Australia

Indiscretions galvanised Tigers and helped them to win

"Whoever wins the flag this year will obviously have delivered on the field, and they will have had to be the most disciplined, resilient, deep, competitive, mentally tough team off the field. It will be an unbelievable premiership to win" - AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan on the AFL season restart

When Gillon McLachlan predicted that this COVID-interrupted premiership would be won by the "most disciplined" team, he would not have envisaged that, upon entering the final series, the team to beat would have been beset with a succession of embarrassing incidents.

They've had players finding hell - via kebabs and a stoush - in Surfers Paradise. They've had the skipper threatening to sail home and reported renovation issues within the Gold Coast hub. They've been guilty of juvenile locker room antics - the grabbing of a player's genitals. And their coach lost his composure when enraged by media criticism of his players.

Jack Riewoldt separates Richmond's "brand" from their "culture", both of which have come under fire this season.

Jack Riewoldt separates Richmond's "brand" from their "culture", both of which have come under fire this season. Credit:Getty Images

But whatever travails the Richmond Football Club has inflicted upon themselves this season in the bubble, they've defied McLachlan's formula for winning in a time of COVID-19.

On Friday night, they meet Brisbane at the Gabba, without their key forward, on the opposition's deck. Yet, the whole pre-game discussion of the Brisbane Lions is whether they can surmount Richmond, a Himalayan obstacle for a home team that hasn't beaten the Tigers since 2009.

One of the questions of Richmond's season was whether they would maintain the rage to succeed, whether they would bear the burden, pay the - heftier - price that comes with a sequestered season.

The culture is how we have and how we will bounce back from indiscretions.

Jack Riewoldt

One reading of Richmond's tumultuous season is that the series of indiscretions - particularly the embarrassing 3.30am incident that saw Sydney Stack and Callum Coleman-Jones sent home - might have actually served the purpose of sharpening the team's collective resolve; that far from unravelling them, it bound them more tightly.

"I suppose there's kind of two things that happen when something like that, a mistake or an incident, happens," said defender Dylan Grimes.

"For us, it really galvanises us as a group. I think we've seen in the past that may form a wedge in culture but, for us, it almost tightens us up."

Jack Riewoldt, Richmond's most visible and forthright leader, had this succinct summary of how the Tigers were dented, yet invigorated by the incidents: "The brand has been really hurt, and people question our culture. But the culture is how we have and how we will bounce back from indiscretions."

Riewoldt separates "brand" of the club from the club's "culture", making it clear the culture is self-correcting and that the team's resolve to succeed will prevail.

Dylan Grimes has weighed in on Richmond's winning season versus off-field antics.

Dylan Grimes has weighed in on Richmond's winning season versus off-field antics. Credit:Getty Images

Grimes said that one of Damien Hardwick's strengths was his ability to deal with issues - no matter what they are - swiftly and move on to the next game.

"He's so quick at addressing it and nipping it in the bud straight away and then it's full focus on the future. He did that with the other incidents as well and as a club we learn from them," he said.

Conversely, if the winning continues, what ultimate lesson will be gleaned from those mistakes?Here's a feted and highly successful team, who've been living away from home, away in a bubble, suffering outbreaks of hubris and ill-discipline, who are seen as entitled and are becoming resented by sections of the public, in part because they just keep winning.

They've got inner belief that they can win from anywhere.

Damien Fleming

We've seen this before. Not so much Hawthorn of 2015, when Luke Hodge was booked for drink driving before the finals. Not the Collingwood rat pack of 2010, who were blessed to reside in a world with fewer CCTV cameras and iPhones. Nor even the Eagles in 2005 and 2006, who outran public opprobrium until the music stopped.

No, the team that Richmond of 2020 seems to be channelling right now is one that their board member and ex-Cricket Australia CEO Mal Speed knows well: the Australian cricket team in a time of (Steve and Mark) Waugh.

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Damien Fleming, the affable Australian Test swing bowler, cricket commentator and avid AFL follower (Hawthorn), noted the parallel between the Australian teams that spent months away and the hub-dwelling Tigers, and that his team had a tendency to have "blow outs" - a euphemism for off-field excesses that came with this long period isolated together.

"It's part and parcel of being in a bubble," said Fleming, who felt that performing on the field could also be an escape or "release" from whatever issues a team experienced on the road.

A senior official from a rival club likened Richmond to Fleming's friend and his team's greatest and most strife-prone player, Shane Warne. Winning, or performance, aren't necessarily tethered to discipline off the field.

Experienced Tigers know winning tastes better than losing. Like the Australian cricketers that emerged from the nadir of the '80s, Richmond have a craving for victory that was unfulfilled for a decade. Trent Cotchin, who should reach game 250 during the finals, won 46 per cent of the time in his first 125 games and 66 per cent of the time in his past 122.

"Cotchin and Riewoldt remind me a lot of Steve Waugh. They know what it's like not to be a dynasty - you've got to make the most of it when you're up," Fleming said.

Waugh's Test baptism had been in the recession of the mid '80s, when Lillee, Chappell and Marsh had been retired, but not yet replaced.

And the Richmond that's mucked up in the hub is also the virtuous club that has Bachar Houli reaching millions with his poignant message about his mother and the need for COVID-19 safety, the same club that has the highest band of Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), is led by a female president and drafted the overlooked Stack and Marlion Pickett.

It is the name engraved on the premiership cup that will be remembered, not the blemishes.

"We don't speak often of the good things that we do, whether that be outside of the club or inside of it," Cotchin said.

What they do know is history will be written by the winners, and that whatever dents they've taken, it is the name engraved on the premiership cup that will be remembered, not the blemishes.

Having played with a team that was similarly tested and seldom bested, Fleming suspects they will be hard to beat: "They've got inner belief that they can win from anywhere."

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