What a year 2002 has already been. Queen Elizabeth has celebrated her Golden Jubilee, Brazil won the FIFA World Cup, and Salt Lake City played host to the Winter Olympics. Voyaging down under, and it was once again a two horse race at the top of the ladder, with Port Adelaide and reigning champions Brisbane battling it out all year for the minor premiership. In the final round of the season, the Power knocked off the Lions at home to claim their maiden McClelland Trophy.

Coming into the finals, it was expected to be fade accompli that the two powerhouses would meet in the big dance, but an ultra-impressive September from the young Magpies put a spanner in Port’s hopes of making their first Grand Final. Many in the media now expected that with Brisbane’s main challenger out of the way, the Lions’ march to back-to-back premierships was now easier than ever. But with Mick Malthouse and Nathan Buckley at the helm, these baby Pies were playing with vigour, enthusiasm, and a hunger to prove that they were ready for the spotlight.

So, would the team assembled from the merger of two average clubs win back-to-back titles for the first time? Would Collingwood add another trophy to its bulging cabinet? Welcome to Part Five of our series, the 2002 Grand Final between Brisbane and Collingwood.

 

THE TALKING POINTS

 

A GRAND FINAL FOR THE AGES

With Brisbane and Port Adelaide engaging in a two-way tussle for home-and-away supremacy, it was expected that, with both teams earning home-field advantage for the finals, the Grand Final would finally be fought between two non-Victorian teams. But this young Collingwood team destroyed those plans when they ventured over to Adelaide and beat the minor premiers, paving the way for a David vs. Goliath battle for the cup.

The vastly more experienced, finals-hardened Brisbane, whose players’ average age was 26 years and 144 games, against a Collingwood team on the rise, but whom many thought were a step behind the reigning champions. The Pies averaged just 24 years, and only 94 games. You could also excuse those who were concerned this match would continue the 12-year streak of one-sided Grand Finals, which from 1990 to 2001 averaged 45 points as the winning margin.

Brisbane were top of the ladder for the majority of the home and away season, whereas Collinwood performed consistently all year, but despite making the top four, only finished two games ahead of tenth placed Hawthorn.

Fans and the media alike have been clamouring for a competitive Grand Final like we saw in 1989. Even in that epic contest, the margin blew out to 37 points at half time. However, with Collingwood firing on all cylinders, and Brisbane matching them at every turn, we were treated to a pressure-filled spectacle, the game so close that the final margin of nine points was the biggest lead to either team on the day.

The weather was certainly a factor, as the typical “Four Seasons in a Day” Melbourne treated us to rain, wind and sunshine, making the contest all the more enthralling. Players putting their heads over the ball with reckless abandon, tackles being laid left, right and centre, and even though the ball was wet and the wind swirling, the skill level of the superstars was still top-notch.

It was truly a match that ebbed and flowed, and neither team had the momentum for long stretches. Collingwood had the chance to push the margin out, but some poor kicking cost them, and Brisbane refused to yield. Both teams had dominant forwards, both midfields played well, led by their skippers, and each team had enough of the momentum to build a lead with. However, each time, their opponents wrestled it back. Perhaps the only downside of the contest was the goal kicking, as the weather made it difficult for the ball to through the big sticks. Combined, the score was 19.27 (141), highlighting the struggles that the players had with their accuracy.

 

THE MATCH-UPS

 

Two of the great modern-day coaches went head to head on Saturday, with Leigh Matthews and Mick Malthouse coaching their sides wonderfully on the day. So many players went completely one-on-one, and every contest had massive impacts on the result.

Anthony Rocca took Justin Leppitsch to the cleaners in a dominant forward display, and at the other end, Alastair Lynch got the better of Shane Wakelin, despite the Pies defender playing well under the duress.

Conversely, Chris Tarrant had a day to forget against Mal Michael, with the Collingwood talisman unable to capitalise on his good form. Appearing overawed by the occasion, Tarrant was given no space to use his agility, and Michael had his measure when the ball came in long.

Des Headland had a breakout year in 2002, kicking 34 goals from 20 games and averaging 19 disposals. Despite that, Carl Steinfort did an amazing job at nullifying Headland’s influence, and although Steinfort only troubled the statisticians twice, his defensive work on Headland was vital to his team’s cause.

In the middle of the ground, Beau McDonald left the field in the first quarter due to a shoulder injury, leaving Clark Keating to play a lone hand (with the occasional cameo from Darryl White) against the trio of Steve McKee, Josh Fraser and Rocca. Keating starred, and his dominance led to a midfield victory for the men in maroon. Underneath him, we were treated to a battle of leadership, skill and toughness and Nathan Buckley went head-to-head with Michael Voss.

Clearly the best on ground for their respective sides, it was Buckley that had ever so slightly the better day, given Voss had his injury concerns and had to spend more time forward to rest than Buckley did. Elsewhere, reigning Brownlow Medallist, Simon Black had a shadow all day in the form of Scott Burns. Both men played well, but it was clear that Black’s usual influence on the game wasn’t there, as Burns negated Black’s composure with ball in hand.

The last of Brisbane’s Brownlow trio, Jason Akermanis, spent much of the day being followed by the irritating but fair Ben Johnson. Playing injured for most of the afternoon, Akermanis wasn’t able to be used in the midfield rotation, and as such played forward on Johnson. While his injury quelled Akermanis’s influence slightly, it was clear that Johnson had gotten under his skin, and every time Aker had the ball, Johnson was around to pressure the mercurial forward into mistakes.

At the other end, Chris Johnson had an up and down day opposed to the underrated Rupert Betheras. It was clear early on that Johnson had no respect for Betheras, consistently coming off his man to gather the ball, when Johnson’s teammates were in a better position to do so. It meant that Betheras had far too much space to do his work, and his work ethic and toughness made life hard for Johnson when he was sternly instructed by Matthews to be more accountable for Betheras in defence.

 

THE PLAYERS OF THE MATCH

 

NATHAN BUCKLEY

It will always be a source of debate. Should the winner of the Norm Smith Medal ever come from the losing team? In this instance, however, there should be no argument.

The clear best player on the field, Buckley’s leadership was crucial in pulling his young Collingwood team towards the finish line. Opposed to Michael Voss for most of the afternoon, Buckley put on a masterclass. Recording 32 disposals, including 28 kicks, Buckley put the whole Collingwood organisation on his shoulders in a valiant effort to win the club its 15th premiership. In the end, it just wasn’t enough, but it stands to reason that without Buckley, the result would’ve been a lot worse for the Pies.

 

MICHAEL VOSS

Brisbane’s best chance at knocking Buckley off his Norm Smith perch, Voss was to the Lions what Buckley was to the Magpies. Throwing his weight around with almost reckless abandon, Voss had to play parts of the game forward to rest his body after a few heavy collisions.

Gathering 26 disposals (22 kicks, four handballs), Voss’s best period of the game came in the final quarter when the game was firmly in the balance. Directly opposed to Buckley for most of the afternoon, Voss also took six marks and laid a team-high six tackles.

Perhaps Voss’s only blemish was the two free kicks he gave away when his aggression got the better of him.

 

CLARK KEATING

What a strange year for September specialist Keating. At one point during the season, Keating was Brisbane’s third choice ruckman behind Beau McDonald and Jamie Charman, and only managed to play 12 matches. However, a shoulder injury to McDonald, followed by Charman losing his place, meant that once again the finals played host to Keating domination.

While he didn’t get the ball as much as Steve McKee, Keating’s dominance in the ruck contests fed his midfielders ample opportunity to drive the ball forward. Part of Keating’s charm is his uncanny knack for coming alive during the finals, and once again this year when Keating took Charman’s place, he dominated every finals match Brisbane played.

 

SCOTT BURNS

Aside from Buckley, Collingwood’s contributions were even across the board. While Bucks dominated the midfield, his contemporary Scott Burns played a brilliant game of pressure football.

Gathering 17 touches (15 kicks, two handballs), Burns’ main influence to the cause was his 11 tackles, all of which were aggressive. Playing opposite reigning Brownlow Medallist Simon Black, Burns cared less for his own stats, and was clearly focused on the task of quelling Black’s impact. While Black finished with 22 disposals, his usual slick ball use was nowhere to be seen, and that was all due to Burns’ defensive job on the Lions’ star.

 

NIGEL LAPPIN

The only player of Brisbane’s Fab Four that didn’t win the Brownlow Medal, the often criminally underrated Lappin played a game for the ages, and was perhaps Brisbane’s biggest weapon. With Voss playing with toughness and aggression, Simon Black being tagged, and Jason Akermanis under an injury cloud, it was left to Lappin to carry the weight of being the Lions’ primary midfield user.

Finding the ball 28 times (17 kicks, 11 handballs), Lappin was smooth as silk, and it was his exemplary ball use that made life so much harder for Collingwood’s defenders.

 

AND THE WORST…

 

JUSTIN LEPPITSCH

We could dance around it, but there’s no other way we can describe it. Justin Leppitsch had a match to forget. Being the man Leith Matthews employed to stop spearhead Anthony Rocca, Leppitsch was completely overwhelmed, and Rocca’s four goals were almost the difference.

Gathering just six disposals, it was clear that despite being named in the 2002 All-Australian team, Leppitsch was out of his depth on this day, and it seemed to frustrate the Lions defender, as he also gave away three free kicks, all from lapses in discipline.

 

CHRIS TARRANT

Despite being Collinwood’s leading goal kicker in the 2001 and 2002 seasons, Tarrant had a day to forget in his first Grand Final. While he had some good moments leading up the ground to give more forward space to Rocca, the fact remains that when Tarrant did go to the goal square when Rocca did the ruckwork, he floundered, kicking just two behinds and sending one out of bounds.

While he is in the category of Collingwood players that did their role without really standing out, Tarrant joins the list of worst due to his goal kicking, and ill-discipline, as he gave away three silly free kicks, one of which was a 50-metre penalty that cost Collingwood two goals, one at their end, one at the other.

 

This was without a shadow of a doubt the Grand Final that we’d all been waiting 12 years for. Led by arguably the two greatest coaches in AFL history, Brisbane and Collingwood put on a match for the ages.

As evidenced by the post-match tears of Malthouse and Paul Licuria, this was an emotionally draining affair, and to come so close would’ve cut these Magpies deep. For the losing Collingwood, fans could hold their heads high that this team was only entering its prime, and hopefully more success was just around the corner. But this was still Brisbane’s time in the sun, and with this victory, they became the first outfit to give Brisbane and Fitzroy back-to-back premierships since Fitzroy’s triumph way back in 1904-05.

For Leigh Matthews, this was his seventh premiership as a player and coach, one that enhanced his standing as the VFL/AFL’s most successful individual. With Brisbane firmly in the middle of their premiership window, and Collingwood now starting to open theirs, this rivalry would give us many more epics in the years to come.