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2003 Premiership

2003 Premiership Celebration

It will no doubt evaporate into the mists of time, but one of the great quirks of the crowning glory of one of the greatest teams in the history of AFL football was that they approached their third straight grand final as substantial underdogs.

Nonetheless, it was no doubt of some benefit to the proud AAPT Brisbane Lions’ that they should enter and proceed through grand final week 2003 with the weight of expectation firmly on the rival Collingwood camp.

The high hopes with the Magpies were two-fold.

They had beaten the Lions first the first time in 18 months only three weeks earlier, had won 11 or their previous 12 games, and had a huge supporter base headed by very high profile president Eddie McGuire desperate for success.

Then there was the injury cloud – and a very dark one at that – hanging over the Gabba.

Just how would skipper Michael Voss’ knee hold up? Then there were Nigel Lappin’s ribs. And Chris Scott’s groin. They were the ones most visible in the public domain. There were others, and lots of them.

The Lappin saga was the big story of grand final week. Crunched by a flying Shaun Hart in the last 10 minutes of the preliminary final, having shown no fear by turning face first into a pack, he could hardly walk the following day. Every movement was painful.

Stalked by photographers during the week, he could only walk gingerly around the Gabba at Wednesday training. Similarly, Voss was reduced to stationary skills, a large white bandage around his problem right knee.

Alastair Lynch and Martin Pike too could not train with dicey hamstrings.

In reality, the Lions knew they would fly to Melbourne the following day with 11 players that would be held together by ‘sticky tape’ and anaesthetic.

Chris Johnson’s bad shoulder, that had hung limply by his side as he bravely saw out the dying minutes of the Round 22 match with the Western Bulldogs a month earlier because “there was nobody else left”, desperately needed a fortnight’s rest. Both Clark Keating’s shoulders were in a similar state.

Craig McRae and Blake Caracella required wrist surgery, Justin Leppitsch needed shoulder and wrist surgery, Jonathan Brown was carrying a broken hand, and Marcus Ashcroft’s hip was so bad it would force him to retire after the grand final.

Yet the coaching staff knew there was a flipside to the grave injury situation. It was that the remaining players were fully fit, fully healthy, and fully primed.

They knew that 2002 Brownlow Medallist Simon Black was in sublime form over the second half of the season in particular. They knew that the mercurial 2001 Brownlow Medallist Jason Akermanis was over back-related hamstring problems that had robbed him of his trademark zip until two-thirds of the way through the season.

They knew that running machine Shaun Hart was in close to the best form of his career, that the determined Robbie Copeland had taken a step up with his game in the second half of the year, and that Daniel Bradshaw had transformed into one of the most impressive mobile key forward-defenders in the competition over the previous nine weeks.

They knew that Luke Power was now an elite midfielder, that Mal Michael was in the best three full-backs in the AFL and always played well against Collingwood, that Ash McGrath and Richard Hadley were showing poise beyond their years, that Jamie Charman would give them everything he had, and that Darryl White had rediscovered his magic touch over the previous month.

And they knew that Collingwood’s loss of Anthony Rocca at the AFL Tribunal and subsequent failed appeal would leave a gaping hole in the Magpies’ structure. Rocca had crashed into Port Adelaide’s Brendon Lade with his forearm raised in the preliminary, and the following dramas were similar to the previous year’s furore over the suspension of youngster Jason Cloke.

One part of the week that did not follow the script was Brownlow Medal night, when the Lions came up short for the first time in three years. Instead of Voss winning the blue riband award that so many at the club hoped for – and most believe should have at the very least shared – rival skipper Nathan Buckley did instead.

The upside was that Voss could concentrate solely on his preparation, while Buckley would have to deal with the inevitable distractions that a Brownlow win produces, irrespective of the mental strength of the individual.

When the Lions boarded their special charter flight for Melbourne on the Thursday afternoon, the question marks remained about Lappin and to a lesser extent Voss as the media was still guessing about whether he would start the game on the ground or the bench, as he had done for the past two games.

“We were certainly very concerned about Nigel initially, he was a very sore man after the preliminary final,” coach Leigh Matthews said. “It was very hard to put the side together until you knew his status. We got to the airport on Thursday and still didn’t know about him, and we weren’t positive about Martin Pike or Alastair Lynch either.”

When the team bus arrived at the club’s home away from home in Melbourne, the Park View Hotel, amid the throng of well-wishers was a photographer and journalist from one of the major newspapers wanting to grab Voss. They were going to run a big story the next day that he risked never playing again if he ran on his bad knee two days later.

They were shooed off and Voss ushered inside. For his part, Voss laughed off the incident and the ‘story’, which ultimately would not be printed.

Despite the injury issues surrounding the team, the build up was almost identical to the previous two years. Just as Matthews planned, the normal processes were adhered to. It was a similar story on grand final eve, with a very relaxed player group bussing to the Melbourne Arts Centre with partners and family, before the traditional street parade.

Even though the Magpies were raging favourites and 15,000 fans had turned up to their last training session, the parade crowd was not quite as big or vocal as the previous year. It was almost as if pre-grand final tension was seeping in.

For his part, Magpies coach Mick Malthouse was trying to portray a relaxed demeanour at the post parade media conference. He spoke often about how normal the build up had been for his charges too and that there was no obvious tension. Malthouse even joked with the conference organisers about getting a cup of tea, drawing a laugh from the 80 media representatives from around the country. As for Matthews, he remained, well, normal.

And so did training at the picturesque Albert Oval later that afternoon, apart from Lappin being put through a rugged tackling session from Aaron Shattock, who had been named as an emergency after injury deprived him of a finals game. Almost identical to the previous year, a tremendous minute-long downpour of rain drenched a much larger turnout of spectators than the previous year towards the end of the session. Lappin survived, with a final decision to be made on his fitness the following morning.

Voss did stationary skills again without joining main training, but the huge media corps knew better than to question whether he would play, as his preparation had been standard over the latter half of the year. The rest of his teammates did train, to the relief of the match committee.

Match day dawned rainy, windy and freezing – again – but the elements had little bearing on the Lions’ players mood, which at breakfast and again on the bus to the MCG was for the most part remarkably buoyant. Only Lappin appeared pensive, with others chatting happily and none of the quiet that might have been expected, certainly like on the first trip to the grand final back in 2001. Lappin had left the team hotel in a taxi at 10am and returned an hour later, having been to a specialist’s surgery to have a needle to deaden the pain in his fractured rib.

Quiet, but outwardly unaffected, Matthews’ stomach would have been churning at the same pace as his mind as the bus pulled up outside the MCG, still unsure about Lappin and the final make-up of his side.

Once inside the rooms, more anaesthetic was administered liberally to all those who required it. Long time club orthopaedic surgeon Jim Fardoulys even travelled from Brisbane to ensure the minute trouble spot in Voss’ knee was pin-pointed for his injections. In fact, 18 vials would be used on Voss and his teammates during the day, when the norm was three or four.

Chris Scott warmed up alongside his great mate Lappin as the guessing game continued. While the Lions looked sharp and controlled during their pre-game warm-up on the ground, the Magpies looked tight. It caught the eye of club mental skills coach Dr Phil Jauncey who, as in previous years, was certain the Lions players would not beat themselves.

Jauncey was also a strong advocate of Matthews’ process of keeping things ‘normal’, a philosophy reflected by the bare walls of the team rooms, apart from some large AAPT sponsor signs, in contrast to the balloons, streamers and motivational signs that are the norm for rival grand final finalists.

At 1.30pm – exactly an hour before the game – Lappin walked gingerly into the coach’s room. “He was still short of breath and he didn’t know why,” Matthews said. “That was the uncertainty in the pre-game phase. You never want to be sitting there an hour before the game discussing whether someone is going to play.

“I was that close to saying ‘let’s play Chris Scott’, because he was next in line. But Nige said ‘no, I think I’m right’, and I said ‘great, you’re in’ and walked out of the room.”

And so it was that Lappin would take his place in the side, albeit at half-back, while Matthews ensured his captain would lead from the front by starting Voss in the centre square for the opening bounce.

The biggest surprise came from the other side. Young Cloke lined up at centre-half-forward, rather than as a loose man in defence as some had expected, a role he had played superbly in the qualifying final that choked the Lions’ goal supply. The Magpies also opted to use young key position player Tristen Walker in preference to out of favour Steve McKee to support Josh Fraser in the ruck, in the absence of Rocca.

“I actually thought they would use Fraser more forward and use Cloke as a floating ruckman (to replace Rocca),” Matthews said. “Our strategy was based around ‘how do we not make than an asset for them?’ I didn’t really think Cloke would play forward to be honest…I don’t hold great store in trying to predict what the opposition are going to do. We had certain scenarios what they might do, but you can drive yourself crazy if you try and guess what the opposition is going to do.”

Again keeping things normal, and showing great faith in his players, Matthews opted to start with his players in their conventional positions. He had gambled with experiments in the previous two grand finals, but this was not the time, nor was there the need for it. After all, he had maintained through the season that the other sides knew the Lions’ game plan, but overcoming was a probl,e if his side played at its best.

And that is just what he got – the Lions’ best. It all started at the very first bounce. Keating, a hero of the previous year’s win, and Charman had been slaughtered in the qualifying final by Fraser. Keating made an instant statement, rising high above Fraser and smashing the ball forward.

As Brown was poleaxed by an unseen Scott Burns, Black pounced and pumped the ball forward for Alastair Lynch to mark and goal. The Lions were away. They enjoyed most of the possession in the opening eight minutes but only managed another behind.

Fellow Brownlow Medallist Shane Woewodin started on Black and snuck away to goal after a Magpies breakaway against the run of play to the delight of the Magpie Army before Bradshaw led beautifully and goalled from 35m at the 11 minute mark.

Akermanis started with plenty of pep and was unaffected by the attention of Collingwood’s best tagger Brodie Holland. Voss was also everywhere, busting packs, ferreting out handballs and giving great direction to his side.

Keating was also providing his side with great momentum by dominating the hit-outs, although Fraser ran forward on him, again against the run of play, to mark in the square and goal at the 13-minute mark and narrow the margin to a point.

Brown was still trying to clear his head and Simon Prestigiacomo was able to repel several attacking moves, before a sudden burst gave the Lions the ascendency they deserved. Akermanis pounced on a ball, dummied and goalled from 50m at the 14-minute mark. He missed two much easier opportunities during the quarter to be the only blots on his game, and five minutes later McRae snapped brilliantly after Hart and Voss set him up with super handballs under pressure.

Martin Pike was dominant on the other wing to Akermanis and was a strong contributor all day, adding to the potent midfield mix.

Collingwood sent more men behind the ball and the Lions pushed for 10 minutes before snaring their third, Caracella swallowing a Walker boundary hit-out and snapping brilliantly. It opened a 20-point lead, before Buckley gave the Magpies some momentum going into quarter-time. Running to Voss often to try and break the tag of Copeland, he goalled with his ninth possession of the quarter when he peeled off Copeland as the Lion was committed to a tackle on Holland at the 32-minute mark.

The Lions led 5-5 to 3-3 at the first break, and were playing with plenty of spark. Akermanis (nine possessions), Voss (eight) and Hart (six) had been important in the midfield, while White (seven), Power (seven), Lappin (seven) and Leppitsch (six) had been excellent in defence. Buckley was getting plenty of ball without his usual effectiveness, while Fraser (seven touches) was providing a target around the ground despite losing badly at the bounces.

“We got off to a good start but missed a few opportunities that were very gettable,” Matthews said. “Ultimately we were a couple of goals in front and playing quite strongly, so the game was proceeding pretty well at that point.”

Holland was relieved of duties on Akermanis and sent to half-forward to try and curb the rebound being provided by Power at the start of the second term. Ben Johnson moved from a back pocket to the wing onto Akermanis, while Bradshaw went back to help out with Tarrant as Collingwood rotated Fraser and Walker through the full-forward line at times.

The second term started in similar fashion to the first. Keating won a big knock, Hadley charged in off the square, grabbed the ball and dished off in one motion under pressure, and Brown took a strong mark to drive the ball further into attack.

Two minutes later Akermanis produced another piece of magic for the Members Stand when he swooped on the ball, bounced once, and goalled from the boundary from 40m. And two minutes after that Hadley pounced on a long handball forward from Keating to snap brilliantly on his left from the forward pocket, and the Lions were suddenly 25 points in front.

Most importantly, they were running in straight lines at the ball. No-one deviated from a collision and Voss set the standard with his ferociousness at diving into packs. Black was right alongside in the courage stakes, and moving ahead in the ballgetting department. Quite simply, he was everywhere. He had four opponents for the term, including Burns twice, but they were powerless to stop his magnet-like attraction.

At the other end, the defence was almost unpassable. Leppitsch had Cloke benched by early in the term, and only a crude knock from behind that should have been rewarded with a free kick slowed White’s impact. He had left the field with a sore neck and Bradshaw simply took up where he left off. Lappin and Chris Johnson also gave the side plenty of run, and the Magpies’ only goal came at the nine minute mark when Alan Didak marked fortuitously when a kick dropped short.

Collingwood persisted but they were getting little out of their midfield and Fraser kept them in the contest with his work in the midfield, despite failing to overcome the dominance of Keating and Charman at the bounces.

They eventually cracked when Leppitsch ran forward off Fraser when he went forward to rest, goalling from a head high tackle at the 17 minute mark. Lynch marked a super pass from Black and goalled from near the boundary two minutes later, and had another at the 22 minute mark when he chased Rhyce Shaw from defence, Shaw dropped the ball as he attempted a baulk, and Lynch swooped on the crumbs and snapped a miracle goal across his body from 45m.

Collingwood were now well and truly on the back foot, with confidence shot by the Lions’ aggression at the ball and skilful use of it, and again threw more men back to stem the flow. That worked for 10 minutes, until Black drove a dagger through their heart, running onto an Ash McGrath handball and goalling from 45m.

The Lions had blasted nine goals to two since midway through the first term and had one hand on the premiership cup when they led 11-7 to 4-7 at halftime.

Black, who had collected 10 well executed possessions for the second quarter, and Lynch (seven) proved to be gamebreakers. Buckley’s output was restrained to four frustrated touches and his quarter was best illustrated in the last seconds when Copeland leapt high and wide to smash what should have been a mark away from him and into the crowd.

“That second term was where the game was blown open,” Matthews admitted. “We went into the quarter in front and gradually increased the lead, and when Simon Black kicked that goal to put us seven goals in front…In the coaches box you always think the game is alive, you’ve got to think that way, but if a side’s seven goals in front at halftime, they rarely lose. We were thinking at that stage that we just had to keep control of the game.”

The Magpies knew they had to drag themselves back into the game in the third term and they gave it their best. They were more tenacious than brilliant, but the move of Burns to half-forward paid immediate dividends when he booted two goals, including one alongside Didak, in the opening six minutes of the term.

It reduced the margin to 30 points and the next goal would be crucial. The Lions pressed hard and three misses kept the Magpies hopes alive, until that man Akermanis popped up to goal from a tight angle and some super pressure exerted by Lynch on the kick-out. Collingwood had been the best team with kick-ins all year, but the Lions pressure on the man kicking in created numerous turnovers on the day that counted most.

The Lions needed a strong all-round defensive effort and they got it from Michael, who made ex-housemate Chris Tarrant search a long way upfield for kicks and beat him one-on-one in several key contests. Several times Michael was outnumbered but simply busted past the opposition and his deeds kept the Magpies on the back foot.

When the clever Caracella was taken high and goalled from another boundary throw in at the 15 minute mark, the lead had stretched to 46 points. But the Lions paid for a string of misses when the Pies booted three of the last four goals of the quarter to narrow the margin to 35 points. Tarrant booted his first and only goal in two grand finals and Burns got his second with a great individual effort.

The major concern was that Leppitsch had left the field with bad cramp, although White was back and Bradshaw took up the role at centre-half-back. Voss too left the field 20 minutes into the quarter, his wobbly knee running out of power. But his job had been done. Akermanis had also been well held through the middle quarters by Johnson, being kept to just the four kicks.

At 14-12 to 9-7, the Lions still held the whip hand at the last break, particularly with Black (13 touches for the quarter) and Hart (seven) dictating terms in the midfield.

“Collingwood made a bit of a surge in the quarter and that made it a critical stage of the game then – if they got another couple of goals they’d get back to within three goals and the game would really have been alive,” Matthews said. “But we were able to kick some ourselves, and again, if we’d taken our chances a little better, we would have maintained the (halftime) margin.”

No team has ever come from six goals down at the final break to win a grand final and the Lions made sure they were not going to be part of that sort of history. They had some of their own to make, and they did it in style.

Akermanis was set up in front at the four minute mark, and then the Magpies sprayed four behinds in the next 10 minutes, before Lynch broke their back with a strong mark in the goalsquare following a cleverly weighted kick by Caracella. Then it was showtime – Brown marked strongly running back into the pocket and screwed kicked a goal, Akermanis weaved his way through a string of opponents to snap a gem, and then Hart snapped another beauty to cap a huge effort.

The four goals had come in seven minutes and the Magpies were on their knees as their supporters left the MCG early in droves, trailing by 69 points. Three Collingwood goals in junk time made the margin more respectable, although the 20-14-134 to 12-12-84 scoreline was nonetheless harrowing for them.

Black finished with another double digit quarter, this time 11 possessions, while Caracella and Brown (seven each) were unstoppable. Didak collected five touches and a goal for the Pies, but there were no ‘quiet’ gestures to the Lions fans this time around.

“Early in the last quarter it was a little bit like the preliminary final where for the first 10 minutes it didn’t feel like the ball went near Collingwood’s forward line, the guys just grabbed control of the game,” Matthew said. “With 10 minutes to go, we got 10 or 11 goals in front and we were probably going to win from there, despite the conservatism in the coach’s box.”

Black finished with 16 kicks and 23 handballs, his total of 39 possessions the most by an individual in a grand final. The Norm Smith was a fitting reward for a super-human game. Hart was next most prolific with 16 kicks and five handballs, while Akermanis kicked five goals and Lynch four.

“Simon and Shaun ran on the ball for four quarters – not that we didn’t want to give them a spell if we could, but we didn’t have the luxury of being able to rotate them,” Matthews said. “They just worked so hard.”

The Lions dominated all the important statistical categories. They won the centre bounces 20-8, the total hit-outs 55-31, took nine marks to four inside 50, and went inside the 50m arc 52 times to 42. Despite his dazed condition, Brown had eight assists for goal, while Black and Lynch had a direct hand in setting up seven each, and Hart, Caracella and Akermanis six.

Vanquished Magpies coach Mick Malthouse said there were levels of wanting to win, and the Lions’ desire was far greater than that of his team. “They are a hardened side who have many players aged between 23 and 30 who are vastly more experience, a lot bigger, and as we saw, very, very talented,” he said. “And they got it together on the biggest day. We embarrassed ourselves and we paid a high penalty with new players coming into the side and playing their first grand final.

“Unfortunately we had too many who didn’t fire a shot. We were gobbled up by a highly professional organisation that has been there, done that, and knows how to win. They are a very, very worthy premiership side, and they played at a standard that is expected in the big games.”

Saturday 27 September 2003

BRISBANE LIONS 5.5 11.7 14.12 20.14 (134)
COLLINGWOOD 3.3 4.7 9.7 12.12 (84)

Akermanis 5, Lynch 4, Brown 2, Caracella 2, Hadley, Pike, Black, Bradshaw, Hart, McRae, Leppitsch. 
Magpies: Didak 3, Burns 2, Davis, Fraser, Licuria, Tarrant, Scotland, Woewodin, Buckley.

Black 39, Hart, 21, Akermanis 20, Lappin 19, Voss 18, Caracella 16, Pike 16, Power 16, Bradshaw 15, Brown 15, Johnson 15, McRae 14, White 14. 
Magpies: Buckley 24, Fraser 23, Burns 22, Licuria 21, Johnson 19, Scotland 14.

Black 4.5; Akermanis, Lynch, Michael 4.0; Hart 3.5; Keating, Voss, Bradshaw, Copeland ,Power, Lappin, Johnson, Caracella, Brown 3.0; Leppitsch, Pike, McRae, Charman 2.5; White, McGrath, Hadley 2.0; Ashcroft 1.0.

Fraser, Johnson, Buckley, Burns, Prestigiacomo.

Inside 50: Lions 52, Magpies 42
Clearances: Lions 45, Magpies 49
Tackles: Lions 47, Magpies 48
Free Kicks: Lions 13, Magpies 18

UMPIRES: S McBurney, H Kennedy, B Allen

CONDITIONS: Cold but mostly fine, wet surface

CROWD: 79,451 (capacity due to ground redevelopment)