In a letter addressed to Lions fans before the start of the 2021 AFLW grand final, Emily Bates penned what she called a “true cliche”:
Against the star power of Erin Phillips, Ebony Marinoff, Anne Hatchard and the other usual suspects, Brisbane did indeed prove Bates — who would finish the final as the game’s equal highest possession-getter — and the cliche true in their 18-point victory over Adelaide.
As Bates — a member of the leadership group — would go on to write, it is true that the Lions “do not rely on individual star power”.
In fact, as reported last week, the Lions have had nothing short of an exodus of talent as a consequence of the competition’s expansion — losing eight players in 2019 to the Gold Coast including their former captain and vice-captain Leah Kaslar and Sam Virgo.
As if that wasn’t enough, they lost marquees in Sabrina Frederick and Tayla Harris to Richmond and Carlton respectively, Kate McCarthy and Nat Exon to St Kilda and the quartet of Kaitlyn Ashmore, Tahlia Randall, Jamie Stanton (now at Gold Coast) and Brittany Gibson to North Melbourne in 2018.
The laundry list of body blows makes the underdogs’ victory over the Crows — in front of a typically hostile South Australian crowd of 22,934 — even more impressive.
It also speaks to the culture of a club that withstood every challenge it has faced this season — including last-minute COVID-induced changes that, in just one example, had players confined to their hotel before their final match of the season after a Brisbane-based outbreak.
“We have a pretty special culture at this club,” said captain Emma Zielke at the pre-game press conference, who injured her right hamstring during the game.
“One of the things the girls always talk about is how much they enjoy getting down to the club.
“Whether it’s preseason, whether we’re getting smashed in the hot sun or on game day … it’s the culture, the energy and enjoyment that you have that breeds success because you want to be around each other as much as possible.”
Defence win premierships
While Brisbane might not have the star-studded team the Crows are renowned for, they do rely on a rock-solid backline, proving yet another sporting cliche true: defences win premierships.
Unbelievably, the Crows dominated the Grand Final inside 50s 44-24 (the sixth most in an AFLW game), but scored just three goals. The Lions, meanwhile, recorded an incredible 40 rebound 50s.
All day, Adelaide wasted scoring opportunities with poor inside 50 entries, causing them to — as Chyloe Kurdas commented on ABC Grandstand — “capitulate in a way we haven’t seen” in the competition’s history.
That was credit to the relentless pressure the entire Lions team applied — but also to their brilliant backline.
According to Champion Data, Kate Lutkins — who was deservedly crowned best on ground — had 10 rebound 50s, including seven contested possessions to go with her 18 disposals.
Lutkins also played the match carrying an injury — she tore the plantar fascia in her left foot in round eight — a remarkable achievement given her performance.
But the medal could just have easily gone to the entire Brisbane defence, with Bri Koenen enormous with six rebound 50s of her own and Koenen, Lutkins and Shannon Campbell taking 17 marks between them.
On a day when they lost their skipper Zielke, it was also telling that all of Campbell, Lutkins and Koenen are members of the club’s official leadership team.
Leaders again felled on big stage
In the lead-up to the AFLW’s biggest game of 2021, all talk focused on the outstanding leadership of Adelaide skipper Chelsea Randall, who missed the chance to clinch a third premiership for her club under the AFL’s newly-introduced concussion protocols.
The rules force players to miss a minimum of 12 days if they are affected by concussion, but the Crows skipper was rightly lauded for ruling herself out from the game despite having the option to undergo additional concussion testing on the Monday after the preliminary final where she brutally collided with Melbourne’s Eliza McNamara.
In a video recorded for her club’s website, Randall said she had made the decision because fighting to play would have sent the wrong message to “grassroots footballers”.
“When I was 20, I was watching an E-division grand final and a young man died in front of my eyes. The week prior he’d been concussed; went to seven different doctors, got approval to play, was the captain of his team. [At the game] he received a normal bump at the centre square and never got back up.”
No-one could say that Adelaide would have won with Randall playing, but her absence was even more painful for the Crows on a day when their stand-in skipper Ange Foley was likewise hit with a knee injury.
To the naked eye, the incident eerily appeared to take place on the same patch of grass where then co-captain Erin Phillips was struck down with an ACL in 2019.
In front of 53,034 in 2019, Phillips’ ACL brought a hush to an otherwise boisterous crowd before she went on to win best on ground and a Premiership medallion.
In 2021, however, the game’s best player was as uncharacteristically quiet as her team, while the one-eyed crowd had already fallen silent until eventually — surreally — the crowd broke out into a “Lions” chant with just minutes remaining on the clock.
Once again, the letter Bates penned to fans read almost like a premonition:
The Lions’ spirit not only shielded them. It roared them into contention with Adelaide for the AFLW’s champion team after three grand finals in five seasons and now — finally — a premiership.