Mini-Tigerland? Richmond frustrated at Dons’ coach poaching

The result spoke for itself when Richmond cleared the decks at the end of 2016, replacing most of their assistant coaches, appointing Neil Balme as head of football and dividing his duties with his predecessor Daniel Richardson.

It's true that the transformed Damien Hardwick drove the change with captain Trent Cotchin but a key ingredient to that year of Tiger wonders was Richardson's willingness to swallow his pride and work alongside Balme, a close family friend who had played in premierships with his father Barry.

Richmond assistant coach Blake Caracella.Credit:AAP

If you asked Balme he would respond: "Yes, but I didn't mean you to take all my people."

Balme, who has enjoyed a long and almost paternal relationship with Caracella, is probably more pragmatic than some at Richmond regarding the defection. The experienced assistant who Geelong let go at the end of 2016 was contracted to the Tigers for 2020 but due to his personal circumstances had an out clause in his contract this year.

Just as Richmond would not match Rutten's offer last year without giving pay rises to Caracella and Justin Leppitsch, the Tigers had the same dilemma this season. The Bombers have been negotiating for Caracella's services for some months and Richmond faced a football soft-cap squeeze had they retained him and also rewarded Leppitsch and Adam Kingsley.

Losing key coaches is the last thing clubs want as they head towards finals but nor did Essendon want the news made public as John Worsfold attempts to postpone more winds of change and hold his team of assistants and high performance personnel together as they work towards September.

Last year West Coast learned months out that Sam Mitchell was breaking his contract and heading back to Hawthorn. The still relatively inexperienced senior coach Adam Simpson faced the added burden of keeping his coaching team – including the defecting Mitchell – focused and united.

The AFL Coaches Association has attempted on two occasions to introduce an anti-tampering rule for coaches given the disruption these situations cause, particularly during finals campaigns.

But when push has come to shove the same club chiefs who loathe losing key personnel even to interviews and presentations elsewhere, have balked at legislating against in-season poaching.

Only last month the Port Adelaide board was unhappy that Michael Voss missed that club's main training session to present to Carlton. The Blues would not accommodate a request from Voss to present over the previous weekend when the Power were playing in Melbourne.

In the past, clubs have ordered departing assistants out immediately upon learning the news. Alastair Clarkson was gone from Port Adelaide before the 2004 finals series as was Mark Neeld from Collingwood before the 2011 grand final. Brenton Sanderson chose to leave Geelong as soon as he had accepted the senior role at Adelaide during the 2011 finals, although they wanted him to stay.

Dan Richardson (centre) during his time at Tigerland, with Belinda Duarte and Amanda Green.Credit:Wayne Taylor

Not so Caracella, whose decision to return to Essendon after 17 years is a multi-layered tale which was reportedly not an easy decision for him, made easier by the fact that he will next year become one of the best-remunerated assistant coaches in the AFL.

He has told friends he hopes to help recreate something of the environment he has enjoyed over three seasons at Richmond at the club which last won a flag two decades ago with Caracella on a wing.

In the meantime, he has pledged himself to premiership teammate Hardwick – who is credited with identifying him during 2016 as an ideal candidate to convert the Tigers' stagnant ball movement – until the end of Richmond's 2019 campaign. Caracella will not be permitted to join Essendon until the end of October.

Despite the speculation surrounding Worsfold's coaching future at Essendon the expectation is that he will coach the club next season, albeit with some more key internal changes.

Another lesson Richardson learned at Tigerland was to act immediately to solve a problem, something the club failed to do at the end of 2015 when it made no changes to Hardwick's assistants when he was recontracted.

That's why Neeld was moved on with such brutal efficiency in May 2018 and Richardson, barely six months into his new job, set about reconfiguring the team and structure around Worsfold. Forwards coach Paul Corrigan and opposition strategist Rob Harding were given their marching orders in July.

Like so many before him Richardson has probably been challenged at times by the the Bombers' zealous but factionalised and influential supporter group but the club has held firm in supporting Worsfold and ensuring they surround him with the best possible team as Essendon rebuild their  culture.

Caracella returns to Essendon after ending his playing days at the Brisbane Lions and then Collingwood under Leigh Matthews and Mick Malthouse respectively. He has coached under four premiership mentors: Malthouse, Mark Thompson, Chris Scott and Hardwick.

Although he has never harboured ambitions for a senior role previously but is reportedly rethinking that, his supporters say his football experience, intelligence and strategic talents ensure he would only need to overcome his introverted tendencies to succeed as a coach.

And Richmond?

Clearly Hardwick is disappointed at losing two key lieutenants in two years to lucrative offers from the Bombers but the club is saying Caracella has its blessing and it has moved on despite the collective frustration.

But the point has been made that a significant part of that frustration has come about by watching Richardson reshape Essendon in Richmond's image.

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