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One in, all in: the Brisbane Lions’ AFLW Premiership

For podcast I See It But I Don’t Believe It Gemma Bastiani interviewed Brisbane Lions Women’s CEO Breeanna Brock about their journey to a flag.

The Brisbane Lions won their first ever AFLW premiership in 2021, on their third attempt. Image: Megan Brewer
The Brisbane Lions won their first ever AFLW premiership in 2021, on their third attempt. Image: Megan Brewer

Hear this episode of I See It But I Don’t Believe It

On Saturday April 17th, the Brisbane Lions walked on to Adelaide Oval for their third attempt at an AFLW flag. By 4pm, they were celebrating with medals draped around their necks. The Lions had broken through. They were AFLW premiers. But the club’s road toward glory was far from straight forward.

Across two rounds of AFLW expansion throughout 2019 and 2020 which saw six sides join the competition, Brisbane was one of the hardest-hit, losing almost 20 players to new clubs in that time. It wasn’t just Victorian talent like Kaitlyn Ashmore and Nat Exon returning home, but Queenslanders like Tahlia Randall and Kate McCarthy relocating to join North Melbourne and St. Kilda respectively. This was capped off by the introduction of the Gold Coast Suns, splitting the state’s talent pool in half.

Brisbane Lions Women’s CEO Breeanna Brock describes those expansion years as like they had “been kicked in the guts 100 times.” This forced a reevaluation of their list, which ultimately led to their 2021 premiership, with all but a handful of Queensland talent taking to the field.

Rebuilding

Without a list manager, Brock and head coach Craig Starcevich have taken on these duties—not a stretch from their pre-AFLW roles within AFL Queensland—but acknowledge that their players are effectively their talent scouts.

“Our best recruiters are our players, because they’re playing back at club land. Out of the eight QAFLW clubs, our players are spread across six of those clubs. So we have a pretty good handle on who’s who at what club, and the girls will be constantly into Craig, ‘have you seen this girl?’”

Equally, Brock and Starcevich have a point of reference when they identify local talent, asking their players their thoughts, not just about on-field talent, but off-field attitude. “Because the fit probably becomes the most important thing,” explains Brock.

A key part of their list development was the 2019 Queensland winter series, which gave the group a chance to welcome some potential draftees into the fold and find their footing ahead of another AFLW season.

“It was the kind of healing that we needed because we could all get back together as a group pretty quickly… and we just had a ball. And pretty much all of [the potential draftees] came into our team,” Brock says. “It gave us a look at how the personalities would all fit.”

2020 was a building season for the Lions. Undefeated in the first four rounds—including a round three draw against the Gold Coast Suns—the side proved how valuable their new recruits were. The side averaged 38 points for in that first month—a concerted improvement from their average of 27.6 points for in the 2019 season. Even more encouraging was that the club debuted nine players—the equal-most of existing sides that year—including now premiership stars Greta Bodey, Dakota Davidson, Isabel Dawes and Cathy Svarc.

Cathy Svarc poses with her sister Ruby post-match. Image: Megan Brewer
Cathy Svarc with her sister Ruby post-match. Image: Megan Brewer

“In the end, we felt like the people who did end up leaving chose their own reasons, but the people we got in through that process have made us better,” says Brock.

“[The expansion phase] reinforced to us that we felt confident enough in our ability, in our program to develop people and get them quickly to the level that’s required, but we had to find the right people.”

With four players out the door, and the addition of players like Courtney Hodder, Indy Tahau and Taylor Smith, the Lions primed themselves for the 2021 season.

Off to a flying start

Brisbane began their season showing the footy world that they had found a new, reliable attack. In their four previous seasons, the Lions kicked 40+ points six times, and 60+ points just once, but across the first three rounds of 2021, they kicked 41, 65 and 65 points respectively. Jesse Wardlaw, Dakota Davidson and Greta Bodey led the way, as scoring was something the club was internally looking to improve.

“In preseason I was looking at some numbers—I’m like you, I like numbers,” laughs Brock. “In our whole history, Jess Wuetschner had kicked 29 goals, and the next person six goals… we got a lot of inside 50s, got a lot of the footy, but we always seemed to turn it over in the forward half.”

Greta Bodey finished the season with 34 score involvements, half of which came in the first three rounds. Courtney Hodder laid 21 tackles inside 50 in her first season, the most in the competition. Dakota Davidson kicked 16 goals across her 11 games, with seven in those first three rounds. Their forward line balance was evident, even with Jess Wuetschner yet to make it into the side. Their x-factor, however, according to Brock was Taylor Smith.

Courtney Hodder looks on as her stunning goal bounces through. Image: Megan Brewer
Courtney Hodder looks on as her stunning goal bounces through. Image: Megan Brewer

“So we’ve gone from two talls now to three talls. When we originally got Taylor, I was like, you know what, let’s turn her into a defender. Let’s make her like a big Harris Andrews, let’s change it for this kid… then we start training.”

As soon as Smith hit the training track, it was evident for Brock. 

“No, no, no, we’ll keep her as a forward, because she was just red hot through training.”

The logic was that very few AFLW defensive lines could handle three tall forwards, and it was sound. Davidson, Smith and Wardlaw were Brisbane’s top three for marks inside 50 this year. Standing at 182cm, 182cm and 185cm respectively, they combined for the tallest forward marking trio in the competition in 2021. Just two clubs had two players standing 180cm or taller in their top three for marks inside 50—Melbourne (Eden Zanker and Tegan Cunningham) and Richmond (Courtney Wakefield and Sabrina Frederick).

Throughout their nine home and away matches and two finals, just three times did the Lions end a match without at least one goal from any of Davidson, Smith or Wardlaw, while they combined for 27 goals.

The first loss

On a roll and with three wins banked, the Lions headed to their home ground of Hickey Park to take on Adelaide, who were coming off their first loss of the season. In what would ultimately prove to be a preview of the grand final, it was the lessons from this loss that spurred Brisbane on for their stellar run to finals.

“We could have made some better decisions, particularly to win the game in that last quarter… but predominantly the big thing was red time. We got, I think, three goals kicked on us in the last minute of three quarters or something,” says Brock. And she’s right. In each of the second, third and fourth quarters the Lions conceded late goals courtesy of Ashleigh Woodland and Erin Phillips.

The Breanna Koenen v Erin Phillips match up was one to watch. Image: Megan Brewer
The Breanna Koenen v Erin Phillips match up was one to watch. Image: Megan Brewer

“And Erin Phillips plays the game of her life… we couldn’t beat her, but we could beat the rest of the team around her.”

Phillips ended the day with four goals, 21 disposals, eight marks, four clearances and 353 metres gained, and this is what gave the Lions hope. Erin Phillips had to have the game of her life to beat them, and no-one took more from this than defender Breanna Koenen.

Streak killers

Off the back of their loss to Adelaide, Brisbane faced one of the toughest tasks in the competition—travelling west to take on Fremantle. The Dockers were on an 11-game winning streak, and hadn’t lost at home in three years, but this was the challenge the Lions had focused on since preseason. Their ‘how to win in the west’ plan.

“We beat Fremantle in the first year when we played them, and we were the first Brisbane Lions team to win over there in like 12 years or something,” Brock explains, “so we knew we could beat them over there. We just hadn’t done it in a while.”

The Brisbane Lions are a tight-knit group. Image: Megan Brewer
The Brisbane Lions are a tight-knit group. Image: Megan Brewer

And it was the thing they’d done poorly the week prior, the dying moments in quarters, that won it for them. It’s what ended the longest winning streak in AFLW history.

“We haven’t done that before in games, put our heads down to win it right at the end, at the death.”

The Brisbane vs. Fremantle match-up eerily reversed each club’s fortunes of the previous year. After the Lions travelled to Perth to play the Dockers for a loss, ending an undefeated run of their own, Brisbane got their own back with this win, propelling themselves toward finals.

Two weeks after their win in the west, the Lions did the same to the undefeated Magpies despite some pretty tricky circumstances.

Last minute plans

As the world has been forced to become more agile, elite sport has been one of the most visible examples of this. For the Lions, this meant a home game in round seven relocated to Victoria with less than a day’s notice.

“There were some murmurings going around that Collingwood hadn’t gotten on their flight… but we were, maybe naively, going ‘oh, but it’s our home game, nothing’s going to happen for us.’” explains Brock.

Their home ground of Hickey Park was laid out. Prepared for an AFLW match in front of fans the following afternoon.

“Then I got a call at 1:45pm. ‘We need to have a Zoom catch up with you at two o’clock,’ and they just said ‘Bree, the game is being moved, your flights are at this time and this time, and that’s what’s happening.’”

Brock tried to discuss options—surely the teams could meet in Sydney for the game—but there wasn’t time. Players needed to be informed, transport needed to be booked, all their home ground preparation needed to be speedily packed down ready for travel.

“My husband was in the kitchen listening as this was happening, and I’ve hung up and I just started crying. I was like, ‘why is this so hard?’” Brock recalls. “He’s come in with a stiff drink and he’s gone ‘here, drink this. You’ve got five minutes to cry, then you’ve got to get going.’”

Breeanna Brock has led the Lions as their Women's CEO since the AFLW's inception. Image: Megan Brewer
Breeanna Brock has led the Lions as their Women’s CEO since the AFLW’s inception. Image: Megan Brewer

And that’s what Brock did. She organised the leadership group to inform the players. She contacted her staff to help pack down the necessary equipment at Hickey Park. She booked coaches to take them, and said equipment from Melbourne Airport to their temporary home of Whitten Oval, as no other transport was available.

Brisbane’s travelling staff made it to Melbourne on an earlier flight, allowing them to prepare the change rooms and ground as best they could before the players arrived.

“Western Bulldogs had done such a great job in trying to accommodate us in their rooms… but we walked into the rooms and I’m like, ‘oh, this is very Western Bulldogs’” laughs Brock.

Upon the playing group’s arrival, Brock knew they were in the right headspace when she heard players comment on how great the rooms looked, and captain Emma Zielke address them as a group. And this was important, as it wasn’t simply the game’s relocation that presented as a hurdle for the Lions. Memories of the last time they met Collingwood—in the first match in Australia to be played without a crowd due to COVID—loomed. Brisbane fell by 29 points at home in round six last year, scoring just 14 points of their own and held goalless for the first half. Since then, Collingwood had lost just once, and they were yet to leave Melbourne in 2021 despite it being nearly two months into the season. The odds were certainly stacked against the Lions.

But they came out to a crowdless Whitten Oval and stayed strong in the dying moments, holding on by three points and ending the Magpies’ undefeated run through the season. Not to mention, jumping on a plane a mere hour after that final siren.

Four finals series’ in five years

Since the AFLW’s launch, Brisbane has missed finals just once, a feat no other club has achieved. The road to the grand final, however, wasn’t a simple proposition. A rematch against Collingwood was what faced them in preliminary final week, the difference to last time being the venue. The do-or-die match took place at the GABBA—just the second AFLW match played at the venue.

“The girls view that venue as their spiritual home, which is so weird… to run them through that race at the GABBA and the crowd and all of their families were right above the race,” says Brock. “Yeah, it was pretty magic.”

The game resembled their home and away battle. A genuine push and pull all day, with a late Collingwood goal keeping the margin under a kick, but the Lions ultimately coming away with the win. And this time, a ticket to the grand final.

With the Adelaide Crows also winning through to the final day of the season, memories of the first ever AFLW grand final resurface. That inaugural decider at Metricon Stadium where the Lions fell by just six points. This time, Brisbane would have to travel to Adelaide Oval, a venue at which the Crows had never lost, and go up against the competition’s juggernaut.

Defence wins premierships

Through all their list changes and losses to expansion, the line that stood steadiest was Brisbane’s backline. Of the eight players remaining from their inaugural 2017 list, four lined up in the defensive 50 on April 17th—Kate Lutkins, Emma Zielke, Breanna Koenen and Shannon Campbell, with the pregnant Sharni Webb watching from the sidelines.

The Brisbane Lione' original eight players with the premiership cup. Image: Megan Brewer
The Brisbane Lions’ original eight players with the premiership cup. Image: Megan Brewer

In their round four match, Adelaide kicked 45 points from 36 inside 50s—the most the Lions conceded of each metric across the whole season—and Erin Phillips had to play “the game of her life”.

The Lions evolved from that, and no-one learned more than small, lockdown defender Koenen. After conceding four goals to Phillips, Koenen became every small forward’s worst nightmare. Notably, the only defender to hold Chloe Molloy goalless all season, and doing it not once, but twice. Another shot at Phillips was what Koenen had prepared for, and Erin Phillips went goalless in a grand final for the first time in her career.

As a group, Brisbane’s defence was outstanding all day, conceding 44 inside 50s—the fifth-most in competition history—and allowed the Crows just five scoring shots and 20 points.

“They’ve got their little ways down there, the backline. They’re salt of the earth people who will run over hot coals for each other,” Brock says when asked about the group. “It’s hard to talk about them individually because they just work as a unit so well together.”

Kate Lutkins was awarded the best on ground medal for her 12 intercept, six mark performance, but it could just as easily have been broken into five and shared amongst the whole backline.

And it is this very sentiment that saw those medals hanging around their necks. While some individuals starred—Jess Wuetschner kicked two goals in a grand final for the third time, Courtney Hodder scored what would have been goal of the year had it been a home and away match, Emily Bates and Ally Anderson each had 23 disposals—it was in fact the small moments, the one percenters that did it.

What was the key moment for Brock?

“It was really that chase-down tackle of Cathy [Svarc]’s… we’ve basically got the game in hand, but she’s try or die.”

Cathy Svarc's run-down tackle on Ailish Considine was the moment of the grand final for Bree Brock. Image: Megan Brewer
Cathy Svarc’s run-down tackle on Ailish Considine was the moment of the grand final for Bree Brock. Image: Megan Brewer

One in, all in. Try or die. Team before individual. That was what pushed the Lions toward the premiership.

“How good is life? How good is this game? How good is this day?”

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