McRae of sunshine: The Lion bringing his winning ways to Collingwood

By Jake Niall

Collingwood coach Craig McRae.Credit: Getty Images

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One month before Collingwood would meet his old team in the 2023 grand final, Craig McRae stood before the Brisbane Lions players and fleetingly addressed them on the possibility of a premiership for the Magpies or the Lions.

“If we don’t win it, I hope you do,” said McRae, who, according to his old Brisbane teammate Luke Power, also jested to the room – the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre – that he didn’t want “to give the Brisbane boys inspiration”. Or words to that effect.

It is a measure of McRae’s devotion and bonds of friendship that he went up to Brisbane that week, during the pre-finals bye, to join his former teammates for the 2003 premiership reunion – the second grand final in which they defeated the club he now coaches – and to be inducted into the Lions’ hall of fame.

Collingwood coach Craig McRae.Credit: AFL Photos / Getty Images

On Saturday, the Collingwood coach’s first or second preference will be fulfilled, since the grand final will be run and won either by the giant traditional club he has reinvented or the frontier AFL team for which he played 195 games and in three premierships under the steely gaze of Leigh Matthews.

The stakes are elevated beyond even the usual grand final, considering that the Magpies have been contention-rich and premiership poor throughout their modern history – they’ve reached 11 preliminary finals in 22 years for only one flag – while Chris Fagan’s Lions have been consistent contenders since 2019 without a flag, despite hosting several finals at their Gabbatoir fortress.

For Collingwood’s veterans Scott Pendlebury, Steele Sidebottom, Jeremy Howe, Jamie Elliott, Brodie Mihocek, Mason Cox and Tom Mitchell, the sand is also trickling down the hourglass. They mightn’t get another shot.

But if the Magpies win, McRae will have turned this gargantuan powerhouse yet perennial bridesmaid club into a word that he likes to use and which has seldom been attached to the Collingwood Football Club for decades: winners.

“I’m a winner,” was the first comment McRae made to the Collingwood panel interviewing him for the coaching position late in 2021. If it sounds contradictory – McRae carries himself with little ego, as ex-Brisbane teammates attest – he quickly provided context for what “winner” meant.

“He said ‘what I mean is every day I practise winning behaviours,’ ” recalled Collingwood’s former board member and joint president, Peter Murphy, who was on the coach-search panel with Paul Licuria, the football director and influential football boss and 1990 premiership player Graham Wright. “And sometimes I fall short.”

McRae’s mere appointment represented a mini-revolution for Collingwood, since he was low profile and understated – not words typically connected with the Magpies, whose bombast and ability to create headlines has fed a voracious media for decades.

His hiring, too, was antithetical to Collingwood tradition, as an open process involving “unproven” assistant coaches. He was neither favourite son of Collingwood (though he had worked there under Mick Malthouse and Nathan Buckley) nor a brand name such as Matthews or Malthouse.

But if the hiring of McRae, his initial game style (freer flowing) and lower-key vibe represented a major shift from the Buckley years, the change that Collingwood need most – at least from the vantage of fans and history – is to deliver a premiership yield from all those top-four finishes, just as another ex-Lion, Geelong’s Chris Scott, managed last year.

On Friday, as McRae exited the pre-grand final media conference with Darcy Moore, Fagan and Lachie Neale, I asked him if had considered what a premiership might mean for a club that had endured so many near-misses.

He had.

“Yes, yeah when you get the job you aspire to create history, and create history for the footy club,” McRae replied, strolling past the black-and-white throng in Yarra Park.

“One of the first things I said to the (playing) group was ‘I want to take our fans on the journey with us’ and we set about that, in a meticulous way – about when we win, we celebrate.

“We had COVID. When I started, we wanted to connect our fans back to the footy club and, if anything, give the club back to its fans. So yeah, we were deliberate in our approach to that.”

So, McRae is highly cognisant of the vast outer club – the fans, the history and past players, whom he regularly enlists to speak to his players. Yet, despite his deep connection to old Lion teammates – one of whom, the more extroverted and strategic Justin Leppitsch, is his foremost foil at Collingwood – McRae had not given much thought to confronting Brisbane, his formative club.

“Look, it’s funny. I’ve changed four different teams since … since I played 20 years ago,” he told this masthead.

“But no, I honestly don’t have any reflection on that at this stage … no thought other than to get the job done.”

Fearsome Lions: Michael Voss, Craig McRae and Justin Leppitsch in 2003.Credit: Getty Images

McRae often speaks of the journey for the Magpies. His journey has been, as we know, one that involved a litany of triumphs – those premierships at Brisbane, a VFL grand final (2017) and then VFL premiership coach of Richmond (2019), plus teaching Mason Cox how to kick in his first Collingwood incarnation as development coach – and setbacks.

The setbacks have largely worked to his ultimate advantage, as when Collingwood showed him the door under Buckley and he went to the Tigers, just when they’d completed that tough in-house review, and got to coach the VFL team.

His manager Tom Petroro, a close friend of Wright, agreed that the Tigers were probably the turning point in McRae’s career.

“It’s always about you,” said Petroro, summing up McRae’s modus operandi. “It’s never about him.”

Petroro, who manages not only McRae, but Leppitsch and the other ex-senior coach at Collingwood, Brendon Bolton, concurred with Collingwood’s view that their coaching panel had a “flatter”, less hierarchical structure that suited McRae. “He’s not a dictator.”

The material that “Fly” (named after Marty McFly in Back to the Future) garnered from Richmond – that sparse, go-forward game-style, the embrace of imperfection and vulnerability – was arguably a more natural fit for him than Damien Hardwick, who had been forced to temper his hard edge and open up.

CONNOR Riley was just a good local footballer from St Bernard’s in the Victorian amateurs when he turned up at Richmond to play VFL under McRae as a supplementary-listed player. His father Mark Riley is a well-known ex-AFL assistant coach, having worked at Carlton, Melbourne (where he was caretaker senior coach after Neale Daniher’s exit in 2007), Fremantle and Gold Coast.

As an VFL-listed player only who was unlikely to be drafted, Richmond had little reason to invest much in Connor Riley.

McRae, though, didn’t take that approach.

“He made Connor feel 10 feet tall,” Mark Riley said of McRae’s influence. “His footy went through the roof.”

McRae’s four seasons with the Tigers finally put him on the coaching map more than a decade after he started as coach of the Queensland under-18 team in 2005, when he also did special comments alongside former teammate Alastair Lynch for Triple M at Gabba games.

McRae, while well-regarded at Tigerland, was facing a COVID squeeze at Richmond from the end of 2020. If push came to shove, the Tigers would likely have found a role for him. But McRae proactively avoided that awkward scenario, by taking the important step of going to Hawthorn to work under Alastair Clarkson as a line coach in 2021.

Collingwood’s Murphy noted the coaches McRae had been marinated in as player or coach: Robert Walls, Matthews, Malthouse, Craig Bellamy (he worked briefly at the Storm), Hardwick, Clarkson and Buckley.

Lynch calls McRae “hilarious – very humorous” and said that his friend would bring that light-hearted approach to grand final week. “Make it light-hearted and take the anxiety away from the players.”

McRae confirmed to me that a light-hearted mindset had “absolutely” had been part of preparations. “We deliberately have it a bit lighter, you know because our group responds well to that sort of stuff.” The team had exploded with laughter, according to Darcy Moore on Friday, when Will Hoskin-Elliott, an improbable court jester, made a gag during a meeting.

McRae, 50, is also about to become a father for the third time after the grand final.

Power, who is head of development at Carlton, said that the senior coaching landscape had become more suitable for a person with McRae’s more understated, people-first style. “You don’t have to be the alpha male you’ve seen in the past.

“But he’s determined in his own way.”

McRae, as a senior coach, has still navigated brutal decisions, such as the trading of Brodie Grundy and the dropping of stalwart defender John Noble for the finals.

Jason Akermanis, who counts himself among McRae’s close mates from Lion times, had this take on how McRae delivered unpleasant feedback. “It never sounds mean and that’s his secret,” Akermanis said on SEN.

It is a mark of McRae’s method that he announced the bold promotion of Billy Frampton – another role player in whom McRae has invested faith – to replace Daniel McStay on Wednesday, rather than engaging in subterfuge. Better to make the call early and prepare, he said.

Peter Moore, who will present the premiership cup to his son on Saturday if the Magpies salute, noted that Buckley also had gotten Collingwood into a grand final and preliminary final and was “a great coach”. “After that, the Bucks period, they needed a different type of coach.”

A lucky one, perhaps. Napoleon once quipped that faced with a choice between a good general and a lucky one, he would prefer the lucky.

Craig McRae’s winning ways have seemingly involved a measure of luck, of misfortune turning into triumph – consider all those close wins and the sliding doors of his unexpectedly brilliant career. On Saturday, under the twin furnaces of a grand final and 29-degree sun, another touch of McRae’s luck might be enough to change good old Collingwood forever.

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