Every AFL club has a group of die-hard supporters who, win or lose, always turn up at the goal-end during a home game with pride as they wave their flags.
But few boast a superfan like Brenda Hilton, who covers her entire Cranbourne home with the yellow-and-black merchandise of the Richmond Tigers. Almost every household item bears either the logo or the famous sash, from the frames on the wall to the doonas, and even her TV remote. It either comes in the colours, or she hasn’t found a version of it that does yet.
For the big games, she dresses the part. She dons a onesie with the distinctive tiger stripes and paints her face with extraordinary detail. A layer of orange, and on top of that a snout, whiskers, tiger stripes around the edge of her face, and even fangs from the corners of her mouth. Amazingly, the make-up takes just 15 minutes to apply.
Brenda has had plenty to celebrate in recent years. This year, the Tigers won their second straight AFL Premiership and their third in the past four years.
“It was never in doubt,” she said. “Not as far as I’m concerned, anyway.
“It felt like last year and ’17. ’17, I knew. Last year, I knew. And this year was exactly the same.”
Although the Geelong Cats appeared to be on a roll during the second quarter with 21 unanswered points, Brenda kept confident about Richmond’s chances.
“Our third quarters are usually… if we’re going to take off, that’s when we take off.”
And take off, they did – the Tigers launched a blistering attack straight after half-time in their eventual victory over the Cats.
After that, “Geelong just ran out of puff and they didn’t know what to do.”
Brenda has been supporting Richmond since she was a child, and she would appear destined to barrack for the club.
“I was born in the Year of the Tiger, and so was Dad,” she said.
“Dad was a Richmond supporter, but I got my first tiger at the age of four and I’ve still got it.”
That tiger toy shows its age. It sits in a crouched position, its stripes and colour starting to fade. One ear is missing and the other, like the tail, is frayed. The holes at the top of its head expose the straw stuffing, and the big hole on its left side has been patched up with a beige piece of cloth. The tiger is barely too big for the palm of her hand.
“He’s over fifty years old.”
Her support for Richmond goes hand in hand with her love of tigers in general. She considers them a “beautiful animal”, and fondly remembers her experience with a white tiger at Dreamworld in 2012.
“I had my photo taken, got to pat him, and actually got some good shots with his eyes open. He had the most beautiful piercing blue eyes,” Brenda said.
“[The zoo staff] actually said that I was extremely lucky because it’s very rare to get a tiger to open their eyes right up.
“They’re amazing. I imagined them to be soft, but they’re not. It’s a strange texture.”
Brenda’s Richmond memorabilia and fanaticism has made her a small celebrity in the footy world. It only took one such piece of merchandise to trigger a wave of media attention, shortly before the Tigers’ first premiership.
“In ’17, I drove (my Tigers car) to Port Melbourne to watch a VFL final. And one thing led to another and that’s how the media thing sort of came along. I was in the Age, and then I had the local paper, and then I had Channel Seven. Kochie and Sunrise and what have you.”
The vehicle is a 1996 Suzuki model. Mostly black, but with an orange and white tiger stripe pattern hooping around it below the windows. The bonnet is extra special – on the right, it bears the signatures of the 2017 squad, and on the left, curiously, is the classic logo of the old Balmain Tigers of rugby league.
“[That logo is] very similar to the old Richmond logo,” she said.
“My goddaughter lives in Port Macquarie, and she spotted it on a buy-swap-sell site, and it was actually in Kempsey. And she sent it to her mum [on Facebook] and said ‘I found Aunty Brenda’s new car’, and then sent it to me as a joke.”
That was enough to convince her and her husband to take a 2,500km round trip to pick the car up in Port Macquarie.
“It was only $300.”
The signatures came soon after.
“I happened to be at a player sponsor dinner, I was sponsoring Anthony Miles, and I showed him and … he got me to show it to a lot of the players. And they suggested, ‘Oh, we’ll sign it! Bring it down to Punt Road and we’ll sign it!’
“So, that was in the June, and I knew a few people working at the club and I just said to them, ‘If you can organise it, you just give me a day and a time’.
“So Wednesday the 23rd of August, I had to have the car at Punt Road between 7-9 am. And I worked at a client’s in Richmond that day so it worked perfectly, and the players were told that I would be there. I had permanent marker pens and when they came in, they just signed it.
“And from there, it went down to one of my other clients, who’s a panel beater, and he sealed it. So the signatures will never come off.”
The bonnet now hangs on the wall in the man cave at home. It stands out among Brenda’s other memorabilia, which includes signed guernseys from the likes of Chris Newman and Anthony Miles. The car itself has gone to someone else.
Richmond’s recent premiership-winning performances are now among Brenda’s most treasured memories of the club. The 2017 Grand Final, which broke a 37-year drought for the Tigers, will be remembered best.
“2017 was inexperience. Having never been to one, I didn’t know what to expect,” she said.
“I was in the cheer squad – I got a ticket in the cheer squad in the ballot at the very beginning of finals, so I was very lucky. My membership actually guarantees me a Grand Final ticket, anyway.”
Brenda turned up to the game dressed as Tigger from Winnie the Pooh and watched on as Richmond defeated the Adelaide Crows 108-60.
One of the most impressive parts of the Grand Final experience, she says, is the atmosphere. She was one of just over 100,000 roaring fans at the MCG, a spectacle that’s not replicated on such an annual basis anywhere else.
“You’re there with friends, you know, and I had a couple sitting with me and I had various ones dotted around … you all catch up at the quarter-time and the half-time break and at the end, we’re all hugging,” she recalled.
“You’re hugging total strangers because everybody was so over the moon. So to experience that, and then be down on the fence as the boys went past … and the smiles on their faces and the joy in the faces, and the elation that you feel because you’re part of it.
“You’ve got to experience it.”
Richmond returned to the big stage in 2019 and Brenda was there again. She was hampered by being in a wheelchair due to an ankle operation but says the club “bent over backwards” to ensure she could appear at the game. She cheered on the Tigers in their 89-point thumping of GWS from one of the MCG’s wheelchair bays.
“We had great seats, but I couldn’t get down on the fence after we won.”
This year, the experience was different again. An outbreak of COVID-19 in Victoria saw this year’s Grand Final moved to Brisbane, and Brenda resigned herself to “yelling at the TV” with her husband as Richmond claimed back-to-back flags.
She did what she could, adding extra decorations to the front of her house in support of the Tigers. But nothing could beat being at the game.
“That really hurt, not being there, knowing that I’ve got a guaranteed ticket.”
In the aftermath of their victory, Richmond are seen as favourites to make it three straight in 2021. But no matter whether she gets to go to another Richmond Grand Final or not, she says that first victory in 2017 was the “most memorable”.
“I think ’17 was probably a little bit better [than ’19 and ’20] because it had been so long. I was crying, I was shaking,” Brenda said.
“They’re all memorable. That’s now eight [Richmond Grand Finals] I’ve seen, but being at my first ever, that was just special.”
With Richmond making further Grand Finals after 2017, Brenda found herself back in the spotlight in the lead-up to last year’s and this year’s.
Last year, she made appearances on Nine’s Today Show and in the local Cranbourne paper.
“And this year, I didn’t expect anything because the game wasn’t in Melbourne. And I thought, they’ll worry about the supporters up there [in Queensland].
“But no, I had Thursday night, Channel Seven’s The Latest… Friday morning, I had Kochie again. Friday afternoon, I had Nick McCallum from Channel Seven.”
She’s also been popular among fellow Richmond supporters at the previous Grand Finals.
“I had people taking pictures with me, and both times, little kids getting excited and wanting pictures, and groups of grown men in their 30s.”
Brenda is involved in other circles of fellow supporters that she knows well. She’s the current treasurer of the club’s South Australian Supporters Group.
She also knows how to host a party, as noted by one friend who recognises her as a “great person”.
“I live nearby to her, I’m a Richmond supporter too, and I’ve been to many Tiger night gatherings at her house when the Tigers have played interstate during the past few years.”
As many as 40 Tigers fans would turn up at Brenda’s home to watch Richmond’s interstate games, which she says were “ripper nights”.
“We live in Cranbourne and our surname is Hilton, so we have the Cranbourne Hilton.”
The gatherings are notable for Richmond winning “every game” at them.
“So it was like a little tradition – ‘Yep, we’ve got to go to Brenda’s place, we’ve got to go to the Cranbourne Hilton, because it’s an interstate game’, and yep, we won,” she said.
“You have people jumping up and down in front of the TV in the mancave and screaming, and they were awesome.”
Brenda hasn’t been able to hold such gatherings this year, due to the disrupted season and recent harsh restrictions on gatherings in Victoria. But she won’t go forever without a party.
“We will have a get-together, that’s for sure. We’ve got to. Because we’ve got two flags to unfurl in Round 1 next year.”
And if Richmond does make another Grand Final in 2021, expect to see Brenda the ‘tiger lady’ in the news once again.