EVEN when you know the end is coming, the sudden finality still comes as a shock.

Damien Hardwick, the three-time Richmond premiership coach – let that sink in one more time – brought an end to a glittering career at Punt Road on his own terms.

Fittingly, the announcement was bookended by games against the two clubs with which he won flags as a player: Essendon last week and Yartapuulti on Sunday.

But to use a Dimma-ism, the fact of the matter is he leaves the club a legendary figure, the man who led the mighty Tigers out of the almost four decades of misery and back to where they feel they belong.

The end of this Richmond era has been bandied around a few times over the past few years. It's even been 'officially' called on occasion. But after a club record 307 games and 13-and-a-half seasons, Hardwick hanging up the visor – worn to seemingly every single mid-week, indoor press conference – is the final curtain call.

John O'Rourke, Damien Hardwick and Brendon Gale at Hardwick's resignation press conference on May 23, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

He sat down at Tuesday's farewell press conference in jarringly casual clothes, flanked by new president John O'Rourke and long-time CEO Brendon Gale, who has been by his side since day one.

Such was the scale of the event, the kind that captivates this city's footy-hungry media, it was held in the vast expanses of the Maurice Rioli function room. The entire playing squad attended, in various stages of sartorial preparation ahead of training. Noah Balta, despite the pre-winter chill, wore thongs.

Club staff were there, while the front row was taken up by Hardwick's three children Isabelle, Imogen and Ben – all now young adults – his mum, and his partner, Alex.

Damien Hardwick's family watch him step down as Richmond coach on May 23, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

"It was one of those ones where I sort of made the decision that I wasn't going to be the coach of Richmond next year," Hardwick said.

"As soon as I started asking the question, I started to understand what the answer was going to be. The best thing for myself was to step aside; if I couldn't give 100 per cent, there was no way I was going to coach this footy club."

Legend has it that Hardwick missed out on the vacant Essendon coaching role in 2008 in part due to a faulty PowerPoint presentation. It's one of two key 'sliding doors' moments in his career, the other being the decision by the Richmond board to back him in after a disastrous 2016 season.


The early Hardwick years, every Tiger fan will tell you, were tough. But there was a steady progression.

Nine straight losses before the breakthrough win against the Power in the pouring rain at Football Park. Six wins in 2010, eight in 2011, 10 in 2012 and then 15 and a triumphant return to finals in 2013, the club's first September appearance in more than a decade.

In typical Richmond style (at the time), it resulted in a devastating loss to Carlton – which had only earned a spot in finals due to the Essendon drugs saga – after leading comfortably at half-time.

Jack Riewoldt and Ben Griffiths celebrate Richmond's round 10 victory over Port Adelaide at AAMI Stadium on May 29, 2010. Picture: AFL Photos

And there was more heartbreak to come. Trent Cotchin infamously chose to kick against the wind in an elimination final thumping in Adelaide in 2014 before another early finals exit came the following season, this time at the hands of North Melbourne. Tiger fans – even after three flags – still hold a grudge about a pivotal missed holding-the-ball call late in that game.

The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. Despite three consecutive years of finals action, it felt like Richmond was still the butt of the joke.

And then the wheels very nearly fell off completely; Hardwick's side had just eight wins in 2016, sparking a now famous board challenge from the 'Focus on Football' dissident group after the Tigers lost their final game of the season by 113 points.

Richmond players leave the SCG after losing to Sydney in R23, 2016. Picture: AFL Photos

But Gale and president Peggy O'Neal, who took over in 2013, stood by their man, and Neil Balme – who Hardwick said today is like a "Buddha doll (because) you rub his belly and the good luck follows you" – joined as footy boss to provide a stabilising figure.

The 2017 season was a saga in itself; five wins to start was followed by four straight losses including a three-week period of three very 'Richmondy' defeats by less than a kick.

Then, something magic happened. Bit by bit, the pieces fell into place, and a new team and style of play emerged. The ingredients were the same – a few genuine superstars, supported by dedicated role players – but the recipe was different.

It was an intoxicating hunger and desire to chase and tackle and harass and turn the ball over and stream towards goal and look, there's Jason Castagna by himself in the goalsquare and another six points on the board.

The Tigers would practise it at training, moving the ball down the field with taps and knock-ons and wild kicks, but there was always an important touch of class in there as well. A Shane Edwards handball. An Alex Rance intercept. A Trent Cotchin spin. A Kane Lambert snap.

In part through necessity, a new forward line was unveiled that feasted on the unorthodox ball movement. Jack Riewoldt, a second 'key tall' in 186cm Josh Caddy, and a fleet of smalls, with Dustin Martin the conductor.

Dustin Martin attempts to pour Gatorade on Damien Hardwick after the 2017 Toyota AFL Grand Final at the MCG. Picture: Getty Images

It was built on defence, with no clearances needed. Slingshot off a tight back six – Rance, Dylan Grimes, David Astbury, Bachar Houli, Nick Vlastuin and Nathan Broad – push up high and focus on forward-half turnovers. Midfielder Shaun Grigg, at 190cm, became a premiership ruckman.

It sounds simple now, but it was fresh and exciting in 2017, and it fed on itself. The crowds grew and became louder, more boisterous and more obnoxious, urging their team on and feeling every bone-crunching Jacob Townsend tackle right up to the top row of the Southern Stand.

Damien Hardwick and Trent Cotchin lift up the Premiership Cup after Richmond won the 2017 Toyota AFL Grand Final against Adelaide at the MCG on September 30, 2017. Picture: AFL Photos

The finals wins in that golden period became stuff of legends for the Tiger Army. Everyone has a favourite – 90,000 at the 'G against GWS, the 2019 prelim comeback against Geelong, the triumph over the Power in 2020 – and fans are more than happy to debate their favourite.

Hardwick had done what was seemingly impossible when he took the reins at the end of 2009, a fresh CEO in Gale by his side. After a 37-year premiership drought, Richmond was hated once again. Not only hated, but the creators of a dynasty. A Dimma-sty.

Whether it was the latitude afforded by success, his position as a veteran coach or self-development, Hardwick grew to be more expansive and self-reflective as the years went on.

He was upfront about how poorly he initially handled the COVID-19 pandemic and the industry shutdown, and how he needed to be pulled into line by O'Neal. Despite the turbulence, the Tigers subsequently won the flag at the end of a long and drawn-out season, arguably his finest achievement.

Hardwick evolved into a master of the press conference, cracking gags when required (he opened Tuesday's press conference saying he wished he'd worn a better jumper given the size of the crowd), or deflecting away from poor form or a pointy issue with another topic.

Damien Hardwick announces his resignation as coach of Richmond on May 23, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Sometimes the real Dimma would rise to the surface, and he couldn't quite help himself. The infamous Marvel Stadium whack – "I hate coming here", quickly followed by "I probably shouldn't say that" – was received by a shake of the head from his head of comms at the time, and has haunted the Tigers for two years since.

He's human, after all. Happy, fun, sometimes with a touch of arrogance and swagger, honest, grumpy, the full gamut.

It's not revolutionary by any stretch, but he also excelled in getting his players to buy into a theme. Mountain climbing – Everest in 2017, K2 in 2018 and 2019. Blood brothers. The triple H sessions of hardship, highlight and hero, to help embrace vulnerability. A Richmond man (much to the eye-rolling of all but those of a yellow and black persuasion). Who cares how corny it was - it worked.

One by one, the heroes of this incredible era have stepped away. Grigg was the first – allowing Marlion Pickett to join the list in mid-2019 – while Brandon Ellis went north after receiving an offer that couldn't be matched.

Rance sent a similar shockwave through the footy world when he pulled the pin just before Christmas in 2019. Then came the likes of Houli, Astbury, Edwards and Lambert, then Caddy, Townsend and Castagna.

It would have been nice to see Hardwick, Riewoldt and Cotchin ride off into the sunset as a trio, given the long and winding road they have traversed together. But no one can begrudge Hardwick anything after all he's given the club. He deserves a break, somewhere in between Martin's suggestion of Ibiza and Liam Baker's option of Lake Grace.

Richmond players watch from the back of the room as Damien Hardwick announces his retirement at Punt Road Oval on May 23, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

As for the players, after the final press conference – which concluded to thunderous applause and a few whistles – they wandered out onto Punt Road Oval, under a gentle autumn sun and a bright blue sky. They mucked around with a soccer ball as a tension-relieving warm-up, before switching to the real stuff. Because while their leader is gone, the wheel doesn't stop turning.

Yartapuulti awaits – almost 13 years to the day after that famous first win under Hardwick's watch against the same club – and they'll be aiming to reflect what Grimes said is the former coach's favourite phrase.

Hard, tough, Richmond-style footy.