After 37 years, it's Tiger time again
One of the AFL’s longest premiership droughts came to an end on Saturday afternoon at the Melbourne Cricket Ground as Richmond crushed the highly fancied Adelaide Crows by 48 points in the 2017 AFL Grand Final.
Pele, one of the greatest players of the round-ball game once said, “the more difficult the victory, the greater the happiness in winning.” And while the quote may not apply to this year’s grand final match itself, which proved to be more one-sided than most pundits had predicted, it is absolutely applicable to the thirty-seven long, and mostly difficult, years that have elapsed since Richmond’s last premiership triumph in 1980. Older Tiger fans have endured the worst of times since that day, including wooden spoons, the frustrations of finishing ninth (time and time again), and even the real threat of extinction, but they have stuck fast in the face of adversity and in so doing have been handsomely rewarded for their persistence. Saturday at the 'G' was the best of times.
For fans of the Adelaide Crows, on the other hand, the disappointment was almost palpable. The leading team for much of the season, and warm favourite going into the game, the Crows simply failed to fire (after quarter time); their much-vaunted forward line never looked like mounting a sustained challenge to their Richmond opponents. This was in stark contrast to the Richmond forwards, a.k.a. the 'mosquito fleet', who were relentless in their attack on the ball, and on their Crow opponents. The Tigers, as a team, simply wanted it more, and the evidence was there from very early in the game.
In slightly overcast and cool conditions, the type of which are often described as being perfect for football, the game began in typical grand final style—hard, fast, pressured, and mistake-ridden. Not one of the forty-four players involved had played on the biggest stage before, and as such there was no question of one side having an advantage on that score, but as the opening minutes unfolded it was clear that Adelaide was the first team to settle. With four of the first five inside 50s, the Tiger defence was under the pump, and a slick pass by Matt Crouch to the unmarked Rory Sloane 30 metres out saw the little dynamo put through the first goal of the game at the four-minute mark. Within a minute Eddie Betts had a second on the board after the usually reliable Nick Vlaustin failed to take possession in front of goal, thereby allowing the dangerous Betts to run into an open goal.
After an outstanding pack mark, Jack Riewoldt had the chance to put Richmond on the board, which he did, albeit with a behind. Two more behinds followed in quick succession from Jack, and while it was pleasing for Tiger fans to see their only tall forward in the game, the missed chances were galling. Richmond appeared a little nervous and against a run-on, high-scoring team like Adelaide, they’d need to take their chances early.
However, about midway through the quarter, the dynamic of the game began to change. The Tigers began to settle, most importantly in terms of mindset, and with that came more focused defensive pressure and disposal efficiency. It was, perhaps, entirely coincidental that said change seemed to occur just when the 'G' was hit by a passing shower, but whatever the cause, Richmond players were sparked into action. Results followed, with Josh Caddy putting through the first Tiger goal at the 16-minute mark after a mark and an around-the-corner kick, followed soon after by a running goal from Bachar Houli after a pass from Dustin Martin. The game was on, and as the quarter progressed, Richmond gained the ascendency in the contested ball, a key metric in so many big games.
The flow of the play may well have been drifting the Tigers way, but Adelaide was not to be denied and responded with two snap goals in the last minutes of the quarter. The first, to Rory Sloane from a tap off the pack, and the second, to Hugh Greenwood from a palm off the ruck, were directly attributable to Sam ‘Sauce’ Jacobs, who proved himself a tower of strength all day, whether it be against the formidable Toby Nankervis, or the bustling spoiler Shaun Grigg.
With a quarter-time lead of 11 points, the Crows should have gone into the second quarter with confidence. But signs were already apparent late in the first and into the second that they were under the pump from the enormous pressure the Tigers were bringing to bear. Evidence that the Crows were not tuned into the level required, despite the lead, came at the four-minute mark when Riewoldt (right), having missed three shots thus far, and well known for kicking around his body when lacking goalkicking confidence, did exactly that and pinged for goal. No Adelaide defender was positioned for such a kick falling short and the ball went through the goal at knee height, notwithstanding a stand minute Adelaide lunge and a video review.
Adelaide had a wonderful chance soon afterwards when the greyhound Charlie Cameron found himself in an open paddock on the wing after a David Astbury fumble, but the resulting pass to Riley Knight missed the mark and the best goalkeeper in the business, Alex Rance, was able to rush it through.
The intensive action continued through the middle of the quarter with neither side being able to convert opportunities. Then, a free kick to Jacob Townsend at the eighteen-minute mark for being held in a marking contest saw the J.J. Liston medalist do what he’s done regularly over the past month, and that was to shoot straight from a set shot 40 metres out while under considerable pressure. It’s an underrated skill, especially in big games, and as another young Tiger, first-year player Jack Graham was to demonstrate, an enormous confidence booster for any team.
Graham, the youngest man on the field, got his first chance at Grand Final glory within minutes of Townsend, albeit from a shot on the run. Accepting a well-timed handball from Trent Cotchin, strong as ever in the packs, Graham kicked truly from forty and the Tigers were in front for the first time. With nine of the last eleven inside 50s, it was a just reward, but more was to follow moments later when to the delight of the Richmond contingent, Dusty shrugged off the smaller Luke Brown to mark in front of goal and slot through to extend Richmond’s lead to nine points at the major break.
Although the margin was only two goals, the feeling at halftime was that unless the dynamic of the game changed dramatically, Adelaide was in trouble. Second quarters have been the Crows best all year, and the Tigers worst, yet the latter had outscored the Crows four goals to nil in the second just completed. More fundamentally, however, was the fact that it was Richmond that was playing its own brand of football—based on hard running and rabid defence to create superior numbers at the contest—at the expense of Adelaide’s, based on quick ball movement, running to space, and sudden switches of direction.
In other words, due to Tigers desperate defence (all around the ground), Adelaide was being denied the time to secure clean possession of the ball and to dispose of it efficiently, and due to the Tigers run, they were being denied the space they needed to move the ball in the direction they wanted, which throughout the season has often through the middle. The gaps were being plugged and the Crows were being squeezed.
As the third quarter got underway, the question was whether the Crows could reinvigorate their game through force of will, combined with tactical changes, and thereby unsettle the tuned-in Tigers. What was clear very early on, however, was that Richmond was well and truly in the zone and that they were doubling down on the template created in the first half. In the first ten minutes of the half, Richmond led the inside 50 count 7-1 and most tellingly, the contested possession count, 19-9.
As has been their hallmark all season, it was the Tigers' ability to keep the ball locked in their forward line, and convert the greater opportunities that thereby arose, that inflicted the killer blows in the form of a brace of early goals. The first was to Graham (left), caught high by Sloane, who slotted the resultant free through from thirty on a slight angle. That was followed soon after by Grigg, who kicked truly from forty after a pinpoint pass from Shaun Edwards, playing a valuable role as a link man. The third of the burst came from Kane Lambert from a snap at 15 metres out to put the Tigers 28 points up and with a full head of steam at their back.
Things were indeed looking bleak for Adelaide, as their much-vaunted forward line was unable to counter what the small-forwards of Richmond were doing at the other end. Skipper Taylor Walker marked and goaled to end the Tigers seven-goal streak and bring the margin back to 20 points, but the Crows were not allowed a follow-up to create any momentum. The final hammer blows for the quarter came first from another Graham set shot, courtesy of a pass from Nankervis. Combined with the nullifying job he was doing on Sloane, his straight-shooting made him one of the most valuable players on the ground. The next came from Jason Castagna, who snapped truly on the run after a pass from Martin. By contrast, big Adelaide forward Josh Jenkins had a very gettable shot right on the siren that may have given the Crows something of a sniff going into the last, but characteristic of his day in every respect, he simply wasn’t up to the task.
If the Crows were to have any chance at all they had to produce a level of desperation hitherto lacking and get early goals on the board. That was not to be. In contrast, it was Lambert running full on to mark a high ball and shoot out a pinpoint perfect pass to the running Riewoldt that told the tale. A dead-eyed effort from the Tigers only tall forward was just what the doctored order as far as still-nervous Richmond fans were concerned, and with the margin standing at forty points, nothing but a miracle was going to save the Crows now.
Minutes later after a thrilling dash by Lambert down the members stand flank, leading to a goal from Dion Prestia, the issue was no longer in any doubt, at least to objective observers, albeit two quick goals, from Brad Couch and Walker, coupled with some hitherto all-too-rare forward flourishes by the Crows opened an ever so slight window of opportunity. But, as was the case all day, Richmond had the answers, three more of them in fact.
The first came from Townsend from an intercept mark from the kick-off. Again, a Tiger small forward had shot truly, and the brief Crow comeback was snuffed out. But it was the next goal—a banana from Dan Butler after a holding-the-ball free—that sent the most hardened of old Tiger stalwarts, hitherto not convinced the Premiership was really theirs, into blubbery rapture. In no calculation of time remaining divided by goals needed could there be any other result, and fittingly, it was the fans’ favourite, Dusty Martin (right), that rammed through the last Richmond goal of the day, via a screw kick over his head. A late goal from Cameron reduced the margin to 48 points and that’s where it stayed to the end.
Richmond coach Damien Hardwick conceded his team's pressure was "a little bit off" in the early stages, but improved from there. "They were probably kicking more, so we couldn't exert that influence, but then we started to get going. We know if we play a certain way we're going to give ourselves a chance to win," Hardwick said.
"It's funny, I was speaking to Clarko [Alastair Clarkson] on Monday night about the eeriness to the 2008 Hawks. I think in 2008 the Hawks lost to Richmond in about round 20 and played their best football thereafter. "We lost to Geelong round (21) and then we just went whack, whack, whack, whack, whack, whack. "We learned a lot of lessons from the games that we lost and we played our best footy when it mattered most."
Adelaide Crows coach Don Pyke said his team's effort simply wasn't good enough. "One of the things that is very hard from a coaching viewpoint is to provide effort. The players are responsible for effort. We try and encourage that, we try and demand that," Pyke said.
"We tried to do some structural things, but you're trying to put a patch on what's a fair wound, and when you're talking minus 25 (in contested possessions) in the third quarter, which is why we value it as a stat, and in fairness, a stat we've been very good at all year, that's probably the most disappointing part. "It's an area of our game that we felt coming in we were strong and we didn't deliver today."
It was a fair indication of the evenness of Richmond’s performance that even late in the game it was by no means obvious who would win the Norm Smith Medal for best afield. As it transpired it was Dustin Martin that won the prized award, becoming the first man to win to do so in the same year as winning the Brownlow and a premiership medallion. While it wasn't one of his more spectacular performances, it was resolutely workmanlike, with twenty-two contested possessions telling the true story. Second place getter Bachar Houli could consider himself slightly unlucky not to win, such was his all-round four-quarter game, while other vote-getters Rance, Edwards, Prestia, and Graham were all outstanding on the day.
For the Crows, such was the towelling up they received that it was hard to find good players, but the Crouch brothers, Jacobs, Sloane, and Laird all can hold their heads high.
While a week may be a long time in politics, a year has been an eternity for the Richmond Football Club. In the wake of three failed finals attempts in the 2013-2015 period, followed by a disastrous campaign in 2016 that saw the team finish thirteenth, capped off by a 113-point loss to Sydney in the final game, the club was threatened by considerable instability in the off-season. The move was on to replace the board, and with it the coach, and bring wholesale change to an organisation seen as falling behind the trendsetting clubs.
In the event, the board, led by President Peggy O’Neil and CEO Brendan Gale (right), survived, and so too did 'their' coach, Damien Hardwick. Nonetheless, the upheaval did bring out into the open many concerns shared by the wider base of supporters, and to the credit of the incumbents, it was acknowledged that changes were indeed needed. Armed with a new game plan and a renewed sense of commitment and openness to each other, the coach and the players in particular lead the way, and the results have been nothing less than extraordinary.
The improvement from thirteenth to first in two seasons is, in fact, an V/AFL record. The parallels with the Western Bulldogs' rise to premiership glory in 2016 are clear. The task now for the Richmond Football Club is to ensure what has been a wonderful hoodoo breaking season is not a ‘one-off’ but instead the start of a new era of greatness, à la as those created by former generations of ‘Tigers of old’.
Adelaide: Sloane, Walker 2; Betts, Greenwood, B. Crouch, Cameron
Richmond: Graham 3; Townsend, Martin 2; Caddy, Houli, Riewoldt, Grigg, Lambert, Castagna, Riewoldt, Prestia, Butler
BEST - AFL.COM.AU
Adelaide: M. Crouch, Jacobs, B. Crouch, Sloane, Laird
Richmond: Rance, Martin, Houli, Astbury, Prestia, Edwards, Graham, Grimes
BEST - THE AGE
Adelaide: Jacobs, M. Crouch, Sloane, Laird
Richmond: Houli, Rance, Martin, Edwards, Graham, Riewoldt, Prestia,
NORM SMITH MEDALIST: Dustin Martin (Richmond)
NORM SMITH VOTES
13 - Dustin Martin, Richmond 33331
10 - Bachar Houli, Richmond 32221
2 - Alex Rance, Richmond 2
2 - Shane Edwards, Richmond 2
2 - Dion Prestia, Richmond 11
1 - Jack Graham, Richmond 1.
Chris Judd (MMM, Chairman) - D Martin, B Houli, J Graham.
Terry Wallace (AFL Nation) - B Houli, S Edwards, D Martin.
Daisy Pearce (Channel 7) - D Martin, B Houli, D Prestia.
Mark Maclure (ABC Radio) - D Martin, A Rance, B Houli.
Jake Niall (Fox Sports) - D Martin, B Houli, D Prestia.
Richmond: Rioli (ankle)
UMPIRES: Stevic, Meredith, Ryan
TELEVISION BROADCAST: Seven Network
COMMENTATORS: Bruce McAvaney, Brian Taylor, Wayne Carey, Cameron Ling, Tim Watson, Matthew Richardson
For match details, click here.
Video sourced from YouTube, courtesy of the AFL.