacity if he ever wants to be there.

Richmond wasn’t without their own headlines though, with several stories adding to the lead up in the match.

In a fairly odd sort of announcement, Damien Hardwick expressed support for Dusty Martin if he decided to leave the Melbourne footy fishbowl. While Martin has certainly earned the right to make his own choices, it’s rare for a coach to so publicly say they’d be OK with a champion of the club moving on. I know plenty of people who resent the verbal fellatio that Dusty often receives from the commentary team, but when it comes down to it, he’ll be remembered as one of the all-time greats of a club that can boast names such as Sheedy, Bourke, Hart, Titus, Bartlett and Dyer. Comparing Dusty’s career to those legends, he stacks up pretty well.

Currently, Sydney has been touted as the most likely destination in a situation that is a little reminiscent of Buddy Franklin’s venture north of the border. GWS would be prepared to throw the kitchen sink at him, but Sydney is a canny trade-maker with lots of young talent that they could use to get Martin over to the Swans. Will it happen, or is this all just a case of Hardwick letting his enigmatic star know that he’s not being caged at Punt road? Time will tell.

The other piece that had tongues wagging was Marlion Pickett’s one-match suspension for a high hit on Dylan Moore, meaning he would be out of the game that featured a guernsey that he and his partner Jessica Nannup designed. It looked a bit of a rough call considering Moore played out the game, but a Richmond challenge failed, and Pickett was relegated to the sidelines for the match.

The day

Sir Doug Nicholls round is a marquee round for the AFL, and the Dreamtime game is the jewel in the crown. While the AFL has turned it from a marquee game into a whole round acknowledging indigenous contributions to the game, it still managed to put on a full event for the centrepiece match.

The day started with a VFL curtain-raiser, which I for one absolutely love. I’d happily have the state leagues run just before the AFL match every week. It’s great to see some future stars and players trying to break into the squad ply their trade on the same ground as the senior team.

Richmond ran out winners in that match by 33 points, getting very close to mirroring that senior results. For my money, young defender Hugo Ralphsmith’s work off half-back looked pretty slick and Sydney Stack’s three goals will have both putting pressure o the senior squad. Essendon were competitive for much of the match, but it was young half-back Cody Brand who caught the eye. At just 19 his work was poised and confident, with a strong mark and plenty of the ball, he’ll be looking to make his debut before too long.

After the match, the traditional Long Walk to the G saw thousands of people join Essendon Legend Michael Long in the traditional symbolic walk to raise awareness of the plight of Aboriginal communities. After arriving at the G there was some pre-match entertainment that perhaps didn’t consider the acoustics of the open-air stadium, but built up the match as the Welcome to Country was delivered and the cultural performances lead into the team War Cries. Richmond joined in with their indigenous players encircled by the rest of the team and then continued to be part of the performance in a great moment of symbolism and respect.

Then, after all of that and with the crowd primed and the hype built to levels normally reserved for finals footy, it was time to get the show on the road.

 

Ins and outs

Both sides made a few changes, with Richmond bringing in Tarrant and Gibcus to shore up the defence along with Aarts and Ross, while Graham and Balta sat out with injuries, Pickett with suspension and Bigoa “Biggie” Nyuon was rested after an emotional debut.

Tex Wanganeen and Devon Smith came in to cover an injured Caldwell and Ridley sitting out due to covid protocol.

All up it, neither side seemed particularly disadvantaged with the changes, with incoming talent fairly balanced with players out of the side, though having a veteran defender in Tarrant joining exciting youngster Gibcus in the back half of the line-up was something Richmond would welcome after struggling to curtail Mitch Lewis and Jacob Koschitzke last week.

The opening

After Rioli and McDonald-Tipungwuti exchanged traditional gifts, the Tigers won the toss and decided to kick to the Punt Road end.

The game started with the crowd in full voice as each team struggled to get the ball into space, and Essendon controlling much of the early ball movement and Richmond countering with strong rebounding fastbreaks from half-back.

Both sides were fully committed to the contest, with Essendon consciously attempting to shake the “soft” tag that had haunted them during the week. Early on when Tom Lynch attempted to make it to a marking contest and gave away 50 as he cleaned up Guelfi who courageously stood under the ball. At least half a dozen players came in to show their displeasure, with McGrath immediately remonstrating and Sam Draper playing the big man role perfectly. He still needs to put some kilos on if he’s going to intimidate players, but the mullet will go some way to addressing that too.

After lots of back-and-forth, Essendon found an avenue forward through some great evasion through the corridor by Hind who found Francis just on 50 near the boundary. Francis duly converted to give Essendon the early lead and get the Bombers crowd up and about.

An end-to-end play off that miss gave Riewoldt a mark just 25 metres out, and with Shane Edwards doing the classic small forward tactic of sprinting into an open goalsquare to get the easy one, Riewoldt obliged and put Richmond on the board. To Riewoldt’s credit, he didn’t hesitate to hand the ball off for a sure goal, though plenty of forwards would somehow find a reason to burn a couple of seconds and gesticulate helplessly as the open player was picked up, meaning they had to take their set shot themselves.

The quarter remained a tight tussle as both teams worked hard off the ball to make space and shut down the transition game of their opponents, with Essendon building a wall to stop Richmond getting any easy forward 50 entries, before an intercept and a great lead up mark to Riewoldt gave the Tigers a small margin to take into the first break.

The wall breaks

Essendon would have been pleased with their early efforts. They’d shown some fire, closed down a lot of the run from dangerous players, and managed to avoid too many mistakes.

It did not last.

A quick forward push caused a congested pack just at Richmond’s goal square, and it was exceptional positioning and cunning that gave Maurice Rioli a chance to soccer the spilled ball through for his first of the day. I’ve pumped up Rioli before, but it really cannot be understated how maturely this kid plays. He’s got the poise of a hundred game veteran, and the moustache to match.

By staying just off the pack he was ready to pounce on his opportunity, and the whole team came over to give him a pat on the back. Whether it’s an innate talent or sticking to his role, he’s showing a hell of a lot for the Tigers.

A problematic kick out gave Castagna an easy goal, and shortly afterwards a strong mark from Soldo that Baker placed lace-out in front of him and with Draper right on his clacker put the margin out to 25 points early in the second, taking a bit of wind out of the sails of the Essendon squad.

Richmond had their own issue bringing the ball out of defence, and after a bit of a scramble, Dylan Grimes caught Ben Hobbs trying to sidestep and laid on a tackle that had the Tiger army cheering…. Right up until the ump called it a dangerous tackle, saying Grimes had lifted him horizontally.

It’s a call that we’ve seen a bit this round, but his arms weren’t pinned, he wasn’t lifted as much as his own momentum was shifted, and I’m not a fan of that sort of call being made. Were it not for the current dissent rule, there’d be plenty of feedback from the field to match the stares.

Richmond weren’t perturbed though, and sequential goals to Riewoldt and Rioli through courageous marks put the game well into Richmond’s hands. To Essendon’s credit, they kept pushing the Tigers putting on the next three goals through Perkins, shiel and Bryan to bring it back to a two-goal deficit.

Shortly after, Archie Perkins went down to the rooms to look at his ankle, but managed to come back on and play out the game, though looked a little ginger. With Wanganeen sitting on the sidelines, it might have been worth bringing him in if there was any concern, but then they wouldn’t have been able to activate him later for Guelfi.

Essendon sensed their legs were starting to fade a bit and switched to a long-down-the-line strategy that had an immediate effect, giving Ben Hobbs his second goal and making a poster-worthy pic as he lined up with his guernsey worn in a cheeky off-the-shoulder toga fashion that I hope will inspire the red carpet attire for the Brownlow this year. I’m not a fashion person, but I’m sure plenty of WAGs will be able to pull off the broken shoulder strap look, though to be honest it’s probably not enough to really make me sit through it.

As happened so often in this match, Richmond responded with Jake Kelly giving Jack Riewoldt an enormous amount of space for some reason, and perfect delivery from Prestia to set up Jack’s third for the match and once again keep the game just out of reach of the Bombers.

Crunch time

With a 27-point deficit coming into the fourth quarter, the door was still slightly ajar for the bombers, and a clever in-play goal from Alec Waterman brought it back to 20 points with both teams looking to have very heavy legs.

As the ball moved from one end to the other and with both teams missing gettable shots, Essendon showed they would not go down wondering, switching back to the surge-style of play that had worked well earlier.

Now it was Richmond’s turn to switch to a tempo-style of football and hug the boundary, stifling much of their run but making an increasingly-desperate Bombers outfit take more risks and often rush their attempts to move the ball into their attacking 50.

The fire was definitely still in the match as contests regularly flared up into scuffles that will have the incoming AFL commissioner looking to add to his redecoration fund at AFL HQ. The clock created pressure though, and even more so when Shai Bolton got loose in the forward 50 to kick his second and put the game beyond likelihood with only ten minutes remaining and four goals up.

Essendon kept pushing, but looked less than optimistic about their chances and without the desperation they had earlier, and a final goal to Riewoldt inside the final five minutes put the result beyond doubt.

One positive for the Dons was a crafty bit of forward roving from Wanganeen who had been subbed on for Guelfi that went through for a goal, but had come off the hands of Vlaustin. Like the Essendon side, Wanganeen’s effort showed some skill and ability to take the opportunity that presented itself, but was just hindered by the class and desperation from Richmond.

What does this game mean to Indigenous players?

To say that Indigenous Australians have contributed to AFL is to understate things by a lot. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to think of a premiership side in the AFL era (and a lot earlier) that didn’t have a big impact from Aboriginal players.

Michael Long once again showed a stoic sort of determination with his Long Walk, flanked by friends and supporters. I would never presume to put words into the mouths of indigenous players, but from the outside it looks like the game and the intent behind it has been firmly embraced by the community at large, and Australia as a whole.

Michael Long has plenty of accolades in his career, but as a legacy his work at promoting this match and highlighting the issues faced by Indigenous Australians may have more long-lasting impact than even his efforts that earned him a Norm Smith.

Richmond backline

I’m a long-time fan of Robbie Tarrant, and this is the first game of his in the yellow sash that I think will have the tiger faithful on board too. The way he and Gibcus worked together was as if they’d been playing beside each other for years. Both had a few moments of poor disposal, but overall they managed to support each other without getting in each other’s way. I’m hoping that they can play a lot more footy together, because they’ll both benefit from the experience.

Essendon response

As mentioned in the build-up, Essendon were challenged by the media, the supporters and even their own coach to bring some physicality to the game. From the first bounce, they let Richmond know that they wouldn’t be walked over, and that any liberties would have plenty of players in to fly the flag.

It did ring a little hollow at some stages, with some fantastic tackles backed up with little body pressure to block for their teammates. It’s a vast improvement though and will go a long way to putting that tag to rest. For most of the team anyway.

The power of positioning

Speed, agility and strength are key attributes for a modern football player, but reading the play and anticipating where you need to be is that one intangible asset that can mean the difference between a “handy” player and a game-breaker.

Richmond have a few game-breaking players that read the ball extremely well.

Bolton, Maruice Rioli and Liam Baker were among the best to read the play, with Baker’s work rebounding from the back 50 and finding the right target in the right space a major reason that the Tigers kept their lead for most of the match. At just 24 he’s coming into his prime and with the midfield movement that Richmond have, he could be a real weapon for the tigers to keep their window open just a little longer.

Parish showed his own brilliance in reading the play too, but often was left without protection that Richmond afforded their players, having to weave and move or dispose of the ball quickly to a close option. He needs some help breaking into space, and while Heppell and Redman tried to give him that on occasion, it will take a much broader effort from the Dons to allow their mids some space and time to assess options and cut through the defences of the top eight sides.

Tackling leaving the game?

What the hell is going on with the tackling calls? As the season has worn on, we’ve seen a lot of tackles that in the past few months would have been lauded in the Monday review turned into free kicks.

I’m not advocating for intentionally injuring players, but giving your opponent a bit of a bruise or two and make them think twice about getting the ball is what contact sports are about. It’s also a major benefit to participation, building that mental resilience to continue to keep going for the ball, knowing you’re going to get tackled hard and get back up again. It’s a life-lesson for players to learn that pursuing something they want might cause them some discomfort, but if they can continue working towards it, take the hits along the way, they’ll get there eventually.

We got rid of the spear tackle, and that’s fair enough. Then the shirtfront went, and people started being concerned. Then the sling tackle was outlawed, and I was a little off-put, as that was one I was actually pretty good at. Now any tackle to a horizontal opponent looks like it’ll be penalised.

Enough.

Protect the head of players, sure, but lets not delude ourselves into thinking the game can be made to be safe and remain the game that people love.

At the moment, you can’t tackle from front on and drive them onto their back, else it’s a kick (as happened with Tarryn Thomas in the North v Naarm match). You can’t tackle side-on if they leap forward and land face-down, even if they have their arms out to brace (Grimes on Hobbs in this match) Run-down tackles have been called in the back, and rolling tackles have been paid as a sling.

What we need are consistency in calls and for the AFL to realise that contact sports will have contact. If they’re looking to stop all injuries, they’ll have to tie everyone’s shoelaces together to avoid ACL tears and slow the game down to a walk.

That wasn’t a suggestion Brad, so don’t take it as one.

Next Up

Richmond have a six-day turnaround to take on the Swans. Both sides are matched on points and with percentage separated by just a few decimal places, it’s a season-defining game for both. The loser will drop to eighth and have to hold off the Western Bulldogs and a Port side building momentum.

It’s a hard match to pick, with each side showing that they’re able to match it with the upper-level sides on their day, but with Parker looking likely to be out through injury or suspension and Richmond finding themselves with a wealth of depth, I’m on the Tigers to take this one by a moderate margin.

Richmond by 18.

Essendon sit at 2-8 despite some spirited losses, and will head to Adelaide to take on a resurgent Port Adelaide that as mentioned above, is on a big charge towards the top eight after a 0-5 start to the season. Despite losing comprehensively to the Cats, Port look in some fairly good form and Essendon’s constant pushing in the Dreamtime match could see some sore bodies during the week. I have to go with port here, and I think they could put a bit of a margin on the Dons with a 23 point win.

 

Want more of this kind of stuff? Join The Mongrel to get it!