That Trent Cotchin is a star is beyond doubt. At just 24 he has amassed an ultra-impressive resume that includes two best and fairests, a runner-up in the Brownlow Medal and All-Australian selection. He is also into his third year as Richmond’s captain.
The Tigers could not have hoped for more from their second selection in the 2007 draft. Into his seventh season, with 117 games under his belt, he plays at a consistently high level, week in, week out, and he and fellow midfielder Brett Deledio are clearly Richmond’s best players.
He is a model footballer. Scrupulously fair, a committed ball player, beautifully balanced and rarely knocked off his feet, prepared to push himself to exhaustion every time he takes the field, extremely modest and well spoken off the field with not a hint of controversy to tarnish his well-earnt reputation among the competition.
But, for some reason, I have him sitting just a rung below the very best players in the competition, and it has troubled me for some time as to why.
His public admission this week that his teammates have asked him to adopt a more aggressive leadership style is an interesting insight into his make-up and maybe it’s the starting point to unravelling the answer to my reluctance to have him placed alongside the likes of Scott Pendlebury, Joel Selwood and Patrick Dangerfield. (Gary Ablett sits in a category of his own.)
It is, of course, a subjective argument, and I can understand those who will fly the Cotchin flag. They can mount a compelling case. Dangerfield, for instance, does not have the same individual war chest that Cotchin has on display, despite being taken in the same draft as him, but right now, in my mind, he has edged ahead of the Tiger champ.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with Cotchin's attack on the football and there is not a single person who would question his aggression, nor his courage. But for his teammates to request that he takes a more ‘'aggressive'’ approach towards his leadership would suggest that he has been a little too inclined to let things roll along, and not be forceful, or demanding enough on those around him.
Cotchin took over the captaincy when he was just 22. He would have spent the best part of the first two years working through myriad issues confronting a modern AFL skipper. He would also have been, and I would imagine still is, developing his leadership style, and sometimes that can take even the best leaders some time to work out.
Simply running out on to the field each weekend and working your arse off and, more often than not, coming off the ground as your team's best or second-best player is not enough when you are handed the responsibility of leading the side.
Make no mistake, playing exceptional football, as Cotchin invariably does, is a huge part of the job. But leadership roles cannot be performed with blinkers on. And that is why some of the very best footballers to have played the game would have made some of the very worst leaders. The very thing that made them so exceptional, their narrow focus on what they needed to do to make them elite footballers, precluded them from becoming great and influential leaders.
Cotchin takes care of his own business exceedingly well. I’m told he is meticulous in his preparation and gives himself every chance to be the best player he can be. The challenge for him now, as a leader, is to be able to drag those around him along for the ride and to inspire them to greater heights.
The message that was passed on to him by his teammates in recent weeks may suggest just that. The stories around Selwood's captaincy style are fast becoming legendary in football circles. He is absolutely ruthless in his expectations of those who wear the Geelong jumper, and not afraid to make those demands known to the group, whether that be on match day, or in the middle of January during a torturous pre-season training session.
It is said that he has completed the most physical and soul-destroying training runs, in which he is invariably the first or second player to cross the line, only to turn around and run back along the track, imploring and demanding those who are struggling to find a way to push through their pain and get to the end of the line.
And he has gathered his group together at half-time in games, when the Cats have got the game in their keeping, and eyeballed the group and ‘'dared’' any of them to take their foot off the throats of their opposition and allow them the luxury of cruising to the line.
And then, of course, he backs up his words with actions, which allows no room for any player, silently or otherwise, to challenge his demands. In the end, the playing group is left with no choice but to fall in line and play in the manner of their skipper. They want to win his respect and will pay any price to do just that.
I’ve got no doubt in the world that the Richmond players respect, and to a degree, idolise Cotchin and what he is able to achieve as a footballer. Just maybe they feel intimidated by his output, and too often take a back seat on game day, leaving too much for one man to achieve.
Gaining the captaincy at such a young age, at such a big club, would have been enormously challenging. Now is the time for Cotchin to leave his mark as a leader. He’s got the playing side of it down pat. If he can guide this group out of its lacklustre start to the season, and instil a ruthless edge to the team by becoming the more aggressive leader that they want him to be, then there will be no doubt about his position among the very best playing the game today.