You often hear pundits opine that AFL coaches have ‘lost the players’.
After Richmond’s defeat at the hands of Melbourne, and watching Damien Hardwick’s sticky press conference afterwards, there is an argument to be made that perhaps the players have lost the coach.
Even in the final days of Mark Neeld’s Melbourne reign, his empire crumbling around him, the coach was still trying to spin things his way.
Michael Voss, certainly, never lost the faith that he could turn things around before the axe fell.
Watching Hardwick speak on Saturday, it appeared the coach had finally succumbed to whatever malaise has afflicted Richmond for the past 30 years. It’s a rare disease, with symptoms including rabid members, fevered talkback calls and shortened football seasons. It’s fuelled by hope and cured only by consistent finals appearances.
It was as if all those reserves Hardwick had built up over the journey at Essendon and Port had finally got so run down dealing with this perennial basket case that he just couldn’t take it any more.
He’d been exposed to the same insidious virus that claimed men like Kevin Bartlett, Danny Frawley, Terry Wallace and John Northey, all brave soldiers who fought with everything they had, and all of whom eventually came unstuck.
After a moving pre-match tribute to Tigers Immortal Tommy Hafey, Hardwick had reason to expect more fight from his players.
But Melbourne, who under Paul Roos have shown a grit sadly absent under Neeld, were too good, and afterwards Hardwick seemed emotionally spent.
It was a sorry sight – he is usually a glass-half-full media operative, but on Saturday he was struggling to see any light at all.
When a journalist quizzed him on whether he found Richmond’s slide this year “exasperating, frustrating”, Hardwick simply nodded: “You’ve got no idea.”
Later, when reflecting on the influence of inspirational-but-not-quite-inspirational-enough skipper Trent Cotchin, who was battling an ankle injury, he said: “Gotta give the captain come credit, he probably shouldn’t have played.
“He fought it out, that’s the type of kid he is. Need a few more like him.”
After the match, one rapscallion online bookmaker produced a gag image of Hardwick’s phone, with a missed call, a text and finally an email from Tigers’ CEO Brendon Gale requesting a board meeting at 9am on Monday.
But of all the problems at Richmond, and there are a few, Damien Hardwick is not one.
He signed a two-year contract extension last year, and should be given time to see his project through. According to Gale, he will be.
But of all the lists in the AFL, to the casual observer Richmond’s seems the most disjointed.
Dustin Martin, Jack Riewoldt, Brett Deledio and Trent Cotchin – if there’s a more incongruous bunch of key players, I’d like to see it.
In that group Richmond has the grunt and star power to be a contender for years.
Whether Hardwick, Mark Williams and their array of coaching staff can harness it is key.
It may well be the toughest job in footy.