To say that Saturday’s preliminary final at the MCG is a clash between the forces of good and evil could only be labelled an overstatement by those in support of the latter.
These Tigers represent everything that is right with the game. They are the Bulldogs-lite, heavy on teamwork, football altruism and ferocity. They are the ultimate greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts team, a unit that compensates for its raw talent deficiency by adhering to an incredible structure and committing to working harder and smarter than the opposition.
Richmond is the best pressure team in the competition, a reality they’ve earned through sweat and science. They take short-cuts to dominance, but only in the sense that the short-cuts are geometrically proven. Their defensive set-up, particularly with the ball inside their attacking 50, is immaculate, choking the opposition, forcing them wide, and giving them no clear exit path.
And then they hunt. They come in waves of bodies and flailing, purposeful limbs, closing in on space until they’ve laid the tackle that forces the turnover.
Looking at the names on the team sheet, the Tigers do not belong in a home preliminary final. Nathan Broad, Dan Butler, Jacob Townsend, Kamdyn McIntosh, Jack Graham… these shouldn’t be good footballers. But they are at Richmond – well, except for Broad – because they’re put in positions to succeed. They’re relentless – they chase, they tackle, and then they smash the ball forward. The ability to do those three things, it turns out, is devastating.
The recipe of honest relentlessness wouldn’t work without some ethereal class, though, some heaven to go with Richmond’s mashed potatoes. But they have just enough magic, just enough polish to punish. The likes of Nick Vlastuin and Brandon Ellis might be the beating heart of the Tigers, but it is and always will be Dustin Martin, Alex Rance and Jack Riewoldt who provide the club’s intangible soul. The genius and skill of these three elevate the Tigers from admirable into special and frightening. Fittingly, the captain, Trent Cotchin, straddles both worlds of heart and soul, a wonderful, unfairly maligned mix of tirelessness and brilliance.Embed from Getty Images
This group of everything that is right will go against the team that is wrong. The Giants are the league’s most obvious villain, a thick Russian accent away from being someone who would torment and then fall victim to Sean Connery or Roger Moore.
They are powerful, gifted, prodigious, talented and exquisite. And more than anything, they are entitled. They were born on third base and act like they’ve won three premierships. They play and talk arrogant, content to coast through games until the fourth quarter where they trust that they’ll simply be able to flick the switch and win the game at the death. And the worst thing is that they usually do.
But before last week’s emphatic win over the woeful Eagles – a glorified training drill that little can be taken from – we saw two Giants games that suggested something new: this team might not be just entitled, they might be gutless. The final round loss in Geelong and the belting in Adelaide were disgraceful showings by the Giants, games where they played disinterested and overwhelmed.
If gutlessness will ever reveal itself to be shining and true, it will surely come on Saturday evening in front of 100,000 desperate fans, on the MCG where the Giants have won one game in their entire existence.
Surely, they will not be ready for this. Surely, the Tigers will reveal the Giants to be frauds of the highest order. Football gods willing, surely what is right will occur.