Richmond and St Kilda fans are making their way slowly towards the MCG on a sunny, late-May afternoon in Melbourne, congregating in small groups, waiting nervously for each other at pre-arranged meeting places.Many wait at one of the numbered light towers, others at the Warnie or KB statues. Trains, buses, trams and walking paths are awash with club colours, moving the tribes to the battlefield, continuing a Saturday ritual dating back more than a century.
As we enter the stadium at Gate 2, the venerable old Members’ entrance, the Richmond banner is already raised, announcing Shaun Grigg’s milestone. He walks through with his young son in his arms, about to join a select group of footballers who have achieved both the longevity of 200 games in the Big League and tasted the ultimate success of playing in a Premiership.
Richmond is the Saturday’s child of this competition. Neither fair of face nor bonny and blithe, it is a club that simply works hard for a living. Without hesitation, they crack in, swarming the ball forward repeatedly, forcing St Kilda to defend grimly during the first few minutes of the game. Young defender Jayden Short, determined to hold his place in the team after missing the party in 2017, makes a sparkling start, hitting targets and creating scoring opportunities.
A mere few minutes have elapsed when Tiger spearhead Jack Riewoldt’s day concludes suddenly. Jake Carlisle, in a clumsy attempt to spoil a strong mark, slaps him high, leaving him groggy, confused and unable to continue. The impressive Josh Caddy kicks the first goal in his absence. Carlisle will attract the ire of the Tiger Army for the rest of the day.
The Saints are also a hard-working outfit. They too were born on a Saturday. They have been struggling in 2018 but it is not for want of effort. They match the Tigers for intensity in an entertaining first quarter. Seb Ross, Luke Dunstan and Jimmy Webster make life difficult for their more fancied opponents and the first stanza concludes with Richmond slightly ahead.
Dusty Martin has been struggling to replicate last year’s stellar Brownlow Medal-winning season but he makes a flying start to this game. He appears back to his belligerent best, leaving hapless would-be tacklers in his wake. Dan Butler is kicking goals again. The Tigers’ two remaining leaders, Trent Cotchin and Alex Rance are playing with confidence.
In Riewoldt’s ongoing absence, Tiger youngster Callum Moore, has no choice but to step up. He has played the same role as his vice-captain in the VFL all season, is no stranger to making long leads across half-forward, perhaps as far as to the wings, before doubling back towards goal so he can lead again. He jumps repeatedly for marks, splits packs open and brings the ball to ground, allowing his flashing fandango of fleet-footed forwards to pounce. He makes the most of this unexpected opportunity. Only sloppy kicking for goal mars his efforts.
At half-time, the Tigers are in a familiar position, a couple of goals to the good, anticipating the rewards of unrelenting pressure that will surely come. The Saints, digging in doggedly after their poor start to the season, have other ideas!
The game turns on its head after the break. In the modern AFL, improved field kicking, slick hands and crisp ball movement have created order. To combat this, coaches have assembled highly-organised defences to play the odds and use height and speed to pick off predictable entries into the forward fifty. More order.
A logical response in a methodical world is to embrace chaos. In the St Kilda forward line, their feisty smaller brigade bring the ball in dirty and attack with ballistic pace. No longer bound by symmetry and regulation, they improvise and scrounge, they tackle and harass. It is old school, unscientific footy.
Jade Gresham and the two Jacks, Billings and Lonie, work together to create four quick goals. They issue a challenge to the reigning Premiers! “We are going to beat you at your own game,” they declare defiantly!<
Kevin Sheedy, once the doyen of AFL coaches, demanded that all his players were ready to play in any position. He would shift them around like chess pieces, always reacting, always thinking outside the box. Sometimes he would move players for the sheer fun of it. Richmond coach, Damien Hardwick is his polar opposite, a process-driven mentor who plans all week long and trusts his preparation unwaveringly. He rarely makes match-winning moves. In fact, he rarely makes any moves at all on game day! Today, he springs a surprise!
He reacts to the St Kilda barrage by moving one of his safest defenders up the ground to replace his missing goal-kicker. This allows him to clamp down on the leaks in his defence with smaller men. Nick Vlastuin, normally a cool and composed intercept player, finds himself in an unfamiliar role. This gamble pays off handsomely. Thanks to Vlastuin’s efforts, the Tigers restore their lead by the final break and resume normal transmission.
The last quarter becomes a shootout between Caddy and Gresham. They end up with six goals each and vie for “best man on the ground” honours. Tiger captain Cotchin is in that conversation too. My money is on Caddy, but what would I know? I am not really a betting man.
Four more points go in the bank. Another win at our home ground has been safely negotiated. Thoughts turn to next week and this year’s Dreamtime jumpers. The Tigers will once again grace their beloved MCG in a mainly yellow guernsey. I seem to recall that this turned out rather nicely last time.
Joe De Petro is a Financial Planner and life-long Tiger tragic who has raised his three adult children as diehard Tiger fans. In some circles, the last of these things is considered an act of cruelty.
RICHMOND 3.3 6.4 10.9 15.15 (105)
ST KILDA 2.0 4.3 9.5 12.5 (77)
Richmond: Caddy 6, Butler 3, Vlastuin 3, Martin 2, Cotchin
St Kilda: Gresham 6, Membrey 2, Steven, Billings, Lonie, Newnes
Richmond: Caddy, Cotchin, Martin, Short, Butler, Grigg
St Kilda: Gresham, Steven, Ross, Webster, Carlisle, Geary
Richmond: Riewoldt (concussion), Houli (groin)
St Kilda: White (right thigh), Dunstan (right shoulder)
Reports: Jake Carlisle (St Kilda) reported for striking Jack Riewoldt (Richmond) in the first quarter
Umpires: Margetts, Harris, O'Gorman
Official crowd: 48,850 at the MCG