Richmond coach Damien Hardwick. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
YOU HAD only to see coach Damien Hardwick with his head in his hands a good couple of minutes after the siren at the MCG on Saturday night to know how shattering yet another narrow loss was for Richmond.
Thirteen points up on Carlton with a tick over seven minutes to play, and with the conditions making scoring difficult, the Tigers should have had it done and dusted. But a skill error here, a poor decision there and the nightmare was played out again.
Nine losses in 2012 by 21 points or less, the past three by a total of just 10, is enough to rip morale to pieces in even the most resilient unit. And perhaps now, with the finals flame extinguished, that might happen.
But it doesn't take too much logic, or research, to find case studies echoing the Tigers', and evidence that in the longer term, this year's excruciating frustration might even be the making of them.
Take one of their rivals right now, North Melbourne. The Kangaroos last year lost seven games by 17 points or less. This season, they've lost a couple more by a kick. But they've also won four narrow scapes, again by 17 points or fewer, and are more likely than not to turn a frustrating finish of ninth in the past two years into a finals appearance in 2012.
Going back further, Essendon in 1980 lost nine games by 14 points or fewer, finishing more than four games out of finals contention with 10 wins. In 1981, the Bombers, with more or less the same list, won 16, and on the eve of that season's finals series was a joint flag favourite.
In 1978, Fitzroy managed to lose eight games by 11 points or less, seven of those defeats coming within the first 11 rounds, a finish of ninth in a 12-team competition the consequence. The following season, the Roys exorcised those demons with some thumping victories and nearly doubled their win tally to 15, winning an elimination final besides.
Those Richmond sceptics heartily sick of the talk of the future will point out those latter two examples also changed coaches. That's not on in this case. Hardwick has a very solid foundation with which to work.
The Tigers could certainly use another key forward, another defender and perhaps even another midfielder. But what they need most is simply a little more time - to develop, hone further their skills and iron out the remaining chinks.
Twelve or 13 more goals spread across nine games and we'd be talking about a team close to the top of the ladder. And however painful this year has proved for the Tiger army, it also should be tangible proof they're within touching distance of something a lot more substantial.
Crows left too much to too few and may lose one of them (Thompson) for a couple of weeks.
RUN HOME: Ess (AS), Frem (AS), BL (Gabba), Melb (MCG), GC (AS)
Lions turned it up in the second half, last quarter a cakewalk for home side. No positives.
RUN HOME: Rich (G), Carl (ES), Adel (G), PA (AS), WB (G)
Gritty stuff by the weakened Blues, still finals chance, but huge test looming against Sydney.
RUN HOME: Syd (ES), BL (ES), Ess (MCG), GC (MS), StK (ES)
Good confidence-builder for out-of-sorts Cloke, good percentage builder for side which needs it.
RUN HOME: StK (MCG), Syd (ANZ), NM (ES), WC (PS), Ess (MCG)
All falling apart for the Bombers, more injuries, confidence shot and horror run still looming.
RUN HOME: Adel (AS), NM (ES), Carl (MCG), Rich (MCG), Coll (MCG)
Impressive record on road continues, important return from Fyfe, Dockers right back in finals hunt.
RUN HOME: WC (PS), Adel (AS), Rich (PS), NM (ES), Mel (PS)
Cats clawing back to a lot nearer their best, but real acid test coming on Friday against red-hot Hawks.
RUN HOME: Haw (MCG), WC (PS), StK (ES), WB (SS), Syd (SS)
Held the fort in the first half, ran up the white flag in the second, Ablett again with too much on plate.
RUN HOME: Melb (MCG), GWS (MS), Haw (MCG), Carl (MS), Adel (AS)
GREATER WESTERN SYDNEY
Youngsters' inability to match it with senior company for four quarters becoming painful to watch.
RUN HOME: PA (SK), GC (MS), Melb (MO), StK (ES), NM (SK)
Becoming a juggernaut with great pressure, superb skills and plenty of scoring power. Running hot.
RUN HOME: Geel (MCG), PA (AU), GC (MCG), Syd (SCG), WC (MCG)
Never in it, usual suspects left to do the work, poor effort for veteran Green's milestone match.
RUN HOME: GC (MCG), StK (MCG), GWS (MO), Adel (MCG), Frem (PS)
Efficient enough win over also-ran, skipper Swallow particularly impressive, forward line potent.
RUN HOME: WB (ES), Ess (ES), Coll (ES), Frem (ES), GWS (SK)
Pathetic effort from Power on home soil, two goals to three-quarter time a dismal return from disinterested team.
RUN HOME: GWS (SK), Haw (AU), WC (AS), BL (AS), Rich (MCG)
Finals flame officially extinguished after another heart-breaking loss, paid price for late errors.
RUN HOME: BL (G), WB (MCG), Frem (PS), Ess (MCG), PA (MCG)
A feast for the Saints' veterans in Goddard's 200th. Sloppy conversion, but fundamentals very sound.
RUN HOME: Coll (MCG), Melb (MCG), Geel (ES), GWS (ES), Carl (ES)
Few injury issues emerging, but Swans continued to get job done without fuss and plenty of efficiency.
RUN HOME: Carl (ES), Coll (ANZ), WB (ES), Haw (SCG), Geel (SS)
Wonderful last term did plenty to restore Eagles' confidence, and build all-important percentage.
RUN HOME: Frem (PS), Geel (PS), PA (AS), Coll (PS), Haw (MCG)
Turning into a dismal season for Dogs, can't score and consistently running out of gas come finish.
RUN HOME: NM (ES), Rich (MCG), Syd (ES), Geel (SS), BL (G)