AFL Grand Final – Adelaide v Richmond: Exiles on the Western Shore

It was Grand Final day and I was on the wrong side of the country. Western Australia, to be exact.

 

My wife and I began the day at the Cape Leeuwin lighthouse on its wild promontory where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet. My 20-year-old son texted us with a photo of him arrayed in yellow and black and brandishing a Dustin Martin front page portrait. He was two hours ahead of Western Standard Time and about to make his way to the MCG with his mate who’d also managed to get a ticket.

 

We continued our journey along the lonely highways past the vineyards, karri forests and dairy country to the tiny community of Walpole on the shore of the Nornalup Inlet. We were advised by the lady in the general store at Northcliffe that we would find the hotel on the right as soon we entered the town.

 

It was just after midday, the match was scheduled for 12:30pm local time and so this was where we would watch Richmond take on Adelaide in the Grand Final. The bar of the Walpole Hotel was decorated in red, yellow and black streamers and balloons, making it look like the venue for the celebration of Germany’s national day. Anyone for a beer? We claimed a couple of seats at a small table in front of the big screen.

 

This wasn’t meant to happen. The Tigers finished thirteenth in 2016 and ended the season with a hundred-point loss to Sydney in the final round. When my wife and I booked our holiday in the west last November we assumed that Punt Road would have locked its gates for the summer by the first week of spring. Instead, the Tigers were in the decider. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would witness a miracle like this. Somehow Damien Hardwick had concocted a winning game plan based on one key forward, one ruckman, a cohort of fleet-footed terriers applying relentless forward half pressure and a miserly, tight-knit crew of defenders with the ability to intercept, tackle and launch repeated attacks. All this and a tattooed minotaur treating flailing opponents with contemptuous ease.

 

A few years ago I considered the possibility that Richmond might never play in another Grand Final. It seemed as though we were light years behind the successful clubs and that premierships were for other people; not for us. Could I lower my expectations, commiserate with them when they lost and enjoy the occasional victories when they came along? At least I would never experience the crushing disappointment of making the finals and losing with the ultimate prize in sight. Consecutive elimination final losses in 2013-15 confirmed to me that we didn’t really belong in any football matches staged in September. Our descent to the nether regions of the ladder in 2016 was a return to normality. Hardwick had done his best with the list he had and another five-year plan was about to head to the printers.

 

Yet I yearned for just one more flag. I wanted younger Richmond fans, my son amongst them, to experience what I had as a youngster, when we ruled the footy jungle and were feared by other teams.

 

So it was with a mixture of excitement and dread that I approached the finals after Richmond’s 41-point win over St Kilda in the last round. Yes, we had procured the double chance. Two games at the MCG. But it came with the possibility of a straight sets exit and further humiliation. A poisoned chalice. Even one finals win would be enough to satisfy me.

 

And so to the qualifying final against Geelong, a side we hadn’t beaten since 2006. I was there at Kardinia Park 11 years ago and it remains the only time I have seen Richmond win at the Cattery.

 

Talk about a manic crowd for the qualifier. I had never experienced such one-eyed intensity at a football match. Or the spectacle of a Victorian-based team running onto the MCG and being met with such overt hostility. Where were all the Cats supporters? The Tiger army was ferocious, desperate beyond belief for a sliver of success, urging, imploring their team to win. The umpires were roundly abused whenever decisions went the other way. A lone Cats fan in our Tigerland section tried to return fire with fire with a few well-aimed barbs and was unceremoniously howled down.

 

Even I found it intimidating.

 

The noise was deafening and barrackers jumped to their feet whenever the action came close. The Tigers applied fanatical pressure to the Geelong ball carriers. Yet they were unproductive and inaccurate in their forward forays. Geelong drew level halfway through the third term and my heart sank. It was happening again. Then the Tigers surged. All tension evaporated and I was caught up in a wave of yellow and black delirium with my son, who had never before seen Richmond win a final. Jubilant supporters sang ‘We’re From Tigerland’ on the walk through Yarra Park and on the train. The Tigers were in the prelim against one of three non-Victorian clubs and the barriers at the entrance of the road to the Grand Final had been demolished.

 

That which had been unthinkable was now a distinct possibility and I would not be there. My wife and I were scheduled to fly to Sydney to board the Indian Pacific train on the Wednesday before the preliminary finals. We would still be in Western Australia when the Grand Final was played.

 

Friends and colleagues assumed that I would cut the holiday short and fly back if Richmond won through to the decider. Even my wife suggested the same. But I said no, if the Tigers went all the way they could do it without me and I didn’t actually have to be there. I would be just as thrilled. It was an attempt on my part to maintain some balance in my life. Why should I cut my wife’s holiday short on account of my Richmond obsession? Was she not more important to me than the fortunes of a footy club?

 

It sounds noble, but there was some self-interest in play as well. Could I cope with the hype at home? I told one work friend that I might have trouble sleeping in the week leading up to a Richmond Grand Final. She thought I was joking. Would I become overly emotional? Everybody I met wanted to discuss the Tigers’ chances with me. My son could not stop talking about Richmond’s tackling, Richmond’s intensity, Dusty’s Brownlow Medal chances and the possibility of enticing Josh Schache to Punt Road despite the fact that he had re-signed with Brisbane.

 

I saw Richmond’s VFL team convincingly win their preliminary final against the Box Hill Hawks at the North Port Oval. An exceedingly pleasant afternoon spent sitting on a wooden seat in the old Norman Goss Stand while watching the action on the field against a backdrop of townhouses and city high rises. Plenty of yellow and black on the terraces. The victorious players marched off the ground through a guard of honour formed by Tiger fans in the spring sunshine. They were into their own Grand Final.

 

I could get used to this, I thought. But no, I’ll be calmer on the other side of the country.

 

I left my son with strict instructions and a wad of cash. In the event of Richmond making the Grand Final, he was requested to save the game on the Foxtel IQ, buy the daily newspapers in the week leading up to and on the day after the game, pick up a copy of the AFL Record and seize a premiership poster should they win. He was also advised to take a stroll along Swan Street and Bridge Road in Richmond before the game to see the shops arrayed in Tiger colours, just like they were in the late sixties and early seventies when the club was great. I suggested he watch the match on the big screen at Punt Road with his fellow devotees in the event that he missed out on tickets.

 

Richmond’s preliminary final against Greater Western Sydney was underway as the Indian Pacific crawled through the Perth suburb of Midland, nearing the end of its 4,000 kilometre journey across the continent. Nic Natanui, Chris Yarran and Michael Walters are products of Midland, growing up in the same street and kicking the footy to each other as they progressed through their junior clubs. Our boy was at the MCG, part of an overwhelmingly partisan crowd, the vast majority of them baying for the blood of Giants and screaming for a Richmond victory. My wife checked her phone and found we were a couple of goals up within two minutes of the start. How far Richmond!

 

We arrived at our hotel in time to watch the second half of the match on TV. Scores were close at half time. But the second half was different. Euphoria reigned as the Tigers immense pressure broke the Giants’ resistance and catapaulted them into their first Grand Final in 35 years. What was happening was beyond imagination. We had a date with the Adelaide Crows in a week’s time.

 

The news was all good on the following Monday. Our son was successful in the Grand Final tickets ballot and was headed for the big one. Trent Cotchin was absolved of blame after his hit on Dylan Shiel in the prelim and free to lead the Tigers on Saturday. We watched Dusty win the Brownlow on TV. It was the first time I had seen a Richmond player win the medal in real time since I watched Ian Stewart’s big night back in 1971 when I was 11 years old. Cotchin already had a medal from 2012, but his was awarded four years after Jobe Watson was forced to relinquish it. Dusty was already MVP, Daniel Rioli won goal of the year, Damien Hardwick coach of the year and Jacob Townsend the Liston Trophy for his outstanding season in the VFL. The seconds narrowly missed out on the VFL premiership after going down to Port Melbourne by four points, even though Sam Lloyd won the medal for best afield. We were winning everything in sight.

 

How was I faring? I delivered a grim-faced “Go Tiges” to a woman wearing a Richmond scarf on Rottnest Island. She acknowledged me with a silent nod, obviously feeling just as nervous as I was. After I passed her I teared up.

 

Why were most commentators selecting the Crows? They only finished a half a game ahead of Geelong and Richmond. They lost their last two matches of the home and away season, they were without Smith and McGovern and just like Richmond, had no players with Grand Final experience. Most significantly to me, they were away from their virtually impregnable citadel on the banks of the Torrens.

 

But this was Richmond and we were the perpetually downtrodden. Did we really belong here?

 

We arrived at the moment of reckoning. No more sleeps to go. The Walpole Hotel bar was packed with around a hundred people, including children. There was a scattering of Richmond fans, although being in the west, I assumed that most of the attendees were Eagles and Dockers. I was shaking and sweating at the same time. I couldn’t eat the bowl of potato wedges placed before me. I couldn’t speak. I was unable to hear the commentary because of the background racket of conversation that you contend with in every crowded pub. I rode every bump, every tackle and every marking contest, churning up inside.

 

It was only in the second quarter that I dared to believe that we just might do it. Richmond’s aggressive tackling and acts of pressure were beginning to unravel Adelaide’s slick ball movement and scoring potency. The Crows were under constant assault and their key players were powerless to get involved. Goals to Riewoldt, Townsend, Graham and Martin delivered a nine-point half time lead.

 

I took a walk around the carpark, contemplated escaping into the surrounding forest until the game was over and tried to breathe. I wondered how my son and all those thousands of fans at the stadium were feeling. What about those supporters at Punt Road or in pubs and homes right across the country? Were the years of struggle and heartache about to come to an end?

 

The Tigers totally dominated the third term. I felt like I was in an ecstatic dream. When Riewoldt marked and goaled two minutes into the final quarter to take Richmond’s lead out to 40 points I knew we were home. It was no use trying to maintain my composure any longer and the tears flowed, just as I knew they would if this day ever came.

 

The siren sounded and the Richmond boys did what all the other premiers do after their triumph. They embraced, leapt in the air and collapsed onto the turf in joyful huddles. Some of them cried. I hugged my wife. Dusty received his Norm Smith Medal and bellowed “yellow and black!” The cup was hoisted by Hardwick and Cotchin to the adulation of the faithful. The players set off on their slow circuit by the fence to share the glorious moment with those who love the Tigers and were fortunate enough to be there.

 

Then the texts started to arrive. On the way to Albany my wife and I listened to the post-match analysis and interviews on Radio National at full volume. We didn’t want to miss a thing. The broadcast concluded with an audio replay of every goal scored in the match, complete with the earth shaking roar of the Tiger loyalists who dared to believe that one day we might rise again. We spoke to our son on the phone and were so grateful that he had the opportunity to experience something as unforgettable as this.

 

As we arrived in Albany just before dark I indulged in a time of reflection. Was it simply the beauty of Western Australia, or did the world seem like a totally different place?

Eat ‘em alive you Tigers.

 

More 2017 Grand Final coverage here.

Comments

  1. Love the way you built the tension JG. By the half time “escape to the forest” you had me on the edge of my seat too!
    AE and I have found that a long overseas trip does wonders for the Eagles form and guarantees finals action. 2007, 2015 and this year we have had some success, but I’m jealous of your ultimate prize. Interstate trips don’t do it for us. We planned last year for the Almanac GF lunch in bleak city but got put out in the first week. AE’s theory is the further away the better. Might be the Yukon next year.
    Enjoy the beautiful SW corner of WA. We honeymooned at Denmark and it remains a fave.
    When you get back to Perth could you nip in and feed the dog for us. The bloke I asked to look after him is a Carlton supporter and you know they can’t be trusted.
    Enjoy your seventh heaven. WA is a fine spot for it.

  2. That is some story, John.
    Great stuff.
    And congrats!

  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Yes John, the world is indeed a different place.

    Well played.

  4. Michael Viljoen says

    Amazing, John!
    You’ve done well to capture the emotion of it all.

    My earliest memories of football are from the early seventies, when the thoughts of having to face Richmond were usually quite unpleasant. One memory I have is of the 1974 Grand Final. As a seven-year-old kid, my father snuck us in to the MCG to watch the last quarter of the Grand Final (of course, tickets were as hard to come by as they are now.) We weren’t Richmond or North supporters, but my Dad just wanted to experience the emotion of it all. Richmond powered home to win, twice in two years, and I remember being confused to see Richmond running the victory lap mostly in North Melbourne jumpers.

    The next Grand Final I went to was in 1982, in standing room as a 15 year-old, an incredibly memorable, undulating event.

    The next 35 years since then I’m sure have been testing for you at times. But none of that matters now. All unfavourable memories are now wiped clean. Nothing left but to celebrate.

    Well done, on winning the ticket ballot. I heard the odds were about three-to-one.

    Enjoy!

  5. At half time I went outside to do some gardening and then ran up and down the driveway a few times to use up some nervous energy!! Out the door come the words “they’ve kicked another one”. I think at that point I knew Richmond would win.

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