2023 Queensland Football Hall of Fame – Robert Copeland

If you were going to write a football fairytale you’d start with Robert Copeland. Born in Redcliffe, a long-time resident of Kilcoy and a product of the Strathpine Swans, he lived exactly that in an extraordinary debut season with the Brisbane Lions in 2001 which started in an unexpected and ugly grand final slaughter and ended in a glorious grand final win.

Overlooked by every club in the AFL national draft not once but twice, he gleefully accepted a rookie list spot with the Lions which in itself was a win. After an eye-catching summer he was a shock selection to replace injured captain Michael Voss in the Ansett Cup grand final against Port Adelaide in Adelaide. His first taste of senior football at any level was a 3-8 (26) to 17-9 (111) loss in front of 35,000 at Football Park.

But when the season properly began, he went back to the rookie list, ineligible for senior selection. Not until off-season recruit Michael Martin suffered a career-ending case of osteitis-pubis and was placed on the long-term injury list was Copeland elevated to the senior list. It was a promotion that came in the days after the Lions had been embarrassed by 74 points by Carlton in Melbourne in Round 8. The season was in crisis.

After some serious self-reflection by everyone from coach Leigh Matthews down, Copeland made his AFL debut on his 20th birthday against Adelaide at the Gabba in Round 9.  They lost by five points.

Round 10 was the famous ‘if it bleeds, we can kill it’ game, when coach Matthews stole a line from the ‘Predator’ movie ahead of the clash with defending premiers Essendon at the Gabba. It was a masterful touch, and in his second AFL game he enjoyed his first AFL win by 28 points.

Fast forward to 29 September 2001 and Copeland was playing in front of 91,472 at the MCG in the grand final against Essendon. He’d won 15 games in a row on his way to the ‘big dance’ and made it 16 when the Lions, down by 14 points at halftime, prevailed by 28 points – again. It was the same margin as his first win against Essendon. Of course it was. This was a fairytale.

In 126 days, a young man who had grown up living at Burpengary and working in his father’s house-moving business while dreaming of playing AFL football had played 17 games for a 16-1 win/loss record in a ‘zero to hero’ journey that doesn’t get any better. 

A two-time Queensland Under-18 representative who had toured Ireland with the AFL/AIS Under 17 squad in 1998 and been a member of the Northern Eagles AFLQ grand final side in 1999-2000, Copeland went on to play 143 AFL games with the Lions in a career that spanned 2001-2008 and sent a ‘you can do this’ message to all aspiring Queenslanders.

A tough-as-teak utility player used most often in defence, he was also a member of the 2003 premiership side, when his tagging role on Collingwood captain Nathan Buckley was an important factor in a 50-point win, and the 2004 grand final loss to Port Adelaide. He enjoyed a 9-2 record in 11 finals in the #30 jumper he’d worn most often for the club until Eric Hipwood went past him in 2023.

In 2009, still with a passion for football, he was the inaugural Aspley captain as they stepped up to division one of the QAFL. He led the Hornets through until 2014, when he went out in style on an unforgettable day for his club. After finishing fourth on the home-and-away ladder they beat Redland by 23 points, minor premiers GWS by 45 points and the Sydney Swans in heart-stopping grand final at Aspley’s Graham Road headquarters. Up by nine points at halftime they added 0-3 to 7-1 in the third term to find themselves 31 points at the last change. Yet they got home on the siren against a star-studded Swans outfit 15-12 (102) to 15-10 (100).

He then played three years with Noosa, and after a year off on medical grounds finished with two years back at Redcliffe before finally, after a phenomenal career of more than 300 senior games in total, he hung up the boots.

Married since 2003 to Felicity, he is father to sons Brock (16) and Tex (14), who are following a range of sporting pursuits at Nudgee College which have catapulted the man they call ‘Bushy’ into the role of full-time Uber driver.

“My day starts at 4.15am when we’re up to take Tex to swimming. After work, somebody will have training somewhere and we get home at 5.30pm or 7.30pm. It’s what you do – it’s what my Mum and Dad did for me,” he said.

Still living at Newport, down at Redcliffe, home for the last 20 years, he works very happily for a local builder Josh Lauder. They specialise in lifestyle homes and renovations, operating strictly in Shorncliffe, Brighton and Sandgate. But still, when time permits, he’ll find his way to the Gabba to remind himself where it all happened, and where the boy from Kilcoy lived every young footballer’s dream.

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