Saddam Hussein is captured by US troops, Tesla Inc. is founded in California, and the Spitzer Space telescope is launched from Cape Canaveral. Down under, and once again it was Port Adelaide who dominated the home and away season, taking all before them to claim a second consecutive minor premiership. However, the ghosts of the choker tag came back to haunt the Power, who once again failed in their pursuit of a maiden AFL Grand Final berth.
This time, it was the young Magpies knocking the Power out of contention, and in a repeat of last season, their opponents would be Brisbane, aiming to become the first team of the AFL era to win a trifecta of premierships. Like last year, these young Magpies were playing with vigour, an enthusiasm for the contest, and speed that not many could match. These old Lions had beaten the plucky underdogs once before, but this time it was different. Collingwood entered the match as favourites, and it was assumed that the Magpies run and gun style would be too much for the battle-hardened Lions to overcome. So, would Brisbane achieve the magical threepeat? Would Nathan Buckley finally earn the premiership medal he so desperately craved? Welcome to the sixth instalment of our series, the 2003 Grand Final between Brisbane and Collingwood.
THE BACK STORY
After coming from outside the finals in 2001 to reach a Grand Final last season, these young Magpies had slammed their premiership window wide open with another impressive home and away campaign. Finishing second on the ladder with 15 wins, Collingwood have the perfect mixture of youth and experience. Taking down the reigning premiers in the Qualifying Final, before heading to Adelaide to crush the Power’s dreams of a maiden Grand Final, the Magpies hopes of a 15th premiership were dealt a major blow when key forward Anthony Rocca decided to elbow Brendon Lade in the head, costing him a chance at a premiership medal, and giving Mick Malthouse plenty of headaches during Grand Final week.
Meanwhile in the sunshine state, Brisbane, on the back of consecutive flags, entered the finals series in excellent form, winning three of last four matches, and bested the lowly Bulldogs by 84 points in the final to finish third on the ladder. However, unlike the Magpies, Brisbane stumbled, losing the Qualifying Final to their eventual Grand Final opponents, before rebounding with strong wins to bank some form heading into the big dance. A third consecutive premiership was still in their grasp, but this time, their opponents had had their measure, and a big effort was required to get over the line on this occasion. Another concern for the Lions was their injuries with skipper Michael Voss, Alastair Lynch and Martin Pike all carrying niggles, and Jason Akermanis letting it slip that Nigel Lappin was suffering with broken ribs, a remark that angered his coach, paving the way for his eventual exit from the Lions.
The young Magpies signalled their intentions early, with Scott Burns charging through the centre square to poleaxe Jonathan Brown, letting the Lions know they weren’t going to be intimidated by their more experienced adversaries. It took Brown a long time to rise to his feet, and when he did, his team had already nailed the first goal of the match. With the message sent by the Magpies, the Lions rose to the occasion, and matched irresistible force with some fire of their own. Chris Johnson was his strong-willed self in defence, Brown and Alastair Lynch were proving a headache for Collingwood’s defence, and Clark Keating was dominating in the middle, allowing the Lions first use to move the ball forward.
Shane Woewodin got Collingwood moving with a beautiful set shot from the pocket, but as an observer, it felt that the Magpies were already on the back foot, and would struggle to contain Brisbane’s experienced players. Even though the scoreboard hadn’t yet blown out, Brisbane were the superior outfit, and something needed to change to avoid the inevitable. That change brought about a goal to the black and white stripes, as Josh Fraser exposed Keating’s defensive weaknesses, getting on the end of a gloriously-weighted kick from skipper Nathan Buckley, to keep the Magpies in the contest. However, it would be short-lived, as Brisbane dominated the latter stages of the quarter, with goals from Akermanis, McCrae and Bradshaw only matched by one from Buckley, giving the Lions a 14 point advantage at quarter time.
If there were danger signs for Mick Malthouse and his team in the first quarter, things took a sharp turn for the worse after the break. Within the first minute, Akermanis put another goal on the board, and at the other end, Chris Tarrant tried to shepherd a goal through, only to watch the ball hit the post; a ball he should’ve marked to remove any doubt. Taking advantage of this blemish, the Lions added another goal through Richard Hadley, with Hadley snapping from the pocket after receiving a long handball from Keating out of a ruck contest. It was a more physical quarter than the first, but that was because Collingwood’s players were becoming increasingly concerned that they couldn’t match it with Brisbane, and resorted to physicality to try and generate some momentum.
With Anthony Rocca on the sidelines, Malthouse had to play Jason Cloke at centre half forward, taking him away from the loose man in defence role that he had performed so well in all year. That task fell to youngster Rhyce Shaw, who was completely overwhelmed. Both times Shaw was involved in the play resulted in goals to Alastair Lynch, one from a play that Shaw didn’t go anywhere near hard enough in, and the other from a direct fumble. Cloke was opposed to Brisbane’s army of stronger defenders, and didn’t contribute up forward, so the change desperately needed to be made to stem the flow. Nathan Buckley was doing all he could to keep his team in the contest, but a Robert Copeland tag was starting to frustrate the Magpies’ skipper, with Buckley failing to register a disposal in the final 15 minutes of the term. By the time the siren sounded to end the first half, the barnstorming Lions had kicked six second-quarter goals to one, and enjoyed a healthy 42 point lead.
It was a much more desperate Collingwood team that emerged from the break, and the Magpies used their leg speed to pull back the momentum. Collingwood kicked the first two goals of the quarter before the Lions had gone forward, and suddenly the margin was back to a manageable five goals. Brisbane was in need of a steadier, and they got it through another moment of brilliance from Jason Akermanis, his third goal putting the pressure back on the Magpies to keep in touch.
Unlike the first two quarters, there wasn’t much scoring being done at either end of the ground. At the halfway point of the quarter, only the aforementioned goals had been scored, and for all of Collingwood’s good work to will themselves back into the contest, they had only reduced the halftime margin by two points. Brisbane had withstood every body blow the Magpies could land, and got back on the attack to put the result beyond doubt. Despite injuries to Justin Leppitsch, Darryl White and Michael Voss, the Lions roared again, led by a strong quarter in attack from Lynch. Collingwood kept the margin between 30 and 40 points, but Brisbane ensured that it never dipped below that. The Magpies had given their all, but the siren sounded to end the third quarter with the Magpies still 35 points in arrears, and although Brisbane were hurting, this was a lead that looked beyond Collingwood’s reach.
It was score for score to start the final quarter, but worryingly for Magpies supporters, their team could only register minor scores. After weathering the early storm and still six goals ahead, it quickly became party time for the Lions, as everything they touched turned to six pointers. Akermanis kicked his fifth, Lynch his fourth, and the margin quickly stretched out to 69 points. There isn’t much left to say, as the Lions had well and truly finished Collingwood off. At the 26 minute mark of the quarter, Alan Didak kicked his third goal, and two more junk time majors followed, but this was a mini consolation prize for a very disappointing day for the Magpies.
Michael Voss, after spending all of the last quarter on the interchange bench, made his way onto the ground with seconds to go to a warm reception of cheers. Once the final siren had sounded, the Lions had completed the three-peat, winning by 50 points, and establishing themselves as one of the greatest teams in history.
THE KEY PLAYERS (POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE)
If you are a Collingwood supporter, you might find this section tough to read, because in reality, the Lions were heads, shoulders, knees and toes above their opponents for most of the afternoon. Sure, the Magpies had their contributors that wouldn’t feel the wrath of the coach, but it was very hard to find many players that beat their direct opponents.
The pick of the bunch for the Magpies was Josh Fraser, who worked himself to the brink of collapsing from exhaustion in an intriguing battle with Clark Keating. Keating got the better of Fraser in the ruck duels, but Fraser’s trump card was his work around the ground, gathering 23 disposals and seven marks to go with 21 hit outs. With Rocca out of the side, Fraser was tasked with venturing forward to give the young talls some support, which he did very well, and his goal in the first term kept the Magpies close.
Collingwood’s midfield were outplayed for the majority of the contest, but Scott Burns and Paul Licuria were the best of a bad bunch, working hard to stem the flow of ball going the other way. Burns was at his in under best, amassing 22 disposals (12 contested), five tackles and four marks, and his sublime kicking directly led to three Collingwood goals. Licuria’s best work was done on the outside, gathering 21 disposals (at 84% efficiency), and he also laid seven crucial tackles.
Some will argue that Nathan Buckley should also have been mentioned alongside Burns and Licuria, and while he did have 24 disposals, he wasn’t at his usual Brownlow Medal-winning influential best, being well held by Robert Copeland.
Both forward and behind the ball, the Magpies struggled to find anyone of consistent four-quarter influence. Forward of the ball, the young targets were overwhelmed without Anthony Rocca. Tristen Walker, in just his tenth game, was the main culprit, only touching the ball once (although that disposal was an around the body kick that led to a goal), while also spending time being beaten in the ruck by Keating and Jamie Charman. Leon Davis was barely sighted, Ben Kinnear didn’t get near it, and Chris Tarrant was blanketed by Mal Michael.
The Magpies were so thin up forward they had to send regular defender Jason Cloke into the forward 50, and all this did was rob Peter to pay Paul. Removing Cloke from the loose man in defence position he had played so well in put more pressure on the defence, in particular Rhyce Shaw, the man tasked with filling Cloke’s shoes. In his 23rd game, Shaw made too many costly errors, either by fumbling the ball, or simply not working hard enough, and too many times his mistakes cost Collingwood on the scoreboard.
But this was all about the Lions, who had consistent winners all over the ground. Even those who spent the bulk of the game on the bench had their moments, and every single player earned their premiership medals.
The best of the bunch was Simon Black, who was absolutely everywhere. In the first quarter, Black started well, gathering five touches. After quarter time, however, Black exploded, amassing 34 disposals in the final three quarters. Interestingly, it didn’t appear that Malthouse was interested in sending anyone to Black to curb his influence, as he was largely left to roam the wide expanses of the MCG.
We’ve already spoken about Josh Fraser, but we also need to mention the other participant in the ruck battle, September specialist, Clark Keating. 2003 was almost a repeat of the previous season, as Keating battled with Charman and Beau McDonald for the number one ruck spot. When McDonald once again succumbed to injury, Keating overtook Charman, and began another round of finals dominance. Like last year, Keating didn’t gather as many disposals as his direct opponent, but his ruck craft consistently fed his midfielders first use of the football.
We’ve spoken about Collingwood’s struggles forward of the ball, and part of that was due to their inexperience. But another reason for the forward mediocrity was due to the defensive masterclass from the experienced big bodies of Brisbane. Mal Michael, Darryl White, and Chris Johnson all used their significant size advantage to intimidate their opponents into submission. Spoiling and marking everything that came their way, Brisbane’s defensive trio gave Collingwood’s forwards no chance to have any influence.
While the aforementioned trio killed the ball, it was Nigel Lappin and Luke Power setting everything in motion from the back half. Lappin, playing with a broken rib, was as courageous as he was skilful, as his 19 disposals were beautifully controlled, and his seven marks were under much duress. Power was just as brilliant, and while he didn’t gather as much ball as Lappin (16 disposals and five tackles), Power was everywhere when his team needed him, regardless of whether it registered on the stats sheet.
Let’s talk about the forward line. Early on, it was clear that nothing was going to stop this much vaunted forward six, and so it came to be with the Lions building a healthy total, 20 goals from 35 shots at goal. It was hard to pick the best of the bunch, but that honour went to Jason Akermanis, whose mastery in front of goal killed any hope of a Collingwood win. Akermanis kicked five goals, while also gathering 20 disposals (18 kicks), and his battle with Ben Johnson was completely one-sided. Johnson didn’t go hard enough on several occasions.
Akermanis’ partner in crime, Alastair Lynch, played his role perfectly, kicking four goals opposed to full-back Shane Wakelin. Lynch’s eight marks were only matched by Jonathan Brown, who kicked two goals from his 15 disposals, in a bullocking centre half forward role. Without Jason Cloke to cut off Brisbane’s forward attacks, Collingwood’s remaining back six were overwhelmed, and simply couldn’t contain Akermanis, Lynch, Brown and Blake Caracalla.
History was made on this fateful day. Brisbane completed the trifecta, Michael Voss increased his standing as a modern-day great, becoming a triple premiership captain and Leigh Matthews joined the conversation as the greatest AFL person of all time with another premiership medal. This was a champion team, full of champions, and by fulfilling this destiny, it seemed that nothing would again stand in way of earning even more history. On the other side, it was yet another failure on the big stage for Mick Malthouse and Nathan Buckley, who would’ve given up his recently won Brownlow Medal for a premiership medallion. Like last year, Magpies supporters could take solace that this was a young outfit, and surely more success was just around the corner, if only a few more ingredients could be added.
But history is written by those who find a way to rise above adversity, and on this day, the trophy was once again headed to the sunshine state. What would next year bring? Would the Lions make even more history with a fourth flag in succession? Could Collingwood shake off their Grand Final demons?