Almanac (Richmond Home and Away) Summary: The voyage of the yellow and black endeavour

 

 

 

 

 

by John Green

 

Like James Cook making his way north through the uncharted Great Barrier Reef in 1770, the Tigers have encountered a range of hazards in the tropics, any one of them capable of bringing their premiership defence to an inglorious end.

 

That little pandemic halted the 2020 season after Round 1 and hostilities didn’t resume for eleven weeks. Richmond had defeated Carlton by 24 points in an empty stadium – something like what we witnessed from afar when European soccer clubs lost the right to host crowds after being penalised for the behaviour of unruly supporters. The Tigers had the game sown up with a 46-point lead at half time. Nobody knew when it would all start up again. Just as in the re-activation of the stricken Apollo 13 command module before the astronauts could re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, which clubs could best flick the switch and power up again when the season resumed? Who would adapt best to the bizarre circumstances?

 

How would we adjust as fans with very little prospect of supporting our boys in the flesh this year? Footy became a television series for most supporters. If the Tigers floundered, we could always take the approach of Generation X and their view of history – if it didn’t happen to me personally, it never happened.

 

There was much relief when Richmond met Collingwood on June 11 and considerable astonishment when they played out a minimally scored, dour draw. It established the template for the current season with match scores similar to the games played a hundred years ago during the Spanish Influenza outbreak. Something to do with shorter quarters and the clinical refinement of defensive tactics.

 

The Tigers faltered in the next two weeks with substantial losses to Hawthorn, which had fielded the oldest team in history in its previous match against Geelong, and St. Kilda, suddenly the most attractive team in the competition with a fierce running game led by ex-Tiger Dan Butler. Astbury injured his knee and would be missing for the foreseeable future.

 

Then came the mass evacuation, with Tullamarine Airport standing in for the beaches of Dunkirk. The Tigers were spirited away to the Gold Coast along with every other Victorian club before COVID-19 border closures stranded everyone and derailed the national competition. First they fled to Southport, before taking up residence at the Mercure Gold Coast Resort in Carrara.

 

Richmond had proven themselves masters of the MCG and the routines and demands of seasons 2017-19. The team that everyone wanted to imitate. So many questions. Would hub life best suit older or younger players? Would homesickness be a factor? Would the shorter quarters reduce Richmond’s capacity to grind down their opponents with relentless pressure? How would players cope with the reduced turnaround between matches in a compressed campaign, with as many as four games to play in a 20-day stretch?

 

Bachar Houli and Shane Edwards chose to stay behind in Melbourne. Rouba Houli was about to give birth to the couple’s third child and Edwards’ partner Sam was expecting their first baby in August. They would proceed to Queensland after the arrivals and serve a mandatory two-week quarantine period before rejoining their teammates and being available for selection. Houli endured the added ordeal of having his mother, Yamama, gravely ill with the coronavirus.

 

Richmond broke through in the following week at the Gabba against Melbourne, but paid a heavy price in terms of casualties. Lynch fractured his finger. Cotchin and Nankervis would miss key matches and 2019 best-and-fairest winner Dion Prestia was facing months on the sidelines with a serious ankle injury.

 

Richmond played Sydney in a game universally decried as one of the most diabolical in the history of organised sport. The Tigers won by eight points in a match that was simply unwatchable.

 

The normally unflappable Damien Hardwick landed himself in strife with his post-match comments when he criticised Sydney’s tactics. He described it as a “horrendous game of football” and claimed there were “75,000 in our attack”, a reference to the Swans pushing numbers back to crowd Richmond’s forward zone. Hardwick breached the unwritten code where coaches never publicly criticise their counterparts. Sydney boss John Longmire expressed his indignation to the media. Wife Danielle gave Hardwick “a good dressing down” and the chastened coach admitted, “it was a shocker on my behalf”. He apologised to Longmire.

 

There was further embarrassment for Richmond. Brooke Cotchin, wife of Trent, went to a day spa for facial treatment in breach of quarantine regulations and posted her visit on Instagram. The club was fined $45,000, with $25,000 suspended. The Cotchins accepted full responsibility and offered to pay the remaining $20,000 themselves. There was some friction in the camp, as Rick Kennedy, father of Brooke and a former Footscray player, complained to the press about the club’s response to his daughter’s infraction. Jane Gale, wife of CEO Brendon, weighed in and challenged his version of events, but admitted that the Cotchins had threatened to leave the hub at one point.

 

Had the Tiger crew blundered into a reef? They overwhelmed a disappointing North Melbourne by nine goals. Then they flew south to Sydney to take on the Giants. They lost by 12 points but should have won the match. They dominated most aspects of the contest but torched their scoring opportunities with inefficient transitions into attack and wayward shots at goal.

 

Riewoldt and Lynch were struggling for form. Before the next match against the Western Bulldogs, Hardwick treated them to a display of video highlights of past triumphs. The Tigers mauled the Dogs by 41 points with a youthful combination featuring ten players of 30 games or less experience.

 

Next Richmond met the highly-favoured Brisbane Lions. The video night with the previously unproductive key forwards appeared to be bearing fruit. Riewoldt booted four and Lynch three in another 41-point win. Just as they had in the 2019 qualifying final, Richmond’s swarming pressure reduced the Lions to stunning ineptitude in front of the sticks. This time they scored 4-17 (41). Lynch displayed hitherto unseen aggression when he pushed Lions defender Alex Witherden’s head into the turf. He was fined for his lack of manners.

 

There was more controversy in store after the Brisbane game. Was the Richmond expedition about to run aground on a hostile shore? After Richmond’s win over the Bulldogs sharp-eyed observers watching the telecast might have noticed Jayden Short playfully brushing Mabior Chol’s groin during the post-match singalong. After the Lions match Nick Vlaustin did exactly the same thing to Chol but poked him near his anus as well. Chol appeared mildly annoyed and brushed Vlaustin’s hand away.

 

This sort of horseplay has been going on between boys playing sport since Adam kicked a footy with his sons. But this is 2020. It was an irresistible lure for crusading journalists looking to call out incorrect behaviour. Hugh Riminton confronted Hardwick in a press conference and asked him whether he was aware of video showing Richmond players committing sexual assaults in the change rooms. Riminton had prepared his case by consulting two lawyers.

 

Hardwick was dumbfounded: “No mate, I’m not. I appreciate your time but let’s talk about the game.”

 

The press conference was going nowhere and he cut the interview short.

 

Other examples of player shenanigans were unearthed by a voracious media. They involved Port Adelaide players as well as Dan Butler in his new home at St. Kilda. It even went on in the inner circle of the all-conquering Australian women’s hockey team. A former national netball captain suggested racism was at work here.

 

In what was becoming a public relations nightmare, Short and Vlaustin issued public apologies. The club pledged to take a zero tolerance approach to incidents in the future. Chol provided a statement saying he “had no issues whatsoever”, but acknowledged it was “not the sort of example we should be setting.”

 

Richmond met ladder leaders Port Adelaide on their own patch in what many commentators acclaimed as the game of the year. They were forced to fly in and out on the same day due to state quarantine restrictions. The Tigers were a point up at the final change before tiring and eventually going down by 21 points.

 

Next up was a meeting with the Gold Coast Suns at the Gabba. The Tigers trailed at half time and had to work hard to eventually overcome them by 21 points. Cotchin was a welcome return to the line-up. In the latest instalment of Tom Lynch’s attempts to add some vigour to his game, he punched opponent Danny Collins in the stomach before setting off on a lead. The pundits let loose with grapeshot and cannon balls. David Schwartz claimed that Lynch was “not tough” and labelled him a “knucklehead”. Hardwick saw red and returned fire on his player’s behalf, responding that Schwartz needed to “have a good look at himself.”

 

“There are a few players out there making comment – mainly I’m looking at David Schwartz here. I played a Grand Final against the bloke and within 20 minutes he was crying.”

 

Despite calls for him to be suspended, Lynch was fined again.

 

The Houlis welcomed Mahommed, their first son, a brother to their two little girls. The family travelled to the hub and settled in for two week’s quarantine. Yamama Houli had recovered from her COVID infection. Richmond’s All-Australian defender rejoined the team for the Dreamtime game against Essendon at TIO Stadium in Darwin. The Tigers dominated the match but wasted countless opportunities to put their outgunned opponents to the sword. The Bombers took maximum advantage of their rare forays into attack to score 10-1 (61) to the Tigers’ 10-13 (73).

 

Much was made of Richmond’s ‘staging’. Vlaustin marked and received a clip to the jaw from Bellchambers. The resulting 50-metre penalty allowed Vlastuin to kick an important goal. Grimes was prevented from challenging McDonald-Tipungwuti in a marking contest when Stringer delivered a subtle push in the back. An Essendon goal was disallowed when Grimes was awarded the free. Genuine infringements occurred on both occasions, with the Richmond pair accentuating the contact to make sure the umpire noticed. As it has always been. Grimes subsequently received death threats on social media. He spoke out publicly and alerted the authorities. Two Melbourne men were arrested and charged by police.

 

Both Grimes and Vlaustin were cited for staging and received fines. Tom Lynch was in trouble again. In an off-the-ball incident Essendon defender Michael Hurley attempted to punch Lynch’s hand, the one he had fractured earlier in the year against Melbourne, to prevent him from leading. Lynch delivered a glancing blow to Hurley’s upper chest. The AFL was intent on making a statement and the Tiger spearhead was slapped with a one-week suspension. Lynch, Short and Vlaustin appealed and all three had their penalties quashed; Lynch because there was no high contact to Hurley.

 

Then came the most damaging incident of all. Something that could have driven the entire AFL fleet onto the rocks. After celebrating the birthdays of teammates Jack Ross and Ben Miller at the resort, Sydney Stack and Callum Coleman-Jones deliberately beached hub conditions and took an Uber to Surfers Paradise in the early hours of the morning. They called on the Hollywood Showgirls strip club before strolling next door to buy a snack from Kebab Zone at around half past three in the morning. As they sat on the bench outside they were abused by an intoxicated man. Coleman-Jones was struck before Stack leapt to his feet and flattened the assailant. The Richmond players were arrested by police on duty at the station just 50 metres up the footpath.

 

The pair were banished by the club for ten matches and expelled from the hub. Richmond was fined $100,000 this time, including the $25,000 suspended from the incident with Brooke Cotchin back in July.

 

The media piled onto Richmond again. Michael Malthouse accused them of being “too big for their boots.” He opined that this “would not bode well for them winning a premiership”. He berated the “disrespect for opponents” when several missed shots against Essendon resulted in some laughter amongst the players and how it was “setting a very poor look for the game.”

 

Other journalists rushed for their keyboards. If it wasn’t an on field issue, it was obviously the ‘culture’. It was a narrative beloved of sports writers everywhere. The once-great club falling victim to its own arrogance and tumbling from grace; the end of another dynasty.

 

Richmond was in the position of needing to win every remaining game to guarantee a top four finish and the vital double chance. They were performing exceedingly well, losing only four matches out of 13, but their main rivals in Port Adelaide, Brisbane, Geelong and West Coast were banking wins as well.  The Tigers made a huge statement when they dismantled the Eagles by 27 points. In their next outing they indulged in a night of sleep-walking on their way to victory over Fremantle by the same margin. The win over the Eagles had catapulted them back to flag favouritism along with Geelong, the team they would meet in a much anticipated clash in the penultimate round.

 

The Tigers applied the screws to the Cats as they sought to move the ball with precise short passing into positions from where they could deliver the ball into the hands of the formidable Tom Hawkins. Richmond defenders assisted Noah Balta, his direct opponent, by ensuring he was rarely exposed to dangerous one-on-one battles with the big Cat. Richmond led for virtually the entire match and ran out convincing 26-point winners, returning to the outright flag favouritism they had enjoyed at the beginning of the season.

 

There was more adversity, however. Ivan Soldo went down with a ruptured ACL and faced a year out of action. Lynch strained his hamstring and would have a race against time to be ready for Richmond’s first final in around three week’s time. Shane Edwards and his partner had welcomed baby Mya into their lives. He flew to the Gold Coast on the last plane out of Melbourne with the final players and officials making up the AFL contingent. For two weeks he trained away from the main group in the company of fellow passengers in Geelong’s Gary Ablett and St. Kilda’s Dan Hannebery.

 

Now he was ready to go in the last home-and-away game against the Crows at the Adelaide Oval. Astbury was back as well. The Crows were confined to the bottom of the ladder. Normally, a final round meeting with the season’s cellar dwellers would be a cause for celebration. Not so here. Adelaide suffered defeats in each of their 13 games before toppling Hawthorn in Round 14. They followed this success with wins over GWS and Carlton. After North Melbourne fell to the Eagles in the first game of the final round, they could jump the Kangaroos and avoid the wooden spoon if they upset Richmond. The Tigers had to win to retain third position and their launch pad for the assault on the premiership. The ship’s company was aiming to navigate their way past the final islets, shoals and reefs to hit the open water.

 

With this fixture Damien Hardwick equalled Tom Hafey’s record of 248 games as coach of Richmond from 1966 to 1976. It was an immense achievement, bearing in mind Hardwick’s challenging early years, the elimination final defeats and the fact that he came within an ace of losing his job at the end of the disastrous 2016 season. Even Hafey faced the sack as losses mounted in 1969, before his Tigers swept all before them in a late-season revival that took them all the way to the flag. This followed the ’67 triumph and there were two more pennants to come in 1973 and 1974. Hafey’s 248th game in charge was his last at the helm. They secured seventh place on the ladder with a 34-point win over St. Kilda at VFL Park. Both Royce Hart and Robert Lamb kicked five. But by failing to make the finals after a run of five series in a row, Hafey had lost the support of club supremo Graeme Richmond. His position had become untenable and he moved to Victoria Park to lift the Magpies from last position in 1976 all the way to the 1977 Grand Final.

 

Hardwick’s record of contesting a seventh final series was the equal of Hafey. Tiger Tom passed away at the age of 82 in 2014 and it was his widow, Maureen, who presented the premiership cup to Hardwick and Cotchin in 2019. It took nine victories in a row to achieve a top-four finish in 2019. It would take six in the current campaign.

 

The Crows provided spirited resistance to the visiting Tigers, but were unable to sustain it for a full game. Richmond’s aggression and superior skills gradually wore down the home team and they coasted to a 44-point win. Edwards and Astbury excelled in their re-ascension to the senior 18. In the final minute of the game Dusty Martin took a contested mark in the pocket and passed to Riewoldt. Jack curled it home with the last kick of the match to bring the visit to Adelaide to a stirring conclusion. Assignment completed, third position on the ladder secured. Make way for the return of Lynch, Bolton and Prestia.

 

And then, who knows? Perhaps the promise of a glorious return voyage, with the ship berthed on the Yarra near the Hoddle Bridge over Punt Road, and the crew coming ashore with precious silverware.

 

 

To read more from John Green, click HERE.

 

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Comments

  1. Nothing’s been easy this year, has it John? Remarkable to think we’re back in exactly the same spot as we were in 2019! Queensland’s been a great home away from home for the Tigers. Hopefully it’ll continue for three more games.

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