AFL Premiership Roadmap: The Richmond Blueprint
For years, the Richmond Football Club functioned as the league’s touchstone where ineptitude and mismanagement was concerned.
After losing the 1982 Grand Final (blowing both a minor premiership and halftime lead in the process) the Tigers slipped into a decades long depression, qualifying for just two VFL/AFL Finals Series over the next 30 seasons.
During that span, the club cycled through 12 senior coaches, butchered draft pick after draft pick, and was routinely on the brink of financial insolvency. Even Richmond’s ‘better’ years were synonymous with supporter anguish, with their ninth place finishes the stuff of legend, at one stage ending up just a single position out of a finals berth six times during a 15-season (1994-2008) span.
After so much pain, so many false dawns and so many microwaved memberships, the Tigers are now firmly positioned at the very top of the AFL mountain, while their redemption blueprint will be studied far and wide, particularly amongst clubs marooned in their own cycle of hell.
So, just how have Richmond turned it all around?
What are the chief lessons they can impart to struggling clubs desperate to exchange wooden spoons and psychology appointments for premiership glory?
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IDENTIFY YOUR COACH, AND STICK WITH THEM
When Damien Hardwick was appointed Richmond’s head coach in August of 2009, he was walking into a club who’d won a combined 19 games over the previous three seasons and whose list was in a shambolic state.
Crucially, Hardwick wasn’t offering the Tigers a ‘get rich quick' scheme but rather a more consolidated plan, embedded with the kind of culture, hierarchy and stability he’d been familiar with as both a player (Essendon & Port Adelaide) and assistant coach (Hawthorn), and which Richmond was thoroughly devoid of at the time.
Indeed, Hardwick’s AFL life prior to his Richmond appointment had only known stability and success. Over his 207-game, multi-premiership playing career, he’d played under a grand total of two head coaches in Kevin Sheedy and Mark Williams. As an assistant, he served four years under Alastair Clarkson - enjoying further premiership success - and where the fundamentals of structure and stability were further ingrained.
The task in front of him at Richmond was monumental, with the club requiring patience while needing to shelve their penchant for firing coaches midstream.
While they struggled in the early years, there were incremental gains under Hardwick, however, it wasn’t until his fourth year at the helm that the Tigers finally qualified for September action, and not until his eighth season that Richmond won a matchup once there.
For many clubs, the notion of waiting almost a decade for a September breakthrough following a coaching appointment is not ideal, however, this Tigers administration held firm.
Doing so is a huge reason as to why Richmond has enjoyed such dizzying success in recent years.
While it’s one thing to say all the right things at your press conference with buzzwords like ‘culture’ and ‘process’ thrown around, it's something entirely different to implement the best laid plans while sticking to your process and evaluating accordingly.
TAKE THE DRAFT EXTREMELY SERIOUSLY
Few clubs have approached the draft - and extracted so much talent from within - as Richmond have done in recent years.
While struggling clubs often make the right noises about a concerted approach to peppering their playing list with talented youth, Richmond has mastered the late November sweepstakes, using the national draft as the bedrock of much of their contemporary success.
The core of Richmond’s 2017 and 2019 premiership teams has been made up of a bevvy of first and second-round draft picks over the last 15 drafts, with the likes of Trent Cotchin through to Daniel Rioli typifying the kind of selections Richmond have routinely got right so often.
Rather than a ‘blind man’s bluff’ approach to the draft, the Tigers have targeted players they believe will fit best within the specifics of their system and the context of their squad. While picking 'the best available’ makes for a nice soundbite, there’s much more to list management than just talent accumulation.
Richmond has understood this better than most, and benefited accordingly.
DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT
Sport's best practitioners - those who are capable of leaving a lasting legacy - offer their industry something different, and perhaps transform their sport in the process.
As the competition has become more equalised over the last 15 years with a deeper, more tightly bunched field of contenders each season, what has separated the best in recent times has been those with a coaching edge, and who can offer something different when the going gets tough.
Success in the AFL in recent times has very much borne that out.
While the likes of Lance Franklin, Luke Hodge, Sam Mitchell and Jarryd Roughead played instrumental roles in the four premierships the Hawks claimed between 2008 and 2015, it was arguably Clarkson’s tactical prowess and revolutionary approach to the sport which consistently got the Hawks over the hump in tight spots.
From Clarkson’s famous defensive ‘cluster’ to his possession-dominant mantra, he and his coaching team were continually able to compliment a talented list with an edge in the coaching department.
Damian Hardwick’s imprint on the Tigers is not at all dissimilar, with Richmond taking a revolutionary approach to many of the game’s apparent norms - shaking up the competition in the process.
Under Hardwick, the Tigers have boldly challenged the concept of winning the ball at the coalface, continually beaten in both clearance and overall possession numbers, preferring instead a more territorial focused gameplan, which has used its defensive unit and ability to intercept as its platform.
For many, Richmond’s style under Hardwick hasn’t been easy on the eye, however, there can be no doubting his significant contribution to both re-interpreting how the game can and should be played, and most importantly, how it can be won.
USE THE TRADE PERIOD AND FREE AGENCY TO THE MAX
In recent seasons, the AFL has increasingly introduced concepts more traditionally associated with US sports.
While the AFL has had the draft and salary cap in situ for decades, free agency has been one of the most recent developments with Richmond once again proving themselves ahead of the pack where list management is concerned.
As indicated earlier, while Richmond’s draft mastery has been integral in their success, the role trading and free agency has played in recent times shouldn’t be underestimated.
Key premiership cogs such as Bachar Houli, Shaun Grigg, Dion Prestia, Josh Caddy and Ivan Maric all arrived at the Tigers via trades, with only Prestia and Chris Yarran (a rare miscue) costing the club a first-round pick.
Again, those additions have been specifically targeted as opposed to ad-hoc talent acquisition exercises, with Richmond usually able to distinguish a clear role for each of their players, along with creating the perfect environment to thrive in upon arrival at Punt Road.
The addition of free agency has also greatly worked to Richmond's advantage. In securing the services of Tom Lynch at the conclusion of the 2018 season, the Tigers were able to benefit from one of the biggest prime-player movements of the decade, and one who played a massive role in their most recent premiership. The Tigers didn’t have to part ways with any draft capital to secure the former Gold Coast Suns' captain, with his Punt Road arrival made possible because of the club's salary cap space in addition to the appeal of Richmond as a destination.
While many have understandably bemoaned the introduction of free agency, particularly as presently constituted in the AFL, Richmond got on with the job of exploiting its loopholes.
Richmond's turnaround this decade, from a league basket-case to the sport's very best, has been one of the greatest redemption stories in the AFL over the past thirty years. It's one amplified by how storied the Richmond Football Club is, and how ravenous its fan base has become.
Most importantly, the Tigers have left a legacy for other clubs trapped in their own cycle of gloom to borrow from.
From two Finals appearances in 30 years to two premierships in three seasons, this Tigers resurrection is complete, with their eyes now firmly on a 13th flag and establishing a bona fide AFL dynasty.
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