Triple Brisbane Lions premiership player Craig McRae’s memories of the 2001 preliminary final against Richmond are hazy.
After all it was 18 years ago, but there is one player whose performance he remembers vividly.
“Michael Voss was unbelievable,” McRae told AFLPlayers.com.au ahead of Saturday night’s qualifying final between the two sides at the Gabba.
“He was struggling with an injury throughout the season and didn’t train much but on this day he provided the spark we needed.”
The inspirational Brisbane Lions captain collected 25 touches and kicked three goals as the Lions marched towards their first Grand Final since their inception into the AFL five years earlier.
McRae, who was 28 at the time, watched Voss in awe.
“I recall him really imposing himself on the contest,” he said.
“He missed the 1999 preliminary final against North Melbourne but made up for it in 2001.”
Going into the final, the Lions had won 14 games in a row since defeating the previously undefeated reigning premier Essendon in Round 9.
Richmond defender Joel Bowden said playing against the Brisbane Lions in the early 2000s was similar to coming up against the ultimate AFL team.
“Not only did they have guys like Nigel Lappin, Justin Leppitsch, Jonathan Brown and Michael Voss, but they also had guys like Luke Power, Daniel Bradshaw, Beau McDonald and Des Hedland,” he told AFLPlayers.com.au.
“It was crazy to think of the talent that was in that team!”
Bowden said Richmond entered the finals feeling confident following a successful season resulting in a top-four finish.
“We’d had a very good season, made the finals and were reasonably confident despite travelling interstate. We were prepared and went up there ready to go.”
The Lions started the game with the ferociousness and tenacity that they would come to be known for during their era of dominance.
“We walked away with our tails between our legs after a 10-goal loss, which was devastating in many respects,” Bowden said.
“A number of guys retired after that game and the following year we didn’t even make the finals.”
With master mentor Leigh Matthews at the helm of the Lions, they played with the mantra, ‘If it bleeds, we can kill it’.
It was a belief that McRae felt enabled Brisbane to overcome their opposition no matter the challenge they presented.
“We thought we trained as hard as any and that was our psyche. We were as well prepared as any,” McRae said.
“Leigh was consistent in his messaging and we knew as a group we had to play our role and accept our role.”
As the final siren sounded and Brisbane players and fans alike celebrated, former North Melbourne premiership player Martin Pike pulled his new Brisbane teammates aside to remind them their work was not yet finished.
“Most us were going to be playing in our first Grand Final,” McRae said.
“(Pike) pulled us aside and said, ‘Hey, we’ve still got one more week to go’!
“That message reset us and realigned our thought process for the work we had ahead of us.”
Despite Richmond defenders Ben Holland and Darren Gaspar having near career-best seasons in 2001, when they came up against Brisbane forwards Alastair Lynch and Brown they were unable to quell their influence.
“Lynch and Brown tore them to pieces… it was a bit like, ‘Well, what can we actually do here?'” Bowden recalled.
“We had our best defenders who were having great seasons being torn apart and we couldn’t make any inroads.”
As many footballers can attest to, preliminary finals are hard to come by.
Bowden would never play another one – but it was an experience that couldn’t be understated.
“We were excited! When you’re that close it’s real and you can almost taste it,” he said.
“That’s why it was even more disappointing… we missed an opportunity to play in a Grand Final and I never got another one.”
Contrary to the changes Richmond experienced after the 2001 season, Brisbane would begin a three-year period of dominance, winning two more premierships and playing in a fourth consecutive Grand Final to stamp itself as one of the great teams of the modern era.
At the time, Queensland was dominated by the success of rugby league but McRae said the Lions’ playing group thrived on watching the game grow as they experienced greater success.
“We were a hungry, motivated and mature group that craved being the best we could be,” he said.
“We were pushing each other and our training standards were high. We had a strong core of leadership and were led by the great Leigh Matthews, which kept us on the right path.
“It was an exceptional group and we played for each other.”
Following McRae’s retirement in 2004, he continued to work in football before joining Richmond as a development coach and he is now the senior coach of the club’s VFL-affiliate side.
Come Saturday night, McRae will have a different perspective of Brisbane’s first final since 2009.
“At Richmond we’re as well prepared as anyone and we’ve got a great ability to embrace whatever comes,” he said.
Bowden is back living in the Northern Territory and working in Darwin but still follows Richmond closely.
The son of 1969 Richmond premiership player Michael, Bowden is looking forward to watching Saturday night with his family.
“We’ve thoroughly enjoyed the last few years and we’re looking forward to watching this weekend with interest,” he said.
As for Richmond winning away from home, Bowden said the answer is simple.
“It’s what I say to anyone: kick more goals than the opposition.”