Hardwick's masterpiece delivers Richmond's drought-breaking flag

Tigers coach Damien Hardwick hugs Norm Smith Medal winner Dustin Martin. Mark Kolbe/AFL Media/Getty Images

MELBOURNE, Australia -- As a guttural roar 37 years in the making rang around the MCG on Saturday evening, and the Richmond theme song blared over, and over, and over, and over again, it became obvious that not only did the Tigers stunningly win Saturday' grand final against Adelaide, they may have revolutionised the way football is played.

The underdog Tigers were supposed to be easy prey for the high-flying Crows but they instead weathered an early charge to power away to a commanding win to secure their first premiership since 1980.

And as night follows day, rival AFL clubs will look to copy some traits of each premiership team for the following season. Many coaches and club officials will no doubt pay particularly close attention to Richmond's 'small-ball' gamble that paid enormous dividends.

The victory was masterminded by coach Damien Hardwick, who less than 12 months ago was in danger of losing his job after the Tigers tumbled out of the top eight before the Richmond hierarchy belatedly stuck fat.

In preparing for the 2017 season, Hardwick boldly created a team that played to its strengths instead of trying to paper over its weaknesses, the coach tipping conventional wisdom on its head in creating a game-plan featuring only one key forward in Jack Riewoldt.

Hardwick's incredible foresight and bravery in going small throughout a stunning 2017 - rather than trying to find a second and third AFL-standard key forward, which proved disastrous in previous campaigns - was every bit as important as the heroics performed by his ferocious No.22 on Saturday.

After the incredible victory, Richmond's Kane Lambert praised his fellow forwards' ability to defy the odds.

"We wanted to apply as much pressure as we can, as we have done all year, we knew if we could do that we could eventually crack them," Lambert told ESPN amid the pandemonium in the Tigers' changerooms.

"We've gone small all year, we've had no keys [apart from Riewoldt] but we just played to our strengths and that's speed and pressure."

Ruck recruit Toby Nankervis echoed his teammate's thoughts.

"It [the small forward line] has worked, hasn't it? Throughout the whole year, we've been told we're too small without a second key forward but blokes have had a willingness to play selfless roles - Jacob Townsend, Josh Caddy ... and Jack Riewoldt has been unbelievable," the ex-Swan said post-match.

Of course, the Tigers' drought-breaking premiership also came through their fierce pressure around the ball, and a handful of elite superstars led by Brownlow and Norm Smith medallist Dustin Martin, captain Trent Cotchin and All-Australian captain Alex Rance.

Their victory over the Crows was substance over style, teamwork overpowering supposedly more talented individuals. Martin, Cotchin, Dion Prestia, Bachar Houli, Kane Lambert, Shaun Grigg, Brandon Ellis and Shane Edwards controlled the contested ball and prevented Adelaide from the fluent, free-flowing brand of football that earned them the minor premiership. Toby Nankervis also at the very least broke even with Adelaide's premier ruckman Sam Jacobs, which set the tone for the Tigers' midfield.

But it was the efforts of each team's forward line that proved most contrasting. Adelaide's attack -- the league's most powerful all season - boasted three key talls in Taylor Walker, Josh Jenkins and Andy Otten, as well as the mid-sized, hard-running link man in Tom Lynch. They were all ineffectual, completely blanketed by Richmond's frenzied defensive unit led by Rance. Of the quartet, only captain Walker was able to hit the scoreboard, finishing with two hardly-noticeable majors.

The Tigers, on the other hand, as they had done almost all season, played only Riewoldt as a traditional key forward, with the Tasmanian again producing a lion-hearted display. He fought an engaging battle against Daniel Talia to finish with 14 disposals, six marks, six tackles and 2.3, but he was pivotal in the Tigers' structure, allowing the small and mid-sized teammates to flourish.

The Tigers' eye-catching 'mosquito fleet' of Daniel Rioli, Dan Butler and Jason Castagna all played their part, while Jack Graham produced a breakout performance in just his fifth AFL game, booting three goals, and Jacob Townsend continued his career resurrection with a couple of goals as well.

It wasn't the size of the Tigers in the fight that was most important, but the size of the fight in the Tigers.

Rival AFL coaches and officials would have no doubt looked on in fascination as Richmond's diminutive blue collar forward line harassed, swarmed and tackled their way to a famous victory in front of 100, 021 fans. Whether or not all clubs follow the Hardwick method in future seasons remains to be seen, but with most teams already having removed their second ruckman, maybe the AFL is about to get even smaller again.

Not that Hardwick and the Tigers - or any previously success-starved Richmond fan -- would complain.