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Adelaide Football Club - Crows History Locker

Adelaide’s drive to a second consecutive AFL premiership took a challenging route, more so than the 1997 success story.

The Crows finished fifth on the ladder after beating West Coast in Perth in the last minor round and then needed to keep playing interstate for the rest of September, travelling to Melbourne, Sydney, Melbourne and back to Melbourne’s MCG for the grand final.

And all this after a minor round that began with only three wins in the first eight games, a stack of injuries and some selection controversy near the end.

Adelaide became the first AFL club to win the flag from fifth, charging to a 35-point win over minor premiers North Melbourne after trailing by four goals at half-time. Coach Malcolm Blight shuffled his players at the main break, Andrew McLeod won his second consecutive Norm Smith Medal as best afield and Darren Jarman kicked five goals. Sound familiar?

Adelaide named 16 of its 1997 premiership side in the grand final 22. Mark Ricciuto and Peter Vardy, who missed out 12 months earlier with serious injuries, helped push the team all season and were joined by James Thiessen, former Roo Mark Stevens and first-year players Ben Marsh and Andrew Eccles.

Marsh was the only change to the preliminary final side, replacing Chad Rintoul in the 22. Tony Modra, dropped after the first final loss to Melbourne, was not recalled and original Crows Rod Jameson and Matthew Liptak played in earlier finals but were injured.

Adelaide was competitive in a scrappy first quarter, Jarman providing the highlight with a stunning left foot snap from the pocket. But the ball kept heading North’s way in the second term when it added 2.11 for a half-time score of 6.15.

Ben Hart and the rest of Adelaide’s defenders were under enormous strain. North wasted chances but the margin most certainly would have been wider had it not been for Hart’s efforts against a stream of opposition attacks. For much of the first half, Hart had to fight one-on-one against Craig Sholl deep in the forward 50. He did not concede a goal, rebounded strongly, had 17 possessions and was only rated behind McLeod when the Club Champion votes were awarded.

Blight had one last long interval to resuscitate the flagging defence of the Crows’ title and most would have expected some angry discussions.  

The reality is that Blight remained composed and upbeat. The game was not over, he reinforced, and deep down he believed the options and versatility at his disposal offered the club a way out. According to ruckman Shaun Rehn, the coach demanded a lift of five per cent across the board. Ricciuto said he made the point that there was time to make amends.

Blight later said: “We were in a spot of bother. It was probably a bit of humiliation at half-time but we still had the half to get out of it. That was the theme of it.”

But the words were not so important. The actions were. All-Australian defender Nigel Smart, hurt early, went to a forward pocket. Next to him were young ruckman Ben Marsh and always dangerous Darren Jarman. Blight tossed Kane Johnson and captain Mark Bickley into the midfield where they joined the wizard Andrew McLeod, while the defence was renovated through the reassignment of Mark Ricciuto, Brett James and Mark Stevens. The Crows started to use more handball and it was obvious they were eager to run and take risks.

“North early were just … particularly in tight … were winning the 50-50s,” Blight said. “So what you have to try to do is spread the game open somehow. If that’s their strength, you’ve got to actually do something about breaking the game open.”

Of the half-time moves, the switch of Johnson had the most impact. It was the first time he was available to play consecutive games in the season and he was brilliant through the middle. But Blight’s favourite decision was the one that left preliminary final star Matthew Robran at centre half-forward after a barren first half.

“Now, everyone would have been calling for his head,” Blight noted, “but he’s just so important to our structure and he actually started to contribute to things.”

After the next 30 minutes, Adelaide had its nose in front by two points. It, too, had wasted some opportunities, adding 5.8 to North’s 2.0.

McLeod started at half-forward, where he caused so much damage the previous week. But in a repeat of 1997, McLeod moved into the midfield in the second term and started to create scoring opportunities. His 30 touches and nine clearances helped turn the game.

Six goals in the 1997 grand final looked excellent on Jarman’s bio and he was at it again in 1998. His first goal of the day was sublime but the two he kicked at the start of the third quarter were crucial.

Adelaide scored nine times (for three goals) to level the scores before North replied. McLeod then set up goals for Johnson, Vardy and Smart to give the Crows an eight-point lead before Roo Brett Allison goaled on the siren.

But the Roos were in trouble and the anticipated tight finish never eventuated as the Crows skipped away with another six goals to storm to a 35-point lead. Thiessen was on the end of another McLeod handball to goal in the first minute of the final quarter and then two minutes later he delivered to Jarman, who booted his fourth.

The margin was out to 18 points when Smart was swung in a tackle but still managed to snap a goal and then McLeod passed to a leading Jarman, who kicked his fifth. Smart’s third goal of the second half and Vardy’s second completed the demolition.

A second Norm Smith Medal was heading McLeod’s way and once again he sat next to coach Blight at the post-match press conference. He was the first player to win consecutive Norm Smith medals. And only the second – after Hawthorn defender Gary Ayres – to win twice. “I think Andrew McLeod is writing his own football history,” Blight said. “Where that goes is entirely up to him, but I’ve got a fair idea it will be okay.”

Rehn was another to play well for the Crows in the first half. He then dominated Corey McKernan and Matthew Capuano in the second half and finished with 21 effective hit-outs. Once Adelaide started to feed off Rehn’s work and move the ball out the front of the centre square the goals were hard to stop. “I’m stuck for words,” he said in the rooms. “I can’t believe we have done what we have just done.”

Peter Caven had the toughest job of the final, standing next to Wayne Carey, North’s champion forward. Carey was still a threat, especially in the first half, but he finished with 1.4 from 18 disposals. Caven played him from behind and tried to bring the ball to ground and not lose Carey after pack contests. He provided most of the run out of defence with 20 disposals.

Eccles, at 19 the youngest player on the MCG, came off the bench late in the second term and had a chance to score but bounced his first kick out of bounds. He settled, however, and his nine-possession third quarter was a significant factor in Adelaide’s resurgence.

Ricciuto started at full forward and kicked Adelaide’s first goal but was later sent to half back and had 14 disposals in the second half. “It was the lowest day of my career last year (missing the grand final after groin surgery) and this year is probably the highlight of my career,” Ricciuto said.

Bickley, the first VFL/AFL captain to collect consecutive premiership trophies since Hawthorn’s Michael Tuck in 1988-89, praised the squad’s flexibility and ability to cope with five weeks on the road: “This has been the hardest task we’ve ever faced and without question the most satisfying.”

North’s second quarter return of 2.11 became one of the game’s main talking points. But Blight said grand finals were all about taking chances: “That’s true (that North should have been further ahead) … but then again, they were probably lucky to still be in it at three-quarter time. In these types of games everyone is going to take their turn. When you get your turn, if you don’t actually nail it, well that’s stiff.”

The team:

B: Mark Bickley, Ben Hart, Kane Johnson
HB: Nigel Smart, Peter Caven, Shane Ellen
C: Peter Vardy, Simon Goodwin, James Thiessen
HF: Andrew McLeod, Matthew Robran, Brett James
F: Mark Ricciuto, David Pittman, Tyson Edwards
R: Shaun Rehn, Darren Jarman, Kym Koster
Int: Matthew Connell, Mark Stevens, Ben Marsh, Andrew Eccles

Emerg: Chad Rintoul, Trent Ormond-Allen, Aaron Keating
Coach: Malcolm Blight

Adelaide                   3.2     4.3     9.11     15.15 (105)
North Melbourne    4.4    6.15   8.15    8.22 (70)

Best: McLeod, Hart, Jarman, Johnson, Rehn, Caven, Bickley
Goals: Jarman 5, Smart 3, Vardy 2, James, Pittman, Johnson, Thiessen, Ricciuto

Back row (from left): Ellen, Stevens, Robran, Rehn, Marsh, Pittman, B. Hart, Eccles
Middle: Vardy, McLeod, Connell, Goodwin, Caven, Johnson, D, Jarman, Thiessen
Front row: James, Edwards, Blight (coach), Bickley (captain), Smart,
D. Hart (assistant coach), Ricciuto, Koster.
The 1998 AFL Premiership Cup