THEY’RE THE biggest show in town – so what makes the Tigers so popular and is there any stopping them? RON REED reports:
IT HASN’T taken long for what was being spruiked as the most open footy finals series for a very long time to be reduced to widespread agreement that only one team can win it. Richmond’s emphatic 31-point triumph over Hawthorn in the first of the nine matches that will decide the premiership confirmed what their position at the top of the ladder had suggested, that they are clearly the best-performed team of the season. Even the Hawks’ celebrated coach Alister Clarkson agreed with that. “By far,” he said.
They must be a good team to barrack for, the Tigers, because an awful lot of people do that – more than any other club. Again, by far. This year AFL club memberships totalled 1,008,494, the first time the magic million has been reached. And also for the first time, one club reached 100,000 – that was Richmond with 100,726. Daylight was second, followed by Hawthorn 80,302, West Coast 80,290, Essendon 79,319 and Collingwood – traditionally the pacesetter – 75,507. Interestingly, although they have enjoyed easily their best season of the past decade the Magpies actually lost ground fractionally, by 0.5 per cent on last year’s figure of 75,879. The only other club to lose ground was the Western Bulldogs, down by a worrying 9.2 per cent to 43,246, well under half Richmond’s numbers and another disappointing outcome after winning the premiership only two years ago.
The popularity of the Tigers and the Hawks was there for all to see when an almost capacity crowd of 91,446 packed the MCG on a Thursday night, with school and work to be factored in the next day, in cold, rainy weather. The queues started forming the night before and there were thousands waiting outside the Members’ gate when it opened at 4.30pm, almost three hours before the action. By 5pm, some prime seating areas were already fully claimed and, with time to kill, the bars were doing very brisk business. There must have been hundreds of thousands of dollars – other than ticket purchases – spent before a ball was kicked in anger. The AFL have copped some heavy flak by scheduling such a blockbuster on a weeknight but they, and all the associated enterprises that keep the great stadium ticking over, would have been laughing all the way to the bank.
What is it that makes the Tigers so magnetic?
Of course, nothing breeds success like success and never has that proven to be more true than their drought-breaking triumph last year. Then, their membership was a healthy 72,669 but the current figure is a massive 38.6 per cent improvement on that and it is highly unlikely that whatever happens in the next year or two that they will suffer the same fate as the again unfashionable Bulldogs. As a force off the field, the Tigers are surely here to stay.
For as long as anyone can remember, the Tigers have always been one of the so-called Big 4 Melbourne clubs, the others being Collingwood, Carlton and Essendon, all of which have developed strong rivalries with each other. It’s why Carlton, even in their current miserable state, are given the privilege of playing against Richmond in the first game every season, with 80,000 or 90,000 guaranteed to turn up.
The Tigers might not play the most attractive brand of football but it is the toughest and the most efficient these days, and there is plenty of theatre about their presence – especially on the game’s biggest stage, the MCG, where they have now been unbeaten for more than a year. The show starts before the final siren with a troupe of 10 beating large drums in an intimidating sound show and, if they win, it continues after the final siren, when the famous theme song – almost unanimously regarded as the best in the competition – rings out over the loudspeakers.
The men who wear the iconic black with a yellow sash guernseys form an interesting cast of characters. Jack Riewoldt, Alex Rance, Bachar Houli, Daniel Rioli, Trent Cotchin and rookie Jack Higgins – the list goes on – are all not only very good players but compelling personalities as well. And then, of course, there is Dustin Martin, who is just something else. He is unmissable on the field for any number of reasons, not least the full-body tattoos and distinctive hairstyle. He was the best and most valuable player in the competition last year and if he continues to dominate the finals series the way he did on Thursday night, he may well end up retaining that status, regardless of what the umpires have to say on Brownlow night. His amazing goal on the run from deep in the forward pocket was an act of sheer genius and will take some topping as the best moment of the entire finals series.
It is nothing new for Richmond to field teams full of great characters. In their best-ever era, in the sixties and seventies, coach Tom Hafey fell into that category, as did players of the ilk of Kevin Sheedy, Kevin Bartlett, “Whale” Roberts, Barry Richardson, Royce Hart, Neil Balme, Ian Stewart and Rex Hunt. Those guys won four premierships and made another Grand Final, creating a mystique about the club that lingered long after the era ended. That intangible commodity has ebbed, mostly, and flowed in the intervening years but it’s just about back in full flow now. And who’s to say that one premiership might not yet turn into two, or three, or four? After all, that’s what Hawthorn did not very long ago, and what Brisbane pretty much did not long before that. And there are 100,000 people, and counting, who would be willing to suggest it is perfectly possible again.
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.