By Sam Canavan
Brisbane is bidding for back-to-back flags, while Aspley will feature in arguably the biggest match in the club’s history, when the sides clash in the Northern Conference decider on Sunday.
The Hornets, ninth in 2012, will look to follow in the footsteps of the Lions, who took out the premiership last year after finishing well outside finals reckoning the season previous, and with a healthy list and plenty of in-form personnel, a win is not beyond the brown and gold’s.
Based on Brisbane’s comfortable win on Grand Final day 12 months ago – coupled with the fact the Lions have trumped Aspley on both occasions the teams have met this year – Leigh Harding’s men deserve to enter the game as slight favourites, just don’t tell the Lions mentor.
“I see no reason Aspley don’t deserve to go into the game as favourites,” Harding said.
“They match up really well against us, they’ve been in great form – I was at the game last week, and they were very good – and I think they’re the team which contributes most evenly across the park in the whole competition.”
Aspley coach John Blair laughed at his rivals’ eagerness to adopt the underdog tag – “he’s [Harding] claimed underdog status in just about every game, and only lost two! – and gave a different perspective on which way the result was likely to go.
“We’re equal favourites in a two-horse race,” Bair said.
“A lot of it will come down to luck, and that’s particularly true in finals.
“Who settles quickest, the bounce of the ball, a kick hitting or not hitting the post, an umpire being blindsided and making a questionable decision.
“All these things are big factors, and you need a big slice of luck to go your way to win Finals.”
The coaches couldn’t agree on favouritism, but they were unanimous in the belief the clash will be close, and based on the sides’ last game, that stands to reason.
In the major semi-final at Graham Road, the Hornets led by four goals approaching time on in the third term, and with all the running, looked set to vault straight through to the Final.
But, typical of a seesawing classic, there was an inexplicable shift in momentum; Brisbane piled on six goals in eight minutes, and eventually won by just two points, earning a week off heading into the Final for the second consecutive year.
While the Lions players took some time for rest and relaxation during their break, Aspley was hard at work dispatching Southport’s challenge.
At Yeronga last Sunday, the Hornets kicked 14 of the 18 majors registered after half-time, to run out 66-point winners; an imposing tune-up which impressed the contingent of Brisbane players and coaching staff in attendance.
As such, last weekend’s players have been rewarded, with the Hornets naming an unchanged side.
While Noosa youngster Cain Tickner came close to snatching someone’s spot, his Lions Academy compatriot Isaac Conway is in the team; giving the draft hopeful a shot at a piece of history.
Conway was a top-up players in the Lions’ premiership last season, and though he played more than half the year with Brisbane again in 2013, there was always the agreement he’d return to Graham Road after the National U18 Carnival, and he now has the chance to claim back-to-back flags in different colours.
Harding admits he’d “love to have Izzy” among his ranks, but he’s happy with the side he’ll put on the park; which will include the maximum permissible number of 16 listed players.
Key big men Jordan Lisle and Sam Michael are huge inclusions for the reigning premiers, particularly given the fact Aspley doesn’t have an abundance of height in its ranks, and their combination in attack with Marco Paparone, and co-captains Aaron Cornelius and Todd Banfield, will be crucial to deciding the outcome of the contest.
While Brisbane has the edge in height, star power, and results this year, past coaching history weighs in Aspley’s favour.
Former North Melbourne crumber Harding is in his third year of coaching; coming to the Lions after a stint as an assistant at Werribee, but his record pales in comparison to Blair’s three decades of experience.
There’s a reason Blair was given Queensland football legend status at the Grogan Medal gala on Monday; as his long-time combatant Norm Dare’s said, “Blair’s the best in the business.”
The four-time premiership mentor has masterminded the Hornets’ 2013 resurgence, and with him at the helm anything’s possible for Aspley.
Still, as Blair readily admits, there’s only so much a coach can do from the sidelines.
Ultimately, it will come down to 44 players on the field, with the match quite possibly defined by a single act of brilliance.
And with stars like Jack Crisp, Michael Hutchinson, and John James set to feature, there’s a wealth of players with mercurial talent that could inspire either team to Finals glory.
The match will be streamed live via the NEAFL website, and broadcast on ABC Radio Brisbane (AM 612, and online).
The victor will take on either the Sydney Swans Reserves or Belconnen in the NEAFL Grand Final to be held at Graham Rd next week.
Sunday’s winners will receive a trophy, however Grand Final medallions will be reserved for the cross-conference decider.