Richmond on the cusp of greatness but confident Geelong stands in its way

A decade after Richmond chief executive Brendon Gale was ridiculed for the club’s bold plan to win three premierships by 2020 and boost membership numbers to 75,000, the Tigers are now on the cusp of greatness.

Having already smashed its ambitious membership target by more than 25,000, Richmond enters Saturday night’s historic grand final under lights at the Gabba with the chance to fulfill that once-derided premiership ambition by securing a third flag in the space of four seasons.

To do so would elevate Damien Hardwick’s side into esteemed company.

In this millennium, Brisbane (2001-2003) and Hawthorn (2013-2015) both won three consecutive premierships to earn their place among the AFL’s greatest sides.

Geelong won three flags across a five-year span from 2007 to 2011 to also assert its claims as one of football’s most formidable line-ups; a record Richmond can top with victory over the Cats in this weekend’s showpiece.

Saturday night’s match will be the first time since 1967 that the Tigers and Cats have met in a grand final, and only the third time they have played each other in a season decider.

In 1967, Richmond — coached by the legendary Tom Hafey — won a thrilling clash by nine points in front of 109,000 spectators at the MCG. The victory gave rise to the club’s last sustained period of success with three more premierships won across the following seven seasons.

Less than a third of that crowd will fill the Gabba on Saturday night but I’m expecting a similarly tight contest and a superb spectacle.

Richmond thoroughly outplayed Geelong when the two sides met in round 17 in Carrara and while the margin on the scoreboard was only 26 points, the Tigers were dominant with 22 scoring shots to 11 while holding Geelong to its lowest score since 2001.

The Cats’ typically precise and composed ball movement was stifled by the opposition’s manic pressure in what former Geelong captain Cameron Ling described as a “smack-down” on ABC Grandstand.

The nature of the loss shook the Cats. They had been in sparkling form prior, but followed up the defeat with an underwhelming performance against Sydney in round 18 and they were well below their best in a 16-point loss to Port Adelaide in the qualifying final.

But any scars of round 17 now appear to have healed, with Geelong playing with supreme confidence and clinical efficiency in convincing wins over Collingwood and Brisbane in its past two finals clashes.

Richmond and Geelong may deploy contrasting styles of ball movement — elements of chaos versus control — but their line-ups boast several similarities.

Geelong's Tom Hawkins shouts in celebration in front of Brisbane's Mitch Robinson.Geelong's Tom Hawkins shouts in celebration in front of Brisbane's Mitch Robinson.
Shutting down Cats spearhead Tom Hawkins will be a priority for the Tigers.(AAP: Dave Hunt)

The Tigers and Cats possess powerful key forwards in Tom Lynch and Tom Hawkins. Both sides have significant midfield depth, and well-organised, miserly defences. They also have star players with match-winning qualities.

Gary Ablett was superb for Geelong against the Lions in the preliminary final, and how fitting it would be to see him end his glittering career with a third premiership medallion.

Ablett has been a champion player, the best I’ve witnessed.

Patrick Dangerfield was outstanding against the Magpies and — while less influential against Brisbane — he will take some quelling in his first grand final as he chases one of the few prizes in football to elude him.

Richmond star Dustin Martin, who has already won everything in football, has spent a lot of time forward this season — just like Dangerfield — and is sure to be a huge factor in determining the outcome.

Martin, who won the Norm Smith Medal in Richmond’s 2017 and 2019 grand final wins, is the consummate big-occasion player. If the Cats keep him quiet, I can see them winning the match but Richmond will deservedly start the favourite.

Senior coaches face significant pressure

In recent years, we have increasingly seen AFL players putting their hands up to reveal they have been struggling with mental health issues in an alarming trend that coincides with an unprecedented level of scrutiny.

Every miniscule detail of every minute of every match can be analysed, dissected and critiqued by a veracious and never-ending news cycle.

The arrival of social media has also created a cesspit for unqualified opinion, a medium dangerously irresistible for a generation of people too concerned with what others think of them.

In a climate of growing concern over player welfare, the mental demands and pressures faced by AFL coaches is comparatively unspoken of.

But while the player is one link in the chain that determines the success of a football club, the coach is the cog upon which everything revolves around. They are expected to be the embodiment of strength — seemingly unbreakable — and the one with all the solutions to all the problems.

If the team is underperforming, the coach wears the criticism and is ultimately held accountable.

Mick Malthouse, who coached a record 718 AFL/VFL matches, offered a clear insight into the emotional impact of coaching a few years back when he told me that long after his decorated career came to an end he woke up one morning and realised he had slept through the night for the first time in 30 years.

On Friday, North Melbourne released the unfortunate news — rather oddly buried deep in a statement to members — that its coach Rhyce Shaw had stepped away from football to deal with personal issues.

This was not a surprise as Shaw’s difficulties had been respectfully kept quiet by the media for weeks and nor was it surprising given the warning signs have been there for some time that the pressures faced by senior coaches are becoming unsustainable.

The North Melbourne AFL coach looks at a Kangaroos training session.The North Melbourne AFL coach looks at a Kangaroos training session.
North Melbourne coach Rhyce Shaw is taking time away from the AFL.(AAP: Julian Smith)

Late last year in his first sit-down interview after being sacked as coach of Carlton, Brendon Bolton told me the role was all-consuming.

“It owns you being a senior coach … it becomes your lifestyle, it’s not a job, it’s a state of being,” Bolton said.

“I think there needs to be appreciation of what senior coaching is all about. It’s not just the game plan and working with players — it’s far broader.

“They’ve got 50 players that they treat like sons … on top of that they’ve got about 15 coaches that they’re really invested in and their staff broader, so all of a sudden coaches take on 100 people, let alone their own family and themselves.”

Retired Richmond premiership player and highly respected long-time football administrator, Neil Balme, agrees senior coaches need balance and — most importantly — appropriate levels of support.

“Just coaching the team is very, very difficult but a lot of it is how good your club is, how much support you give him, how much you help him because if you want the coach to be everything, he’s going to go mad,” Balme told ABC Grandstand.

North Melbourne has recently taken steps to bolster its coaching ranks with the addition of former premiership player John Blakey and an approach made to former Melbourne and Sydney coach Paul Roos.

At this stage, it is unclear whether Shaw will one day return to Arden Street as senior coach or in another capacity.

First and foremost, let’s hope he is on the road to recovery and that his unfortunate situation helps to shine a light on the pressures of coaching.