Back to Back, or a Footy Footnote?

You'd be feeling pretty confident if you were a supporter of the Richmond Football Club going into the Preliminary Final this week. They've already knocked over the Pies twice this year, and in the last quarter of those games their dominance has been emphatic. They have taken close games and turned them on their head with withering last quarter blasts that have left the Pies behind them, like a toddler trying to keep up with his older, stronger sibling.

In their cumulative last quarters against Collingwood, the Tigers have outscored them 13.6.84 to 4.4.28.

As a matter of fact, outside their losses to interstate teams Richmond have been nigh on unbeatable in Melbourne, and more so at the MCG.

With their four superstars, in Riewoldt, Rance, Cotchin and Martin complemented by a dozen or so very effective role players, the Tigers have organised themselves into a system that defends their home turf; the Melbourne Cricket Ground, like a fortress. There, they’re almost impossible to beat.

Yes, almost.

You see, there have been other teams that have also been almost impossible to beat. Yet on the last day in September, their opponents were the ones standing on the dais receiving their premiership medals and holding the ‘holy grail’, whilst those “unbeatable” teams have sat on the turf and watched, lamenting what might have been.

The Richmond Tigers would have learnt a lesson from these teams, just as they learned from the Western Bulldogs’ premiership hangover that has held them in wonderful stead to this point in time. But are we at a stage where we can accurately predict the team to win a Grand Final and not be a little bit worried about things that could go awry?

The similarities between Essendon in 1999 and the current incarnation of Richmond are evident. Both are expected to cruise through their respective Preliminary Finals. Both had 18 wins for the year, and both contained talented stars. For Richmond’s Cotchin, Martin, Riewoldt and Rance, the Bombers had Hird, Lloyd, Fletcher and Long (and yes, I am aware Hird was injured that year).

But the Bombers didn't cruise to victory that day. Far from it. They ran into a determined Carlton team with a superstar of their own, in Anthony Koutoufides. The Blues shut Essendon down early, and used the Bombers’ own inaccuracy at goal against them. In the end it was Dean Wallis who tried to run though/around Fraser Brown as the clock ran down. It was a mistake. Fraser took Wallis down, Carlton cleared the ball and ran out the clock. The Bombers fell to the Blues by a solitary point. They rebounded in 2000 to have an excellent season and claim the flag, but the loss in 1999 is something Carlton fans still hold onto as a point of pride, and something the Bombers will never let go. It still hurts.

And what about the 2008 Geelong Cats team? Winning an incredible 21 out of 22 home and away games for the year, the Cats were an absolute certainty to walk away with back to back flags. They’d been to the top of the mountain. They knew what it took to win on the biggest day of the year, and they were prepared to do it again. 2007 was but an entrée, and 2008 was meant to be the main course.

But what happened on that fateful day will never be lived down. Costly misses to Cameron Mooney, Paul Chapman and others haunt the dreams of Geelong fans. Premierships on either side of that 2008 loss have not eased the pain inflicted by Hawthorn that day. It was the one that got away – the one they were meant to win. What would the status of that Geelong team be now with premierships in ’07, ’08, ’09 and 2011?

With a defensive tactic of walking a ball through for a behind every time they are under pressure, the Hawks made the Geelong scoreline look ludicrous. The score was 11 goals 23 behind, with only 11 of the behinds on the Cats’ total attributed to Geelong players. The Hawks, in contrast scored 18 goals  and seven behinds to walk away with a surprise flag and leaving the Cats feeling as though they've been robbed.

“Do you know what? I still think about it to this day.” – Mark Thompson.

There's been no hotter favourite to win the grand final in years than Richmond is right now. With four teams  left in the race, many people think it's a fate accompli that Richmond will walk into the grand final, and walk away with a second premiership medal around their players next.

But history tells us that things are never that easy.

All it takes is one bad day, one terrible day in front of goals where the normally accurate Jack Riewoldt cannot hit the scoreboard. All it takes is a day where Jack Higgins can't get his hands on the ball in the forwardhalf, a day with Jason Castagna spraying the ball front of goals, or a day where a couple of hamstrings go ‘ping’ and what happens to the Tigers? Could they become a footnote in AFL history as a team that could have, and should have, but simply didn't?

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Collingwood will be well aware how quickly things can change as they go into this battle this week against the AFL's behemoth. They are the underdogs. Nobody expects them to actually beat Richmond. Their fans are hopeful - hoping for the best but secretly fearing the worst. The Tigers have the runs on the board. They have recent history over the Magpies. They have looked the better team on the two occasions the teams have faced each other this season.

But what does that mean in finals?

Not much. All it takes is that one bad day. Collingwood will pressure the Tigers. Collingwood will hassle the Tigers. And Collingwood will try to force Richmond into mistakes. They will try to out-Tiger the Richmond Football Club..

If they succeed, what we are left with is a team of destiny that failed to live up to a hard earned reputation. The Tigers are the best team in the competition, but they have to be the best team over the last two weeks to reap the rewards of their blistering season to date. The best team in September wins the flag.

It's how the Tigers won their 2017 flag, and the Western Bulldogs won theirs twelve months earlier. What's happened up till now is inconsequential.

Now, it's all about what happens this weekend and the next.

The Tigers have their fate in their own hands. Do they stand up when they’re the hunted? Or do they fall and become the 1999 Bombers, or the 2008 Cats, their season shrouded in the infamy of one poor performance?  

Collingwood will be doing all they can to make it happen.

“I am still bitter about the loss.” – Steve Johnson, in his 2017 autobiography.

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