The days are getting shorter and the sports sections are getting longer.
There’s always extra energy in the air come late March. Melbourne’s at its best, the leaves are slowly changing, and the temperature starts to drop as the sun goes down. Strangers in matching scarves nod in the street, their grins infectious. They know footy’s back.
Round 1 is always incredibly over-hyped. Long cricket-filled summers see to that, and the West Indies’ dismal offering this year did little to sate the sports fan’s thirst. With Richmond and Carlton usually playing the very first game, the Thursday nights have been anxious affairs.
I had met up with friends before the match. We walked up to the ground from Richmond station, dodging Carlton players making their own way up to the G after playing in the VFL. After a comfortable win of their own, they were smiling at the kids looking up at them; mouths wide open at the giant men towering above the crowd. They too knew footy was back.
The four of us separated to go to our own seats once inside the gate, terse nods and muttered “go Tiges,” our farewell. All week people had been hyping the Tigers – Carlton were going to be dismal this year, worse than Essendon, worse than Essendon’s VFL team. The Tigers were going to smash them. But we all knew better. Too many round 1 games had been set up this way – Richmond raging hot favourites, only to either collapse with Ben Cousin’s hamstring, or to lose it at the death. I said to people I’d be happy with a 10-point win. I think I was the only one who actually believed myself.
There’s nothing like “Horses” to kill a pre-game buzz. (Thank God they scratched the actual horses. Titus O’Reily, possibly my favourite person on Twitter, had mentioned the four horses of the apocalypse. It was a distinct possibility.) Despite the odd choice of warm-up song, the crowd roused themselves enough they drowned out the opening siren. Finally, footy was back.
Kane Lambert surprised everyone to kick the opening goal. Despite this, Carlton were definitely awake. Marc Murphy and Bryce Gibbs were playing like they’ve meant to for the last 10 years. Jacob Weitering looked so comfortable down back I didn’t even realise he was playing. In fact, for half of the match I actually thought he was Michael Jamieson with a new number, such was his composure. Some overzealous umpiring and Carlton tackling led to a couple of 50m penalties for Richmond. It looked like it was going to be the only way Richmond were going to score, with Carlton’s midfield dominating the way it was. We were lucky to only be three points down at quarter time.
Everything seemed to settle in the second quarter, although Richmond’s “senior” players – some at the tender age of 22 – were having a shocker. In the battle of the best hair in the competition, Murphy was running amuck while Cotchin was barely sighted. The exception to the rule was, of course, Alex Rance. If you ever get a chance to watch him live, track how often he comes off his man to intercept, usually successfully. Long gone are the “Alex Rance moments”, where you’d shut your eyes while he attempted the impossible, only to watch the ball sail back over his head. Ty Vickery seemed to be having a very Ty-like game, but still managed to bob up and kick two quick goals in the second quarter. Maybe, just maybe, he might be starting to live up to his potential. Matthew Wright continued to be a pest in Carlton’s forward line in his first game for the club, causing chaos and confusion for the Tiger defenders, who were possibly wondering why David Ellard was playing so well in the number 46 jumper (I certainly was). Patrick Cripps is a very good player. I just watched him alone for two minutes – he has an instinctive ability to know just when to pounce into a pack, and emerges with the ball, held high above his head, while opponents spin off him. Chris Judd lives on.
In the third, Brandon Ellis continued to turn over the ball with thigh-slapping incompetence. Andrew Phillips, another Carlton import, continued to emphasise Shaun Hampson’s status as a back-up ruckman. And Murphy just kept running, making a mockery of the need to play pre-season matches. Edwards followed Rance to the bench, both clutching at various body parts. It would later emerge Titch played the game out with a broken hand – there was no way you could tell given the way he handled the ball.
Entering the fourth quarter nine points down, there wasn’t much panic. These are the Tigers of new, a grittier counterpart to their mid-2000s teammates. They know how to win, and the crowd could sense it. Sam Lloyd was spared the ignominy of the sub’s vest, and was the match saver. (It makes you wonder, how many matches were altered by the removal of players over the last few years?) He stopped and started, dodged and darted, and spun, and spun again. He’s got an uncanny goal sense, and if he can stay focused for the whole match, he could be a very good player.
Depth was the defining factor between the two clubs. Carlton’s top-liners were very good, as were a couple of their new (but not necessarily young) players. By comparison, most of Richmond’s A-graders had ordinary nights, just doing enough when they needed to (Jack’s goal and Martin’s assists at the start of the fourth, Cotchin slowly shaking off the ghost of Sam Jacobs). A bulked-up Kane Lambert was the difference, repeatedly leading out of the forward 50, and setting up numerous goals. Interestingly enough, Richmond were both younger and less experienced than the Blues, so the panic button should (but probably won’t) remain untouched for at least another week.
Some Carlton fans may argue Levi Casboult was the difference. Either way, a Footy Record suffering the effects of being clutched rather tightly, several sighs of relief and a sardine-like train ride home indicate finally, footy’s back.
(Seriously Metro, get your act together. Carlton and Richmond = a lot of eastern suburbs fans. Not rocket science.)