AFL Round 4: Grab a bucket and head to the well

Richmond’s season begins this week.

The sound of the three quarter time siren on Saturday afternoon was sweet relief from the most excruciating pain for Tigers faithful. The premiership quarter performance of the yellow and black brought a sense of ‘Yogi Berras’ to the crowd. For those not in the know, Yogi was the catcher for the New York Yankees during the golden years of DiMaggio and Mantle and has always had the happy knack of mangling homespun truism so that they begin to break, yet somehow morph into a new form. He created the proto-cliché that has never found a more obvious cause. Richmond’s third quarter fade was- ‘like deja vu all over again.’

By the end of the hostilities the Tiger clan were muttering what has become a dog whistle to supporters. This was a performances that takes them right back to the ‘Tigers of old.’ The term’s usage might be in-house but its meaning is not lost on anyone. Taking a line from the greatest team song in the league and affixing it to the misery of the past three decades speaks volumes to the disenchantment. For the crowd amassed at the Punt Road end it was all happening again. Every step forward, every moment in the sun, is instantly followed by three huge strides back from where they came. They’ve seen all this before and the battle weary foot soldiers look down at the fixture list, see Freo in Perth and Geelong in the next fortnight and hunker down for the enviable 50/50 opening to another season. The moments in the sun are only ever brief respite from the dark clouds.

Meanwhile, down St.Kilda way there is a slightly different feeling. The season has started much worse, the only win against the Giants was routine, yet even with a sound defeat by the Bombers I’m finding it hard to be concerned. There was not much chance of sun shining on our season anyway. Ours is a season of cloudy weather, the faithful are primed for the possibility that we will slip completely out of contention.

A look sideways at the Dogs confirms that there, but by the grace of Roo and Lenny goes us. Essendon have had the wood on us for so long now it’s hard to muster surprise at how completely they dominated the contest. Even in our pomp, the Bombers had a knack of bringing a big stick along and whacking us. The secret to the success has always been poorly kept- speed and its effective use has always bothered this side. Essendon ran us ragged but it was a new factor that gave them control of this game. Suddenly they are overpowering us with height as well. In ’09 the red sash torched us around the ground with pace and threw us the curveball of playing Hurley on Riewoldt as well. It was classic old school coaching move. Give the colt-forward an opportunity to learn the craft by going with the best in the game. Hurley was a fast read- he shut Roo down. Now he shuts our whole team down by crashing packs up forward and hitting the scoreboard brutally. Throw Gumbleton into that mix and the lack of size and depth of our defensive options is exposed to x-rated levels.

It’s a feeling the Tiges know all too well. Alex Rance is a rising gun. He hits the contest with every ounce of energy. I have always loved a bloke who goes, every time, with no fear. Sure his foot skills are borderline woeful and they don’t look like they can improve significantly; but he is fast approaching a level of understanding. A man’s gots to know his limitations and he is close to realising his own brand of truth. While he might want to hit the bloke out the back on centre wing, that forty metre kick needs precision. Better to chip it sideways to Newman or Delidio and let their cultured feet find that target. Young players want to do it all, it is the moment they know they don’t have to that they become great.

Dustin Fletcher is the embodiment of that wisdom. He does what needs to be done, never worrying for a second about what could be done. Most weeks Rance does his job effectively but Saturday was not most weeks. Cloke is a contested marking monster. He got off Rance’s leash and things escalated so immediately that nothing could save him. It instantly reminded me of the fateful decision Clarkson made with a young Zac Dawson. Anthony Rocca bested him but Clarko stubbornly left Dawson with him. Sometimes the lesson can’t be taught that way. Rance will live to fight another day because Chaplin got the call up. Experience is never to be under-rated but sometimes a man’s limitations don’t need to be laid completely bare for the point to be made.

When the going gets rough there are two mind sets that dominate- dig in or capitulate. With the slaughter in full swing the image of Chris Newman standing in the Collingwood goal square, hands on hips, eyes cast downwards sent me towards the latter emotion. Shane Tuck got red-vested at the same juncture and sat crestfallen on the pine. Between them was the haunted demeanour of the faithful surrounding them- The well is the worst repeat trip. At Docklands the fate of the Saints appeared clear from the outset but the look of despair fell upon the younger players. Lenny Hayes, Riewoldt and Dal Santo simply picked up the bucket and walked that long journey to the well.

None of this is a criticism. It may sound extraordinarily close to being just that but it is not. It is an observation about the impact of winning. Taste success on a real scale, know that a side like Collingwood can be conquered and the belief it imbibes leads a side to the water. Newman and Tuck exhibited the body language of men who had seen too much carnage. Losing saps the will but it can’t be allowed to break it. The constant water torture of being cracked open by good sides makes it harder to want to pick up the bucket but you have to be prepared to make that trip.

Richmond capitulated. St.Kilda dug in. The degrees upon which a side gets from one the next is shared success. Richmond can’t make it past the surrender that was their third quarter by relying on wise heads alone. Newman and Tuck know what it takes, it’s the next generation that needs to learn the art of bunkering down in the foxhole, waiting for the bombing to stop and then advancing fearlessly again. The Saints found ways to keep themselves in a contest they were hopelessly out of, Richmond were in the contest for three quarters but lost everything in one huge push by the Pies.

Games are broken down by quarters. It is the new currency- Win the quarter, keep in touch on the scoreboard. One bad quarter and you are up against the wall. St.Kilda held on by staying the distance. They may have lost every quarter but the damage was done by the Bombers in the opening stanza. The Saints held their own from then on in. Richmond need to learn that trick. The margin of defeat for both was the same give or take a few points. It’s just the process that differs. I would argue that the Tigers were in their clash for a longer period than the Sainters but the panic of the third killed all hope. The lesson is there for the taking and this Richmond side have the ability to make it count….but the storm clouds gather. There must be a fighting victory to put this lesson into context. It’s certainly in the Tigers but it has to come now.

A fortnight is a long time in a season as short as ours but it won’t ever feel as long as the third quarter on Saturday. The pressure of futility is the hardest to overcome. Richmond had the chance to step up and take a big scalp but they just weren’t ready. It is a growing pain. St.Kilda wanted to make a statement in the season opener against the all-conquering Lions nigh on a decade ago and ended up bloody and bruised. Everyone remembers the sight of a teary Nick Riewoldt slumped on the bench with a broken collarbone. I have never felt lower than that evening but upon reflection it now feels like the making of them. From there the Saints mounted a sustained period of dominance. They learnt what it took to play at that elite level. The Lions were on the way out but they still knew the path that lead to that mythical well.

Richmond’s generation next need to use the humiliation of the weekend to forge ahead. This is either the making of them or the moment it all slips away for another year. For what its worth, I’m backing the former but if it is the latter it doesn’t mean the end of days. The beginning of success is always hard to pinpoint, not only because we can’t see the future but because it doesn’t happen in one big bang. It is an accumulation of experience, a chipping away that slowly gathers its own momentum.

This week the season starts for the Tigers. It can be anything they want it to be…..

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