Richmond 92 West Coast 77 (AFL)

Richmond 92 West Coast Eagles 77 (13/06/09)

Upon returning to England after seeing four AFL games, I expected that to be that. Coverage of the game in the press here would struggle to be described as minimal. Even the BBC’s extensive “other sports” category doesn’t list the game on their website, eschewing it in favour of big draws like netball and table tennis instead.

So I was somewhat surprised to find that satellite sports channel Setanta were actually showing two or three games a week live. I was delighted, as I could carry on following the sport.

For a year or two I just followed as a neutral. I felt no need to pick a team. Doing so just seemed rather arbitrary, and I felt if it happened then the team would somehow pick me. Part of the problem was that there were two teams I had a sort of liking for. Collingwood’s win over Carlton had really got me into the sport, but they were the biggest club in the game. That would be like following Manchester United, which just seemed wrong. I also really enjoyed Geelong’s win over West Coast, but they’d won one title and probably should have won the following one too. They were the best team in the game, so being drawn to them would have that bandwagon feel, which again felt wrong.

Rather irrationally though, I began to find myself drawn to Richmond. I did like their old ground, next door to the MCG. I liked their black and yellow shirts, and I also liked the fact that it would be hard to call me a bandwagon jumper. They are a big, well-supported club. They’ve just been rubbish for nearly 30 years. Two top half finishes in 28 years tells its own tale, but in the previous 16 years they won five and played in seven finals. In my first year watching the game they finished last, but in 2008 they finished 9th of 16 teams. Was this a new beginning, or yet another false dawn?

A 14 goal, 78 point annihilation on the opening day in 2009 gave a rather quicker answer than many were expecting, but despite this, when I was arranging another trip to Australia spanning three weekends, I wanted to arrange it for a week when I could take in a Richmond game.

By the time I was in Melbourne for their game, they’d already lost 9 of the opening 11 games of the season and had just sacked their manager. A temporary coach had been given the chance to shine for the second half of the season.

The game was to be played at Etihad Stadium, which had been known as the Telstra Dome on my first visit two years earlier, and known as Docklands Stadium when it opened. It was a replacement for the league’s previous attempt at its own stadium. Waverley Park had been built on a grand scale, out in the eastern suburbs. If the grand plan had been completed, it could have held 150,000. As it was, it was open and windswept – not ideal for  part of Australia that has genuine winters – as well as being difficult to reach by public transport. So a new stadium was built, completed in 2000, which would be even closer to the city centre than the MCG. Perhaps as a reaction to the rain affected games at Waverley park, it was also decided to give the stadium a retractable roof, despite an AFL pitch occupying twice the area of a football one.

As a engineering feat, the roof probably is quite special, being so large. Unfortunately, having been to other covered venues in Amsterdam, Cardiff and Seattle, I couldn’t help but feel the match experience would be better with the roof open. Somehow with the roof shut it felt gloomy and dark in a way that seeing the night sky wouldn’t.

Rather than aiming for 150,000 the AFL were rather more sensible and went for a 55,000 seat venue. Nestled between Melbourne’s main Southern Cross Station and the water’s edge of the docks, it had a great location. The docklands seem revitalised. The stadium looks enticing from the harbour at night, with plently or bars and restaurants, as well as an unusual “cow up a tree” sculpture. It should be fine, but somehow is slightly, but just slightly, disappointing.

The stadium itself is impressive. Three tiers of seats stretch all round the stadium giving great views for all, as well as towering upwards to totally surround. The shut roof, as said before, just dampens the spirits slightly. It also doesn’t help that the seats are coloured light grey and a faded navy blue. The place is crying out for something a little less subdued. And as impressive as the three tiers of seats are, the fact that they continue at exactly the same height and size for the whole perimeter, barring the odd break for screens and press boxes, means the place lacks a focus. Without seeing the names written high up near the roof, there’s no way of even knowing which end is which. Don’t get me wrong, it is a good venue. It just could be that bit better.

None of that matters when you are seeing “your” team I guess. Not that I could really claim Richmond were my team with any great conviction. Their games were almost never chosen for live coverage in the UK, so there were very few players I really recognised. Given that the game has 18 a side, and that a player is doing really well if he touches the ball 25 times in two hours of play, it was always going to be a struggle to pick out too many faces.

Richmond’s opponents were West Coast, who fallen a bit from grace since I last saw them. In 2007 they were reigning champions. This year they’d only won one more game than Richmond, and were actually favourites to lose to them tonight. Certainly there were fewer fans who’d made the 1700 mile trip from Perth to Melbourne for this game than had been at Geelong two years earlier.

I was genuinely nervous. I really wanted Richmond to win, not only because I was there, but because I knew I may never get another chance. It was a dream start though. Richmond kicked the opening goal of the night, and got the second and third ones too. By the end of the first quarter Richmond had kicked 5 goals and 6 behinds to West Coast’s 2 & 0, to effectively give themselves a four goal lead. It was looking good. I knew this was Richmond though, and things would never be easy. Even to my untrained eye, it was clear that the skill on display didn’t have the polish the better sides had. You could see the nerves in the players’ eyes as they struggled to clear the ball from their own danger area time and time again.

By half time it was 8 goals, 8 behinds to West Coast’s 6.2 – the 18 point lead effectively now just 3 goals. By 3/4 time it was 10.12 (72) to 9.7 (61), not even two goals. It was looking dicey. Most of the media attention before the game was for Richmond’s Ben Cousins. He had been a star player for West Coast for much of his career, during the club’s peak, but had been sacked by the club, and banned from the game for a year, after being arresting for drug possession. Richmond had taken him on in 2009 when no other club would touch him. Richmond’s new star would tear his hamstring in that opening day disaster and miss the next six weeks of the season, which kind of summed Richmond up. Since then he’d returned and had played well. I was sat in Row A of the lower tier, directly behind a press photographer. As he loaded his pictures to his laptop, a fair number were of Cousins.

Two other players with eyes upon them were Richmond’s Tyrone Vickery, and West Coast Nic Naitanui, who were making their debuts and tipped to do well. Naitanui has certainly taken the plaudits since, but Vickery had the night to remember. His debut goal in the third to give Richmond breathing space got the biggest cheer of the night. In the 4th, with West Coast having one last valiant effort to get back into the game, Naitanui took a terrific mark right by the posts. Even at a tight angle, for an experienced player it should result in a goal every time. For a debutant though, the pressure told, and his kick hit the post.

As the clocked ticked past the 26th or 27th minute of the quarter it hit me it was just a case of playing out time, and I would see that rare Richmond win, as well as being one of the very few, no doubt, Richmond followers who could say he has a 100% record in games he’s been to.

The siren sounded and Richmond had won, taking them up to the dizzy heights of 14 on the “ladder”, and the joyful Richmond club song “Tigerland” boomed out over the PA. Of all the traditional songs, Tigerland is often regarded as the best, and as the crowd sang along, joyously shouting “YELLOW & BLACK” at the finale, it was easy to feel it had been a while since it sounded sweeter.

While in Melbourne I also took the chance to have a look at a few of the old suburban grounds. Carlton’s old Princes Park was the only one I could really imagine hosting games. In fact it looked new enough to still be hosting AFL matches, only having ceased in 2005. The oval of the field was surrounded in a square plot of land, so the stands on two sides of the square filled the space available rather than maintaining a uniform size around the field. This meant that from the inside the two stands on these “sides” of the oval undulated between low and high points, with rooflines plunging and rising to match, in almost Dali-esque fashion. The four stands that occupied the other half were more conservative, although two were rather cluttered with what looked liked executive boxes shoehorned into their structures. The ground’s development was clearly piecemeal, making best use of the space available in the English football ground tradition, and was full of the kind of character Carlton’s new home at Etihad lacks.

Within walking distance is the old home of Fitzroy, Brunswick Street Oval. Fitzroy moved out of Brunswick Street in the 1960s, and left Melbourne altogether (moving to Brisbane) in the 1990s, and there’s not a lot left of the old venue. For the most part, there’s just a low grass banking around the oval that still used for amateur games. All that’s left in an old stand, and what a stand it is. Built in 1888, it’s full of the kind of lavish decoration the Victorian era was famous for. Decked out handsomely in maroon and cream, with wrought iron balcony walls, it’s an absolute gem, and still fully operational today. The stand is on the Victoria State heritage register as a listed building, which should stop it being branded a fire hazard and being condemned, as no doubt would happen here.

As well as seeing Richmond’s Punt Road Oval, as described in the Collingwood v Carlton report, I also took a look at St Kilda’s Junction Oval, one of two grounds in touching distance of the Albert Park Grand Prix circuit. This ground was also abandoned in the 1960s, but again, despite much of the old ground being landscaped, two very old grandstands survive and are still in use. I managed to pop into this ground while an amateur game was taking place, through an open side door, and had to imagine just how different the game must have been in that era. Some things never change though. St Kilda had been spectacularly unsuccessful while at Juntion Oval, not winning a single premiership in nearly 70 years there. They got their first within two years of moving away, but haven’t had another since, and they’ve lost the last two grand finals. I did manage to see them beat Carlton the previous night, also at Etihad, but somehow I doubt that’ll be much consolation.

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