Queenslanders in the 2023 Toyota AFL Grand Final

By Peter Blucher. 

Jaspa Fletcher will become the youngest Queenslander to play in an AFL grand final on Saturday as six Brisbane players carry the hopes of a State that is 20 years without an AFL premiership.

Fletcher will be the first Queensland teenager at 19 years 218 days old to play in the ‘big dance’ when he joins Harris Andrews, Charlie Cameron, Eric Hipwood, Keidean Coleman and Dayne Zorko in a Lions side that takes on Collingwood at the MCG.

He will be younger by 274 days than 2001 Brisbane wonder kid Robert Copeland, who was 20 years 127 days when he played in his first grand final against Essendon in 2001.

The other Queenslanders to play in a grand final before their 21st birthday have been Hawthorn’s Brent Renouf, who was 20 years 148 days in 2008,  and Collingwood’s Dayne Beams, who was 20 years 226 days in the 2010 grand final replay.

And while Fletcher is the good news story of 2023, Jack Payne is one half of the grand final heartbreak story. He will miss the grand final after failing to convince Lions coach Chris Fagan and the club’s medical staff he was fit enough to play.

The 23-year-old Sunshine Coaster has played 23 of 25 games this season, missing only the Round 11 loss to Adelaide in Adelaide and last week’s preliminary final win over Carlton at the Gabba.

But he carried a niggling ankle complaint through much of the second half of the season, and when he damaged his other ankle in his 50th game in the qualifying final win over Port Adelaide to such an extent that he will require off-season surgery it became too much of a risk.

He trained with the Lions in Brisbane on Thursday morning and travelled to Melbourne with the full playing list but, especially after Darcy Gardiner’s outstanding effort in holding Carlton Coleman Medallist Charlie Curnow to one goal last week as his replacement it was a ‘safety first’ decision the Lions could not ignore.

The second half of the grand final heartbreak story is Will Ashcroft, who would be playing in the grand but for a season-ending knee injury in Round 18. But at least he has received a two-part compensation – he won the AFL Goal of the Year and topped the Queensland vote count in the Brownlow Medal with 10. He beat Andrews (8), Cameron (8), Bailey Scott (4), Coleman (3), Aliir Aliir (3), Charlie Dixon (3), Ben Keays (2), Lachie Weller (2) and Hipwood (1).

In his first season, Fletcher, who this time last year was playing QAFL football with Sherwood, will headline a host of significant Queensland football moments in what shapes as an epic grand final on Saturday.

  • Playing in his first grand final in his 14th game, Fletcher will be the third least-experienced Queenslander to feature on the biggest day of the year behind only Adelaide’s Aaron Keating, who was a 1997 premiership player in his third game, and Hawthorn’s Brent Renouf, who won a flag in his eighth game in 2008. Hawthorn champion Jason Dunstall played in a grand final loss in his 16th game in 1985, St.Kilda’s Max Hudghton did likewise in his 17th game with St.Kilda in 1997, and Copeland was a premiership player in his 17th game in 2001.
  • Fletcher will also be the sixth Queenslander to play in a grand final in his first season in the AFL. The others have been Dunstall, Copeland, Hudghton, Aaron Keating and Renouf.
  • At the other end of the scale, Brisbane’s Dayne Zorko will be the oldest Queensland grand final player at 34 years 233 days. Only Sydney’s Tom Hickey at 31 years 202 days last year, and Brisbane’s Marcus Ashcroft, who was 30 years 4 days in 2001, have played in their first grand final beyond 30.
  • Zorko, who will play his 250th game on Saturday, will also become the second most-experienced first-time grand final player behind Ashcroft (268), with Andrews to be third on the same list in his 186th game ahead of St.Kilda’s Nick Riewoldt (182), Brisbane captain Michael Voss (176) and Hawthorn’s David Hale (173).
  • Zorko, in his 12th AFL season, has waited longer than all Queenslanders except Ashcroft, who waited 13 seasons, to reach a grand final. Hickey and GWS’ Sam Reid (12) also waited 12 years, while Voss and Hale were 10 years.
  • Zorko will become the seventh Queenslander to 250 games, and the first player from the 2011 draft pool, which was eventually his pathway to the AFL after he was overlooked in four consecutive drafts in 2007-08-09-10.
  • Charlie Cameron, who played in the losing Adelaide side in the 2017 AFL grand final, will become the first Queenslander to play in the biggest game of the year with two different clubs.
  • Andrews, Lions co-captain with Lachie Neale this year, will become the third Queenslander behind Voss and Riewoldt to captain a grand final side.

Zorko, Andrews, Hipwood, Coleman and Fletcher, all set for their first grand final, will take to 32 the total number of Queenslanders to play in a premiership decider.

Dunstall (5) heads the list from Voss, Hale, Jason Akermanis, Clark Keating and Mal Michael (4), Ashcroft, Copeland, Riewoldt and Sam Gilbert (3).

Cameron will join Beams, Geelong’s Steven Handley and Sydney’s Kurt Tippett in playing in two grand finals, while the five first-time Lions will join Collingwood’s Gavin Crosisca, Hudghton, Brisbane’s Jamie Charman, Essendon’s Frank Dunell, St.Kilda’s Warren Jones, Aaron Keating, Renouf, Hawthorn’s Stephen Lawrence (not to be confused with Brisbane/St.Kilda player Steven Lawrence), Hawthorn’s Michael Osborne, Fremantle’s Lee Spurr, GWS’ Sam Reid, Collingwood’s Josh Thomas and Hickey to complete the list.

The six Queenslanders in the Brisbane side on Saturday will also be looking to jump membership of the Queensland Premiership Club from 17 to 23.

Dunstall, a four-time premiership winner, heads the flag count from Voss, Ashcroft, Akermanis, Clark Keating, Michael and Hale (3), Copeland (2), Beams, Charman, Crosisca, Dunell, Jones, Aaron Keating, Lawrence, Osborne and Renouf (1).

After the golden years of the Lions in 2001-02-03, when Voss, Ashcroft, Akermanis, Michael, Copeland, Clark Keating and Charman joined the premiership club, and the start of Hale’s flag hat-trick with Hawthorn in 2013-14-15, it’s been a lean period for Queenslanders in the grand final.

Spurr played with Fremantle in 2013, Tippett with Sydney in 2014-16, Cameron with Adelaide in 2017, Thomas with Collingwood in 2018, Reid in 2019 and Hickey in 2022. And all finished on the losing side.

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