Learning from Pierre

 By John Green

My jobs are almost done.

I’ve ridden the bike up to La Trobe Uni and back for the exercise, completed the Saturday morning chores for the favour of the wife and visited a mate in the Austin. It’s time to spend some hours in front of the box watching a double header – Box Hill Hawks V Coburg in the afternoon and Brisbane V Richmond in the evening.

I’ve spent a substantial amount of time being bathed in cathode rays of late. Aside from the Olympics, I also caught the Glenelg V Central Districts match the other night, having never had the opportunity to watch the South Australian Tigers in action. They’ll be on TV again next week .

The expected Aussie goldrush in the London Olympic Games  is yet to materialise. There has certainly been a level of consternation, but I reckon silver and bronze are pretty good too, not to mention the athletes who perform at or near their best in the heat of elite competition.

As Richmond’s fortunes have nosedived again, I’ve been revisiting the famous words of Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee and recognised as the father of the modern Olympic movement.

“The most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

If I knew now that Richmond was never to win another premiership, would I still follow their fortunes and enjoy the striving, relishing the journey, even if we never actually arrive? Would I still find pleasure in the skill, athleticism, courage, drama and unfolding history of the game as a whole?

I would like to think that I could.

All the talk on the ABC is about Coburg’s problems. They turn the ball over and tumble into error when under pressure. Club legend  Phil Cleary is diplomatic. He suggests the alignment between Coburg and Richmond, soon to be severed, might be problematic. He questions whether Richmond’s supplementary list players in Verrier, Wright and Darrou are better than Coburg regulars in Rayson, Jordan and Murphy, all of whom played in the seconds earlier today. David Rhys Jones is characteristically blunt. He claims he witnessed the same chronic lack of skills by Richmond in their four-point loss to “the Carlton seconds” on the previous weekend. In other words, this problem is rife in the marriage relationship between Richmond and Coburg.

I like the fact that AFL-listed players are running around on a field flanked by cars on the outer side. I like the genteel hedge bordering the ground at the southern end. You can see the traffic passing through the intersection of Canterbury and Middleborough Roads. In an era of generic stadia  features like these remind me that the game as it is played throughout the country is essentially local in character.

Coburg is not expected to win. They are coming off a heavy defeat at the hands of the Northern Blues in their previous match and find themselves eight goals down late in the first half. Nevertheless, they rally, and with four unanswered goals on either side of the long break they wrench themselves back into the game. The young Coburg players celebrate their goals and encourage teammates. They finish with a score of 18-4 (112), a sharpshooting achievement in anybody’s language, in going down by a respectable 24 points. They fall short of victory but demonstrate the quality prized by de Coubertin. I’ve observed it in my son’s football and in my daughter’s  netball games. Even kids can do it. The ability to keep striving in adversity and to try your heart out, even when you know you can’t win the game.

Surely there’s  nobility in that.

In the break between games I bring the washing in, pick up tonight’s fare from the Ivanhoe Fish Shop and ferry my daughter to a party in East Doncaster.

And so to the main event. The numbers tell a story. Richmond has lost three games in a row by less than a goal, a feat achieved only three times in the past 86 years of AFL competition. But they have won eight of their past ten clashes against Brisbane, including their past four meetings at the Gabba. The Tigers know how to win contests, seize the ball and blast it in the direction of the goals. Unfortunately it is at the point of entering their attacking zone that they take out two huge carving knives and slice up the pigskin. If someone attempts to score before the ball rebounds they generally miss their target. The Tigers are capable of controlling significant portions of the game without troubling the scorers. They make more errors than the leading contenders and lack the poise and skill to close out close matches. That’s resulted in nine losses this season by 21 points or less.

The Lions hand Richmond a free drinks card with the news that Simon Black is starting as the sub. He has to be either injured or down with the flu. Maric overwhelms Hudson in the ruck and gifts Deledio, Tuck, Martin, Cotchin and Grigg with first use at the stoppages. The Tigers get reward for effort in the currency of goals and plenty of them. When Black comes on halfway through the third term he starts to weave some magic with his astute handball and precise passing, but the horse has bolted and is 40 points away near the top of the home strait. Nahas takes the margin out to 46.

Then the Lions spring. They boot the first four majors of the final quarter and draw to within 14 points at the ten-minute mark. The whole world knows that if your team is within three goals of the fragile Tigers  late in the match you are almost certain to get the points. The commentators are waxing lyrical about the imminent destruction of loungeroom fixtures and fittings in yellow-and-black households across the land. I helpfully inform my worried family that all we need is a couple of steadiers and we’ll get across the line. Nahas and Tuck oblige with two within a minute. Grigg adds another. The Tigers crank the gears and motor away from the plucky, but exhausted Lions. It’s a relief to run away with it by eight goals.

Ah, the struggle. The Tigers are striving as hard as anyone to be successful. In the meantime I’ll  try to appreciate the journey and enjoy any wins that come our way.

That’s enough for me.

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