In the final minutes of a 2020 season, where the unexpected and bizarre became the norm, there was something comforting in Richmond resetting the clock to where we all were just over 12 months ago.
By the time Dustin Martin kicked his fourth goal to cement an unprecedented – and unanimous – third Norm Smith medal and secure Richmond’s third flag in four years, the sense of deja vu was broken only by the fact that instead of partying in the streets, Tiger fans in locked down Melbourne mostly just turned in for the night.
They would have slept soundly, secure in the knowledge that Martin remained as elusive and self-effacing as ever and that there’s every chance the Tigers can repeat their magic trick again in 2021, but hopefully with celebrations back at Punt Road.
Martin’s most revealing offering in the aftermath of the 31-point win over a gallant Geelong was that 2020 had been “a tough road”, adding on Channel Seven: “I couldn’t be prouder of the way we faced a bit of adversity this year and the way we stuck at it that’s why we’re a great club”.
Of that there can be no dispute. This was no asterisk premiership, as the Tigers piled on 10 of the last 12 goals to put their dominance beyond doubt.
For an organisation that lurched from crisis to fiasco during a 37-year premiership drought from 1980, the Tigers have now matched the greats of the modern era – the Brisbane Lions (2001-2003), Geelong (2007-2011) and Hawthorn (2013-2015).
It also marked the club’s third back-to-back triumph in its history, with previous wins in 1920-21 and 1973-74.
That Richmond and coach Damien Hardwick achieved these milestones during a global pandemic – when the season had to be stopped, restarted and then moved interstate – offers an insight into the strength of the process, playing group and the bonds that sustained them.
Skipper Trent Cotchin – who became the first Tiger to captain the club to three flags – acknowledged the toll that the year had taken on the players, family and fans who remained in Melbourne
“I know we have spoken a lot about the journey,” he said after the match.
We effectively celebrated [the challenge], we came out here, however many days ago, 110 I think it was, treating it like an adventure, and it’s been one hell of an adventure.
“To finish off with this is just simply outstanding. I couldn’t be more
proud of our whole organisation.”
The Tigers finished off alright. Heading into the second half they still trailed by 15 points after a Martin snap late in the second term had reduced the deficit.
His third and fourth goals in the final quarter were all spectacular and timely, although he conceded after the match that he may have, for once, let his emotions get the better of him.
He need not have been concerned. The Cats were cooked.
The reality for Geelong is that a decade of consistency and finals footy has yielded immense respect from the football world, but not the big step to the top rung.
In another 2020 quirk, Gary Ablett finished his career in Queensland, having done so much to enliven the code in that state with his move to the Gold Coast in 2011 after two early career premierships with Geelong.
Like his team Ablett had flashes of brilliance and – when the Cats raced to a 22-point lead when they out-bustled the Tigers in the second quarter – it briefly seemed that the fairytale finish might come true.
In the end, the dual Brownlow medallist and eight time All Australian bowed out at exactly the right time – his dodgy shoulder giving out in the first quarter and only lasting through the match through sheer force of will, and no small amount of painkilling jabs.
Having lived his life in the spotlight – first as the son of his famous father, and for many years as football’s touchstone – the final TV images of Ablett greeting his own health-challenged son after the match should give pause to those who would seek to invade the family’s privacy now his playing days are done.
Geelong skipper Joel Selwood singled out Ablett for praise after the match, telling the crowd “there’s a little bald bloke over there, we just want to say ‘we love you’ and ‘we thank you for what you’ve done for the game’.
“It’s a really tough year … but we felt your support everywhere, up here in Queensland,” Selwood said.
We had 161 at one stage in the hub. And we’ve loved the journey. We just couldn’t quite get there.”
No one who saw the emotional scenes of players greeting young families after the match could doubt the stress of maintaining a competition – a diversion that has done so much to lift spirits during the pandemic, particularly back in locked-down Melbourne.
But traditionalists be warned that the AFL has also taken the opportunity to road test some of its less publicly popular tweaks to the game in its seemingly relentless quest to ape aspects of American sport.
Shorter quarters, conference fixturing, weeknight games and, yes, a night grand final at the MCG are now all firmly on the agenda – just in case you didn’t get the none-too-subtle talking points offered up from the half-time entertainment-obsessed Channel Seven commentators.
The truth is that the rhythm of grand final day in Melbourne will always better be better suited to an afternoon match, with the traditional lead in and celebrations lacking fireworks and a ratings time slot – but not heart and soul.
In this, of all seasons, league officials would do well to ponder how it was actually those latter qualities that kept the season afloat and how the early season matches played without fans lacked life, passion and relevance.
It may be too much to ask, but with Richmond again holding aloft the premiership cup and the Norm Smith safely back around Dusty’s neck, perhaps we can all just take a moment to reflect, reset, and start 2021 as if 2020 was just some crazy and wild dream.