Votes and notes by Sean Ross, founder of The Benny
It’s impossible to write about last night without mentioning the wonderful occasion the fixture has become. 85,000 isn’t just a crowd, it’s a bloody big crowd, and from my brief AFL Tables research this morning it’s the biggest home and away crowd Melbourne have played in front of since 1962.
Though the evolution of Anzac Day into Anzac round sits uncomfortably and our role in it seems more than a little like an attempt to cash in, you can’t ignore that kind of attendance on a rainy Melbourne night. It isn’t like it’s going anywhere and I may as well embrace it. The fact it seems to annoy Eddie is just an added bonus.
You can’t fault the time and effort that has been put into the pre-match ceremony and the points of difference that are made available in a night time fixture. There is something magic about that many people sitting in the dark in silence during the Last Post with only their thoughts and reflections for company. Deafening silence is a weird concept but that’s the best way to describe it. That the same 85,000 people spent the next two hours screaming deliberate whenever the ball went near the boundary only adds to the importance of the silence before it.
The game itself and, more importantly for this blog post, Richmond, finally lived up to the stage. For whatever reason we had stunk up games against Melbourne for the three years before, the first following Tom Hafey’s passing and then the two first chapters of this fixture. In three games we hit the fixture out of form, Melbourne hit the ball far harder and the scoreboard told the rest of the story. With an average margin of less than five goals, the collective scoreboards flattered us because we had never really got close to them.
In an era where players and teams are judged and analysed through efficiency, tackle counts and pressure acts the role of ‘bogey teams’ is under appreciated and if we dropped this one we were quickly headed to that area with Melbourne. Try and tell me Carlton weren’t in our heads for the first 4 years of this decade.
So with all that water under the bridge, at three quarter time I sat in the Olympic Stand wondering why I’d put my hand up to do the TTBB votes against Melbourne of all teams. A team we hadn’t beaten for three years while they weren’t any good, and now that they’re OK it looked like we may never beat them again.
During the last break it was hard to see how we’d manage to roll over them. We needed to find four goals and stop them from scoring, to that point we’d managed only seven in 90 minutes and they’d had little trouble finding one in transition whenever we pressed up on them. Chatting to a mate I optimistically put the chances of us running over them at around the 10% mark, I figured something was up with Spencer given Watts had been rucking but I didn’t know Melbourne were two rotations down otherwise I would have bumped it up to around 25%.
What I hadn’t, nor had most Richmond folk on Twitter (by a reflective look at my Twitter timeline), factored in was that Melbourne, so incredibly chirpy until then, would shut up shop as soon we made a run at them.
How it progressed from there shows that sport is quite often not fair.
The (far) worse team for the first hour and half got a roll on and pinched it. Given the number of times we’ve been on the receiving end of that it shouldn’t have felt so good, but my goodness it did. When Jack kicked his last to put us in front and the heads of the Melbourne players dropped in unison there was an air of invincibility, that glorious feeling that you’ve just hit the lead and the other mob aren’t willing or able to grab it back. How many times have we been on the less fun end of that feeling?
I’m generally a pretty awful person when it comes to following sport. In most other aspects of life I’m perfectly nice, but the sight of thousands of MCC members heading for the car park after Caddy kicked the sealer provided enough warmth and joy to get me through a Siberian winter. Package up the video of that mass evacuation and put it on the club site and I’ll watch it more times than Dusty leaving Ted Richards sprawled on the turf at Homebush and flying into an open goal. Sit down and stick it out you pillocks, there was only two minutes left.
They’re an interesting team Melbourne. They have a lot of really good young players but more than a few stinkers still hanging around, while we have less really good players but mostly our players are OK enough to get you through. What they are stacked to the gills with though is front runners, Jones and Viney are everything you want when things are going right: chippy, confident, fierce at the ball, ruthless and effective. They terrorised us at the clearances for three quarters (to the point where I can’t have been the only person wondering why we didn’t pick Miles. But they must both have either ran out of puff from not shutting up all night or headed off early to get a jump on the MCC members because I can’t remember seeing either in the last quarter, and to think our skipper is the one who cops grief. What they do have though is a couple of young midfielders coming through who are eye wateringly good. If they can keep Oliver and Petracca fit and developing they’ve got a platform to really cause some chaos in the years ahead, so even though the tables have turned for now I don’t expect this one to be a Brisbane like winning streak.
It will be left for others to dissect the first three quarters so please forgive me for solely focussing on the final stanza and a few names jump off the page.
Houli provided clean hands and poise that had been lacking from anyone in a Richmond jumper. Hardly an effective line of possessions was strung together without his involvement. Dusty looked more than a little hobbled for the first three goals but either pushed the pain out of his mind, played through it or got an injection that I want in on and produced some of his finest bollocking when it was needed most. In defence Rance and Grimes owned the back half of the ground, let very little past and only let Hogan hit the scoreboard through intervention from officialdom.
Jack was the difference, and it had to be Jack, following three weeks of double time playing both full forward and centre half forward. It’s very rare that a 22 person team walks off the ground victorious and you can point at one person and say ‘they wouldn’t have won without them’. A few times a year Jack gets into a zone where he can do no wrong and it doesn’t matter who he’s playing on because he knows he is better than them. When Jack is in that zone it doesn’t matter how the ball comes in, he’ll zig and bring the ball to ground or zag and get it on the second grab. Not only would we not have won without Jack, we likely would have lost convincingly, because it would have been a whole lot more than a four goal margin at three quarter time to overcome.
When he’s in that zone he doesn’t miss, and that last set shot was kicked with ice running through his veins. I love him.
We are quite spoiled as Richmond fans to play in front of so many big crowds despite a lack of success that rivals the French military, in just one of the last 11 years have we failed to have a game that has drawn more than 70,000 people. When Richmond kick a goal to the Punt Road end in front of a big crowd it’s like a drug, you want to tap that feeling and never let it go. If it’s that good from the stands I can only imagine what it’s like on the ground and, though I have nothing empirical to base this on, I can’t help but suspect that feeling is why we’ve managed to keep players over the years. You only have to hear Prestia speak to realise it’s a drawcard for those from elsewhere.
So where does all that leave us now? I think it’s pretty clear that this isn’t a superstar 22 but they’ve committed to a game plan that, after years of schlepping 18 months behind Hawthorn, just might be ahead of the curve. For now we’ve beaten who we should and there isn’t a heap more you can do than beat the five teams you’ve been fixtured against in the first five rounds.
To me, it’s the first time since 2013 we are fun to watch. Winning lots of games in 2014 and 2015 was fun, but how we played wasn’t. Collectively the forward line is attacking the ball like men possessed and the mosquito fleet are mopping up anything that Jack misses. The midfield is a group again instead of just Dusty and Cotchin. The backline, who would have been within their rights to set up a picket line, start singing Solidarity Forever and refuse to go to work last year, are no longer constantly under siege. They have the time and space they need to defend but also attack.
Watch the club highlights from the last quarter, the five goals are the result of build up play up the ground. It may not have seemed it at the time given we were all emotional wrecks but they’re fun goals to watch. In the back half of last year every goal seemed to be a result of something resembling the suffragette movement. We had to beg, borrow, plead and fight for everything.
Now Shaun Grigg is palming off volleyball taps to Dusty as we peel off a four goal deficit in the last quarter in front of 85,000 people. More of that please.
Of the new guys, neither Caddy or Prestia has set the world on fire but their impact is felt across the 22, as they release Dusty forward, Cotchin doesn’t have to be at the bottom of every pack and Caddy in particular has a very happy knack of kicking goals at important times despite Luke Darcy bottling the call.
Big Nank was a cult hero before he played a game because he attacks the ball with a ferocity we’ve lacked. His rucking is a developing art and bigger tests from opposition will come. When he gets touched up by more established players, and he will, it will be important to remember that he is yet to click over 20 games.
These three arrivals combined with the emergence of Butler and Castagna mean there is also something resembling depth at the club. Not so much in the key forward stocks but we have midfielders, half back flankers, half forwards, small forwards, rucks and defenders ready to go if and when called upon. It’s a long season and we’ll need them.
Chances are that Adelaide will get away from us and the ‘who have they beaten?’ chorus will quickly transition to ‘reality check’.
And you know what? You can’t really blame the media. The big four sell papers, deliver traffic and for a good while now we’ve been the only one of the big four you’d walk across the road for if they were playing across the street. It’s better to be talked about than ignored.
We are 5 and 0, and we aren’t going to win the flag but we’ll have some fun trying.
Embrace it, thrive on it, enjoy it.
5: Jack Riewoldt: Could it have been anyone else? Until now he has saved his very worst for Melbourne, but this was his very best.
4: Bachar Houli: A beacon of calmness and poise when everything around him was chaos.
3: Dylan Grimes: Last on the stats sheet but far from last in effectiveness, killed everything that came near him.
2: Alex Rance: He even started doing that thing where he beats forwards senseless and then out marks them for added humiliation, paired up with Astbury to brain Hogan.
1: Toby Nankervis: Wasn’t playing against much but that’s hardly his fault, his tap work in the last quarter was sublime and his silver service to Cotchin helped set up Jack’s sealer.
With thanks to the TTBB crew for letting me dust off the keyboard!
The Benny Leaderboard:
7: Conca, Houli
5: Castagna, Nankervis
2: Butler, Vlastuin, Rance
1: Prestia, Rioli, B. Ellis
Blair Hartley Appreciation Award:for players who have joined Richmond from another club
(Eligible 2017: Caddy, Grigg, Hampson, Houli, Hunt, Nankervis, Maric, Miles, Prestia and Townsend.)
Anthony Banik Best First Year Player:for anyone who was yet to debut before round 1
(Eligible 2017: Shai Bolton, Dan Butler, Ryan Garthwaite, Jack Graham, Ivan Soldo, Tyson Stengle)
Joel Bowden’s Golden Left Boot:for left footers
(Eligible 2017: Batchelor, Chol, Corey Ellis, Grigg, Nankervis and Houli).
Greg Tivendale Rookie List Medal:
upgraded from the rookie list during the current season
Potentially eligible 2017: Castagna, Chol, Moore, Stengle and Soldo.
Maurice Rioli Grip of Death Trophy:
The club’s top tackler, across AFL and VFL teams