As a long season rolls towards its exciting finish, the Tigers are to meet the Bombers on a Friday night at the MCG.Standing at the MCC members’ gate, it is not quite opening time but, already, a healthy number of early birds are here, ready to claim a decent vantage point. Fans in Tiger and Bomber scarves are distributed in equal proportions, amongst a smattering of neutral observers.
Tonight’s game means different things to the two protagonists. Richmond is secure at the top of the ladder, its players striving to remain disciplined as they wait for the bigger games that are coming. Essendon is sitting in the AFL ladder equivalent of the departure lounge, desperate for a win tonight, depending on other results for an unlikely opportunity, resigned to an early despatch if they falter. As expected, their fans appear subdued and nervous.
The Tigers have rested some players for this game, their impressive young Captain will be watching on, as will several of his premiership teammates.
At home games, these young Tigers are welcomed onto the arena with the pulsating rhythms of jungle drums, coupled with the antics of their two mascots, prancing around playing air-drums. The observation is made that there are usually more drummers than we can see in tonight’s assembly. At least two have been rested, we conclude. The mascots appear flat. Have they been rested as well? Replaced by work experience kids perhaps? All this random substitution appears to be a tad disrespectful to their opposition. It most likely is.
This nonsense is quickly forgotten as the game begins. The Bombers switch on quickly and attack strongly. Mark Baguley brings up the first goal, along with his team-mates, determined to go down swinging. Jack Riewoldt replies with our first and the game is on! Bodies fly, arms swing at the ball and bone-crunching tackles are laid. Reece Conca makes an immediate impact in the midfield, demonstrating that he has recovered from the horrendous injury he sustained merely a few weeks ago. We welcome him back with rapturous cheering.
Both teams are willing but Richmond are also clean. Essendon miss targets and spray their shots whilst the Tiges make every post a winner. Caddy slots a beauty from the boundary and Castagna pounces on a crumb and kicks truly. Their main man, their Creative Colossus in number four, marks and score another. The lead at the first break is small but telling.
Richmond games often follow a now familiar pattern. The opposition score first, the Tigers appear off-balance but then settle and respond. The pressure rises and the game shuts down. Goals become premium. Possession is contested. Defensive exits are difficult. Tall marking players line up. They intercept and create forward entries. Players become weary quickly.
The second stanza of the game is text book Richmond. Essendon’s forward line is dangerous: Alex Rance, Nick Vlastuin and Nathan Broad all have their hands full. In the absence of Orazio Fantasia, Dylan Grimes is the one who frees himself up. He plays a startling first half, enhancing his claim to an All-Australian posting.
Big Nancy is given plenty of bench time, leaving Shaun Grigg to ruck in his inimitable fashion. How many times this season have we seen him not quite contest the hit-out but instead wait for the other ruckman to hit the ball directly to a Tiger midfielder or even straight to him personally? It is a staggeringly simple play that, somehow, keeps working.
Half-time is bar-time in the Members and our group breaks up to seek a quick drink with other friends at the David Neitz, the Percy Beames and the Blazer Bars, before reassembling at our seats during the early minutes of the second half. I am seated just in time to catch the Josh Caddy Show. His third-quarter cameo is full of vigour, swagger and bellicose belligerence as he flies over bigger men, marking strongly and kicking accurately. Through his efforts, and those of his partner-in-crime, the ubiquitous Tattooed Terror, the barnstorming Human Cannonball, the Tigers open up a deficit which should prove difficult to overcome. Bomber dreams of September action appear to be in tatters.
The last quarter kill is quick and efficient as two rapid goals are scored to open up what should be a match-winning lead. Immediately, tired Tigers rotate off the field, saving energy, looking further ahead to other challenges. This is a flawed strategy if ever there was one.
The Bombers, aware that the final call for their flight into oblivion has just been made, regroup and make one final stand for finals’ glory. Richmond decide that what they really want to do is practice playing keepings-off for as long as they can. As they take their eyes off the immediate prize, their opponents win the ball back repeatedly and launch assaults on their goal. They score on multiple occasions but, as has been evident throughout the night, they lack the poise required to challenge meaningfully. Cale Hooker, well-held by Rance for three quarters, slips the leash and kicks three fine goals.
Adam Saad embodies the difference between the two teams. Bomber excitement levels rise each time he tucks the ball under his arm and takes off on a withering run. But he is always chased by an equally-fleet-footed Tiger. Rarely do they catch him but the pressure is sufficient to force another turnover. Finally, as the game reaches its final moments, he falls for one of the classic blunders, the most famous of which is never get involved in a land war in Asia. Slightly less well-known is this: “Do not attempt to run with the ball when a Rioli is nearby.
Tigers win. Bombers fly off towards the darkness.
(Apologies to William Goldman and the Princess Bride.)
RICHMOND 4.0 5.6 10.8 12.9 (81)
ESSENDON 2.3 4.4 7.5 11.7 (73)
Richmond: Caddy 4, Martin 4, Riewoldt 2, Castagna, Baker
Essendon: Hooker 3, Brown 2, Baguley, Collyer, Smith, Parish, Stringer, Bellchambers
Richmond: Martin, Caddy, Rance, Short, Edwards, Ellis
Essendon: Smith, Zaharakis, Saad, Heppell, Bellchambers, McGrath
Richmond: Castagna (quad), Grimes (back)
Essendon: McDonald-Tipungwuti (ankle)
Umpires: Chamberlain, Harris, McInerney
Official crowd: 76,424 at the MCG