Hardwick the mastermind of a modern-day Tigers dynasty

·4-min read

Richmond could not have been at a lower ebb when Damien Hardwick took over as coach before the 2010 season.

It had been three long decades since the once mighty Tigers had tasted the ultimate success.

And for most of those 30 years, Richmond had been the AFL's equivalent to the punch-line of a bad joke.

No-one expected a quick turnaround in fortunes, even under the stewardship of a man who had enjoyed the ultimate success as a player at Essendon (2000) and Port Adelaide (2004) and as an assistant coach at Hawthorn under his great mate Alastair Clarkson (2008).

Just nine games into Hardwick's tenure and the enormity of the task had been laid bare - the club again sat in last spot on the ladder with an 0-9 win-loss record and a miserable percentage of 56.2.

They were unkindly labelled "the worst team since Fitzroy" in reference to the sorry Lions outfit that went 1-21 in their last season in the competition in 1996.

Hardwick finally masterminded his first win against the odds away to Port Adelaide on a wet day at Football Park in round 10, 2010.

It may not have been clear then but the renaissance was underway at last with a list that included plenty of deadwood but also had Trent Cotchin, Dustin Martin, Jack Riewoldt and Shane Edwards, all of whom would go on to become triple premiership heroes.

The Tigers finally ended a 12-year finals drought under Hardwick in 2013 - but it was to be the first of three straight elimination final defeats.

When the club plummeted to 13th spot in 2016 there were plenty at Punt Road calling for the coach's head.

In years gone by, when the unofficial catch-cry of "Eat 'Em' Alive" too often translated to "eat their own", it could well have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But president Peggy O'Neal, CEO Brendon Gale and prodigal son Neil Balme - finally lured back as footy boss - stuck fat with the coach.

It was an inspired decision.

Twelve months later the Tigers were celebrating their 11th premiership, with the upset 48-point win over Adelaide ending a 37-year drought.

Further flags were won in 2019 against GWS and in 2020 against Geelong, with a trademark method of frenetic ball movement now favoured by teams such as the 2023 premiership favourites Collingwood.

For Hardwick, the 2020 victory was the best of all, coming at the unlikely venue of the Gabba in a season dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The coach had initially railed against the restrictions imposed on the clubs - and society as a whole.

"They're all different, (but) this one I think this one is extra significant," he said after the Dustin Martin-inspired win over the Cats.

"What we had to go through to get here, the 100-odd days in a hub, how hard the AFL, Queensland Government, the people in Victoria did it … it's just an enormous achievement."

The Tigers missed the finals in 2021 and were rolled by Brisbane in an nailbiting elimination final in 2022.

With the golden generation of Cotchin, Riewoldt, Martin and Co nearing the end of the road, the club loaded up for what they figured would be another flag tilt in 2023, prising midfield bulls Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper out of GWS at the cost of a slew of draft picks,.

Taranto has been among the Tigers' best in 2023, but with key players such as Tom Lynch and Toby Nankervis cruelled by injury, they had slumped to 14th spot on the ladder by the conclusion of round 10.

Never mind the pursuit of a 14th flag - even making the 2023 finals would now be a long shot.

Hardwick is expected to detail the reasons for his shock departure on Tuesday.

It's not hard to imagine that the phrase "burnout" will get an airing.

But his legacy as a legend of the Richmond Football Club is assured.

He has coached the club a record 307 times and his three flags place him behind only the fabled Tom Hafey, who masterminded the 1967, 1969, 1973 and 1974 premierships.

It will be one tough act to follow.