There are games that refuse to crack open. We, the footballing fraternity know they exist…yet when we witness one it still arrives as a surprise. Friday night in Perth is a perfect case in point. Richmond needed this game. Had to have it. They wanted it so badly that every contest reverberated with their intent. Yet when the final siren took this one from them, there was a sense of righteous indignation. Freo single point margin produced a tsunami of finger pointing. The Tigers are sick of losing heartbreakers, yet this was a classic in the recent genre. Everything they were supposedly working against happening found a way to occur despite the best efforts of summer. The Tiges lost the lead through a Fremantle spurt that saw them break loose from the two goal holding pattern of the evening. With the purple tide rising there was the sense the game was cracking open. Richmond were exposed to the torrents of a Freo charge as Subi erupted… but they weren’t going out like that.

The Tigers pushed back, hitting the lead with a volley of punches to open the final term. Then, as is the way of high-tempo modern football, things got funky. A bizarre non-decision. A final push by Richmond to hit the front. And then there was Hayden Ballantyne.

It had to be didn’t it? With the inevitability that cannot ever be denied, the most despised footballer not named Stephen Milne, slotted the winner and then rubbed the Tigers noses in it. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Saints man but when Grant Thomas began to wage his war on Milney, I joined the march to the mill with my burning stake. Milne is hard to love, even when he’s one of yours. I completely understand his enemies ire. When GT wanted him gone, he had a point. Milney wanted to take everyone on, famously attempting to take the North player on the mark on in a tight game, when it would have been so much easier to settle the game with the set shot. When we lost the match, blame was easy to proportion.

What happened to Stephen Milne from that point on has been nothing short of career-defining. Dropped early in the Lyon reign, he went back to the VFL, took his lumps and stormed back to kick at least fifty goals every season from then on. He has 500+ career goals. Begrudgingly I admit I was as wrongheaded as Grant Thomas. I still feel for the sides that get burnt by Milne though. He doesn’t lack for confidence and is never afraid to mention how well he’s going.

Ballantyne is cut from that same cloth, with perhaps just a bit more mongrel. Put simply- If either kicks the winner it hurts about three times as much.

A devastating loss then in every regard.-Dodgy decision costing a goal, annoying match winner, hostile crowd hanging over the pickets giving it to you and a sense of dread that this season is going pear-shaped.

Ross Lyon was eager to point out after the match that ‘stuff’ happens in footy. The decision that may or may not have decided the contest, was strangely clearcut- It was wrong. And yet in the murky waters that are the AFL rules it was right….sort of. The aftermath was a classic piece of AFL-logic. The decision couldn’t be taken upstairs because the ball had not been deemed to have crossed the goal line. Therefore, it was not a question of whether it was a score, rather it was a case of interference by the goal umpire. By this logic the ball was still in play.

Got that? Right, well if you want that kind of logic applied, why then was it not a free kick to Richmond? If the ball was in-play, Vickery had no way of contesting, having left the field of play and being obstructed by both the goal post and the umpire. His direct opponent Michael Hill then picks the football up and walks it across the goal line for a rushed behind. He is under no direct pressure. Clearly he has conceded a free kick by forcing a score when he should have done his upmost to keep the ball in play?

Who would want to be an umpire? The art of reading player’s minds in ridiculously underplayed on the list of things umpires need to assess. How many other sports have so many judgement calls incorporated into the wording of the rules? The ‘intent’ of the player is always the elephant on the ground; and its hot-footing it Arden Street style!

After suggesting that this ‘stuff’ occurs, Ross Lyon went on to calmly mentioned that a Tom Hawkins kick ricocheted off the goal post in the ’09 Grand Final, only to be called a goal. It was not something he dwelled on though. He just wanted to bring that example up to prove he had been wronged as well and it had cost him a bigger game than this…..

Funny how he keeps bringing that up though isn’t it? God knows, I still ponder it. It haunts me more vividly than Milne chasing that wobbling Hayes punt in the pocket a year later. The misjudgement by that goal umpire is ground zero of the goal line technology debate. Either directly or indirectly, that crazy second is always the example raised to confirm the need for the review system. The hypothetical question is always thus – What if a Grand Final was decided by an error?

Its a spurious question anyway. Premierships have always been decided by umpire error. Well before the the Hawkins phantom goal there are a litany of moments that have changed the course of the premiership race. Anthony Rocca and Tony Liberatore can certainly attest to the frustrations of goal umpire lament.

The truth is simpler than blaming the poor sods in charge of officiating though. You see, all contests are decided as much by mistakes as brilliance. It is hard to swallow, so we tend to avoid dealing with it but it won’t deny the truth. Just watch the World Game if you need convincing. The penalty shoot-out starkly reminds us of the dark heart of any contest. Consider it a microcosm of the sporting endeavour. The side that wins does so not only because they executed their skills better but because a player on the other side failed. The agony is writ larger because the failure ends the battle but all sport is made up of a series of mistakes. You cannot accurately say that the winner makes the least amount of errors. Sometimes that’s true sure, mostly though its not.

Richmond lost to the Suns last season because of a complete failure to lock up the centre bounce. They were the creators of their demise through an excruciating free fall in the last actions of the game. They allowed the Suns to get the centre clearance, shift the ball inside fifty and find a target. It was a slow motion disaster. What Damien Hardwick did Friday night is difficult to counter given that result. Rather than flood numbers back into defence and clog the Fremantle forward line, he set up to continue to attack. It was gutsy but his intentions were positive. Back yourselves to win the ball. The Tigers were surging, just go out and win the footy. The line between over thinking the situation and judging it to perfection tends to be answered post game. Richmond fell victim to a set piece inside Freo’s fifty. Had they had numbers back it might not have played out any differently. Maric got swamped at the boundary throw in, the ball spilled to the front of goals. Small forwards live and die crumbing in that hotspot. The Tigers made a tactical mistake, there was no individual to blame.

Across the ditch meanwhile, the Saints held on again. The Ross Lyon influence means that Swans/ Saints matches are always tight. This games wasn’t cracked open either but the tightness was simply a mirage. Sydney are too good for St.Kilda now and the final result relied heavily on junk time. This was a five goal margin game. The final sixteen point margin had more to do with a proud Saints line up refusing to go away than a serious surge to victory. The Swans were never letting this contest get wrested away from them, they are a great side and this was simply a match great sides win with a faith in their tactical superiority. They absorbed the Saints thrusts and simply put them away with no histrionics. The Saints were desperate, their will to save a season that may have already gone gave them the drive but mistakes kept coming. The fluidity of the Swans system of play forces teams that play them into error. St.Kilda kept punching but they were flailing at an opponent that simply circles their victim until they are punched out, then pushes them over for the win. There were so many aimless kicks to points on the ground where the Swans wanted them to kick. The turnovers led to clinical Sydney scoring.

What Richmond need to understand is something St.Kilda used to know. The ability to win tight contests has less to do with endeavour than you presume. Sure, you always need a team of men prepared to go in and have a dip but the way to win in the modern game is to use ‘the system.’ Richmond need to have complete faith that when the time comes to win the game they can play the way they want to.

You have to own the contest- Play it on your terms. St.Kilda can’t do that anymore, I know that now because I saw how Sydney controlled us. Scott Watters might be a good coach but the Ross Lyon playing style was what got us to the summit. We haven’t found something to replace our belief in it yet. Lyon gifted Fremantle with a version that works for them and they are suddenly a top-four contender.

Richmond stepped up in the final term, they did all the hard work but when the game needed a winner, Freo took control. To win the tight ones you need to own that control over the game. It is a hard season to learn but once a team does, they begin to rely less on luck. In fact, they don’t need luck at all.

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