As exemplified by Richmond’s last-minute defeat to Carlton on Saturday night – which comes after a string of other close losses – it would appear as though the psychological part of the game is equally as important as the physical side and gaining the mental edge can be the difference between sweet victory and bitter defeat.
Taking a look at Richmond’s recent history against their arch-rival, it’s obvious that something appears to be amiss. They have now lost the past 9 matches; an incredible stat when you consider that the playing lists of both teams has changed dramatically over this period which stretches way back to the 2008 season.
The interesting thing is that over the years, match favouritism has chopped and changed between the two sides, so it’s not as if all of these consecutive victories have come during a period of on field dominance by Carlton. Saturday night’s game was a classic example of this; Carlton were missing key players in Judd, Waite, and Henderson, all of which combine to make up an integral part of their spine. So to say Carlton came into the match as overwhelming underdogs would be an understatement. This was also reflected perfectly by the match odds, with punters lapping up the $1.75 offered for the Tigers, eventually crunching their odds into $1.55, with Carlton drifting out to as much as $2.20 on game day.
With the weight of popular opinion behind the yellow and black, why once again did they seemingly falter at the last hurdle? Was the weight of expectation too much? Delve a little further into Richmond’s recent form throughout this season, and the perceived cause becomes a little more evident. It’s something that has permeated throughout most of the year.
The stats don’t lie, and here’s one that is the most damning of all; 9 out of the total 10 losses they have endured this season have been by margins of 21 points or less. Equally as concerning is that now in their past 3 matches, they have lost by a combined total margin of 10 points (2, 4, 4). But believe it or not, it gets worse.
What the stats don’t reveal is that in each of those 3 matches they have squandered leads from seemingly unbeatable positions. With just over 5 minutes remaining in the match against Gold Coast in Round 16 they simply went to water, giving a 17-point lead to eventually implode under a sea of immense pressure and lose by 2. In the following round against North Melbourne they went into three-quarter time with a 7-point lead, only to go on and waste opportunities in front of goal in the last quarter and lose by 4.
In retrospect, it’s rather ironic that Damian Hardwick was quoted after the North Melbourne match as saying, “Our next step is to nail those games.
“You go back into the history books and you look at the sides that have had [those sort of close results], it means you’re going to step up pretty quickly.
“We want to do that now.
“We keep letting chances slip. We’re in control of the game but we just don’t get the finish we’re after.”
But of course a week later against the Blues there was a sense of déjà vu, as they let slip a 13-point lead with 5 minutes remaining. The signs in the last quarter looked rather promising soon after they kicked consecutive goals to extend their lead. It was as if they’d learnt from their mistakes over the past two weeks and were going to hang on. They applied intense pressure, blocked up space, and tackled at every opportunity. But as soon as Carlton broke through their defensive setup and kicked a goal, they lost their way.
From thereon they began to run wide of their opponents, play flat-footed, and their overall intensity from minutes earlier seemingly evaporated. The penultimate brain-fade came when Brandon Ellis panicked in defence, kicking the ball out on the full, thereby allowing Brock McLean to kick the miraculous game-winning goal from that very turnover.
The actions of the Tigers in those dying moments – or lack thereof – really told the tale and gave an insight into their mindset. The truth is the Brock McLean goal only came about because it fortuitously cleared the two-man contest in the goal square and bounced through for a goal. But it was more due to Richmond’s ineptitude in failing to have anyone standing on the goal line, than luck being the true cause of their downfall.
It was as if the playing group immediately psyched themselves out when challenged, with thoughts of the prior two weeks creeping back to haunt them. With Carlton seemingly down and out that late in the game, surely that is the only explanation as to why Richmond let yet another win slip from their grasp.
What this all culminates to is that there is obviously something wrong on a more psychological level for this to occur with such regularity. They crumble under the weight of their own pressure so often, that one must wonder when and how they are going to finally obtain the mental strength to overcome their harshest critic and biggest stumbling block of all; themselves.