THEY used to be hard to like, the Tigers, but now they’re the best thing footy has going for it, on and off the field, says Chief Writer RON REED:
NOT the least remarkable aspect of the Richmond dynasty that is now firmly in place is that nobody seems to begrudge it. The Tigers are not only the AFL’s best team, by a fair margin, they are the most popular – and hardly hated at all, it seems, which is not exactly the same thing. They are now the best thing the great game has going for it, on or off the field.
When you’ve been watching footy for six decades or more, this realisation is difficult to come to terms with. In the good old, bad old days – read the sixties and seventies, when legendary coach Tommy Hafey’s hard men won four flags in eight years with plenty of talent but also a trademark ruthlessness and arrogance – nobody liked the Tigers except the Tigers themselves. When it was just a Victorian competition, their rivalries with the other big three – Collingwood, Carlton and Essendon – bordered on authentic enmity.
This manifested itself in all sorts of ways, notably the infamous Windy Hill brawl against Essendon when not all the combatants were wearing guernseys, or the mutually destructive player trade wars with the Magpies, or the 72-73 Grand Finals against the Blues, when the physicality went to levels unmatched since the infamous bloodbath grand final between South Melbourne and Carlton in 1945.
In the second of those, Richmond ruckman Neil Balme committed an act of unmitigated violence against the Blues’ popular full-back Geoff Southby, sending him off with a busted jaw, having earlier in the same season meted out the same illicit treatment to another navy blue champion, David McKay. To this day, Balme has never been forgiven by the Carlton faithful – nor the two players on the receiving end.
When Balme, now an avuncular father-figure who runs the Tigers’ football department, accepted an invitation two years ago to speak at the fortnightly Friday lunches hosted by another Carlton star of the era, ex-ruckman Percy Jones, at the North Fitzroy Arms pub, Southby and McKay refused to attend. “Tell him to get stuffed,” McKay told Jones, the bitterness still undiminished 45 years on. Balme told the lunch that he was “not proud, I must admit” of the attack on Southby – “but nor am I ashamed”.
That’s the way it was back then – whatever it takes.
Having been humiliated by the Blues in the previous year’s Granny, Richmond won that match with a ferocious attack on both the man and the ball, putting the fear of God into the rest of the competition and winning the flag again, easily, the next season.
It’s been a roller-coaster ride ever since – they were almost swallowed up in a financial black hole in 1990, were perennial non-contenders for the next two and a half decades and rivalled Collingwood (and Carlton, probably) as the team fans of other clubs most enjoyed seeing lose.
Not only are they having the last laugh now, their image has changed completely.
They seem to have taken over Hawthorn’s carefully constructed mantle of the family club, with parents, kids and wives and girlfriends everywhere you looked in the euphoric aftermath of Saturday’s massive triumph.
Coach Damien Hardwick, a hard nut when he played in two premierships for other clubs himself, now presents as an empathetic mentor who writes emotional letters from the heart to his troops before sending them into battle and who says he involves his wife in the big footy decisions. His smile is in place permanently.
Far from being ogres, Richmond is now entitled to call itself the most popular club, with more than 100,000 members – and the wealth that generates. They have been directed by the game’s only female president, Peggy O’Neal, and by a former star player, Brendon Gale, who has never been anything but a committed Richmond man.
It comes across as an old-style footy club more than it does as a corporate colossus, which it also is.
They have put even Collingwood in the shade in every respect, on and off the field.
And they are not hated – they are massively respected. Whether you barrack for them or not, it has become impossible not to acknowledge and salute what they are achieving, year after year.
It is probably no coincidence that their players are uniformly likeable – Jack Reiwoldt, Bachar Houli, skipper Trent Cotchin, the injured Alex Rance, newcomer Tom Lynch – among plenty of others – are all personable, urbane types who represent the club and the sport beautifully.
And if the best on-field performer of them all, Dustin Martin, is a little more difficult to engage with, there is no reason whatsoever to suggest that he is any less of an ornament to the game. With two premierships, two Norm Smith Medals and a Brownlow, he is now in the conversation about who might be Richmond’s best-ever player.
The icing on this tasty cake is Marlion Pickett, the hero of what is being hailed, probably correctly, as the best feel-good story in footy finals history. It’s about more than the game, of course – it’s a parable of how a troubled young man can get a second chance in life and grab it with both hands, turning himself around. The fact that it was the new-age Tigers who were prepared to offer him that opportunity when most other clubs wouldn’t have touched a former jailbird tells you plenty about how and why they have now taken such clear-cut possession of the high ground.
Now, the scariest thing about the men in yellow and black is that they are mostly in their prime and capable of being even better next year – and for who knows how many years after that.