Following on from the best-selling 'Yellow & Black: A season with Richmond', Konrad Marshall’s acclaimed account of Richmond’s 2017 Premiership, comes 'Stronger and Bolder: The Story of Richmond's 2019 Premiership'.
It tells the intimate story of the Richmond Football Club through the highs and lows of its 2019 finals campaign, explaining how the club recovered from its disappointment of 2018. With unprecedented access to club officials, players and coaches, author Konrad Marshall takes the reader inside the rooms at the key moments of the campaign, chronicling the Tigers’ journey to AFL football’s Holy Grail.
Below is an edited excerpt from Marshall's chapter on the 2019 preliminary final against Geelong where the Tigers faced a 21-point half-time deficit against the ladder-leaders, with a place in the season decider on the line...
'Stronger and Bolder: The Story of Richmond's 2019 Premiership' is available to pre-order via the Tigerland Superstore and will be released next Monday, November 18.
The Comeback—the Preliminary Final
The Cats enter their rooms 21 points up, knowing they played better and harder—and it’s true they were diligent and drilled. But they did not dominate. Their control was largely nullified not only by the Richmond backline, but by an all-ground Richmond defence. It is precisely the scenario Grimes referred to before the game. It’s the Brisbane game all over again, when the Lions largely dictated the terms of the play but in attack were pushed back or pushed wide, shoved and shunted out to the boundary line, to kick at goal from distance, on angles, from shallow entries.
The outcome was little more than a stultifying mess—a temporary stagnation but not an unravelling. Another way to put it is that the Tigers took a few punches. Hard punches. But they did so while dodging and weaving, with their arms up, heads braced and hidden, deflecting body shots and feeling no haymakers. This is their strength. They were beaten but not beaten up, hit but not hurt, cut without bleeding. And that’s what they take into half-time.
As the players stretch and change jumpers, and inhale fruit, water and lollies, the coaches meet and talk—but not about grand tactical manoeuvres, or left-brain positional changes, or sudden philosophical switches. Coaches rarely do such things. They tweak. They tinker. They adjust the dials. But mostly they reinforce.
When ruckman Toby Nankervis is playing as a forward, he needs a reminder to work as hard as possible to meet marking contests. Martin could play forward more if he wants. Lambert could push further into the midfield to engage the Geelong wingers. Jack Graham has badly dislocated his right shoulder, popped back in by the medical staff at half-time, but has put his hand up to go back on the field, and so can perhaps play as a defensive forward. There is little more to discuss, so the players are brought into the briefing room.
The half-time speech is always the briefest of any match. The pre-game speech is prepared well in advance, with a week-long window to design a video or plan a theme or bring in a prop. The post-game speech can be lengthy, too, given the totality and completeness of a win or a loss; but at half-time, everything is still in play, in flux, yet to be determined. And time is short. In this instance, the speech is not even two minutes long. Hardwick needs just 117 seconds to state the plan, to make them believe in the plan, and to believe in themselves. He starts slowly, and with nuts and bolts.
“Defensively, we’ve gotta press up. I don’t want us fanning back. Make them come through us. Next half we’re all coming up. We’re all in their faces. Think about what it looks like…and feels like.”
He talks next about offence. “Where do we want our attack coming from? The mids and the backs or the mids and the forwards? Yeah, the mids and the backs. So what are our expectations of the forwards? Yeah, get forward.”
Having settled on the strategy, he comes to inspiration.
“We’re in the Bottleneck. We’ve got a half. We get an opportunity,” he says. “We can sit there and do nothing, or we can go down the Richmond way! Let’s get back to what we know! Let’s get back to who we are! Understand every single one of us is on them, on them, on them! We go down by a hundred, or we win!”
Eight seconds. That’s how long it takes for the game to turn, for the balance to tip. The ball is bounced in the middle, it falls to the perennially bloodied Joel Selwood, who handballs wide to the running ruckman Rhys Stanley, but Cotchin—like a heat-seeking missile—has been stalking Stanley since before the handball was even released. The ballistic captain collides with his target, spins him and dumps him and wins the free kick, but the ball has already bobbled to Josh Caddy, who feeds a handball forward to Prestia, whose nimble feet scurry and purr as he squares up his body and delivers a long, low and luscious drop punt to Lynch, who marks with outstretched arms, then kicks his third. The comeback has begun, filled with great Richmond way moments.
There’s Jayden Short bombing long to the goal square, and Riewoldt flying but knowing he can’t get both arms to it, and instead slapping the ball back and away from the grasp of three Geelong defenders and into the arms of the running Martin, who goals.
There’s Martin again, on the ground, wrestling over the Sherrin with two opponents, somehow wrenching it from their arms and into his, and standing up, and twisting and turning and getting a short kick away, which falls to Castagna, who goes to Lynch, and then Prestia, who converts from a distance.
There’s Prestia again, too, intuitively knowing the odds of him kicking a goal from the pocket are slim, and instead immediately popping a fat-side lob to Lynch, who looms near the contest and then towers over the top of it, marking between two men and kicking the goal. The Tigers are in front.
But all these moments come off the back of the team going to work. The work is what’s working.
It’s standing on the mark, up on the toes, waving arms wildly. It’s a half of heavy smothers and fingertip smothers. It’s closing down space, locking up exit routes, and blitzing every attempted handball escape. No more inboard bullets that open up the wide spaces on the opposite wing. At one point in the back pocket, Gryan Miers has a free kick, but he has nobody nearby to hand to, and no hit-up lead to honour. No relief to his left, or his right, or straight ahead. He can’t see a good option or even a tolerable option and holds up his arms in exasperation.
There are no more Geelong Composed Plays. There is only Richmond Controlled Chaos. The confusion and disorder the latter elicits in opponents must be terrifying. It’s spontaneity and abandon, improvisation with preparation, and execution. It’s freedom in a framework. Random yet not formless, and it’s devastatingly effective.
In the last quarter the hardness of their effort rises and the consequence of every contest is felt more acutely. Faces in the crowd that were tense are now without strain, while flighty guts or giddy heads are suddenly clear and consumed. The air is sucked out of the yawning maw of the stadium.
The end starts with Cotchin stalking the mark, taking the eyes, denying the option. It starts with Graham, one useless wounded arm dangling by his side, still driving his powerful legs into the next contest, and the next. It starts also with Nick Vlastuin charging, and Astbury spoiling, and Riewoldt chasing, and with Bolton bouncing on the balls of his feet and spinning through packs in an elastic, fantastic dance under lights.
The peripatetic style of this Richmond side is nagging and repetitive, like a constant rapping and tapping on glass. A tackle. Chink. A bump. Chink. A tap and a shepherd and a forward handball—chink, chink, chink—until something breaks. CRACK, and the game spills open. As the ball streams downfield in one predictably unpredictable rush after another, the fractures spread in long jagged lines, until Prestia, off one step, lets loose a long bomb from 50 and it sails through, and as the crowd of 94,423 roars, something shatters in the night.
Richmond will play in the 2019 AFL Grand Final.
It’s fair to say that was an extraordinary effort,” says Hardwick, in the subterranean rooms, minutes later. “21 points down at half-time, a few people would have thought we were looking down the barrel, but we know what you guy can do. Once again, they threw the first punch, but we responded. It’s a bar fight, this game. You can throw the first one, but the more important thing is being able to handle one.”
He says they ticked a box in Brisbane, and another one tonight. Now they’re back, playing off in exactly one week for another premiership. “Enjoy the week,” he says. “Take it for what it is. You’re gonna get phone calls. You’re gonna get attention. Just accept it. It’s abnormal. But let’s not worry too much about it.”
He says they found another way to win, another gear when it was needed. “You were challenged by a very, very, very good side tonight. But you bring effort and intent, and you’ll never be surprised by what happens. The team that works the hardest gets to the top.”
Before they depart, to stretch and hydrate and warm down and ice up, Hardwick takes a moment to single out one player: Jack “Fridge” Graham.
Graham was able to return to the field after pain medication and strapping. Despite the shoulder popping out again during a flexibility and mobility test, he put his hand up—the left, not the right—to continue. That test wouldn’t be the first time that evening that the joint “sub-luxed”, his limb slipping again and again from its aggravated socket.
Still he spoiled. Still he tackled. He assumed a place in the forward line, and ran to corral and corner, pressing every opponent with the force of his injured body. By the time the final siren sounded, Graham had recorded more pressure acts than any Geelong player on the field.
Hardwick wants to acknowledge this, too. “To be honest, you guys mightn’t have known, but Jack couldn’t move his arm above his neck. We packed him up at half-time, and we spoke to him on the bench and asked, ‘Do you think you can go?’ and he said absolutely, without hesitation. He put his hand up for you blokes.”
Hardwick turns to Graham now, and points in his direction. “We don’t know where it ends up from here, but we know there’s going to be a chapter in our history book about you, mate. You helped us get to where we need to go. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
'Stronger and Bolder: The Story of Richmond's 2019 Premiership' is full of unparalleled access to all the key moments, including frank and occasionally emotional interviews with key figures. 'Yellow & Black: A Season with Richmond' was a compulsory read for all football fans, and critically acclaimed. Stronger and Bolder picks up where it left off.