Trent Cotchin had spent much of his footy career trying to live up to an almost impossible ideal, of a man, a footballer, a captain. It was wearying. This season he has learned to accept himself for who he is and it has proved liberating. He feels it and others see it. He says the same is true for all of Richmond Football Club.
“The environment we’ve created around the club as a whole is to be yourself,” he said. “Everyone is different and we celebrate those imperfections, rather than everyone thinking they need to be this perfect human being, showing no emotion. The reality is that we’re human beings. Every human has imperfections to some degree. We’re celebrating that rather than try to hide away from it.”
For Richmond, that has meant not only not brooding over defeats, but rejoicing in each victory as its own achievement, rather than the ticking of another box. Last year was a rude lesson in how rare and precious wins can be. This year they’ve been more plentiful, but no less treasured.
For Cotchin, it has meant, for instance, taking time to cherish the ex post facto Brownlow Medal he won at the end of last year. “In the past, I would have shied away from being a Brownlow medallist,” he said. “I would hidden from it, put it to the side and not really engaged in everything that came with it. Part of the learning I did did over the off-season and through my career is … it’s something special and you should enjoy those sort of moments.”
He felt for the deposed Jobe Watson and reached out to him at the time, but says it was not as if he had a choice to accept or reject the vacated honour. “He had to deal with it his way,” Cotchin said. “I don’t think it’s something that if we caught up in the street, it would come between us.”
In his fresh frame of mind, Cotchin has been expansive, opening himself up to teammates, in a newspaper column and in an edgy video on social media. He says that sharing has been cathartic. “That’s really important,” he said.
Oddly enough, the teammate who has helped most in Cotchin’s journey of self-awareness is Dustin Martin. “The No.1 thing he has taught me is to be comfortable with who you are,” Cotchin said. “Stand up for what you believe in. It’s an incredible strength. A lot of people are trying to be someone they’re not really. He does it every day.
Cotchin and Martin have become footy’s hottest bromance. Outwardly, they are chalk and cheese. Cotchin says they are like any two people with different upbringings who are thrown together – at school, in an office, as in-laws – and find not only common cause, but complementary strengths and mutual attraction. He says they learn from one another constantly.
“We have this ultimate goal as a team, but I love him as a person,” Cotchin said. “I love him like a brother and am very thankful for the fact that he has been in my life.” Evidently, the feeling is reciprocal. On the Footy Show last week, Martin’s father, the equally fearsome looking Shane, went out of his way to express in his own gruff style his affection for and gratitude to Cotchin.
Cotchin says Martin is misunderstood, a book wrongly judged by its cover. You might think, for instance, that he fends off intimacy as peremptorily as he fends off opponents. “The thing that people miss about him is his genuine care for people,” Cotchin said. “There’s an element of shy. He doesn’t do a lot of media, so people think he’s either arrogant or stand-off-ish. If you knew him, he’s not that sort of person.
“The way he plays with my kids … if you went by the public perception, you’d go, no way does he lay on the couch and play hide-and-seek with my kids. That would bemuse a lot of people.”
Cotchin talks about his kids often. In the video clip, he compares the footy season to a long drive with kids in the back seat; every now and then, you just have to take a break. Some use kids as a shield, so that they don’t have to talk about themselves, or adults at all. In Cotchin, you sense it their innocence grounds him. “The one thing kids do for me is make everything good,” he said.
Interviewed by Emma Quayle as a teenage draftee, Cotchin said he could envisage himself at 40, married and living on a beach somewhere with two teenagers and two dogs. Already then, teammates called him grandpa. He also said that one premiership might do him.
He says now that was a little naive of him. “The thrill of playing in front of big crowds on weekends against the best in the competition, I love,” he said. “That’s what gets you out of bed in the morning. Coming here to the football club, especially the environment we’ve created, is enjoyable. It’s fun to be around. And we’re really well paid to do it. But I still look forward to life after footy as well.” The teenagers are a work in progress.
For now, now is what matters. On film, Cotchin quotes his first captain, Kane Johnson thus: “There’s never nothing going on.” In other words, enjoy the voyage, don’t obsess with the destination. More recently, a friend put it this way: “The past is history, the future’s a mystery, the present is a gift.”
This year, it is a gift that has kept on giving.
Much has been made of the makeover of Richmond’s game plan this season, the way they are moving the ball more speedily to smaller, more mobile forwards. Cotchin says it grew out of painfully honest conversations at the end of last season, and coach Damian Hardwick’s more open disposition, and the input of players and coaches arriving from other clubs.
But he also stresses that what has not changed has been equally important. “A lot of what we believe is important to wining games of footy hasn’t changed over the course of a number of years,” he said. “It becomes instilled in you what you really want to value as a group. It grows legs from there.”
Martin has been phenomenal. “As I’ve said a number of times, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being part of the Dusty show,” Cotchin said. It has been all the more remarkable for the way he has shrugged off the fuss that has accompanied his every move. But Cotchin notes that several others have had career-best seasons. Arguably, he has had his best season since 2012, his “Brownlow” year. But it did not lead to All Australian selection, puzzling some.
“I’m completely fine with that,” he said. “I’m 27. While it’s nice for your ego to get individual awards, my goal at the start of the season was to help our group become a better football team. If in some small way I’ve helped individuals, but also the team, I feel that’s my role, as a player and as the captain.”
The Tigers perch where they’ve rarely sat for a generation. Team and fans make them a formidable force. Cotchin remembers their last meeting with Geelong, in Geelong. Though vastly outnumbered, the Richmond fans were not out-barracked. At the MCG, they are worth a player.
“The power of the support base is our greatest bargaining tool to interest other players,” Cotchin said. But could not their yearning become oppressive, too? “It starts to weigh on you when you start to worry about the outcome,” he said. “What we’ve been really good at, and really consistent with, this season is focusing just on what we need to do next. That’s all you can control.”
So the metamorphosis is almost complete, Cotchin into his new lightweight skin, the Tigers into their new heavy-duty hide. Now for the hard bit: September. The prospects are giddying, almost too much for the long-suffering fans to bear, but the captain and his team are concentrating only on the next immediate step. “It’s do as we do,” he said.