‘Raise the fight’: Why clubs can’t replicate Tigers

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In the liturgy of Damien Hardwick, "raise the fight" is one of his pet phrases and it accurately describes the response of the Richmond players from time-on in the second quarter of a grand final that appeared to be slipping away.

To raise the fight isn't anything fancy – it means raising the collective intensity, upping the ante in the contest and especially pressure. It's a measure of Hardwick and Richmond's mindset that, in a game that's ultra sophisticated compared with the one Tommy Hafey and even Denis Pagan coached, a triple premiership coach still appeals to something base and primal.

When the Tigers raised the fight on Saturday night, the Cats were unable to match that intensity; when Richmond applied heat and increased the tempo, Geelong did not have another gear, for whatever reason.

The Tigers celebrate on the Gold Coast. Credit:Getty Images

On Fox Footy's pre-game show, Nick Riewoldt likened this trademark raising of intensity to a "power play" – as in limited overs cricket when there's a window for taking on the bowling. Riewoldt is astute and obviously knows the Tigers better than most commentators.

Following a defeat that he acknowledged cut deeper than the preliminary final loss of 2019 – and the other lost finals – Chris Scott made an observation of Richmond that isn't necessarily accepted throughout the competition.

The short version of Scott's analysis of the Tigers was that while teams might aspire to play like them, they didn't have the personnel to do so.

That's correct. Teams can't embrace chaos, as the Tigers do, unless they've got sufficient players who commit to contests – to halving them, as Tom Lynch and Jack Riewoldt do – and to applying maniacal pressure; Richmond players also need excellent hands – the system doesn't tolerate fumbling, but is more forgiving of average or even sloppy kicks than the teams, like West Coast and the Cats, that play a brand more reliant on retaining possession.

Speed also matters in the Richmond system, and it's a commodity that the Cats, as the older team with stronger bodies, don't have in abundance.

Scott's comment indirectly raised the question that should be exercising the minds of senior coaches in the AFL: Why doesn't anyone else play like Richmond?

Part of it is that Richmond's game style is tailored to the personnel, yes. But the other factor is that Hardwick's team has been training their way – a game style predicated on pressure and surging amid chaos – for four years.

"To do it, you have to train it," said one long-serving assistant coach from a non-Victorian club of Richmond's method, which he's seen up close at training. "I don't think anyone has replicated Richmond."

Essendon has gone down Punt Rd, so to speak, by importing Ben Rutten as senior coach, the tactically adroit Blake Caracella and head of football Dan Richardson, but the Dons haven't had either the cattle nor the teaching capacity, as yet, to emulate Richmond.

The Tigers have been the trendsetter for "embracing their vulnerabilities" on a human level, in an innovation that has been followed by the likes of Collingwood in 2018 and Port Adelaide of late.
It's a mindset that you could say the Tigers also have adopted in their game style, in that they accept – and then plan – from a belief that AFL football is an imperfect, chaotic game, and they train and prepare accordingly.

They are trained for imperfection.

Dustin Martin's grand final goals were so magnificent and founded upon extreme talent, it was easy to lose sight of the unifying theme of all four majors: they came from ground balls, not marks, or from broken – yes chaotic – play.

The improvised stuff Martin does can't really be coached, but the method that leads him to get the ball in those positions is absolutely drilled into his teammates.

Richmond, as the sage assistant coach reminded me, doesn't want stoppages in their front half, like many teams. They'd rather have a hot ball, bobbing around – waiting for Martin or Shai Bolton to snare and create a score – than a dead one in the hands of an umpire.

Teams that play Richmond have a choice. They can try to control the ball – and stave off the raising of the fight by scoring with smart ball use, as the Cats did when kicking short to leads in the second quarter. Or, they can raise the fight themselves, accept that there will be chaos and raise their own tempo. "You've got to fight fire with fire," said the veteran assistant.

In the finals, the Brisbane Lions were the team that successfully raised the fight, and sought to beat Richmond for intensity and pressure. Port Adelaide had a crack, but couldn't sustain it for long enough to make a grand final.

But whether you keep the ball away from the Richmond surge, or seek to out-surge and pressure them in a messy scrap, the shared fundamental is as basic as Hardwick's call to arms: you have to get the ball.

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