Richmond shove all-in on Pickett and it pays off in spades

MELBOURNE -- The famous Kenny Rogers line "you've got to know when to hold them, know when to fold 'em" was first penned in 1979, but it rung true once again 40 years later at the Melbourne Cricket Ground as Richmond skipper Trent Cotchin hoisted the premiership trophy for the second time in three seasons.

The 2019 Grand Final was a tale of monster gambles, some of which paid enormous dividends and others which turned out to be sensational flops. Both coaches were prepared to back themselves and their players by making arguably the toughest calls of their footballing careers.

Richmond coach Damien Hardwick first rolled the dice on Thursday evening when he named Marlion Pickett -- a 27-year-old VFL and WAFL regular who had never, I repeat never, played an AFL game -- in his side's Grand Final team.

With Jack Graham suffering a nasty shoulder injury in the Tigers' preliminary final win over Geelong, a vacancy had opened up in the Tigers' 22. Hardwick could easily have opted for the more experienced Jack Ross, Kamdyn McIntosh or Sydney Stack, among plenty of others, but he didn't.

Instead, he went all-in on Pickett, who just seven days earlier had won the Norm Goss Medal for best afield in the VFL Grand Final. It would be the first time since 1952 that a player would debut in a Grand Final.

It was a risk of epic proportions. Would he be able to play a role or would it backfire for Hardwick?

That question was well and truly answered midway through the second term when some were already labelling the coaching call as one of the gutsiest and greatest the game has ever seen. It was a coaching masterstroke.

Pickett had the ball on a string and showed the composure of a 200-game veteran, as opposed to a player that most footy fans hadn't even heard of a week earlier.

"I didn't sleep for two nights," Hardwick said of the Pickett selection. "It didn't happen until Thursday afternoon when we sat down and worked our way through what was going to give us the best chance, and Marlion was the guy.

"The fact he hadn't played a single game of AFL footy before that was a slight concern, but we had incredible faith that he would be unflappable. And he was."

Pickett was far from overawed by the mammoth occasion. By fulltime he had contributed a superb goal, gathered 22 disposals, had a team-high eight inside 50s as well as 559 metres gained. At one point he exited the centre square with a glorious blind turn before sending the ball long into attack. It was a play which will live forever in footy folklore.

Pickett would go on to finish equal third in Norm Smith Medal voting, behind the dominant Dustin Martin and rebounding defender Bachar Houli.

"To play his first game in a Grand Final is something unheard of," Daniel Rioli said. "I'd seen a bit of his highlights in the WAFL and VFL but the way he performed today was special. The future is bright for him."

Two-time premiership hero Jack Riewoldt believes Pickett's performance should be an eye-opener for AFL recruiters.

"There's some bloody good players out there in local leagues that deserve an opportunity at AFL level," Riewoldt said. "You've just got to have a club who is willing to take a lot of risk."

While Hardwick was busy at Punt Road scribbling Pickett's name down on the team sheet, in Western Sydney, Giants coach Leon Cameron was also pondering a couple of huge selection decisions.

GWS skipper Phil Davis had injured his calf in their preliminary final over Collingwood and had been held to limited training all week.

He wasn't right. He wasn't even close to being right. But Cameron just couldn't swing the axe and named the star defender and inspirational leader at full back.

Lachie Whitfield was the other star Giant with a question mark next to his name after having appendix surgery and missing the preliminary final. But he too was deemed fit to play and was named in the side.

By Saturday morning there were whispers floating around the MCG that Davis could be a possible late out given his lack of mobility, something which became obvious during the pre-game warm-up. He still looked in distress and was moving with an obvious limp. Surely he was set to be an eleventh hour withdrawal.

He was not. Instead, he lined up alongside Riewoldt at the opening bounce and it wasn't long before he looked utterly helpless. Richmond clicked into gear early in the second quarter and Riewoldt outworked and outsmarted Davis, kicking three goals in the term as the margin ballooned out to 35 points at the main break. By the time Riewoldt kicked a fourth, the game was over.

"Testing Phil Davis pre-game was always the plan," Cameron said after the game. "We didn't hide it. He said he could play and we backed our captain in. I'll continue to back him in, too."

Whitfield wasn't able to have much of a positive influence either. The ball-magnet had just 14 disposals in the contest and failed to provide his usual damaging run-and-carry. He refused to kick the ball on his right foot, suggesting he was still battling pain.

His, and GWS' game, was summed up late in what was a tense, low-scoring first quarter. Whitfield was caught holding the ball at halfback by Kane Lambert and the ball was immediately sent inside 50, only for Martin to mark on his chest and kick Richmond's opener.

That single Whitfield mistake led to a Tigers avalanche. They kicked five goals in 12 minutes to just about put the game beyond doubt before half time.

Grand Finals don't come around all that often so it was little surprise that both coaches were prepared to shove all of their chips into the middle before the Sherrin had even been bounced. Cameron may have come up short, but Hardwick's is one which will be marveled at for generations.