On the eve of the 2022 AFLW season, Kirby Fenwick spoke with Kate Lutkins and Belle Dawes about the Brisbane Lions’ history-making premiership.
There was one moment when Kate Lutkins knew her Brisbane Lions had won the 2021 AFLW premiership. One moment when she was sure of the result. One moment when she could take a breath.
“I didn’t think we’d won the game until about 30 seconds to go. And I remember asking [Brisbane Lions High Performance Manager] Matthew Green, I said ‘Greeny, how long?’ and he’s like ‘30 seconds’ and that was the only time that I thought that I knew we’d won it.”
It was the Lions’ third time at the pointy end of the season and they made it count, securing their club’s first AFLW premiership on a Saturday afternoon in Adelaide. Among the team were a handful of stalwarts like Lutkins, players like Emma Zeilke, Jess Weutschner and Ally Anderson. But there were some youngsters too, players with only a handful of games under their belt, players like Belle Dawes.
In 2017, Dawes was in the crowd for the inaugural AFLW grand final at Metricon Stadium. She remembers being awed by both the size of the crowd and by the stars on the field and despite the Lions losing that game, she was “still pretty happy”.
“I was like, ‘This is so cool like, I can be playing this one day’.”
Two years later Dawes was drafted by the Lions and in only her second season in the AFLW she was playing in the biggest game of the year: the 2021 Grand Final.
While she wasn’t a part of the losing teams in 2017 or 2018, the twenty-year-old feels incredibly grateful to be a part of the team that flipped the narrative for the Lions.
“Every team plays to win a premiership. We’re not just mucking around, you know, we all want to win it. But I think obviously, to lose it twice that’s a bit of a stab to the heart and to come into the club, you’re immediately a part of it, like you feel what everyone’s feeling.
“So, it felt… yeah, I want to be a part of like doing this. Instead of coming in and they’ve already done it. I was like, cool, I get to be part of the first grand final.”
Kate Lutkins is one of the original eight, the eight players from the Lions’ first season who were still pulling on the jumper in 2021 or involved with the club. She sees those two losses differently. A perspective that is undoubtedly filtered through six seasons at the highest level.
“It’s so long ago now, it’s kind of almost, it’s not lost in your memory, but it’s just so long ago, and so much has happened, with the club, with the team and the competition as a whole.
“The competition’s gone so far and it’s so much bigger and better and improved and quicker, faster, stronger, more athletic, way more talent. So, it’s just, yeah, it’s come so far. And I guess this year has kind of superseded every year.
“But I do look back on [the two grand final losses] and… on the original team photos, and you know, like, there’s only seven of us left now.
“It’s nice to be a part of that history and a part of that foundation year.”
The Brisbane Lions have been the perennial underdogs in the AFLW. Two states away from the footy heartland of Victoria and so seemingly out of sight and out of mind for the bulk of the footy media. In 2017, no-one—at least no-one outside of Queensland—expected to see them playing in the inaugural grand final. They were back again in 2018, and although it was another disappointing end to the season, they club have remained mostly in the mix ever since, despite losing a number of high-profile players. In fact, the Lions have only missed the finals once, the only club to have such consistency in the league’s short history.
In 2021, they were right in the thick of things yet again. They lost only two games for the season and finished second on the ladder, earning a week off. Then they beat Collingwood in a thrilling contest at the Gabba to propel themselves into a third grand final. Dawes recalls the feeling in the team as they headed into that preliminary final. It wasn’t a cockiness, but a feeling of confidence in who they were, as individuals and as a team.
“I’ve talked to so many of the girls on the team and in that game a lot of us knew we had it. There was just this weird energy, just like we have got this like even if it wasn’t in [our] control, like sometimes it was going their way, like nah nah nah, we got this.”
But there was little time to celebrate that win. A grand final was ahead.
For Lutkins, the memories of the week before the grand final are hazy. What she does recall is the feeling that spun around the group, the players and coaches and support staff. A mix of energy and excitement, what she calls a “good vibe”. There was a nod too, to the finals of 2017 and 2018.
“I think what we learned most about those two was the lead up and the lead into that grand final and we went into this grand final a completely different way to the other two grand finals, I couldn’t even tell you what that is, but it was completely different.
“But this one was also an away game. So, you know, we got into Adelaide two days early, the whole team traveled together, the whole squad, all the staff. And it was just a really united, tight, intimate bunch of women and girls and all the supporting staff, like on the same mission, the same goal and just had that belief. But also, just, you know, we knew how hard we’d worked for it. We knew how much effort we had put in. We knew how hard we’d trained for it.”
It had hardly been a smooth ride to the final game of the season. Covid had continued to make its presence felt long after the disastrous end to the 2020 season and the Lions certainly weren’t immune. But for Dawes, playing in the biggest game of her career so far, that week was about trying to keep herself calm and relaxed.
“I didn’t want to get myself too nervous, because I know I can do that sometimes. So, you know, just took it day by day. Like, yeah, it’s grand final week, we’ve got a grand final at the end [of the week] but I don’t want to get pumped up on Monday.”
It’s here that the calm heads of the older players came in handy.
“I could not ask for better mentors,” Dawes says of her older and more experienced teammates, namechecking Emma Zielke, Lauren Arnell and Lutkins.
“I think they’ve just set a really good environment, standard, and just build great relationships. And yeah, just really taught me heaps outside of footy.”
“Couldn’t ask for a better life mentors, leaders in that aspect.”
For Lutkins, it was as much about sharing their experiences as it was about appreciating that the outcome of one game cannot and will not determine their lives.
“The older players, or the eight of us that had played in those two grand finals, just shared our experiences and shared individual things that we might do that help us along the way or that we might do pregame.
“For me personally, it’s just another game and I take that attitude into every game. It’s a game of footy no matter what happens, like I’m doing something that I love that I’m passionate about, and the sun will get up tomorrow morning.”
While keeping things calm and as normal as possible was the plan, on game day, the nerves were inevitable. Dawes says the knowledge that her teammates and coaches were feeling nervous before the game was comforting.
“It matters, so a little bit of nerves is good. And, you know, we huddled up like, we’re all feeling nervous, so like, let’s just all get behind each other. And that, that made me feel really comfortable. Like oh my gosh, I’m feeling it, they’re all feeling it. The other team is feeling it, so, let’s use it for good basically. That’s kind of how I took it. Let’s use these nerves for good.”
Lutkins’ memories of the pre-game are mostly limited to the team photo, the national anthem and her standard of feeling “buggered in warm up”.
“I do remember going out onto the field the first time and just looking around and taking it all in.
“And then the national anthem as well, obviously, standing there… I do definitely remember that. The anthem and where we line up and have that moment and just, you know, looking at the opposition, and just thinking this is it. The next two hours. Yeah, I don’t even know what went on in my head.”
At the first bounce of the game, Lutkins says there was only one thing going through her mind.
“‘Oh. shit, Oh shit, Oh shit! Where’s that full time siren?’ As much as I say I don’t get nervous [but] all of us, we knew our roles, and we knew what we had to do on the day. So, it was just a matter of, you know, sticking to our roles, playing our role and doing our job for the day. And you know, that’s pretty much what was going through my head: stick with my player. I think in 2018, I actually was with the wrong player the whole time. I got told to mark someone and I marked someone else the entire game. So, I tried not to do that this year.”
Dawes started the game on the bench, which, despite prolonging her nerves, was something she says she didn’t mind because it gave her the opportunity to come on unnoticed during play.
“I know my nerves in a grand final, first ball up, the countdown on the screen, you know three, two—I was sitting on the bench. Like, here we go. Here we go. Here we go. So, yeah, it was good starting on the bench. Usually people don’t like it, but I’m like, yep, put me on the bench. And then I’ll quickly sneak in and do my little thing when no one is watching.”
Dawes says she has no memory of her first touch. Instead, she was in the thick of a stoppage, causing what she calls “havoc”.
“I remember coming on… I’m feeling energetic, like I’ve kept stored all this energy, you know, stored all the nerves. I’ve run on and I’m just like that annoying little dog. Yelling, talking, trying to get a bit of energy going in the midfield and there was a ball up stoppage. And I’m quickly in this play and I’m bumping the chick next to me and, I’m just being really energetic, and then we get the ball going forward, and we set up a wall and I just immediately felt confident from that.”
There were 22,000 fans packed into Adelaide Oval. It’s fair to say a sizeable majority were Crows supporters. The noise was something Dawes had never experienced before. While she did her best to block it out and stay focused on the game, there were moments where that was impossible.
“There’s this one part where Stevie Lee was running. And she got on a break, and the whole stadium roared… and I looked up, it was the first time I’ve really like, noticed the atmosphere ‘cause I was trying to stay, you know, in the game and fence.
“I looked up and I was like, holy wow, you know. I was, I was pretty blown away, ‘cause I’ve never heard anything so loud and it was literally a roar of everyone in that same stadium for the other team… but it was a moment where I was like oh my god, wow like, I’m playing this game kind of thing. And there’s this many people roaring or cheering and getting in for this girl who’s on a fast break, like was pretty awesome, even though it was for them.”
Lutkins is no stranger to the Adelaide fans, especially at Norwood Oval, a ground she describes as “intense” and “intimate”.
“Coming to Adelaide, we knew it was going to be a crowd that was very on Adelaide’s side and very, very Adelaide vocal. But we also knew that we had a solid Brisbane fan base, right down the end of one of the goals. And so that’s all I really tuned into, but I mean, the crowd was pretty cool. So, I didn’t really care who they were cheering for, they were just making noise. So, it was pretty cool to be a part of it and play in front of that many people.”
Despite the encouraging start to the game with Courtney Hodder’s opening goal, the Crows turned up the heat towards the end of the first quarter and into the second. It’s the second quarter that holds a moment Lutkins isn’t soon to forget. But it also might just might be the moment that pushed her to a best on ground performance. She was rebounding out from the goal square and kicked the ball out on the full. An immediate and easy free kick to the Crows resulted in their second goal.
“That’s like almost the only memory from the grand final for me, which is very, very selfish. But it was also a game defining moment for me as well.”
In the few moments between the next centre bounce, Lutkins says she gave herself a “stern talking to”.
“Up until that point I didn’t feel I was being accountable or playing my role for the team to the best of my ability. And then obviously I kicked it out the full and then I let the player take the hit-up mark as well and then they kicked the goal. So, I felt very, very responsible for that goal and the change in momentum in the game.
“I had a very, very harsh talking to myself in that one minute… harsh but nice as in like, switch on, you need to do this for the girls, you need to pick up, work harder, be accountable, hold yourself high, all that kind of stuff. So, it was a good chat, but it was very harsh. And that kind of turned my whole game around.”
If the third quarter is the premiership quarter, then Brisbane had sewn up their place in the history books just on the three-quarter time siren. After goals from Jess Wuetschner and Lauren Arnell, it was Dawes who had the ball in her hands on the siren. She wasn’t about to waste the opportunity.
“That was just awesome for me,” she said.
“I think yeah when I kicked that I was just, you know, we were on the fan side, the siren went in the third quarter, everyone got around [me], and I just was shot with adrenaline.
“I remember running back in after that [at] three quarter time, and being so hyped up and everyone’s like, you know it’s not over yet [and] I’m like, I know, I’m just really hyped up, let’s go, we’ve got this. So that was really cool. Because I’ve never been that excited about a goal I’ve kicked in my life.”
Lutkins, who was watching from the other end of the ground, describes Dawes’ goal as “incredible”.
“I think it was almost 40 meters out. For a young kid to kick that goal after a siren in a high-pressure game is pretty incredible with the composure that she had. So, it was an incredible goal.”
But while the highs were enormous in the third quarter, there was a pretty significant low too. Captain Emma Zielke had done her hamstring and was out for the game. Lutkins says she didn’t even know until it was mentioned in the huddle.
“I was really, really disappointed for her and so were the whole backline and the team. But we also knew that we just had to get on, get the job done.
“So, the coaches just adjusted a couple of things. Moved a couple players around, and it was like, you know, nothing had changed. So even though we did have our skip down, a lot of the girls in the team are leaders in their own right, and they all just stepped up when they needed to out there.
“But I actually really wanted them, [it] would have been really good for them to sub her on at the end of the game so she finished on the ground.”
They would go on to get the job done; their third quarter efforts setting the team up to beat the Crows by 18 points. At the final siren, Dawes recalls the ground was a study in contrasts. On one side, the exuberant Lions, and the other the crestfallen Crows.
“Literally, it’s half the girls on the field going up, jumping, crazy and the other half have dropped. And our fans at the far end are just cheering for us. Basically, it’s get around to everyone. Hugs. Like we’ve done it. Relief. Love. Happiness.
“I mean, you can’t really explain the feeling but yeah, but that’s what I see in my mind.
“You’re honestly feeling so much and you’re sharing that feeling. So it’s really awesome. And it’s just get around to everyone. Oh my god. Oh, my God. You can’t describe it.”
Related: The Round Up: AFLW Grand Final 2021
For Lutkins, the feeling was happiness, genuine happiness. For herself, but also for the team, on-field and off, around her.
“I was really excited. It was just, I was just happy. Like, genuinely happy for you know, Bree [Brock], Craig [Starcevich], Greeny. All the staff have put so much time and effort into the girls over the years, you know, they’ve worked above and beyond. They put so many extra hours in. And then to the girls that have done all the hard work and the hard running like I was just, I was just very happy.
“But I literally ran in circles trying to find someone to celebrate with. I literally went like this way. No. This way. No. This way. No, no, no, I couldn’t find any friends. And I was just like running in this random circle by myself. And then I had to run like 50 [metres] just to find someone.”
Reflecting on the game, months after playing it, Lutkins is quick to point to the efforts of her teammates. Even more so as the conversation shifts to her best on ground performance.
“I actually thought Bre Koenen was very under done for the best. I think she played an incredible role. She always plays her role and self-sacrifices for the team and just her courage and accountability and discipline on the day was just amazing. Her run and carry and her leadership and her voice was incredible on the day.
“Cathy’s [Svarc] tackle chase down tackle that kind of, you know, swung not the momentum but swung that energy back in our way I think from the time in the game, but yeah, Bre Koenen and taking mark after mark after mark, and just Shannon’s [Campbell] courage back in [defence]. Yeah. There are lots of little moments.”
The team focus may have shifted to season 2022, but Lutkins, who has watched the replay only once, is sure there will be plenty to reflect on in the coming years.
“It’s pretty cool and surreal, and amazing to be a part of it. And, you know, I don’t take it for granted… I’m very proud. And, you know, I’m so thankful and honoured, and humbled to have the opportunity to be a part of the AFLW competition and to play in a grand final and to win a grand final, that’s obviously going to be quite unique and quite a small population that actually can say that.
“I definitely will reflect on that in the future. And I think, yeah, it’s going to be, it’s obviously a big part of my life, and it’s shaped who I am in the last six or so years. So, very, very thankful for it. And yeah, almost looking forward to being able to reflect on it, you know, later in life and look back on it, the good old days in 2021.”
Dawes has only watched the game twice. She’s wary of getting stuck in that one game. But re-watching it came with some surprises.
“When I re-watched, I’m like, I don’t remember this because I was so in the moment…I don’t remember that. Oh, I remember this. And then. Oh, when did that happen? Just because when I’m playing footy, my mind’s going 100 miles an hour, but I’m also trying to stay present. So, there’s no time to lock in the memory bank.
“But yeah, just wait, wait till I’m older and have kids then I’ll be popping it on every Friday night. Yeah, that’ll be a different story.”