AFL Round 1 – Carlton vs Richmond: No Mas.

A few seasons ago I made the snide remark that I didn’t feel the season properly underway until the ritual slaughter of the Tigers was complete.

Cruel? Sure…. Mind you, I had first sussed the room to make sure there were no Richmond faithful present. As a St.Kilda supporter, the complete lack of success in my team’s collective memory banks tends to see self-depreciation at all-time highs. If someone had been that snide about my Sainters, I would have simply shrugged my shoulders and wryly agreed. Richmond supporters however, come in two modes. This happens when your side used to be kings. Sure there are self-depreciating Tiges and I know many of them but there is also enough trace memory of greatness to harbour the faithful that will defend that past standard.

Remember the moment in ‘Once Were Warriors’ whereby the title of the film is explained? That’s what Richmond supporters have to deal with. Once a mighty tribe, feared by all, dominating all they surveyed; now a kingdom awaiting the return of the glory. Thirty years of wilderness may see generations unaccustomed to anything but fleeting success but they lurk in the shadows of the Punt Road end, ferocious in their faith that the king will return. Too many dark winters of the soul means they won’t let some wise-arsed Saints supporter try to whack them.

One of the most embarrassing moments I have witnessed in recent times was a St.Kilda fan, filled with beer-goggle-bravado, trying to play the premiership game with a Richmond supporter. The cockiness came from the scoreboard and the Saints residency in the top four in recent seasons but shouting- ‘How many premierships have you won lately?’ Is a stupid premise for a St.Kilda fan to consider. The only repose is-‘ As many as you d***head.’ But to yell that a Richmond supporter? What the hell are you thinking man? The list for that kind of sledge hitting the target is short for the red, white and black army- Doggies, Freo, Suns and Giants. Anyone else and you will rightly cop a full barrel salute.

History is written by the victors- Never more so than on the footy field. There have been a myriad actions that could have changed the fortunes of many a side, that’s exactly what makes sport. For every result there is the ever compelling ‘what might have been.’ I will argue forever that the latter is more important, it is what brings us back more readily than success. To lose is to continue to want for more. The search for closure on a dream is always unattainable but tantalisingly close. As a member of the tribe you learn to live with the scars and live for the dream. Imagine if St.Kilda had won the 2009 Grand Final? How would Geelong have recovered from that? Imagine for a second what losing consecutive Grand Finals would have done to a club still haunted by the Nineties? That St.Kilda didn’t makes more sense now because we all know that Geelong were clearly the best side of the last five year cycle. Timing and context is everything. It doesn’t mean I won’t spend the next twenty seasons trying to come to terms with the loss.

What makes comparing Richmond and St.Kilda’s 2013 season so fascinating is that shared dream-Both sides want to finish bottom eight. The rationale for that dream is diametrically opposed.

If the Saints make the finals, a nod goes to the investment in draft resources and succession planning. The next generation is coming on.

Richmond makes the finals…….and the box has no lid. The premiership clock is ticking lads, the Punt Road end is out of eclipse. The sun is up and the Tigger-train has departed.

No pressure then. Well no more than any season opener against the hated Bluebaggers. What transpired on Thursday night was perhaps the best tonic to the hype a Richmond win brings. The Tiges started horrendously, the Blues all over them for the majority of the first quarter. It was a blitzkrieg that brought on Post Traumatic Stress disorder to the yellow and black. Then the swinging gate was grabbed and the Tigers pushed it inwards and towards where they’d planned to go. The middle of this match, the heart of the fight was all Richmond. Then came the shuddering halt that was three quarter time.

During the weekend’s coverage Dermie wistfully declared that the hardest second half of footy you ever play is in the first round. Paul Roos agreed instantaneously. Never has that been better illustrated across two second halves. It is hard to imagine Richmond could have looked more exhausted if they had had a corner man on the bench waving a white towel. Meanwhile, after starting sluggishly the Saints took wobbly control in the second quarter but the second half was simply proof of Dermott’s concept- St.Kilda were out on their feet. The legend of Roberto Duran clearly applies to their ragged, stumbling humidity induced struggle. Duran got to the eighth round of his second fight against Sugar Ray Leonard before the pounding he was taking was so much past what he had left that he simply turned to the referee and uttered the most famous line in boxing history- ‘No Mas.’ The Saints clearly had ‘no more’ to give. They knew how Roberto felt.

Resilience is a trait learnt on the fly in footy but it’s not there until you learn to summon it. The criticism of the Tiges failure to convert close matches to wins last year centred on their inexperience. The resilience of a side is based more on a learning curve than you might expect. I was told by a Richmond supporter in a fit of frustration, brought about by an onslaught of three goals by their opponent, that- ‘Until they learn to not switch off we’re never going to win.’

I doubt young teams realise they’re doing it until its happening but it is a truism of footy that when the inexperienced team goes on a run in a game you are never more nervous about the retribution than that period of stalled, rolling mauls that follows. In a blink of an eye, the old stagers have stopped the momentum and before you know it the lead is reeled in with a five goal avalanche the other way.

Gold Coast know that feeling all to well. The Suns come out hard and fast, jumping their opponents early. The problem with hyping yourself up for the early salvos though is that it has a limit built in. You go hard fast early, you better have a have a back up structure to keep the momentum from reversing. Once the adrenaline wears off, that structure and discipline has to be waiting with a bucket and sponge to keep you in the fight. The Suns are learning that fast. The night did hinge on the genius of Ablett but the Suns win was down to commitment at the contest as much as a tiring Saints unit. They have learnt how to neutralise their opponent’s momentum swing.

The Tigers, meanwhile, have reached the tipping point of experience on their list that should convert it into resilience. You learn to win close games by losing them, sure; but you win close games by believing you will. There was a a sweaty, nausea- inducing last quarter that no supporter ever deserves to have to deal with but the drought has be broken. Luck plays a part, Yarran won’t miss one running shot on goal, let alone two for the remainder of his career; but you take the win and let it feed your confidence. Richmond got the points, they just need to finish the contest. The Tiges won’t get another win by leaving the last quarter on the table, just as sure as the Saints won’t leave an entire half in the lap of the Gods. The first game of the season is sometimes a huge kick in the pants. Both Richmond and the Saints got a sore posterior but the Tigers can at least rub their britches with a smile.

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