Prior to Richmond’s final round fixture against Port Adelaide on the last day of the 2012 home and away season, Chris Newman stepped down as captain.
The surprise decision ended the veteran defender’s four-year tenure as skipper of the perennial ninth-finishing Tigers. Newman was not retiring – he would continue to play but felt that it was time for a capable teammate to take on the leadership responsibility.
“I probably wouldn’t have made the decision if I didn’t feel like there were some guys that are able to step in to my shoes and do an even better job,” he told The Herald Sun.
Despite Coach Damien Hardwick and the Richmond administration giving nothing away, experienced midfielder Brett Deledio and rising star Trent Cotchin were expected to be those guys.
However, it was Cotchin who was the far more likely and popular choice. He played every game in the 2012 season as the club’s vice-captain and averaged 27.5 disposals per game.
He almost single-handedly dragged Richmond over the line on many occasions – against Sydney, Hawthorn, Western Bulldogs and Essendon – all of which earned him best on ground honours and three Brownlow votes. He amassed 26 votes in the count and finished equal second.
Cotchin’s sublime season also saw him win the Jack Dyer Medal for Richmond’s best and fairest, the AFL Coaches Association Champion Player Of The Year Award and named in the All-Australian team.
Deledio admitted that he would like the captaincy but acknowledged that Cotchin would most likely get the nod and pledged to support him as skipper.
“I texted [Cotchin] and said: Look mate, if you’re going to be captain I’ll back you the whole way,” said Deledio to Fox Sports.
As expected, the then 22-year old Cotchin was announced as the new Richmond captain after a vote from both the player leadership group and the club’s football department.
Halfway through the 2013 season, it appears as though the Tigers are on track for a finals berth. Richmond is currently 7th on the ladder with a 7-4 record. Deledio and Dustin Martin are playing well and young draft picks Brandon Ellis and Nick Vlastuin are having breakout seasons.
However, since being given the captaincy, Cotchin has been a shadow of his normal self.
In the eleven games played so far this year, Cotchin has rarely provided a spark. He has not miraculously plucked the ball from a contest or produced a crucial centre clearance anywhere near as much as he did in 2012. He has not ignited his team in the way the Essendon’s Jobe Watson has countless times this season.
Cotchin is still getting a lot of the ball – averaging 24 possessions per game – but is not having much influence. He has been criticised for his disposal efficiency, which has been far less than the exceptional skill level expected from a player of his calibre. He has often missed targets by foot, surprising many by kicking the ball out on the full when attempting a simple pass in Richmond’s heartbreaking one-point loss to Fremantle in round four.
Despite claiming that he is happy with the captaincy, the burden of responsibility and this pressure has simply been too much for young Cotchin.
To Richmond’s credit, its other midfielders have lifted to carry the load. This has been a fundamental aspect of its successful 2013 season. But if Richmond can play well without the influence of Cotchin, it is scary to think of how good the Tigers could be with it.
The club was premature in selecting Cotchin as captain. It was a mistake. Geelong avoided this situation when it opted to not select rising star Joel Selwood as skipper in 2010. Instead they appointed veteran Cameron Ling and eventually Selwood took over three years later. Richmond should have taken a similar approach.
It appears as though the more experienced Deledio, who is having a superb season, would have been a more suitable candidate as part of a succession plan. Deledio could have captained the side for three years, allowing Cotchin to perform as he did in 2012 in a vice-captain role. Then the change could have been made when Cotchin is 26, a much more mature leader with possibly a Brownlow medal to his name.
While a captaincy change now is extremely unlikely, Richmond erroneously appointed Cotchin as captain too early in his career. Now we can only hope that the young skipper can soon return to his brilliant best.
John Lindon is a second-year sports journalism student at La Trobe University. You can follow him on Twitter: @jagrlin. He also runs a blog about Richmond called The Tigerland Review.