No asterisk needed, Richmond Tigers among AFL's very best

Dustin Martin is the first player to win the Norm Smith three times. Photo: Bradley Kanaris/AFL Photos/via Getty Images
Dustin Martin is the first player to win the Norm Smith three times. Photo: Bradley Kanaris/AFL Photos/via Getty Images

Make no mistake - after it's all said and done, the best thing about AFL season 2020 was the fact that we had one at all.

Given the scale of the coronavirus pandemic and the fact an entire competition was put on hold for nearly three months, to have completed a relatively full schedule was an amazing logistical feat, one for which the AFL deserves enormous credit.

It was fixturing on the run, with compromises of match regulations and ongoing uncertainty. Sometimes, life was made even more difficult by a series of players slipping into selfishness, putting the whole thing in jeopardy. But somehow, we got there in the end.

Perhaps the biggest comment on the relative success of this season is that by its end there was no mention at all of the so-called asterisk that many feared would forever stand beside the name of the 2020 premiership team. It helped that the flag was won by indisputably the best team not just of this season, but the past four, and against another bonafide heavyweight of the competition in Geelong. Both contenders did it the hard way, a long way from home and having been confined to hubs which became not just their professional existence, but their whole lives.

Indeed, the scale of Richmond's achievement in winning a third premiership in four seasons is such that there's been an interesting debate about the Tigers' place among great modern-day teams.

Three premierships from four campaigns isn't quite the feat of Hawthorn's "three-peat" between 2013-15, or Brisbane's hat-trick of 2001-03. But it's the next best effort (in purely premiership terms) since an earlier version of the Hawks delivered three premierships in four years as the VFL became the AFL from 1988-91. Geelong delivered its three flag wins over a five-season period from 2007-11.

If flags along with the length of time it took to win them is the sole criteria, the no.1 ranking is between the Hawks and Lions, these contemporary Tigers next, followed by the Cats. Strip away the honours and it becomes an even more interesting exercise. Particularly when you remember that all four of these great teams had an untimely stumble but for which their records might be even more formidable. And funnily enough, a hurdle toppled which appeared more negotiable than others climbed over.

For Brisbane, it was the fourth-straight grand final appearance in 2004 against Port Adelaide, the only playoff in which they faced a team on at least neutral turf, the three grand finals won at the MCG against local opposition in Essendon then (twice) Collingwood. Hawthorn knocked over Fremantle, Sydney and West Coast in fine style, but that hat-trick was preceded by an epic 2012 grand final loss to the Swans by 10 points, a game in which the Hawks started hot favourites.

Geelong will always rue 2008, when it had lost just one game of 24 before facing an upstart Hawthorn in the big one. Bad kicking that afternoon and an inspired third-term burst by the Hawks turned what should have been a day of triumph into a nightmare.

Richmond, while having arguably the most dominant grand final performances of the lot by 48 points against Adelaide in 2017, a whopping 89 points against GWS and this time by 31 points, had enjoyed its easiest run to the premiership goal in 2018, famously coming a cropper at the hands of Collingwood and big American Mason Cox playing out of his skin in the preliminary final.

Winning percentages across these four eras of greatness are also compelling. Brisbane famously never once finished on top during its "three-peat", and its strike rate from 2001-04 sits 74.7, the lowest of the four sides. But the Lions, propelled by superstars like Michael Voss, Simon Black, Jason Akermanis, Nigel Lappin, Jonathan Brown, Alastair Lynch and Justin Leppitsch, were the ultimate big occasion team.

Ditto the Hawks, with a winning percentage between 2012-15 of 79.2, and whose last leg of the flag trifecta came in 2015 after having lost a qualifying final to the Eagles, against whom they'd turn the tables on grand final day, having to make two road trips to Perth to play first West Coast, then Fremantle.

Geelong's strike rate of 84 per cent across five seasons from 2007-11 is in some ways the most remarkable record, blemished by the Cats' 2008 grand final defeat and a stinker against Collingwood in the 2010 preliminary final. At their peak, they were close to untouchable, the roll call of Ablett, Scarlett, Johnson, Chapman, Selwood, Kelly, Enright, Corey formidable to say the least.

But hindsight is a wonderful thing, too. While it's been fashionable to tag Richmond as the ultimate team more than a collection of stars - for a long time the focus on a quartet of Dustin Martin, Alex Rance, Jack Riewoldt and Trent Cotchin - surely three premierships is enough franking to have us view their picture differently.

After all, 14 players in last Saturday's line-up are now triple premiership players. Several of those, like Dion Prestia, Dylan Grimes, Shane Edwards and Bachar Houli, have been consistently good now for a long and ultra-successful period.

Martin, now also the first triple Norm Smith medallist in history and arguably the greatest finals player of all time, didn't even win his club's best and fairest on Tuesday night. That honour was taken out by another emerging star in defender Jayden Short.

It's been an amazing four years for the Tigers given where the club stood, 13th and flag-less for 36 years, by the end of 2016. And who's to say there aren't one or two more premierships left in this combination yet?

That would surely settle any debate about AFL-era greatest once and for all. And far from the asterisk some presumed season 2020 would always carry, the Tigers' achievement this unusual season would be arguably an even bigger part of an impressive story arc.