One of the easiest ways to tell the quality of a team is to look at how disliked it is by neutrals.
Any successful team in any sport will attract a certain level of scorn from rival supporters, mostly borne out of frustration and begrudging jealously.
But the truly special teams go to another level of unpopularity, their very existence, let alone audacity to continuously play well and win, is enough to set keyboards on fire and turn otherwise rational people into foaming messes of tribal fury.
Oftentimes, the hate is justified. That’s because for a team to reach that next level of greatness, to elevate itself to the very upper throngs of a sport’s history, to outlast all the challengers and all the obstacles, it needs to be at least a little bit nasty.
Enter Richmond, circa 2020.
The Tigers’ era started with the 2017 shattering of a glass ceiling, a breakthrough win that brought with it a healthy amount of goodwill — Matthew Richardson was happy, the MCG was loud as anything, the song was great and the Kath Day-Knight clip was used liberally.
Then came the wounding shock of 2018, before a gradual and eventually brutal bounce back in 2019. By the end of last season, nobody was left in any doubt how good this Richmond team really was, but were perhaps getting weary of the constant convincing.
This year, forced into captivity and relentlessly poked and jeered by those outside the cage, the Tigers have become something else entirely.
Richmond is mean. Richmond is unrelenting. Richmond will do whatever it takes to get any advantage it possibly can over the opposition.
Richmond is good. Richmond knows its good. Richmond knows that no matter who it is playing in any given day, it has this untouchable, almost invincible mode right within reach.
Richmond knows how much you hate it. Richmond doesn’t care.
Against Port Adelaide, in a captivating preliminary final that so easily could have ended in fawning for the Powers’ precocious young guns or talismanic Robbie Gray, the Tigers embraced the role of villain and set out to spoil South Australia’s party.
Port went hard at Tom Lynch — whose fondness of the sorts of cheap shots that light up Twitter but are always a whisker short of suspension-worthy made him public enemy number one — and Lynch laughed it off.
Coach Damian Hardwick has never publicly endorsed Lynch’s less palatable antics, but he has always cheekily defended them with a knowing wink. That edge, when kept in balance, is what makes the Tigers so horrible to play against.
Of course, we’re only talking about on-field personas here. None of these are bad people, as Lynch’s post-match gesture with a despondent Port fan proved conclusively. But you have to play your part once the siren starts, and these guys wear it well.
Above all, none of this would matter if the Tigers couldn’t back it up on the field. Yet again, this team was absolutely phenomenal once crunch time arrived in the biggest game of its season so far.
There’s almost no point going through who played well, you already know who it was. Dustin Martin doing the usual? Check. Noah Balta locking down like crazy on Charlie Dixon? Check. Trent Cotchin and Toby Nankervis owning the last quarter? Check and check.
That very predictability might also account for some of that burning feeling you have in your stomach when Richmond wins. It’s like when your alarm goes off every morning — you knew damn well it was coming, and somehow that just makes it more horrible.
And so Richmond stands on the precipice of history, and a third flag in four seasons. A win away from sparking genuine conversations about this team’s place in this history of Australian rules football, if it isn’t there already.
The Tigers are battle-hardened and entirely unafraid of the grand final stage — in fact, they’ve generally saved their best for that day. Their potent mix of slop and skill is absolutely made for the helter skelter of a grand final, and perhaps the move to a PM time slot helps them even further.
Martin might win another Norm Smith Medal. Maybe Bachar Houli will get his this time. Cotchin has a Brownlow, and could join Dusty in a pretty exclusive club if he turns it on this time round.
Or they could lose the grand final. That remains a possibility regardless of who the opposition ends up being, even if the glow of Friday night makes it hard to imagine.
But if you are one of the many who shudder at the thought of another shower of yellow and black confetti, or another year of AFL promos with Cotchin and Hardwick holding the cup, you should probably start bracing yourself now.
These Tigers are a unified force, becoming more frightening with each passing week. They will be favourites to win the grand final next week, and they will play with the same magnificent arrogance and, to borrow a moniker, unsociability reserved for the very best teams this game has seen.
And they will love every minute of it.