A 200-Game Richmond Coach: Yes, Really!

Dear Mr. Hardwick,

 

 

(Well, it hardly seemed right for me to call you “Dimma” when you refer to your own missus as “Mrs. Hardwick”!)

 

 

Wow! Two hundred games as Richmond’s senior coach.

 

 

Did you know that the last bloke to get to that milestone was Tom Hafey in August 1974?  That puts it into perspective, doesn’t it?  It’s fitting that your 200th will be a Richmond-Collingwood blockbuster.  That would have got old Tommy’s blood astir, whichever side he was coaching!

 

 

On the day you were appointed, you said:

“Every club I’ve gone to has had a great ‘team first’ culture and that’s something I believe very strongly in.  I know it’s easy to say but it’s not easy to deliver.  I think I can deliver a blueprint for success that’s going to take the Richmond Football Club to their 11th premiership in the not too distant future.”

 

 

At the time those words sounded like media conference fluff that every aspirational coach would say.

 

 

Except that you delivered.

 

 

Truth is, I never much liked you as a player.

 

 

It didn’t help that you played in two unlikeable teams.  Your time at Essendon coincided with the emergence of Kevin Sheedy’s third great team – the one that should have won three flags from 1999-2001, but only managed to salute in 2000.  Then Port Adelaide, another club enjoying a period of sustained success but unable to capitalise on it – a hat-trick of minor premierships but only one of the real thing.  Both clubs carried their under-achievements with a charmless mix of arrogance and insecurity.  In this context, does your admittedly impressive playing record – 207 games over 11 seasons, 70% of them victories and a dual Premiership player – retain a nagging sense of what might have been?

 

 

Tough and uncompromising in that “bloody back pocket plumber” mould, I thought you played with a mean streak and a lack of grace.  Not overly endowed with raw talent, you did as most of your ilk do who succeed in this business: work hard, play tough, give your opponent nothing, bend the rules.  Above all, you used your wits.

 

 

If that’s an uncharitable summary, let me emphasise that if I was asked to pick the characteristics of a footballer that make a great coach, I’d pick the ones I’ve listed above.  You had them in spades.  As did the coaches you learned from: Sheedy, the original “back pocket plumber”; “Choco” Williams at Port; and Al Clarkson at Hawthorn.

 

 

Your part in Hawthorn’s fortuitous 2008 Premiership campaign ticked an important box on your coaching CV.  However, it was obvious that you weren’t just in the right place at the right time.  The talk of the footy world was that you had the tactical smarts, and, importantly, the “people skills”.  Everyone seemed to have you short-listed as a senior coach, yet for a while, you seemed destined to run second.  Dean Bailey pipped you at Melbourne, Brad Scott at North and, in a decision that still rankles with many at Essendon, Richmond’s own Matthew Knights edged you in the race for the Bombers’ job.  Who knows what might have been had you landed one of those positions?

 

 

In the serene environment at Tigerland today, it’s easy to forget what a basket-case you took on when you accepted Richmond’s offer.  In our inimitable, deluded way, we’d begun 2009 full of excitement, convinced we were on the verge of a finals appearance.  We’d lured Ben Cousins to Punt Road.  Memberships soared and a record crowd of 87,000 attended the season-opener against Carlton.  The game was an unmitigated disaster.  We capitulated, horrendously, and Cousins injured his hamstring.  In two hours, the latest Richmond five-year plan disintegrated.  For the players, the season became a gruesome test of who could survive the purge that was assuredly coming. Amidst the wreckage, coach Terry Wallace was dead-man-walking.  He quit mid-season, with Jade Rawlings standing in.  Although Rawlings applied for the ongoing coaching role, you were the front-runner in a strong field.  After another agonisingly close choice, you finally got the nod, ahead of Ken Hinkley.

 

 

The overhaul of our list was necessarily brutal.  Lots of mediocre performers were shown the door. Our 2010 team was stripped back to a threadbare selection of proven talent, supplemented by a bunch of skinny kids, among them a precocious debutant called Martin and a wayward defender called Rance.  The Tigers were hot favourites for the wooden spoon and your coaching career began with nine straight losses.  Many predicted that Richmond wouldn’t win a game all season.

 

 

What did you think about your choice of new job back then? Your timing could hardly have been worse.  Richmond faced several seasons of drafts compromised by the generous concessions given to the new Gold Coast and GWS franchises.  You had no chance of a quick revival based on lots of talented draftees.  Instead, you faced a slow, painstaking re-build at a club notorious for its ruthless and intolerant treatment of coaches.  Interesting career move!

 

 

The footy media love nothing more than “turmoil at Tigerland”, real or imagined.   A reasonable person would conclude that your early results, though meagre, were better than anticipated.  Six wins in 2010 enabled the Tigers to avoid that wooden spoon that many betting agencies had already paid out on.  Eight and a half wins in 2011 and ten and a half in 2012 were further evidence of improvement.  But, no, the hacks questioned you for trading in mature players such as Bachar Houli and Shaun Grigg even though it protected our young recruits from the full blast of physical and scoreboard beltings.  They pilloried you when we became the first side to lose to Gold Coast in 2011 and for the “worst 50 seconds in football” that culminated in the infamous Karmichael Hunt loss in 2012.  Our culture was questioned when players were suspended and sacked after incidents involving overdoses of sedatives and absences from training.  But in all the noise, you calmly persisted in getting on with the job.

 

 

But that was nothing compared with the din when you eventually got the boys over the dreaded 9th place hurdle and into the finals – three years running, if you don’t mind!  We can’t blame the Fourth Estate for all the hoopla in those years.  We success-starved fans must have made your job so much harder as the Tiggy Train gathered insane momentum and then spectacularly derailed in three consecutive Elimination Final defeats, each with its uniquely painful denouement.

 

 

It was after those shattering losses when you really earned your money.  While frustrated fans were frothing at the mouth about players making self-indulgent prison-bar gestures, winning the toss and kicking against the wind or succumbing meekly to hard tags, you were steadily planning ways to make us better.  In our disappointment at losing to North in 2015, not many of us noticed that at least you’d eliminated the melt-down quarters of 2013 and 2014 and that you were well on the way to creating that steely defence that we’ve come to love so much.

 

 

The less said about 2016, the better!  Yet we can’t truly value your achievements in 2017 without looking back to where you and the team were during that dismal year.  There were some shocking blow-outs, but the games that I most shudder to recall were the ones we threw away from winning positions – Collingwood at the start of the year and Geelong at the end.  The games where it wasn’t lack of skill that decided the outcome but lack of belief.  As those awful finishes unfolded, we watched, transfixed, as the team succumbed, as though scripted, to this invisible scourge that had plagued our club for decades.  It paralysed the players and for a time, it paralysed you, as it had so many of your predecessors.

 

 

Then, in 2017, you broke the cycle.  The media vultures were circling again, drafting obituaries of another failed era at Richmond.  But uncharacteristically, the club stared down another attempted palace coup, instead, conducting a thorough but sensible “root and branch” review.

 

 

As with a lot of successes in life, you had a fair slice of luck.  Perhaps in a different Richmond era, you might have been the first victim of that review.  In another season you mightn’t have got away with minimal injuries, you mightn’t have hit peak form at just the right time, you mightn’t have drawn Geelong in an “away” final at the ‘G.

 

 

But the factors that got Richmond to that point were not lucky.  Most of the 22 that played, unchanged, over those three finals, had been under your tutelage for several years.  A notable few had made dramatic transformations from flaky, inconsistent talent to genuine superstars, but most had just quietly, steadily, become better players.  You’d also seen where further improvement was needed.  It can’t have been easy to trade out long-term servants like Deledio and Vickery, but the rewards in the form of great seasons from newcomers Prestia, Caddy and Nank, were indisputable.  You took a punt throwing exciting youngsters like Butler, Castagna, Townsend and Graham into the mix, but didn’t it work a treat?

 

 

Your biggest challenge, however, was changing that negative, fragile culture that had been festering away at Richmond.  Even in the early rounds of 2017, it still threatened to dismantle a promising start.  “Embracing imperfection” might sound cheesy, but in a society where obsession with unachievable perfection is having catastrophic effects on people’s confidence and self-esteem, Richmond’s approach to reinventing its culture has had the opposite impact.  No-one seriously believes that Richmond had the best list in 2017.  Indeed, our weaknesses – lack of key forwards and backup ruckmen – were concerns that you openly admitted.  In this situation, acknowledging team and individual flaws seemed to free everyone up to perform at their best.  Players started to play, not with the attitude that failure isn’t a possibility, but that if it occurs, it’s not something to fear.  In the serious business of the AFL, where failure is endlessly analysed, this is a huge achievement.  It’s a world of difference from the old Richmond Way.

 

 

Take away the fear of failure and you also prevent the negative group-think that everyone’s judging one another, which can act as a cancer to team harmony.  I see many professional sporting teams showing “unity” in the prescribed way – the pre-match huddles, the constant high-fiving etc – but I can’t tell whether it’s genuine or not.  At Richmond I have no doubt.  This is a group that genuinely cares about one another.  The bonds are real.  The players are playing for one another – and for you.  You can take a lot of credit for that, Mr Hardwick.

 

 

I won’t predict where this journey will end.  As I write this, your team sits on top of the AFL ladder.  Another finals campaign looms, a little over a month away.  Like T-shirt Tommy when he got to 200 games in ’74, the prospect of back-to-back flags is real (and in Hafey’s case, it was realised).  But we both know the capriciousness of the footy gods.  Twelve months ago I never imagined I’d be writing this piece, based on such amazing, unexpected achievements.  Twelve months hence, who knows?

 

 

So, Mr. Hardwick, I say carpe diem to myself.  Use this milestone to acknowledge what you’ve done for this club and to remind the footy world that although your gig currently looks easy, it’s been a long, hard slog.  For nine years I’ve loved your stamina, your tolerance, your humour, your refusal to be distracted by sensational headlines and your ability to dive back into the work of making this footy side that little bit better each week.

 

 

You’re getting your just rewards now, Mr Hardwick.  And I for one can’t thank you enough.

 

 

 

About Sam Steele

Stainless (aka Sam Steele) started following Richmond in 1970 when he was 6. This occurred when his mother, under instructions to buy him a Melbourne jumper, found they were out of stock and purchased a Richmond one instead. Despite the decades of heartache and turmoil this fateful decision has brought on Stainless, he is grateful to his mum as he has at least seen his side win a couple of Premierships. After 30 September 2017, his mum is now officially his favourite person.

Comments

  1. Joe De Petro says:

    Great work, Stainless, and congrats to Mr and Mrs Hardwick on this great milestone. As you point out, the list of Richmond coaches with over 200 games in the kitbag is about as long as the list of Australian Prime Ministers who won more than two elections.

    Just of 2016, I reckon it was the final step in the cultural change at the club. When Hardwick came tot he club he identified a group of 12-15 players that would go on to be the core of his team. In 2013, 2014 and 2015, they were still young players who still believed that their best was ahead of them. When the disappointment of 2016 occurred, they lost that safety net and they recognised that their careers were in danger of ending unfulfilled. There is a direct parallel between Richmond 2016 and Geelong 2006, when similar disappointments propelled that group.

    Just on that, the records of Hardwick and Bomber Thompson, years 1-8, are eerily almost the same. The only real difference is that Hardwick lost three Elimination finals in a row and Thompson progressed a step or two past the Elimination final during his early years. They both had a breakthough year in their 8th season, winning the flag comprehensively.

    The footy Gods are fickle, as you rightly point out. Long term cultural change is far more important than winning this year’s flag, which may or may not happen. It is more important that they keep presenting year after year.

    Gread read.

  2. Stainless says:

    Thanks Joe
    I’m a bit worried about that Richmond-Geelong parallel. If it’s accurate then this is our 2008 year!

  3. Joe De Petro says:

    Whatever will be, will be.

    The good news is that unrelated events can look to be parallel for a while before they diverge. I would take three flags over five years anyway.

    The real challenge for RFC is to keep backing up.

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