WHEN Damien Hardwick survived the axe at Richmond last year, he believed the Tigers could turn things around quickly.
But never in his wildest dreams did he think he would be sitting in the bowels of the MCG on the last Saturday in September as a premiership coach with the Jock McHale Medal hanging around his neck.
"I was confident that if we played our best we'd make finals," Hardwick said post-match.
"If you had have asked me whether we'd be sitting up here, collecting medals and a premiership cup, I'd say you're kidding yourself.
"But under Trent (Cotchin), Jack (Riewoldt) and Alex (Rance), and Brendon (Gale, CEO) and Peggy (O'Neal, president), it's just been a phenomenal ride this year.
"It's been really special.
"You don't want it to end, really. You're happy to play next week to be honest."
Twelve months after having his position internally reviewed and watching assistant coaches and staff around him being replaced, Hardwick is now the Tigers' seventh premiership coach.
"It does feel surreal. It's been an enormous month for our football club, there's no doubt about that," said Hardwick, who had never coached a finals victory before this year.
"This year I worked really hard when things weren't going well of letting go of the reins.
"It was very hard, believe me, but I'm very fortunate I've got an outstanding bunch of assistant coaches.
"All of them to a man have given me something this year that's created the premiership."
The Tigers overwhelmed Adelaide at the MCG, out-hunting the fast-starting Crows and overpowering Don Pyke's side by 48 points.
Richmond was two goals down in the blink of an eye, and fans must have feared it wouldn't be their day when Jack Riewoldt kicked three behinds in a row.
But Hardwick watched his team weather Adelaide's early storm and dial up their "manic" pressure to stifle the League's most potent outfit, holding the Crows to their lowest score this year – just 60 points.
"I thought our pressure in the first quarter was a little bit off," Hardwick said.
"They were probably kicking moreso, so we couldn't exert that influence, but then we started to get going.
"We know if we play a certain way we're going to give ourselves a chance to win."
Dustin Martin capped arguably the greatest individual season in history by claiming the Norm Smith Medal to go with this record-breaking Brownlow Medal triumph, and the coach beamed as his superstar midfielder addressed media alongside him after the game.
Hardwick had special praise for Martin but also others, including fifth-gamer Jack Graham, who booted three goals and kept Rory Sloane on a tight leash after quarter-time.
"I remember sitting and watching the draft from New York watching this kid slide back (in the order) … then we got him and I was that happy," he said.
"He's played five games and is a premiership player and, to be frank, he could've quite easily been wearing the Norm Smith.
"I thought he was very special today."
Like Hardwick, skipper Trent Cotchin copped the brunt of Richmond's three elimination final losses between 2013-15.
The captain and coach have developed a special bond and Hardwick became emotional talking about how much Cotchin meant to the Tigers.
"I sort of choke up a little bit speaking about this guy, of what he means to me and what he means to our football club," he said.
"He was just a battering ram today. I don't know what his possessions were (19) but he would've had just 15 smashes.
"I don't think you classify them, but he's a freak.
"I love what he does. I love how he's led the club. It's a real credit to him."
Hardwick rated coaching the 2017 premiership above the two he played in at Essendon and Port Adelaide, taking immense pride in watching his players achieve the ultimate success.
He was well aware that comparisons will inevitably made between Richmond, who finished 13th last year, and the 2016 Bulldogs, who stormed to a fairytale flag and then missed finals this season, and Hardwick knows a top eight spot isn't guaranteed next year.
But he hopes the platform has been set for a sustained tilt at premiership success, much like the dominant three-peat team built by his Hawthorn mentor Alastair Clarkson, who interrupted Hardwick's press conference to tell him to hurry up and join him for a celebratory beer.
"It's funny, I was speaking to Clarko on Monday night about the eeriness to the 2008 Hawks," Hardwick said.
"I think in 2008 the Hawks lost to Richmond in about round 20 and played their best football thereafter.
"We lost to Geelong round (21) and then we just went whack, whack, whack, whack, whack, whack.
"We learned a lot of lessons from the games that we lost and we played our best footy when it mattered most."
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