Round 1 – Richmond v Carlton: Farewell to the Hillary Step




Richmond v Carlton

7:25pm, Thursday March 18




In keeping with his reputation as an inspirational storyteller, Damien Hardwick related the tale of the Hillary Step to his players before the 2017 Qualifying Final against Geelong.



The Hillary Step, the exposed ridge connecting the south summit of Mt. Everest to its true summit, was encountered by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on the first ascent of the mountain in 1953. It was a near-vertical 12-metre rock face 8,790 metres above sea level. A dangerous place for exhausted summiteers nearing the end of their journey with the goal tantalisingly close. Many didn’t make it in subsequent years.



Hardwick was reminding his charges to maintain their focus on the things that had taken them to the finals and to not be distracted by a possible Grand Final appearance three weeks in the future.



‘The climbers die because they’re focused on that point above, the outcome, the goal, the top, instead of rope here, footstep there – process and progress.’



A powerful illustration, no doubt, even though at the time that Hardwick delivered his speech the topography of the mountain had altered and the Hillary Step no longer existed. The Step is now a gentle, snow-covered slope that takes only a few minutes for climbers to traverse. It is thought that an earthquake in 2016 removed five metres of rock, considerably reducing the mountain’s last line of defence.



That’s one illustration he can’t use again.



The Nepalese Department of Tourism, regretting the loss of the iconic Step, has instructed adventurers to stay silent on its demise or risk being denied climbing permits.



Richmond supporters like me appreciate the life lessons gleaned from following the Tigers. During the decades of struggle we learned resilience. But the world has changed for the better since the euphoria of 2017. In the present era, now that we are the envy of the competition, we are reminded of the need to remain humble and take it one flag at a time.



One flag at a time? Tonight we’re raising two of them.



How does Hardwick motivate the Tigers to keep winning? How can they match the desperation, the obsession and the single-minded intensity that comes from never having achieved premiership success, or of being so close to a flag in recent times that they can almost touch it? Geelong, Port Adelaide, Brisbane and maybe a challenger that no-one has seen coming are plotting, scheming and doing everything in their power to dislodge the Tigerian dynasty from the Iron Throne.



The ballot has delivered two seats at the Punt Road End to my son and I, not too far from where we normally reside with our fellow members on the lower level of the Olympic Stand. Although any seat would have sufficed on a night like this, we’re glad to take up our positions behind the massed ranks of the Cheer Squad.



I say hello to Neil Balme at the back of the stand and he returns a cheery greeting. How inspiring, I muse, that Tigerland’s Senior Club Advisor opts to wear his Richmond jumper and sit with the fanatics behind the goals.



There’s a festival atmosphere amongst the Tiger faithful. We’re at the footy again and we’re the reigning champions. I feel like we’ve developed a herd immunity to the fear of failure and disappointment. Whatever happens this season, and whatever life may throw our way, we have  three premierships under Hardwick that old-timers like me thought were beyond the realms of possibility. We’re all feeling it.  A man in front of us claps his hands for no apparent reason and grins to himself.



The Carlton players practise their goal kicking in front of our section. There’s a cheerful warning of ‘Hey!’ as some of the footies clear the netting and land amongst the spectators, bouncing around the seats. Ed Curnow lobs one over, smiles and raises his hand in apology.



There is a commotion in the aisle at the end of our row. Then I understand why Balme is wearing a Richmond guernsey. He is part of a procession bearing the 2019 and 2020 premiership flags onto the arena. Michael Green, David Bourke, Dale Weightman and Bachar Houli are amongst the crowd of flag bearers. Supporters scramble to gain a better vantage point and lift their iPhones in salute.



The premiership cups are transported onto the field on the backs of swift black utes with bold yellow sashes on their sides. Peggy O’Neal addresses the crowd and the flags are raised to the sky. Then come the fireworks, a display which seems to accompany every public ceremony of importance in the twenty-first century. The stadium is filled with smoke and the smell of gunpowder.



The goal umpire strides to our end with a spring in his step. He carefully places his flags behind the posts. He walks left to the behind post and glances up at the clouds, getting accustomed to the light. He repeats the process to his right. Then he straddles the goal line and looks up again. He’s ready to go and so are we.



Jack Riewoldt ambles to the goal square to a standing ovation from the Richmond barrackers. His eyes scan the crowd, absorbing the energy of thousands of partisans exhilarated to be freed from being mere observers of television images.



Anticipation. There’s a cheer at the first bounce that’s different to the customary pro-team roar of rival fans. It’s the sound of football lovers who are glad to be at the footy again.



What transpires is an exciting, free-flowing and close contest. There are fewer stoppages than what we have become accustomed to in recent years, more aggressive running through the central corridor and more space for kickers with the new standing man-on-the-mark rule. Proof, perhaps, that if the AFL keeps tinkering with the rules we might actually have some positive results from time to time.



The Tigers lead narrowly at each change, but can’t shake the Blues. Carlton lead by 11 points midway through the second term. Cripps, Walsh, Gibbons and Saad are star performers, while Weitering is countering Tom Lynch. The Blue Baggers are definitely on the rise.



We have no idea that Carlton has activated the new substitutes rule until Oscar McDonald emerges to immediately make his mark on the game with a goal early in the third quarter. Carlton thrust again. It’s fortunate for Richmond that Short runs McKay down after he marks and plays on, causing him to grubber his kick and miss from point blank range.



The Tigers strike back. They make an injury substitute of their own with Jack Ross when Vlaustin goes down with a leg injury. Carlton renews its challenge in the third quarter. Riewoldt restores Richmond’s fortunes with two superb goals from acute angles.



The Tigers are out to a 16-point lead ten minutes into the final term and look to have the game safely within their clutches. Then McKay and Gibbons score and the margin is cut to only four points when Dow misses his snap shot. The fleeting possibility that the Princes Hill mob is about to steal the game is too horrible to contemplate.



Then, as strong teams normally do, and to the unbridled joy of the Richmond faithful, the Tigers boot the last three goals of the match. One each to Bolton, Riewoldt and Martin. Dusty is brilliant once again. Edwards, Bolton, Graham, Prestia, Balta and Lambert are part of a star ensemble in what has become a night of uninhibited celebration.



The Richmond players acclaim their fans behind the Punt Road End goals. This makes eleven wins in a row over our rivals with a scoreline that is virtually identical to the corresponding clash of 2020.



Our beloved coach is encouraged to keep adding to his extensive collection of anecdotes, quotes and inspirational stories to motivate the boys to stay hungry.



And he needs to delete his notes on the Hillary Step.





RICHMOND     3.3      8.5      10.8      15.15 (105)
         3.2      6.6      8.12       11.14 (80)


Riewoldt 4, Castagna, Martin, Rioli, Aarts 2, Lynch, Caddy, Bolton
Carlton: McDonald, McKay, Gibbons 2, Casboult, O’Brien, Dow, Silvagni, Plowman


Richmond: Martin, Balta, Graham, Short, Prestia, Edwards, Riewoldt
Walsh, Cripps, Saad, Plowman, Newnes, Setterfield






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  2. John Butler says

    John, I hadn’t heard that Hillary story before. It’s a good one.

    As for the game, I thought you looked gettable on the night. But perhaps you always had an extra gear in reserve. Dusty certainly did.


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