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We board the bus. I already feel empty. It is my first live game of the season. Normally, there is a familiar combination of excitement, anxiety and hope. Not this time. Just 16 days previously, we were flag favourites. However, what the footy gods giveth, they can quickly take away. Our shot at redemption has felt mortally wounded ever since Alex Rance.
It is the Capital Tigers annual pilgrimage to the footy. I am fortunate enough to have the means to be a flying tiger, where I am semi-regularly able to get down to Melbourne and other cities to join the tribe and watch my team play. For many of us though, this is our only chance for the year, and despite the odds, and my own feelings, there is a sense of excitement in the air.
Our trips to Sydney over the years have truly been the best of times, and the worst of times. Without question, the highlight was 2014 against the Swans, riding a wave of emotion and with the most unlikely finals births in history in sight, the elation of getting five goals up with fifteen minutes and the tense final quarter, interrupted only by Dustin Martin’s running goal. This single moment remained unrivalled even throughout the 2017 finals as a pure moment of energy, excitement and ecstasy.
On the other hand, the utter despair two years later, when the Swans were 20 goals up at three quarter time. At the time, it seemed an entire generation of Richmond talent had been wasted and the promised land may have well been situated somewhere in Andromeda Galaxy. Little did we know…
In a post premiership world, it is a little easier to take the fact that we are missing five of arguably our ten best players (Rance, Riewoldt, Caddy, Grimes and Houli) so my expectations are well in check. “I just want to get close to them, to have something to believe in for the rest of the season” I reason.
Nonetheless, within minutes, the season goes from bad to worse. Short, outnumbered deep in defence, courageously makes a contest and holds the ball up, but only to emerge with a distressing elbow injury. What more can go wrong in 2019, I ask myself. (Spoiler alert, plenty).
The refreshing contrast to this is our debutant, Sydney Stack, a player whose very presence on the field represented a significant triumph in itself. An early kick does go out on the full, but it is not long before he has a chance to redeem himself. A 50 metre penalty helps bring the young defender to the edge of what might be possible, and with all the composure in the world, he went back, hit it sweetly and it split the middle. It was a wonderful moment as the players ran from everywhere.
Despite the severe lack of personnel, we are up for the fight, and the effort is good. Rioli, after patchy form in the first two games, slots a brace of goals to announce his return to form, putting us up at quarter time, and despite Short’s injury, the visiting supporters were cautiously optimistic.
Unfortunately a brain fade from Dusty would start the second quarter, earning him a week’s holiday and costing the Tigers any momentum we would have, gifting the Giants a shot in front of goal. Things would get worse a few minutes later, when Rioli clashed with Phil Davis on the half back flank. Sitting just metres away, the noise it made was horrific and I immediately feared he had cracked a set of ribs. Incredibly, he would return to the ground and would even snag an additional goal – the kid is tough – but clearly he was pushing through the discomfort.
There are bright spots. Tom Lynch, who has a kicking motion better than any player alive who isn’t named Tayla Harris, keeps us in the contest with a couple of goals. Sydney Stack continues to impress down back, both rebounding from defence – no small feat consider he already lost help in this area with Short going down – but with several solid defensive efforts. It is early days, but it appears we have unearthed a gem.
Lynch’s second goal brought us within two goals, but in classic pre-2017 Richmond, we give up a goal on the half-time siren.
We do our best to hang on during the third. Early on Cotchin disappears; we later discover he is yet another addition to our already lengthy injury list. Lynch keeps us in touch with a couple more goals. GWS stretch our defence and Dimma throws the magnets around, Balta back – he acquits himself well under difficult circumstances – Vlastuin forward and McIntosh is thrown in to ruck at a couple of centre bounces. However, GWS continue to edge away. We enjoy a late quarter run of form, but asides from an opportunistic snap from Lambert, we cannot take advantage and we are unable to get the margin under four goals.
In the final quarter, it all gets away from us. We are two rotations down, plus Rioli is clearly sore and the intensity of his first game finally, and most understandably, begins to tell on Stack’s young legs. The dam wall breaks and the Giants run rampant, a run of six goals only broken by a piece of Snags Higgins brilliance. Eventually the siren rings out and we have been done by 49 points, and have lost our captain and best rebounding defender. 2019 has not started well.
We gather our group together and wait for the bus. News of Cotchin’s hamstring filters through. We let out a collective sigh. One of our number is upset, angry at everything from selection, to coaching, to our list management. I think it is a little harsh given we were premiers just over a year ago and the mountain of injuries. Unfortunately the right words fail me, so I let him go, hoping at least he finds it cathartic. Eventually the bus arrives and we quietly pile on for the long journey home.
I myself am not quite sure how to feel just yet. We are only 1W-2L. Just three weeks ago we were flag favourites. West Coast won the flag last year without Naitanui and Gaff. All of our injured players except Rance will be back in a month. I am aware too, that premierships are difficult to win and this disruption makes it harder still. It will help us in the long run to get games into Balta, Garthwaite and Stack, and to try see if we can find some more gems. But I’m finding as each games passes this year, the more I am retreating back to my happy place, those three glorious games of football in September 2017.
5 Shane Edwards – Is it possible he is still improving? A true leader and a well-deserved honour for him to lead the team out next week.
4 Tom Lynch – Worth every cent. Still finding match fitness, but his beautiful straight kicks kept us in it for most of the afternoon.
3 Sydney Stack – Best debut since Dean Polo? Looked great with the ball in hand and stood up defensively as well.
2 Kane Lambert – Battled hard along with Sheds on a day when Cotchin was injured and Dusty did not resemble Dusty.
1 Daniel Rioli – Dan’s back! After two weeks of indifferent form, was back to his brilliant best until slowed down somewhat by that hit. But respect for playing on.
Cotchin, Broad, Stack 3
Lambert, Martin 2
Rioli, Nankervis 1
Blair Hartley Appreciation Award:for players who have joined Richmond from another club
(Eligible 2018: Caddy, Grigg, Houli, Lynch, Nankervis, Prestia, Townsend and Weller)
Anthony Banik Best First Year Player:for anyone who was yet to debut before round 1
(Eligible 2019: Balta, Coleman-Jones, Collier-Dawkins, Miller, Naish, Ross, Turner, Stack)
Joel Bowden’s Golden Left Boot:for left footers
(Eligible 2019: Chol, Grigg, Nankervis and Houli)
Greg Tivendale Rookie List Medal:
upgraded from the rookie list during the current season
Maurice Rioli Grip of Death Trophy:
For the Tiges top tackler in 2019
Dion Prestia 15
Jack Graham 15
Kamdyn McIntosh 12
Toby Nankervis 11
Dan Butler 10
Kane Lambert 10