In Noorat this morning, in western Victoria, four poles of PVC pipe stand under heavy skies in a paddock, and there is an understanding of a game, and of a way of life.
Last Thursday night under clear skies at the MCG, us Richmond people came together and after an uncertain beginning – the doubt of the season’s first thirty minutes of football – we shared in another understanding, and another way of life.
It felt like sweet redemption. Like all the disappointments of the early part of last season, like the squandered opportunity of the Elimination Final in Melbourne two years ago, like all those miserable opening round losses to Carlton, like the Ben Cousins debut, like our seasons of mediocrity, had somehow come to an end.
It was more than a weight being lifted. It was history being expunged.
We toyed with them. We bossed them. We filled their fans with doubt, then bitterness, then disappointment. Us Tigers walked proudly into the night. We’ve floated for days. In four bounces – or was it five, or six? – and a searching run along the wing of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, in all that open space and in the confidence and youth and bravado of a young man from a small town in the far west here tonight to play his first game of league football, before us, the adoring fans, 84,000 faces, chosen for this night by the coaching staff as a mark of belief, the long strides of a gazelle, in this one moment on Thursday night a young man named Kamdyn McIntosh showed us what he could do and what he has and how the game can be played, and this season all at once looks full of brilliant possibilities.
Before the game on Thursday I bumped into Brandon Ellis and Jake Batchelor. Outside Punt Road Oval, with backpacks on, they were readying for the walk through Yarra Park to the ground. I was going home to ready children for bed. Our paths crossed, at 5.19pm, two hours before the season’s first bounce; a fan and two players and an understanding.
Of course I introduced myself. I wished them the best of luck for the night, and for the season. “Knock ‘em dead.” I could have told them all the ways I have admired them, as footballers, and how I once met Brandon’s parents in the change rooms after a game (for that brief and joyous moment in my life when I had access to be there, when I was something more than a fan), but this was not the time nor place.
Jake Batchelor looked me in the eye and offered his hand, and my respect for him only grew. He said he reads what I write and enjoys it. My man-crush, on the eve of this season, by happenstance, it was complete.
Thursday afternoon, before the game, I met with Richmond supporter Luke McNiece, who had travelled from Perth to be there. Two seasons ago he contacted me and shared a story that later I will share with others. Both times I’ve met Luke, tears have swelled in my eyes. Football, as with life, is only enriched by the emotions.
We found an open gate at Punt Road Oval and there behind it was Trout – the spiritual leader of our beloved cheer squad – in front of a television camera, dressed in all his finery, being interviewed by a TV news reporter.
And so a football season begins with this. It makes me smile.
On the walk to a nearby café, Luke and I discussed our anticipation of the game, and how we might respond to a win or loss. In our own ways, both of us were at ease with what might happen. Of course we would like Richmond to win, and to win handsomely, but football is only a part of our lives. It is the most perfect diversion, but it is not everything.
I told Luke how my great thrill for the night was to see Kamdyn McIntosh’s debut. I told him how two seasons ago, when I decided to turn my writings to football – to barrack for my team like never before – for a first time I attended the club’s family day, took our little boy along, and under a blazing sun in the old circus paddock by a bend in the Yarra at Richmond, there was a new recruit introduced on stage and his name was Kamdyn.
His story stuck. In my imagination he was one to watch. I had confused his provenance (until just the other day I thought he was from the Pilbara in Western Australia, but now know it is Pinjarra), but not his family situation.
The story was compelling. A young man from a big family and a country town at the other end of the country comes to Melbourne to try his luck, to make his name as a footballer in the big city.
These past two seasons I had looked out for his name – on the injury list, on the VFL list – hoping he might find his way. I had wanted for his success. I had hoped he would not be delisted before a chance came to him. And then here it was, at the MCG, on a season’s first game, under blinding lights, in prime-time, our whole world looking at him, a crucible of a man’s capabilities as a footballer, for all of us to see.
Friday afternoon, in the glorious afterglow of the night before, Luke McNiece sent a text. “What about McIntosh?” it read. “Now there’s a story”.
Two days after the game I find myself walking through a forest near Timboon, carrying a child in a backpack and with others all about, on holidays, and all I can think about is the football. It is not just the football; it is how our team played, how our players performed, and what all of this might mean.
I think about Nick Vlaustin’s courage. I think about Shane Edwards’ liveliness in the middle. I think about Troy Chaplin’s composure across the backline; the return of his confidence. I think of Bachar’s run, and his left foot, and his fearlessness in bottling the ball up when it’s on the ground, and how the fortunes of our club have changed with his arrival, and with that of Shaun Grigg.
I think about Jack’s pack mark, and his crucial goals, and how his partner is away in Tokyo, and about the untimely death of his cousin, and about how so many people say so much about our Jack, but that what all should acknowledge is his utter professionalism as a footballer.
I think about Ben Griffiths, and the thrill all us Richmond people have when he has the ball, wondering how far he might kick it, delighting in how it spreads a game. I think about Alex Rance and what a composed footballer he is. I think about how Dylan Grimes sometimes reminds me of Francis Bourke. I think about all the young women sitting in front of me at the game who started squealing when Nathan Gordon came on.
I think about Sam Lloyd, and how pleased I am for him that he’s in the starting line-up for the season’s first game, and how he looks to have slimmed down, and how his leads are impeccable, and how he reads a game, and has a knack for the goals, but maybe now a greater awareness of what else is around. Tony Greenberg says Brett Deledio had been his “training buddy” over summer. I think of this as a perfect fit: two country boys, one from Kyabram, one from further up the road at ‘Denny’, both plying their craft in the big smoke.
I think Sam Llyod, the football journeyman, might find more than a home at Punt Road this season. I think he might make a name for himself.
I think of what a rock Ivan Maric is, and how well-liked he must be in the team, and how appreciated he is. I think what a great story Anthony Miles is. I think Taylor Hunt looks a lot like Brandon Ellis on the field, and that he looks a prudent recruit.
I think of Stevie Morris and what he contributed on Thursday night – the harassment, at least one goal assist, and how he absorbed the play when it was in his area, keeping the ball at his end, slowing the play, often stopping it with a free kick (against), and how this very public career change offers him a wonderful challenge that all of us are willing him to fulfil. The confidence will rise, the goals will come.
I think of a mark Jake Batchelor took, deep in defence in the third quarter, a one-on-one contest with Troy Menzel down the city end of the MCG – the last two men in the world and he took the mark, cleanly, and I applauded his name. In my mind it was more than a mark. It was a test of poise and courage and belief. From that moment on his opponent was as good as done. His night was over.
Of course I think of Dusty, and Trent and his new fatherhood, and Lids and his run, and Chris Newman in this first game of what must be his last season, and Brandon Ellis and what a competitor he is.
I think all us Richmond people must have been thinking about the game in so many ways, wanting to hold onto the thoughts and its joys, watching a replay, hanging onto the moment, wanting for that shared sense of happiness to be experienced over and over and over again. Truly, we wanted Thursday night never to end. And this Saturday afternoon cannot come soon enough.
And I think of all the words I would like to write about Kamdyn McIntosh and his first game: a bruising first tackle, a turnover first kick, the turn of pace, the three shots on goal up to half time, the leaving of Chris Judd in his wake (twice), the stunning goal (“that was BIG,” says Bruce), and the run all of us will remember for the longest time. His first game of football. The ghosts of Dean Polo were rekindled for all us Richmond people. Only this bloke is taller, faster, stronger; more exciting, still.
But these words can wait.
All I can say for now is when he took his second set shot at goal, when all the anxiety was tight inside him, when he was 35 out and dead in front and all the expectation was on him, it was Bachar Houli who came across to offer advice and calming words, giving him companionship in the open cauldron of the MCG.
The shot hit the post. Our club is so blessed to have Bachar.
Thanks to all TTBB readers who this past week shared kind words about our football club bringing me into the fold this season. It feels like an acceptance, an understanding. As I’ve said to many, I’m proud of my football club for embracing what I’ve been up to. Last season, I levelled criticism at the club when I thought it was fair and warranted. The club could easily have turned its back on me. Rather, it has taken the higher road; it’s shown it has a bigger heart. A gesture of goodwill, it is returned in so many unspoken ways.
It will be a privilege to share the stories of so many Richmond supporters this year. Our story of football, it becomes one, as it was on Thursday night.
A resounding win against Carlton is good, but it means nothing if it’s not backed up with another, against the Bulldogs, this Saturday. We need a ferocious attack on the contest. We need to be left in no doubt. All the disappointments of this corresponding game last season need be reversed. On the field, there is no room for sentiment. It is a brutal contest; and this Saturday afternoon at the MCG we need to make it all ours.
There is no easy way to win a game of football. There are no half measures. All we can ask for, all we hope for, all we can believe in, is something called total commitment.
Tiger tiger burning bright