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Preview: Richmond Tigers

Will the Tigers see finals football in 2012? Scott Spits and Jesse Hogan discuss.

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''It does take time. That's the hard thing for a lot of people outside, and even inside, to understand. The hard thing to do is to stay the course.''

RICHMOND coach Damien Hardwick reckons his new contract eases the pressure and increases it. ''We've had our free hit, so to speak,'' he says. ''Now's where it really starts, our journey.''

Hardwick is sitting in his light and airy office at Punt Road. Outside it is a training facility as good as any in the AFL, including a bunkroom where a player with a bad corkie, for instance, can spend the night, supervised by a physiotherapist. In another office is Ross Smith, hired in a role the Tigers previously could not have afforded, to teach defence not just to the back line, but to the whole team.

Jack Riewoldt marks over coach Damien Hardwick during Richmond training.

Back-breaker: Richmond coach Damien Hardwick gets down to business at training with high-flyer Jack Riewoldt. Photo: Pat Scala

Outside is the oval, a familiar, landmark sight, but not for much longer; the bulldozers are about to move in to level off a two-metre fall. Richmond, notes Hardwick, is proving as good as president Gary March's word; it is spending its money on the football department.

Old Richmond was symbolised by a tiger fleece. In Hardwick's boyhood, it represented the king of the football jungle. Then for a long time, it was a parody of what Richmond became, tatty and blood-soaked. Hardwick has not seen it, nor anything of that Richmond.

He says culture at any football club is about people. Start with the right ones, he says, and the rest fall into place. When Brett Deledio re-signed this week, he said it was because Hardwick had. At Richmond, there is a stirring.

Damien Hardwick.

Damien Hardwick: applying lesson learnt. Photo: Vince Caligiuri

Hardwick played in premiership teams at Essendon and Port Adelaide, and helped to engineer one at Hawthorn. He has done the modelling. ''Having worked with Alastair Clarkson at Hawthorn from day dot, I can see the similarities - the players we've brought in, the recruiting policies, the build-up,'' he says. ''That's probably the greatest learning experience I've had at a football club. This is what I know. This is what I want our footy club to become.''

But he is not promising instant deliverance. Premierships don't materialise, they evolve. He notes how long it took for rebuilds to bear fruit at Geelong, Hawthorn and St Kilda.

''The great thing for our footy club last year is that the top five in our best and fairest were 23 and under,'' he says.

''You look at our spine: [Alex] Rance, [Dylan] Grimes, [Dustin] Martin, [Trent] Cotchin, Deledio, [Ty] Vickery, [Jack] Riewoldt. It is very, very young. It does take time. That's the hard thing for a lot of people outside, and even inside, to understand. The hard thing to do is to stay the course.''

Richmond fans have had decades of practice at it. Hardwick marvels at their stoicism, and their volume. Three times in the past two years, his ears have hurt from roars as loud as any he can remember, even in grand finals. The loudest was in last year's Dreamtime game win over Essendon.

Already, this year's membership stands at more than 45,000. ''For us not to have had a winning season in such a long time, and to have that much support, it's a great testament to the Richmond faithful,'' Hardwick says. ''They believe in what we're doing. They hang tough.''

On last year's figures, Richmond's most urgent priority is to fortify its defence. Hardwick says that is simplistic. First, injuries cruelled the first-choice back line, forcing Deledio to retreat from the midfield. Second, the Tigers were 16th in clearances.

''Effectively, it means if we weren't winning clearances, it was going straight inside their 50,'' he says. ''It was putting a young defence under pressure. When the ball went inside our forward half and we got our defensive formation set up, we weren't too bad.''

Hardwick identified an outsized burden on young ruck shoulders - Angus Graham, Vickery and Andrew Browne. Richmond pressed hard to sign Ivan Maric from Adelaide.

''All of a sudden we get a ruckman who is physically mature, and has played a lot of football,'' he says. ''It gives us more stability in there, and predictability.''

Recognising defence as now an ''all-ground mechanism'', the Tigers poached Smith to teach it.

Other horizons are opening up. Deledio will return to the midfield. Cotchin and Martin will add a season. It is easy to forget they are 21 and 20 respectively, the age of brilliant inconsistency. Hardwick sees in Cotchin shades of the dynamism of Mark Ricciuto, and dares to imagine that in time he will be as hard to match up.

He envisages an expanded role for Riewoldt: greater range, more touches, fewer goals. ''When he pushes up the ground, he's very creative,'' Hardwick says. ''He brings other players into the game. We don't want him kicking those bags of seven and eight. We'd prefer him to kick three or four each week. Like last year, his number of goals was down, but his goal assists were up three times.''

Hardwick remembers how Matthew Lloyd broadened his game at Essendon, and how the Bombers were better for it, and thinks Riewoldt is on the same threshold. ''The one thing I would say about Jack is that he is now a team-first player,'' he says.

In his third season as coach, and guaranteed at least two more, Hardwick is emerging as his own man. Reportedly, Richmond sounded out Mick Malthouse last year as a possible director of coaching. Nothing ensued. ''It's not a role I see a great need for,'' Hardwick says. ''The models I've looked at overseas and at other good footy clubs, I don't think it's necessary.''

The football industry, he says, is a bubble. The best advice often comes from outside it. He has trusty sounding boards in basketball and soccer. ''I make sure I get some good counsel, someone who'll say, 'You're being pig-headed on this one. Pull your head in','' he says.

Hardwick takes his reappointment as an endorsement of all Richmond's coaches. He says assistant coaches matter, but their playing pedigree does not. He interviewed Brendan McCartney, and would love to have employed him. He did employ Greg Mellor, a development coach from the SANFL. ''I can't believe he wasn't in the system sooner,'' he says. ''There are good coaches outside the system; we have to find them.''

Hardwick says coaching in the AFL is not about keeping up with the Joneses, but being them. ''We think we're on the right path, but every coach thinks that.''

He predicts the AFL will divide distinctly this year into Geelong and Collingwood models. Richmond, he says coyly, will be ''a bit of both''.

Hardwick detests losing as much as ever. ''You do go into a cave. The first 24 hours after a loss, regardless of where you are on the ladder, it's hard to swallow.'' His job is all-consuming, but it is also a privilege, and he tries not to take it for granted.

His family's support is unconditional - his parents still go to every game - and he tries to block out three hours a night for family matters, including homework assistance. ''Football is very important, but it's a long way behind family,'' he says. ''But algebra is killing me at the moment!''

For more than a week, Hardwick has felt the churning in his stomach that marks a new season. His objective is deceptively simple: to improve on last year. ''We don't want to put a ceiling on it.''

If the Tigers win tonight, the fans will raise it anyway.