THE ENDLESS TREK

Sometimes you look forward to something and it turns out a lot differently to what you expected.

I always wanted to walk the Overland Track through the Cradle Mountain–Lake St. Clair National Park in Tasmania. After a few practice rambles through places like Wilson’s Promontory, I landed in Devonport in January 1997 with a mate who was just as keen as I was. I realised within a few minutes of hefting the pack at the start of the hike at Waldheim Chalet that I was in a spot of bother. There was a vast difference between the weight of supplies for a couple of days, as I was accustomed to, and what you needed to survive for a week. My opening day grew worse. The lovely track lines on the map between the squiggly lines actually represented a path which climbed up and down precipitous slopes. I developed a raging thirst as well as pain in my neck, back, groin and calves. As we neared our first overnight stop, Waterfall Valley, I was close to tears. To make matters worse, my legs stared to cramp as I made the final descent. I lay exhausted as my companion exercised some compassion by assembling our tent on his own and boiling up the curry flavoured Rice-A–Riso for dinner.

The first round of the footy season can often dash expectations that have been held all summer long.

The lead-up to the opening game is played out over many months. It’s the first date entered into the new diary. Players and supporters set themselves to win it. The Tigers and the Blues battling it out before a live audience of 70,000 baying partisans.

My son plays for the Ivanhoe under fifteens. We meet a couple of the coaches from the club on the platform at the train station, both of them Richmond supporters. I share their optimism. Sure, it’s difficult to forget the catastrophe of 2009, another opening round match we expected to win against Carlton. Cousins tore his hamstring on debut, the Blues demolished us by 83 points and the entire season was shot to bits by half time.

But tonight things are different. Apart from the suspended Jake King, Richmond is at full strength. Carlton, on the other hand, is missing Walker, Warnock, Jamison and Duigan. Laidler has been selected despite suffering a dislocated knee cap a month ago. Judd was under the surgeon’s knife   over the summer break and missed a large portion of the pre-season. The Tigers’ practice match form was encouraging, with wins over Hawthorn in half a game at the Docklands and Geelong at Simonds Stadium. The mood at Punt Road is buoyant. Damien Hardwick has accepted a two year extension of his contract and the endorsement of president Gary March, who suggests that the club sees Hardwick as a possible successor to the immortal Tom Hafey. The party line of no excuses now, we have put games into the kids and we are ready to take on the big boys has a whiff of authenticity.  Brett Deledio believes, too and has signed a new five-year contract, thus easing the club from the pressure of needing to play finals this year in order to prevent a raid on Deledio from another club when free agency arrives.

Carlton coach Brett Ratten appears worried.

“We know your game plan,” he asserts. “You’ve copied it from Hawthorn now that Ross Smith is on your coaching staff. You play seven men at the back of the square.”

Sure the Blues have won the last seven clashes between the teams, the last of them by a whopping 103 points, but this game represents an entirely new campaign. We can ambush them tonight.

My son and I take our customary seats in the Richmond members area just by the interchange bench. Our section is filled with familiar faces. The lady who kept the hairstyle she sported as a Skyhooks fan in the seventies. She turns up every week with her husband and children and always seems to get her face on TV. The man behind us who constantly urges his hyperactive young son to sit still, mind his language and stop annoying the people around him. The fan from Sydney who seems to personally know every member of the Richmond support staff.

“Hey Vic! Vic!”

Vic glances up from the field and gives him a brief nod.

“Vic! How are ya buddy?”

He explains to those around him that Vic helps the trainers out.

Tex Perkins delivers a couple of his atmospheric swamp rock and blues standards. Finally, the combatants are in position, the excited crowd joins in with the countdown clock on the scoreboard, the siren sounds and the big men hunch their shoulders and scrape the turf with the stops of their brand new boots. The ball is launched and rises into the firmament. The hopes, dreams and aspirations of multitudes ascend along with it.

Here we go again.

The game is played at an electric pace with fierce pressure applied by both sides. Ten minutes into the third term Kruezer goals to put Carlton up by 32 points. The Blues midfield of Murphy, Gibbs, Simpson, Carazzo and Scotland has taken control. After a promising start, Cotchin has faded and Deledio and Martin are unable to assert themselves. Judd is well short of his usual output, but every touch is gilt edged. Henderson is countering Riewoldt with assistance from Laidler. Vickery and Miller are absent without leave. Betts, Garlett and Yarran have an effect like a plague of mice skittering across the floor at a Country Womens’ Association luncheon. They reduce Richmond defenders to a state of blind panic if they are anywhere in the vicinity of the contest. The Tigers make more errors than their opponents and are not as precise with their use of the ball.

Yet the Tigers manage to snare the next five goals. Cotchin and Martin lift their workrate and become effective targets in attack. Riewoldt begins to break the shackles. The Tiger trail by only 12 points at the final break and Riewoldt boots the first goal of the final stanza. Martin marks and lines it up to put the Tigers to within a point. He misses. Lucas replies with a steadier for Carlton. Then Yarran somehow eludes both Maric and Morris on the boundary. Tiger members look on in horror and howl at the umpires to intervene.

“How far!”

“Outa bounds!”

The officials wave him on. Yarran threads it through from the acute angle. Richmond barrackers behold an untimely nomination for goal of the year. The Blues add another three and soon make it seven of the last eight goals for the match. The final margin of 44 points is the biggest of the night.

These long build-ups to opening round blockbusters don’t seem to do Richmond any good. We have the nagging suspicion that maybe we haven’t progressed as far as we think we have. How will we endure yet another year of being also rans and watching other clubs battle for the spoils in September?

Ah, the human spirit. Marvellous. I soldiered on after that first appalling day on the Overland Track.  The load grew lighter, I became more accustomed to the rigours of the journey and started to appreciate the mountains, moorlands and lakes of Tasmania’s central highlands. I actually initiated some side trips, such as climbing The Acropolis on the way south. My mate and I arrived seven days later at Cynthia Bay, having successfully completed our trek.

And so, I expect that we’ll eventually arrive at the end of the current season. A little worse for wear perhaps, but a little older and wiser. Let’s enjoy the wins when they come. Because if tonight is any indication, the Tigers are still some way off the pace in their expedition to make it to the finals again.

Comments

  1. Martin Reeves says:

    Enjoyable report as always, John. Yep, we’re a long way off it, but also a long way from where we were two years ago. Hopefully we’ll start to see it all come together at some point this year. No finals in 2012 though, you wouldn’t think.

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