Life’s all about change, and Youi’s the insurer for all the changes – big and small – that happen to you. That’s why the Brisbane Lions and Youi have teamed-up for the ‘Moments of Change’ series, where each week they’ll look back at some of the defining moments that have shaped the club you know today.
The Brisbane Lions playing group added a new word to the club vernacular in season 2002 as they looked to repeat their premiership heroics of 2001. Pay cut. As the AFL salary cap began to squeeze it became obvious the club could not keep the group together unless some of the more highly paid players were prepared to sacrifice income.
So, the word ‘investment’ was added to ‘playerspeak’. Not in a customary sense but in a playing sense. As coach Leigh Matthews would say countless times over the coming years, the players would invest in the group, and in their own success.
Over the summer of 2001-02 a dozen senior players took pay cuts worth a combined $500,000-plus. Not an overwhelming amount each, but enough. Michael Voss, Justin Leppitsch, Chris Scott, Simon Black, Nigel Lappin, Luke Power, Jason Akermanis, Mal Michael, Darryl White, Daniel Bradshaw, Clark Keating and Brad Scott happily sacrificed personal gain for team good.
Captain Voss explained it simply at the time. You don’t measure a playing career by how much money you’ve made. You measure it by how successful you’ve been, he said. There’s no greater success than team success. And having tasted it once it was something the players had quickly become addicted to. They wanted more. And if maximizing the prospect of a repeat premiership meant sacrificing a small portion of potential income then it was a decision they were prepared to make in a flash.
It was significant moment of change in Lions history. A moment that changed the thinking of the playing group core and set the club on a path to win not just a second premiership in 2002 but a third in 2003. And have a serious crack at a fourth in 2004.
Football Manager Graeme Allan, responsible for negotiating player contracts at the time, said categorically that the Lions could not have serious pursued repeat success without the generosity of the senior players. There would be further concessions to follow. More pay cuts and revised contracts where players accepted back-ended terms, in which a portion of their payment was pushed into the second half of a contract and accepted short-term money for an extended period.
“It was a tremendously generous gesture and while we owe a debt of thanks to all players I give special credit to Michael Voss. It wouldn’t have happened without him. We would have had to dismantle our playing list. We couldn’t possibly have kept the group together. He and Justin Leppitsch led the way and others followed,” said Allan.
It was part of the mission. Part of the means via which the Lions were planning to beat the premiership hangover. Or the premiership curse. Only five times since 1960 had an AFL club completed back-to-back premierships. Only 12 times in the same 41 years had the defending premiers reached the grand final the following year. And 13 times they’d failed to make the finals.
At the time the only clubs to beat the premiership hangover since 1960 had been Richmond (1973-74), Carlton (1981-82), Essendon (1984-85), Hawthorn (1988-89) and Adelaide (1997-98).
The message was simple. It was getting harder and harder to defend a premiership. To retain that miniscule edge that often made the difference between the ultimate success and a narrow failure. As the AFL meant it to be. It guaranteed that life for the 2002 Lions was going to be tough. They were no longer the hunters. They were the hunted.
While the collective mentality was different, the method of coach Leigh Matthews was the same. Know your role. Accept your role. Play your role.
“The first thing we did at the start of 2002 was identify the actions that might happen if you’re complacent, and the actions that might happen if you’re like you normally are – switched on and enthusiastic. You try and make sure the code of actions was in everyone’s mind and was implemented. If they weren’t we were there to be a bit of a conscience. Your whole system has to make sure that players are on the ball. If not you’ve got to jump on it very quickly and find a way to remedy the problem, but I can honestly say we didn’t have a problem with complacency.”
The 2002 Lions replicated the win/loss record of the 2001 Lions – exactly. They went 17-5 through the home-and away season and 3-0 through September. Overall, it would be 13-1 at the Gabba and 7-4 interstate. They were easily the highest scoring team in the League and ranked a close No.2 behind Port Adelaide in points conceded.
But their standing in the premiership race was in total contrast to 2001. After Round 1 they would not drop below second. They would sit on top of the ladder from Round 2 to Round 11, and again from Round 17-21. A minor lapse in Round 22 would see them finish second to Port Adelaide before September would go just according to plan. Again.
Even before their finals campaign began the Lions had received a massive bonus when Collingwood, fourth on the home and away ladder fully five games behind Port Adelaide, upset the minor premiers by 13 points in Adelaide. So, under AFL rules which at the time required at least one preliminary final be played at the MCG, all of a sudden Brisbane were playing not just for a week off but for a home preliminary final. So when they slaughtered Adelaide by 71 points at the Gabba in the qualifying final they host Port in the grand final qualifier. They won by 56 points.
They were one win away from what critics had labelled ‘Mission Impossible’. Back to back flags. It had been a Herculean effort. A 14-2 streak that was only a fraction less impressive than the 15-0 streak that took them into the 2001 decider. But, just as it had been 12 months earlier, it would mean nothing unless the Lions got over Collingwood in the big one seven days later.
It was a whole new challenge. But while it was new it was ‘old’ too. Because they’d been through it all before. They knew what to expect. The coach had told them their best was good enough. They believed. All they had to do was produce it on the big day.
Their motivation had been loud and clear from 12 months earlier to the day when captain Michael Voss, addressing the post-grand final media conference of 2001, uttered the words “good sides win one … but great sides win two.”
But grand final morning brought a new challenge. After one of the hottest premiership deciders in 2001 the Lions were now confronted with one of the coldest. Instead of the free-flowing contest of the year before it would be a dogfight. Not an easy kick to be had.
Even the setting had changed. They had made their base for the day on the opposite side of the ground, in the bowels of the Great Southern Stand, after Collingwood had claimed the members’ side. They were wearing maroon shorts instead of white, despite the fact that Collingwood, too, wore the dark shorts. And they would be the first team onto the arena.
The Lions conquered all that and more, winning by nine points in the closest grand final since 1989. The final blow in a bout of punch and counter punch was a piece of Jason Akermanis wizardry, orchestrated by a simple yet masterful instruction from the master.
“Tell Aka to get to the front” the coach screamed down the phone to the runner. In layman’s speak he was asking his enigmatic goalsneak to crumb in front of full forward Alastair Lynch. He did. And the rest took care of itself.
Brad Scott kicked it in long. Lynch, one-out with Shane Wakelin, provided the contest that brought the ball to the ground. To the front. Akermanis won possession and heard three words from Lynch. “You’ve got time”. It was golden. He took his time, steadied and snapped on his left over his shoulder. Brisbane led by nine points.
It was the last score of the grand final. For seven long, scoreless minutes the two sides battled without an outcome. Not even a scoring opportunity. And when the final siren sounded the Lions players fell to their knees as much through exhaustion as elation.
For 20 players it was a repeat sensation. The absolute joy of winning the ultimate prize again. For Des Headland and Aaron Shattock it was new. They’d watched in 2001. Now they were part of it in 2002. Part of a side which had completed back-to-back AFL premierships. The side was:-
B: Chris Johnson, Chris Scott, Justin Leppitsch
HB: Luke Power, Mal Michael, Marcus Ashcroft
C: Shaun Hart, Michael Voss, Martin Pike
HF: Des Headland, Jonathan Brown, Nigel Lappin
F: Jason Akermanis, Alastair Lynch, Darryl White
R: Clark Keating, Brad Scott, Simon Black
INT: Beau McDonald, Tim Notting, Craig McRae, Aaron Shattock.
COACH: Leigh Matthews
The Lions’ second flag was a triumph for a proven formula, with Matthews keeping things pretty much as they’d been 12 months earlier. Even Monday night was the same, with Simon Black replicating the Brownlow Medal win of Jason Akermanis. The club party even travelled to Melbourne on a 136-seat Qantas charter flight, replicating the charter flight which had been an emergency solution in 2001 after the Ansett collapse.
Grand Final selection was pretty straight forward. After Matthew Kennedy had been dropped from a winning preliminary final side in 2001 to make way for Lynch’s return, it was Robert Copeland who suffered a similar fate in ‘02. The least experienced member of the club’s first premiership side made way for the return of Chris Scott, who had missed the preliminary final through injury. Copeland, Jamie Charman, who had played 20 games in a stellar campaign, and Craig Bolton, who would head to Sydney the following year, were the three emergencies. Collingwood had initially named an unchanged side but were forced to call up ex-Lion Jarrod Molloy after Jason Cloke was unsuccessful in an appeal against a one-match suspension.
On grand final morning Matthews stepped outside the Lions’ Park View Hotel to be greeted by a biting wind howling in from the north. And as he looked skywards he had to blink away the drizzle from a greying sky. It was nine degrees, with a forecast maximum of 14. They’d forecast hail and possibly the coldest grand final on record. It was going to be a hard day at the office.
Still, the ever-professional Lions conditioning unit had left nothing to chance. They’d already hired a cooler van. Just in case. It was stationed right outside the dressing room door. But when it was 10 degrees at halftime the last thing the players needed was a cold room.
It all went to plan. Another police escort to the MCG. Another calming walk on the ground. Another build-up timed to perfection, building in focus as the first bounce approached. The pre-game highlights tape was put to “When We Were Kings”, by Brian McKnight and Diana King, from the documentary on Muhammad Ali of the same name.
There was another excited mascot, Elliot Dawson, who had been chosen at Friday afternoon training. Six years earlier he had featured in the Herald Sun as a small, blue-eyed, blonde-haired kid crying over the end of Fitzroy. He’d adopted the Brisbane Lions and he was ready. And so was his team. Ready to become the sixth team since 1960 to go back-to-back.
Or as ready as they could possibly be. This time injuries conspired against them. Beau McDonald dislocated his shoulder 19 minutes into the first quarter, four minutes after he’d relieved Clark Keating in the ruck. And 18 minutes into the second quarter they lost early dynamo Martin Pike to a groin strain. They were down to 20 fit men against a Collingwood side that was showing no sign of believing the pre-game hype that suggested they had no chance of winning.
But the Lions were equal to the task. They won 10-15-75 to 9-12-66. They won despite kicking the lowest first term score in the six-year history of the merger club - 0-4. They won despite kicking their equal lowest total of the season. And they won despite kicking the second lowest ever winning score by a Brisbane Lions side.
It was the wettest grand final since 1979 and one of the coldest. And one of the best. The lead changed 13 times and scores were level four times. The final margin, established by Jason Akermanis’ freak snap at the 24-minute mark of the final term and confirmed through seven minutes of sheer torture thereafter, was the biggest of the day.
The Lions trailed by six points at quarter-time. It was the first time they’d gone goalless in a quarter since Round 10, 2000 against Melbourne. That was 63 games or 251 quarters ago. But Collingwood had only managed one major score. It wasn’t time for panic.
At halftime Brisbane led 4-12 to 4-4. They’d taken the ball into their scoring zone 24 times in the second term and kicked 4-8, including three rushed behinds. The Pies went forward eight times and kicked 3-0. Momentum was with the northerners.
Collingwood captain Nathan Buckley had a huge third term but still the Lions led 8-14 to 8-10 at the last change. Goals were like gold.
At the 11-minute mark Collingwood ruckman Josh Fraser got on the end of a long kick in and bent a banana through for full points from a difficult angle. The Pies by three. Two minutes later Luke Power worked some boundary line magic to win the ball at half forward and sent it long. Lynch was taken out early. He converted the free kick from 15m. Brisbane by two.
At the 23-minute mark Marcus Ashcroft, always one to read the play, zoned off behind the ball at half back and took a telling mark. He drove it forward. Players threw themselves in with reckless abandon. A hurried Brad Scott kick sent the ball towards Lynch, but the spoil from Shane Wakelin sent it to ground. Akermanis, perfectly positioned in front of the pack, right where Matthews had told him to be, swooped. Hearing those fateful words from the veteran spearhead, he steadied and snapped truly. Brisbane by nine. The last score in the grand final. The winner.
Voss could easily have won the Norm Smith Medal. Many will say he should have won it. Indeed, had voting been done at the end of the game instead of 10 minutes into the final quarter it may have been different. Voss than nine possessions in the final quarter and five in the last five minutes when the game was on the line. Almost single-handedly he guaranteed the premiership cup stayed in Queensland.
But Voss could not have cared less as inaugural Brisbane Bears coach Peter Knights presented the best afield medal to Voss’ former teammate turned Collingwood counterpart Buckley. That the voting system was amended the following year to safeguard against a repeat situation was some consolation. But he had what he came for on this cold, wet and miserable Saturday afternoon. A “little dangley thing”, as he called it. A premiership medallion.
Matthews, best known as a great player, confirmed he was also a great coach. If he hadn’t done so already. If he said nothing more to his troops than those perfectly-chosen words to Akermanis in the final quarter then he’d done his job. For his preparation of the team in the 10 months prior was as close to perfect as it can be. But his contribution was much, much bigger than that.
Waging an absorbing battle of wits with counterpart Mick Malthouse, Matthews pulled his first surprise when he stationed regular midfielder cum small forward Luke Power at half back to pick up Leon Davis. A winner. His opponent didn’t get a kick. Literally. He surprised most, too, when he opted for Chris Scott to work out of the defensive goal-square on Chris Tarrant, allowing Mal Michael to play at centre half back on Anthony Rocca and Justin Leppitsch to take the taller Josh Fraser.
He noted that Collingwood had a clear game plan to block up the Brisbane forward line and rebound themselves from defence. So he instructed his players, rather than bombing the ball long and making it easy for them, to use the extra man through the midfield and try to find a more measured entry to the scoring zone.
As he’d done in 2001, Matthews held Tim Notting back. He utilized his run off the bench in the second half to good effect. Fourteen possessions in a half – nine in the final stanza – was an important contribution from the “secret weapon”.
Matthews, too, pulled a masterstroke 10 minutes into the final stanza. A calculated gamble. He asked Clark Keating to ruck the remainder of the game. He sent Darryl White deep into defence to pick up Tarrant. And he released Chris Scott to play across half back. Three marks and nine possessions for Scott in the last 20 minutes, including several crucial interceptions as the Pies pushed forward, were crucial. And that after he’d kept Tarrant goalless.
At the presentation of the premiership cup by Richmond 400-gamer Kevin Bartlett captain Voss was true to his word … just 12 months late. When Lynch had stepped down as captain going into the 2001 season the pair had made a pact. If ever the club won a premiership while they were both still playing Voss would call Lynch to the stage with him to collect it. In the hysteria of 2001 they’d forgotten. Both of them. Not in 2002. So, the big man who had the ball in his hands at the end of the first grand final had another special keepsake from the second. He stood between Voss and Leigh Matthews to receive the cup.
And he had a little secret. Any game other than a grand final and he probably wouldn’t have played. A back complaint had him in secret doubt all week, but it wasn’t revealed until Voss did the honours post-game. “He wouldn’t tell you this but he was struggling coming into the game. But he kept coming and kept presenting. It was fantastic to be able to look up and see such a presence in the forward line. He took a couple of good crucial grabs and kicks some really important goals at crucial times.”
It was a fitting moment for Lynch after perhaps the best year of his stellar career. He’d kicked a career-best 74 goals to rank second in the AFL, icing the moment with 16 goals in three finals. Both were club records. Little wonder three weeks later he shelved retirement plans and decided to play again in 2003, when he would be the oldest player in the competition.
Earlier, before the Cup presentation and in a first for the AFL, 22 Auskick participants wearing Brisbane Lions jumpers and the numbers of the grand final players, had presented the premiership medals to the winning team. Luke Power handed over his socks to the little girl who hung a medal around his neck. Justin Leppitsch got down on his knees to receive his medal from a little boy. And Beau McDonald, heavily sedated, accepted his with his shoulder in a sling and minus his boots after a rushed trip back from hospital.
Matthews received the Jock McHale Medal from Graeme Reynolds, son of the late Dick Reynolds, and did as he always preferred to do, slipping quietly to allow the players to enjoy the moment. In the rooms later he sat quietly in the corner, content to chat with anyone who came his way.
At the post-game media conference ‘Lethal’ painted a picture of a team that had risen to every challenge magnificently. As the Lions had done. “Our guys found a way to win. It wasn’t the manner in which we traditionally win games – you just had to play with grit and perseverance and not get frustrated when the game wasn’t going the way all the pundits predicted. The game ticked on and on but no side was able to break clear and fortunately we were able to be nine points up at the end. There’s a lot of whys, wherefores and discussion points, but that’s the bottom line.
“One of my philosophies in footy is never assume and never expect. Don’t expect or assume anything to happen because if it doesn’t you get shocked by it. I thought our guys kept their composure when the game was going nowhere near like they were told it was going to in the press. We can look back on it and say we didn’t play great but we did what great sides do. And that is find a way to win when you don’t play that way. That’s a pretty important thing in competitive sport. When you go into a game and keep reading people saying ‘you will win by eight goals, 10 goals, 15 goals .. things like that .. you know it doesn’t work that way.”
Matthews told of the pride he felt to have coached a side that had defied the odds to win back-to-back premierships from outside Victoria. A superhuman effort which exceeded, even, West Coast’s effort in 1992-94. “I am really proud of this football club, but I’m really proud of the football team that represents the club because they’ve got a lot of talent and a lot of ability but prepare themselves well, they conduct themselves well, and all the things you like about your elite sportsmen this group represents. And that’s just as important as being a good football team that wins a lot of games.”
The heroes were many. As good players do, Nigel Lappin was making a habit of playing well in grand finals. Runner-Up to Shaun Hart in the Norm Smith Medal in 2001, he was the Lions’ next best after Voss in 2002. He topped the Lions’ possession tally with 28 and imposed his midfield run on the game when it was on the balance. Ten touches in the third term were pivotal.
Keating, with just one AFL game between Round 12 and the finals, carried the big-man division superbly after the early loss of ruck partner McDonald. Spelled only briefly by White, he had 39 hit-outs to the combined 20 of his opponents.
Lynch, the oldest member of the side, kicked four telling goals in a low-scoring game in conditions which didn’t suit him. He was the Lions’ only multiple goal-kicker. Hart, again, rose to the occasion. Marcus Ashcroft was as miserly as ever across half back, holding Nick Davis to eight touches without a goal, Chris Scott did a fantastic job all day and was a decisive factor in the closing stages. Black, in his 100th AFL game, worked into the game beautifully, and Power was brilliant at both ends of the ground.
Chris Johnson kept Rupert Betheras under wraps, Michael kept tabs on Anthony Rocca whenever Rocca was playing forward, and Leppitsch, happy to sacrifice his own game, did a good job on Fraser. Together the back six had done a superb job right under relentless pressure, held the combined opposition to 26 goals in three finals. A superb unit. And none more so than in the last 15 minutes of the grand final when a series of spoils from Michael and Leppitsch were critical.
Jonathan Brown worked manfully at centre half forward, White underlined his versatility when he started in attack, became a pinch-hitting ruckman and finished in defence, and Brad Scott completed a swag of different midfield assignments. Akermanis was quiet by his standards after an early knock but kicked the goal that mattered, Craig McRae sat out the first quarter but his zip in the second quarter was important, while Des Headland, in his first grand final, was subjected to close-checking from Carl Steinfort but managed some nice things. Martin Pike was outstanding early until injured, Aaron Shattock only had 11 minutes game time, and ruck casualty Beau McDonald even less.
The close result, it seemed, proved the Lions had learned some lessons. In four years under Matthews they had played 13 games decided by two goals or less. The grand final was the 13th and just the second win. It was a testimony to the Lions’ fitness, mental strength and character. And their self-belief. In themselves and each other. And in the game plan set down by the coach.
The timing of the Lions goals in a dour, low-scoring contest told a real tale. They out-scored Collingwood seven goals to three in time-on and strung together three goals in the last nine minutes of the second and third quarters. Crucial. Otherwise, there wasn’t an awful lot between the teams. Nine points aside.
Just as the game had gone pretty much to plan, so did the celebrations. About 90 minutes with family and friends in the rooms, a quick change back at the team hotel and they were off to the Victory Room at Colonial Stadium to great the “punters”. And finally down on to the playing surface for the official dinner.
Sunday morning it was back to Brunswick Street to celebrate with about 10,000 of the Fitzroy faithful, with a few ring-ins from Brisbane. Then back to the Gabba. On Tuesday there was another ticker-tape parade through the streets of Brisbane. It was something that this team had learned to do very well.
The Lions also scored a big win in the television ratings. Live coverage of the AFL grand final from 2pm on Channel 10 pulled more viewers in Brisbane than the Broncos’ NRL preliminary final shown live in prime time from 7.30pm on Channel 9. The peak audience for the Lions-Collingwood grand final was 525,000. This comfortably beat the peak of 473,000 for the Broncos’ loss to the Sydney City Roosters. Incredibly, the Lions pulled 79% of the total viewing audience as four out of every five televisions in use on Saturday were tuned into the Lions' unforgettable nine-point win over the Magpies. Later in the same evening the Broncos had 51% of the bigger audience in prime time.
The overwhelming show of support for AFL football from the widespread television community made it a double triumph for the AFL. It came after the Lions had won the Battle of the Codes in terms of attendances for the third year in row. The average home crowd at the Gabba for 2002 was 27,565, compared to the Broncos’ 19,976 at ANZ Stadium.
A moment of change in 2001 had become a year of change in 2002. And there was more to come.