Richmond supporters see the end approaching. Photo: Mal Fairclough
The Richmond people came early, in formidable numbers and spirit, and left early, Tiger tails between their legs. So did their team. Making the finals and proceeding in them, all had learnt, were two different things.
Since 1982, Richmond has won two finals, and it will be at least another year before it wins a third.
The irony was lost on no one. After all those years of finishing unavailing ninth, now the Tigers had been knocked out by the team that finished ninth this year, but by an accident of history was playing finals, anyway. More gallingly, it was Carlton, their nemesis of generations. Even worse in terms of Richmond's world view, the Blues now go on to play battered and bruised Sydney in a semi-final next week. All this, the Tigers know, could have been theirs.
AFL Elimination Final: Richmond v Carlton
Richmond run through the banner. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
But if a moral can be inferred from the first week of the finals, it is that the team that gets even one step ahead of itself is liable to trip over its own feet. It happened three times.
In time, when the bitterness of the moment recedes, Richmond might conclude that Sunday's pain was worth it; it was the getting of wisdom. On the field and off, it came to play. The faithful - and they are faithful - descended in such numbers that the crowd would aggregate nearly 95,000, bigger and more football-authentic than for most grand finals. They filled the MCG with a sense of vocation. A peculiar dynamic rules such days: terrified fans cannot wait for the match to start, then cannot wait for it to end.
The Richmond banner announced the arrival of ''the class of 2013'', complete with a caricature of every player on the list. This had been an all-team effort, it said, an all-of-club effort. Drummers provided the accompaniment.
Always, the challenge for the Tigers was to deal with the atmospherics. They had to feel the adrenalin coursing through them, but not be swamped by it. While walking on air, they had somehow to feel the ground beneath their feet, too.
In truth, the Tigers got it wrong. They dominated the match in the first quarter, and much of the second, too. But they lacked the infinitesimal extra degree of poise they needed, when kicking for goal, for instance. An eight-point lead at quarter time was scant reward for their mastery.
It seemed not to matter as their lead grew until it stood at 32 points, minutes into the third quarter. But perhaps throughout that spendthrift first half, they were burning up nervous energy, depleting reserves. The club will have ways of measuring this. It is a familiar pattern in Richmond-Carlton games. Three times this year, the Tigers built up big leads over the Blues. The first time, on opening weekend, they held on. But now twice in a month, they were overrun. For Damien Hardwick and his men, that is next year's urgent business.
The match was a classic final, and so unlike any other the Tigers have played on their rise. Rather than an exhibition of the game, it was handsome is as handsome does.
Inevitably, such an uncompromising confrontation throws up anomalies. A total of 11 goals were kicked from free kicks and/or 50-metre penalties. Among these were three 50-metre goals for Richmond in the second quarter, and three goals from free kicks for Carlton's Jarrad Waite. The last was against Carlton's Mitch Robinson for punching the ball through on the full from a ball-up in the defensive goal square, statutorily considered to be deliberate rushing, at the start of the last quarter.
But the Tigers would add only one more goal. Ruckman Ivan Maric manufactured it, crumbing his own pack, then twisting away, a la Dustin Martin, from two opponents. It was a memorable individual effort, but it was also the death throe of a spent force.
At the other end, Carlton was irresistible. Twelve of the last 15 goals brooks no argument. As so often is the case in finals, when all other factors cancel out one another, a bit player emerged as the trump. Nick Duigan had appeared only three times for the Blues this year, and came into this game only at the 11th hour when Brock McLean injured himself in the warm-up, but by hard running and constant presenting of himself kicked four telling goals.
The Tigers had little left in their legs in the last quarter, and none at all at the final siren. Everywhere, they either stood stock still or sank to their haunches, heads in hand, weighed down by heavy hearts. In the stands and car parks, it was the same. They had made it to September, now they had to learn to make it through September.