Heroes & Villains: Dustin Martin 'most selfless top-echelon player'

The 2017 AFL season finished in a swathe of yellow and black, as Richmond powered their way to a stunning premiership triumph.

If last year's Western Bulldogs flag was a fairytale for one of the league's smallest clubs -- true underdogs in every sense -- then the Tigers' drought-breaking title was an awakening of a long-slumbering giant.

The ferocious Tigers squeezed the life out of the previously free-flowing Crows, dominating the match from quarter-time onwards much to the delight of the majority of the 100,000-plus crowd at the MCG.

The 37-year wait must've felt like an eternity for anyone involved with Richmond -- when the Tigers last tasted premiership success, the No. 1 song in Australia was "Upside Down" by Diana Ross - but those painful memories were quickly forgotten when the final siren sounded, much to the delight of the Tiger Army.


Damien Hardwick: Less than 12 months ago, Hardwick's grasp on his job was perilous to say the least; but he was backed in by the strong Richmond board and he repaid them in spades on Saturday.

This year, the Tigers coach has proven to be a master tactician and astute man-manager, firstly constructing a radical game plan featuring just one key forward in Jack Riewoldt surrounded by a frenzied pack of small and mid-sized "Mosquitoes", and secondly fostering a collective buy-in and pack mentality that made the Richmond team a much stronger unit than the sum of its individual parts.

Amazingly, Hardwick had never previously coached a finals victory before the Tigers stormed through a perfect September.

"It does feel surreal. It's been an enormous month for our football club, there's no doubt about that," Hardwick said post-match. "I was confident that if we played our best we'd make finals, [but] 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], 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."

Dustin Martin: Has an individual put together a better season in the history of football? Hawthorn legend Leigh Matthews said the Tigers star's astounding 2017 campaign stacked up as well as anyone's, and Damien Hardwick couldn't help but agree. In being judged best afield on Saturday, Martin added a Norm Smith Medal and premiership medallion to his list of honours five days after he had collected the Brownlow Medal.

He was at his brutish best against the Crows -- winning a team-high 29 possessions (21 contested) and booting two goals. But Martin is more than just an accumulator: He boasts an armoury of weapons far greater than anyone else in the game; his creativity sets up chances for teammates out of nothing; his mere presence causes panic among his opponents.

Teammate Josh Caddy -- who has played alongside the likes of Gary Ablett and Patrick Dangerfield -- described Martin as the "most selfless top-echelon player" he had ever seen.

"Today he goes down as one of the best players of all time," Caddy said. "Nobody has ever done the premiership, Brownlow and Norm Smith in one year. It's probably the greatest individual year of any player in history, but it wouldn't even faze him."

The 'no-name' Tigers: Even the most ardent footy fan without yellow and black in their veins might struggle to recognise the likes of Jason Castagna, Dan Butler, Nathan Broad, Jacob Townsend and Jack Graham if they were sat next to them on the bus. But to a man, each played their role and then some as the Tigers proved that teamwork and frenetic pressure could overwhelm even the most talented collection of individuals.

Graham, in particular, personified the Tigers' fairytale, as the 19-year-old booted three goals and nullified Crows gun Rory Sloane on the way to a flag in just his fifth AFL match. Amazingly Graham, who slid to No. 53 in last year's AFL draft before being snapped up by the Tigers, is yet to taste defeat in Richmond colours.

The powerful youngster said his head was still spinning post-match.

"The boys have been getting into me, saying I've won more premierships than games lost, and played in more finals wins than home-and-away wins," he said. "It hasn't all sunk in just yet. It's an amazing feeling ... I couldn't have expected anything like this."


The Adelaide forward line: Adelaide's supposed trump card became its biggest weakness on the biggest stage of all. The highest-scoring team all season, the Crows suddenly looked inept up forward as stars Taylor Walker, Josh Jenkins, Tom Lynch, Eddie Betts and Charlie Cameron all had little-to-no impact.

When the two teams met in Round 6, the Crows dominated through the air and on the ground on the way to a 76-point shellacking. On that day, Adelaide had goal-kicking threats all over the park, with Walker finishing with five goals, Lynch three and Cameron two. Many expected a similar result in the grand final, but the Richmond defence, superbly led by Alex Rance, allowed them no time or space in restricting the Crows to their lowest score of the year, with only four goals in the last three quarters.

Crows coach Don Pyke said his team's inability to deal with Richmond's pressure was a key factor in the upset loss.

"Our systems worked pretty well throughout the year [but] ... the talent we had ahead of the ball today, we have to give them enough opportunities," Pyke said post-game.

"But to Richmond's credit, they have come up with something different. It has worked for them, they have won the flag, and I'm sure other teams will look at components of their game.

"That is the beauty of the game; it's always changing and we sit here now going there's a style that has got us to this point, is that going to sustain us next year? I don't know."

The Adelaide midfield: If the Crows' forwards had to shoulder a large part of the blame for Saturday's shock result, their teammates through the midfield wouldn't be too far behind. Adelaide's midfield was completely outworked and overwhelmed by Richmond's hungrier, harder bodies, with one stat in particular a stark indication of the difference between the two teams: The Tigers won 29 more contested possessions than the Crows in the second half, and 30 more for the game.

Pyke didn't shy away from pointing his finger at his midfield's lack of competitiveness when the heat was well and truly on.

"One of the things that is very hard from a coaching viewpoint is to provide effort," Pyke said. "The players are responsible for effort. We try and encourage that, we try and demand that.

"We [the coaching group] tried to do some structural things, but you're trying to put a patch on what's a fair wound. When you're talking minus 25 in the third quarter, which is why we value it as a stat, and in fairness, a stat we've been very good at all year, that's probably the most disappointing part.

"It's an area of our game that we felt coming in we were strong and we didn't deliver today."

The MCG factor: Not that the Crows were using it as an excuse, but a quirk of the AFL's fixturing may have played a part in Adelaide's shocker in the grand final.

Despite Adelaide finishing the home-and-away season on top of the ladder, and winning their qualifying and preliminary finals, they found themselves travelling to play on Richmond's home ground for the title decider. In fact this was the fifth year in a row that a non-Victorian team has lost the grand final to a Victorian club, and in the previous four the non-Victorian side had also finished above the Victorian team at the end of the regular season.

The MCG is Richmond's home ground, of course, and the Tigers know every square centimetre of turf like the back of their hands; the Crows on the other hand have few opportunities to play on the wide, open expanses of the G. It doesn't seem fair, but that's just the way it is, and Pyke refused to use the venue as an excuse.

"We know the grand final's going to be played at the MCG. We get the opportunity to play here. We played here three times this year. I don't think the ground played a role in that," he said.

Non-Victorian teams are likely to cop the rough end of the pineapple for many years to come, with the MCG contracted to host the grand final until 2037.