Oct 12, 2017
bugler

Tears For The Tigers

I remember the first time I felt it. It was late July and the Tigers were playing the Suns on the Gold Coast. For the Richmond of old, this was a danger game. Vivid in my memory were the two home games we had relocated to Cairns for cash. We lost them both. Friends still taunt me about the time Karmichael Hunt kicked a long goal to sink the Tigers in Far North Queensland. I didn’t need reminding. But this iteration of Tigers felt different. As they chased and harassed and didn’t give in, they seemed imbued with a spirit I had never seen.

Bugler's 20-year-old Richmond Tigers football jumper

The season to that point seemed a metaphor for the 37 years I have barracked for the Tigers. Getting thumped by Adelaide and St Kilda were low points. Perhaps not as low as the late 80s when my love of football took off. My first memories of the Tigers were of finishing in the bottom three and of a ‘Save Our Skins’ sticker I had, replete with a cartoon Tiger covered in blood as seen through the scopes of a gun. The losses felt like a reminder that the Tigers were still a long way from the top.

In 1995 I turned 15 years old and the Tigers finished 3rd. Despite the media focusing on Carlton, I was convinced this was it. I took a train to Melbourne and with my brother Daniel, watched Geelong destroy my hopes in the Preliminary Final at a wet, cold and windy Waverley. In 2001 we made another Prelim and the Lions taught us a lesson at the Gabbatoir on their way to their first flag of a three-peat. So when the Tigers won their first few games this year, I wasn’t convinced. I had been burned before and I was an adult now. I knew there were no fairy tales from Tigerland, only false dawns.

My cynicism was proved correct as we faltered with three consecutive losses by less than a goal. But I wasn’t particularly upset. I was inured to this. Six ninth-placed finishes since the top 8 began in 1994 tend to harden a person. When Carlton finished ninth and were gifted a finals spot due to Essendon’s transgressions, of course it was Richmond who had to play them in the Elimination Final. And of course we lost. The predictable ridicule only further ingrained the sense that I shouldn’t retain hope for Richmond.

Nosebleed view as the Tigers win the 2017 AFL Premiership

Ultimately this is a love story. I fell for the Tigers when Jeff Hogg patrolled our forward line. David Honybun was another childhood favourite. My teenage crushes were Matthew Richardson, Joel Bowden, Matthew Knights and the Gale brothers. Despite the teasing, I was a member and a regular attendee of the MCG when Greg Tivendale, Aaron Fiora, David Bourke and Matthew Rogers donned the yellow and black. I was lovestruck and there wasn’t a damn thing Jarrad Oakley-Nicholls could do about it. But as I matured and became an adult, I was forced to tell myself that my Tiger love was in fact a puppy love. I let my membership lapse. I moved away.

The years passed and I thought I had grown up. But as I watched Jason Castagna and Daniel Rioli ramp up the pressure on the hapless Suns before nailing 3 goals each, I felt something stir. At first I denied it. My cerebral cortex took over and I went about my life. But the next week against the Hawks, there it was again. Even as we lost to the Cats at Kardinia Park, I couldn’t help but feel this was an aberration. We went to Perth and beat Fremantle by over 100 points. Jacob Townsend kicked 6. There was no denying this feeling but I said not a word. We iced our home-and-away season with a win over St Kilda and there we were in 3rd place.

I have converted a reluctant Mrs Bugler to the Tigers. We sat in our lounge room and watched the Tigers play the Cats in the Qualifying Final. I could see it on the field – these Tigers weren’t burdened by history. This was a new breed. When Dustin Martin palmed off Tom Stewart on the half-back flank and bounced his way up the wing I knew I was watching something I had never seen before. I could feel it. In an act of catharsis that can barely be described, the Tiger Army roared out the weight of emotion they had carried for a generation. I sat in a lounge room thousands of kilometres away and did the same. At this point, every Tiger on field and off could feel it.

The highly-fancied Giants held no fear for me in the Preliminary Final. Only twice in my life had I seen the Tigers advance to this point, but this felt different. Much different. I recall talking to another Tiger tragic in 2008 and we were both enamoured by Trent Cotchin. The intervening years have done nothing to temper my feelings. The evidence was on display at the MCG as the Tiger captain attacked the ball, the man and contests at warp speed. More than that, his team-mates followed him one and all. The Giants were mere fodder dressed up as high draft picks.

Celebrations as the Tigers win the 2017 AFL Premiership

I tell myself that I am a mature adult, but in Grand Final week I was regularly in tears. Just thinking about my love was enough to stimulate emotion. If I had to speak of them, I had to concentrate on ensuring my voice didn’t choke. Recalling a lifetime of Tiger memories inevitably set me off. And I knew I wasn’t alone. I’ve spent many hours in the arms of fellow Tiger tragics over the last month and we could all feel it. We told each other that we were just happy to be in the Grand Final. I said to many people, all I wanted to be able to do was cheer my team instead of having to pick my least-hated. But it still felt different.

My Tigers rode that feeling all the way through to the dais. Nobody could deny them. Even the Crows could feel it. My brother called me at half-time. He was at the game with his son, another Tiger tragic. We spoke of the Crows sitting in their rooms ruminating on that feeling. The emotional cauldron of the MCG had crystallised into a singular feeling and the Crows were up against it. More than that, they had to go back out and face it.

My favourite times on the football field were when it was late in the game and you knew you had mentally beaten your opponent. You looked into the eyes of your team-mates and you could see your feeling reciprocated. With 15min to play in the Grand Final it was evident on the MCG. My beloved Tigers spent that 15min feeling immortal and I’m sure they didn’t want the game to end. I watched CEO Brendon Gale in tears hugging his brother Michael and his mother. Both men were Tigers I had fallen in love with as a child. I watched Matthew Richardson crying on the boundary. My love for Richo has never dimmed nor faltered. Coach Damien Hardwick set the tone of 2017 by pouring his heart out to his players. This method speaks to me on an entirely different plane and I love him for it. Hardwick sat in the coaches’ box and looked so proud of his players.

Zar and Wes - the next generation of Tigers

I remain surprised at the depth of feeling I have for the Richmond Football Club winning the 2017 AFL Premiership. I have been repeatedly moved to tears before, during and after. The Age‘s Caroline Wilson said that people congratulated her and she accepted those congratulations without question. I too was congratulated for nothing more than supporting the Tigers. The number of calls and messages this humble fan fielded certainly surprised me. But then I thought of this feeling and I understood why people were so pleased for me.

The win was a beautiful reminder of the wonders of sport. For sheer unadulterated joy, I have never felt anything like it. Another Richmond fan, media commentator Waleed Aly, compared the premiership to his marriage and the birth of his kids. I had some role in my wedding and the birth of my kids. I made life decisions based around them, planned for them, and ultimately they occurred. Mrs Bugler and the mini-Buglers mean much, much more to me than the Tiger flag, but I had some control as to how they were included in my life. The Tigers came from the wilderness. I had no impact and no control of their destiny. All I could do was sit in my lounge room, thousands of kilometres away, and ride the wave of feeling as it grew larger and exploded with joy on the MCG.

Carn’ the Tigers.

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