Lions claim NEAFL Championship



Coach Nathan Clarke saluted the senior trio of Amon Buchanan, Cheynee Stiller and James Hawksley as “three great people” as they exited the Brisbane Lions in glorious fashion in Canberra on Saturday.

There was genuine emotion as the retiring Buchanan and the de-listed Stiller and Hawksley wore the Lions jumper for the last time as the Reserves side capped a sensational season with a thumping 69-point win over Queanbeyan to claim the overall NEAFL Championship.

Clarke spoke without a moment’s hesitation of how much the club would miss the three old men, relatively speaking, of a side which included 14 teenagers and surprised even their coach with a powerhouse win over the Eastern Conference NEAFL premiers.

“Absolutely, they’ve been outstanding people for our football club. As a coach of a side which is really all about development I couldn’t have asked for three better role models,” he said.”

The respect the exiting trio were shown by the Lion cubs was enormous, and was typified when the players gathered in the small dressing rooms at Manuka Stadium to sign the club song for the 17th and last time for the season.

There was one player missing. “Wait for Monty (Buchanan),” yelled someone.

And they did. Just a few seconds until the retiring midfielder jumped into the circle to join Stiller, Hawksley and their young side in pumping out the words ‘We are the pride of Brisbane town” with as much gusto as ever.

Among the celebrating Lions was first-year rookie Sam Michael, who capped a sensational finals campaign by winning the best afield Andrew Ireland Medal, named in honor of the highly-respected former Brisbane Lions Chief Executive and AFL Queensland General Manager who is now in charge of Sydney Swans.

Michael, who had played in the Redland Reserves premiership side last year, was one of 14 Lions players celebrating the rare treat of a second senior grand final win in six days.

Jordan Lisle was among them. And after kicking five goals in the first grand final he added a further eight against Queanbeyan in another
standout performance as he rivalled Michael and Buchanan for the medal.

It was an occasion of mixed significance at the end of a game of which the relevance has been questioned at the end of a long, hard campaign.

Truth be known the second grand final of the NEAFL season wasn’t a game on which Buchanan, Stiller and Hawksley were ever going to live or do.

They’d got the flag they were really after six days earlier when they beat the NT Thunder by 10 goals at Yeronga to win the NEAFL Northern

But they took exactly the same enthusiasm and professionalism to the national capital for the post-script premiership game against Queanbeyan,
who had beaten the Sydney Swans Reserves to claim the Eastern Conference pennant.

And they played accordingly as the Lions, barely recognisable from the line-up which had beaten the Thunder, dealt the local Tigers a lesson in
run, enthusiasm and class.

After conceding the first two goals to a near full-strength Queanbeyan outfit the Lions led at every change on their way to a commanding 22-12
(144) to 11-9 (75) victory.

They’d started to get on top late in the first term, leading by eight points at quarter-time, and thereafter were never seriously challenged.

The margin was 32 points at halftime and 38 points at the last change before the visitors, enjoyed the freedom of the moment, kicked the last
six goals.

After fielding the maximum 18 listed players in the Northern Conference showdown coach Clarke had only nine listees on his teamsheet on Saturday.

Aaron Cornelius, included in the travel party, didn’t take his place in the side due to injury and joined Claye Beams, Jack Crisp, Sam Docherty,
Josh Dyson, Patrick Karnezis, Billy Longer, Patrick Wearden and Elliot Yeo as omissions from the first grand final line-up.

This meant the only nine listees were Buchanan, captain Stiller, Hawksley, Callum Bartlett, Lisle, international rookie Niall McKeever, Michael and
fellow rookies Steve Wrigley and Justin Clarke.

In their place the Lions included Jackson Starcevich (19), Josh Smith (18), Rhys Power (18), Sam Gribble (17), Aden Rutledge (17), Blake Gambale (17), Luke Rogerson (17), Ben Fuller (17) and Josh Stiller (16), Michael Wyld, who had been named in the squad, was unable to make the trip due to a prior commitment.

The nine inclusions joined first-choice grand final top-ups Dave Cummins,Scott Clarke, Jack Fox, Isaac Conway and Jesse Wallin.

With Fox (18), Conway (17) and Wallin (19), plus first-year rookies JustinClarke (18) and Michael (19), also in the side it meant the Lions fielded 14 teenagers.

Buchanan (29), Cheynee Stiller (26), Wrigley (25), Hawksley (23), McKeever (23) and Lisle (22) were the old men of the visiting side.

But coach Clarke suggested the high teenage contingent may have been
something of a secret weapon against a Queanbeyan line-up which, according to local officials, hadn’t displayed quite the same commitment that they’d shown in the Eastern Conference grand final.

“It might sound stupid, but if we’d bought more listed players down here we might now have won,” he said, having masterminded a 2012 campaign which could not have been more in contrast to their wooden-spoon finish of 2011.

“To get up for a second grand final in six days was always going to be a challenge, but the run and the enthusiasm of the young guys was sensational, and it was infectious among the listed guys.

“Right through the year the kids have been regarded as a bit of a support act, but that wasn’t the case today. They were a major part of the main show and it was an unbelievable performance right across the board.”

Clarke, returning to a ground where he had once been captain-coach of the ACT representative side, took as much satisfaction from the second grand final win as he did the first. If not more.

“Everyone expected us just to win last week because we had 18 listed players so in a way as a coach to come down here with nine listed players and a bunch of kids is more satisfying.

“It shows there’s more to it. There’s a system to what we’re trying to do and I was rapt the way they played to instructions, and the passion they showed. That’s what gives you a lot of pleasure as a coach.”

Clarke, who has every right to be proud of his playing group, should also be enormously proud of his own performance.

He did a superb job cultivating the younger players among the Lions group, instilling in them the structural understandings and requirements that will help take them to regular senior football, and bred a real feeling ofunity not usually found in a side in which names change to regularly and heavily.

It said much of the spirit within the group that rookie list player Richard Newell, who had played the first 17 games of the season before a shoulder reconstruction, had made his own way from Sydney to Canberra to watch the grand final.

Clarke, a former Lions player who had coached Eastlake in the ACT competition for five years before returning home, also spoke glowingly at the presentation of Queanbeyan, a traditional powerhouse of Canberra football who are in rebuilding mode this year.

“You guys represent a club I’ve always admired immensely. You’ve got a very proud tradition and I was pleased to see you get over the line last week. No doubt you are on the right track,” he said.

Although some local officials were disappointed with the Queanbeyan performance against such a young and unheralded Lions outfit, Tigers captain Ryan Quade told how his players “had a real crack” and “dug in really hard”.

“The Lions boys were just too good today. congratulations and all the best for your individual futures,” he said.

Good players were plentiful for the victors, but Michael was a standout after being thrust into the ruck to fill the void left by the Lions’ decision to spell first-choice big man Longer.

Having only been told on Friday night of his makeshift role, the popular Cairns boy dominated the hit-outs, took 10 contested marks and, spreading magnificently on the wide wings at Manuka, picked up 25 possessions and used the ball almost faultlessly by hand and foot.

Sporting a clear dose of sun burn, he slumped in a seat in the dressing room and said “I’m absolutely stuffed”.

And fair enough. It was an unusually hot day and he’d played about 85 percent of game time in the ruck before capping a sensational day with a goal at full forward in the closing stages.

“It was great to win last week so to top it off with another win this year, and then to win the medal, is a very humbling experience.

“I’m just pleased to have been able to contribute to the team. It’s been a great year and I’ve learned so much, it’s fantastic.”

Michael’s best afield performance in the ruck followed his best afield performance at centre half forward in the qualifying final against minor premiers NT in Darwin.

“He’s had a sensational finals series . his effort over the last part of the season has been outstanding,” said coach Clarke.

Indeed, the 198cm running machine, still an unconfirmed Lions starter for season 2013 despite not being among six players de-listed by the club on Friday, could hardly have done more in the last two months to convince the Lions that he’s worth another year at the Gabba.

Buchanan, runner-up to Beams for the Joe Grant Medal in the Northern Conference grand final, was the bridesmaid again after a typically creative midfield performance after only arriving in Canberra from Sydney two hours before the game.

“He’s an inspiration to everyone,” said his coach. 

“People want to play with him; people want to be around him. I don’t want him to leave.”

It was all that needed to be said of the hugely popular former Sydney Swans AFL premiership player, who will return to Sydney to live with his young family.

The 134-game AFL veteran is already being hotly pursued by Canberra-based club Ainslie to play for them next year ahead of an anticipated coaching approach from one of the Sydney-based NEAFL clubs.

Clarke was similarly effusive in recognising the contribution of Stiller, who captained the Lions side to their two flags, and Hawskley, who had led the Reserves earlier in the season before his recall to AFL ranks.

Of Stiller, set to retire after 100 AFL games, Clarke said: “He’ll be sorely missed. I don’t mind saying I wished we decided to keep him. He does what every footballer should do. He’s the ultimate professional, he plays accordingly, and he’s a fantastic leader.”

Already being targeted by several NEAFL clubs and not too old at 26 that he may not have other options, Stiller had a day of mixed emotions last Wednesday when officially told of his de-listing by senior Lions coach Michael Voss.

On the same day wife Brooke announced publicly for the first time that they were expecting their first child after she’d undergone the 12-week scan.

Hawksley, who played 32 AFL games in six years with the Lions since being drafted from Peel Thunder in Perth in 2006, has given the club no indication of his immediate plans.

But, like Stiller, he will leave a huge hole as a much respected senior figure when at Reserves level.

“Again, he’s the ultimate professional. He’s a pretty lay-back guy but he does what he has to do really well, he can play just about anywhere, and his leadership at this level has been unbelievable,” said Clarke.

Indeed, the bearded one showed exactly how much he cares for his club as the players were making their way off the ground. 

At a time when he could have been thinking of himself, he implored his young teammates enthusiastically “come on boys, let’s get in there and sing the song one last time”.

Despite carrying a painful hip flexor problem through the NEAFL finals Hawksley was a solid contributor yet again against the Tigers.

Lisle, capping an encouraging first season with the Lions after being traded from Hawthorn, might have been in front in medal calculations at half time. He kicked five of his side’s first eight goals as they took an early stranglehold on the game.

He led and marked strongly and kicked nicely from long range to post a season-high eight goals and finish with 58 NEAFL goals in 18 games.

At the other end of the ground fullback Justin Clarke and centre half back McKeever were superb as the Lions held Queanbeyan to a score 43 points below their home-and-away season average.

Clarke, his own harshest critic, had been disappointed with his effort in the Northern Conference grand final when he conceded three goals in the first quarter to NT spearhead Darren Ewing and five overall. But he more than made amends.

Playing on Eastern Conference Team of the Year full forward and competition stalwart James Kavanagh, who had kicked five goals against the Swans a week earlier, Clarke gave him a bath with his close-checking.

Kavanagh kicked only one goal. And that was from a boundary throw-in and not at all the responsibility of the athletic rookie defender from North Adelaide.

Clarke even pushed forward in the closing stages and grabbed a strong mark to kick only his second goal of the season in 21 games.

McKeever was similarly dominant playing on Ben Klemke and provided good run and rebound from the back half.

Alongside him at half back Wrigley was a driving force with his dash and excellent ball use.

Clarke revealed after the game that Wrigley had played in the first grand final under duress after copping a heavy knock early.

“We didn’t really have him last week and we really needed him to get his hands on the footy this week because he’s so good with ball in hand. He was really good,” said the coach.

Wallin, a running defender of genuine promise, played on the portly Daniel Campbell, who had also kicked five goals in the Eastern Conference grand final.

He shut him down completely to close a fairytale season for the Morningside teenager who had played at State U18 level as an over-age player this year after his 2012 season was crucified by injury.

In something that will probably never be repeated, Wallin, who only played the last three games of the season with the Lions, finished the year with two premiership medals and a wooden-spoon after the Panthers had finished at the bottom of the Northern Conference ladder.

Among the others, Callum Bartlett was lively throughout and topped off his work with three goals. This gave him 20 goals in 20 games for the season and, significantly, 10 goals in four finals.

Scott Clarke, something of a top-up veteran, was in a good touch early as he continues to push for an AFL rookie list spot, kicking two early goals and taking some strong marks.

And Rhys Power did an excellent tagging job on highly-rated Queanbeyan midfielder Kaine Stevens, who had won the Alex Jesaulenko Medal as best afield in the Northern Conference grand final.

Jackson Starcevich was a spark at centre half forward as they took control in the second quarter, Josh Smith showed great composure across half back, and Fuller and Gambale jagged two goals apiece.

Josh Stiller showed good football ‘smarts’ up forward, Aden Rutledge, playing his first senior game in a grand final, did enough to suggest he’s a player of the future.

“I don’t want to leave anyone out because it was one of those days where everyone did their bit. The nine listed players were fantastic, but every one of the top-ups can be proud of their contribution too,” said Clarke.

The Lions, who had only four wins and a draw in their wooden-spoon campaign of 2011, finished with an 18-4 win/loss record overall in 2012 after beating Southport, the Thunder (twice) and Queanbeyan in the finals by 35 points, 34 points, 60 points and 69 points.

Justin Clarke topped the games list with 21 from Bartlett, Dyson and top-up player Cummins, followed by Wearden and Wrigley (19), Cheynee Stiller, Lisle and Michael (18).

Lisle (58) led the goal-kicking from Cornelius (55), de-listed Bryce Retzlaff (35), Karnezis (22), Bartlett (20), Dyson (2) and Hawksley (18).

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