THIS SEASON was like no other, except for the team holding up the cup. In the end, nothing could stop Richmond in 2020. Not even itself.
Only the historically best sports teams find reasons and ways to add layers of steel to already impenetrable fortresses during crisis.
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But by coach Damien Hardwick's own admission after the 31-point Grand Final win over Geelong, it took the Tigers longer than they would have liked.
Rewind to the early morning of Friday, September 4, 2020.
Richmond Football Club players residing at the Gold Coast's Elite KDV Hotel are issued with text messages from senior club staff telling them they are not to leave their rooms under any circumstances.
Even in a season filled with daily shocks and firsts and mayhem, this lands with a jolt.
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Minds were already frayed. Captain Trent Cotchin had not been alone in deeply exploring leaving south-east Queensland, and Tigers' All-Australian defender Dylan Grimes revealed on Sunday that he too at that stage had already long outstayed his initial plans to be away from Melbourne, where he was faced with laying off loved staff in his private business.
This, according to Grimes, was the "rock bottom" moment for a season which on Saturday night somehow ended with an Everest high, a dynasty-confirming premiership - a third flag in four seasons - with an emphatic Dustin Martin-led win against Geelong at the Gabba.
The only initial detail provided on that morning back in early September was a reference to a COVID-19 breach. A flurry of texts between players ensued, and confusion and frustration mounted when answers weren't immediately forthcoming.
Eventually, word – some of it from outside the club's control – filtered back that two players, Sydney Stack and Callum Coleman-Jones, had found themselves in police trouble after a night and early morning spent in the seedy parts of Surfers Paradise.
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Richmond had a bye on the immediate weekend after those texts went around. Its next match was against Geelong. The Tigers won easily.
Say what you want about the Richmond Football Club, and there's not many in the AFL industry who haven't been highly critical at some stage of the COVID-19 ravaged season, and my hand is up here. But it was the only one, again, left standing on the only day that matters in the AFL.
In a football season where not one thing was as it had been before, the best team was the one standing last, even after crucial defender Nick Vlastuin was left legless and with match-ending concussion in the opening minutes after a brutal, in-game, accidental assault by Patrick Dangerfield.
"We made mistakes up here, and it really cut you, because we are a proud club and we felt like we had built a really string culture but I can see from the outside it didn’t look like that, and then when it starts look like that from the outside, you think, 'do we have it right, is this right, are we doing the right things as leaders, as older players'?" Grimes said on the Sunday Footy Show yesterday.
"We had faith that maybe this all was a couple of isolated incidents. Maybe we are as strong as we think we are. And every challenge we had we kept coming closer and closer and felt like we had grown through everything. The heat in the finals came, and we were able to withstand it.
"In the days after the incident where the guys left the hub, I was, a lot of us were at rock bottom then. We felt as a playing group, as a club, we'd been challenged. We played Geelong that (next) week. It was a moment for us where we had to galvanise. And we've gone from being rock bottom to growing, growing, growing and we built something that was by far the most rewarding season I've ever played in."