A meaningless classic - 1996 AFL Second Qualifying Final: Brisbane v Essendon
In the entire history of the organisation which now carries the name of the Australian Football League only one club, University (1908-15), had a briefer involvement than the Brisbane Bears. However, whereas University began moderately and then fell away, the Bears, by the time of their amalgamation with Fitzroy after the 1996 season had, after a rocky start, begun to establish themselves as a genuine League power.
After contesting the finals for the first time in 1995, the Bears enjoyed easily their best ever - indeed, their only 'winning', in the American sense - season the following year when they qualified for the major round in third place with 15 wins, six losses and a draw. Their reward for this achievement was a first ever home final, against perennial League power Essendon, which had finished the home and away rounds in sixth place, four premiership points behind the Bears.
Statistically, Brisbane had the best defence in the AFL in 1996, and the second best percentage. For the first time, it was beginning to attract respectable crowds to its games, and indeed this particular match would see a record attendance, up to that point, for a Bears home game of 22,003. These spectators would be treated to an encounter which 'Inside Football' writer Bruce Eva called "one of the best matches of the 1990s"¹.
However, ultimately, because of the preposterous finals system in place at the time, the game which awestruck Channel 7 commentator Bruce McAvaney declared "a classic" moments after the final siren meant virtually nothing. Both Essendon and Brisbane lived to fight another day, and were rewarded with home fixtures in the ensuing week of the finals, and had the result been reversed, the outcome would have been the same.
The supreme irony was that all this was because of results in other finals: had second-placed North Melbourne lost to seventh Geelong, for instance, or top-ranked Sydney gone under to eighth-placed Hawthorn, Essendon would have been eliminated from the finals. Had all the lower ranked sides been successful in the first weekend of the finals, even third-placed Brisbane would have been eliminated. Confused? So were many football supporters - and footballers - at the time, and it was a relief when the AFL finally introduced a finals system more in keeping with the spirit of the game. However, in 1996 the Bears and, more particularly the Bombers, had to approach their match - the first of that year's finals - as though a win was necessary to ensure continued involvement in the major round.
The two sides had met on only one occasion during the 1996 minor round. In round 15 at the Gabba, Brisbane had scored a comfortable 35 point victory, 15.13 (103) to 10.8 (68). All told, however, in 10 seasons of football the Bears had managed only three wins against the Bombers from 14 games.
The pre-match betting odds on this game saw the Bears installed as narrow 8-11 favourites, with the Bombers at evens. Both sides had a proliferation of talented players. The Bears had powerful key forwards in Alastair Lynch, Justin Leppitsch and the evergreen Roger Merrett, a formidable defence orchestrated by Richard Champion, and a wealth of gifted midfielders including Adrian Fletcher, Craig Lambert and Michael Voss.
For Essendon there was the indefatigable James Hird, the silky talents of Mark Mercuri, Gavin Wanganeen and Darren Bewick, the formidable aerial strength of Steve Alessio and Peter Somerville, and the gangly, deceptively awkward looking Dustin Fletcher, who was arguably the finest full back n the game. Lambert and Hird would both be named as AFL All Australians in 1996, while Hird and Voss would be joint winners of the Brownlow Medal. With the crowd at fever pitch, Essendon's Gary O'Donnell won the toss and chose to kick to he main scoreboard end.
4 mins From half forward left, 40 metres from goal, Dion Scott kicks truly from a free kick awarded after opponent Dustin Fletcher had pinned his arm back during a ruck contest. Brisbane 1.1; Essendon 0.0
6 mins McRae's shot for goal from 50 metres out directly in front floats away to the left for a minor score. However, while the ball is still in the air Alastair Lynch and Dean Wallis jostle on he goal line, and the umpire picks out a free kick to Lynch. From point blank range, the strongly built Bears spearhead, whose performances throughout the year have been undermined by chronic fatigue syndrome, is never going to miss. Brisbane 2.1; Essendon 0.0
9 mins The Bears mount an attacking foray down the right hand side of the ground which culminates in Scott kicking high to the front of the square where the ball bounces once and is picked up by Lynch. Astonishingly, there is no opposition player within five metres of the Brisbane full forward, who, almost in slow motion, is able to wheel purposefully around onto his left foot to snare another easy six-pointer. Brisbane 3.1; Essendon 0.0
With the Bears winning everything out of the centre, and the Bombers still to advance the ball into their attacking fifty, Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy throws James Hird onto the ball in a bid to counter the flow.
13 mins Essendon venture into their forward fifty for the first time in the match and register a goal. Somerville's tap from a boundary throw in in the right forward pocket goes straight to O'Donnell (left) who crashes through the surrounding pack of players and stabs a low kick through the vacant goal square and over the line for full points. Brisbane 3.1; Essendon 1.0
18 mins Barnard chases a bouncing loose ball in the left back pocket, picks it up and, with plenty of time to dispose of it, elects instead to concede a rushed behind. The Bombers would later have plenty of cause to rue this indiscretion. Brisbane 3.4; Essendon 1.0
23 mins O'Donnell, kicking in after a Bears behind, picks out Young near the 50 metre line on the right half back flank. The ball reaches Young, but, placed under severe pressure by McRae, he is only able to get one hand to it before it spills loose. Swooping in from behind, Darryl White (right) collects the ball and spears a low pass across the face of goal to former Essendon player, Roger Merrett, who marks comfortably. From a distance of approximately 40 metres out and almost directly in front, Merrett's shot for goal never deviates as it splits the centre for the Bears' fourth goal. Brisbane 4.5; Essendon 1.1
27 mins From a boundary throw in just ahead of left centre wing for the Bombers the ball is forced forward to Hird, who runs inside fifty and, in a desperate attempt to avoid the spoil, kicks the ball high towards the goal square, then stands back and watches in amazement as it carries over the heads of the waiting pack and just over the goal line for a major score. Brisbane 4.5; Essendon 2.1
During a torrid closing five minutes to the quarter, only one additional score, a behind to Brisbane, is registered. The Bears have totally dominated play for most of the opening term, with the Bombers only advancing into their forward fifty on three occasions. However, the fact that they managed to post a score on all three occasions has enabled them to keep in touch on the scoreboard.
QUARTER TIME: Brisbane 4.6 (30); Essendon 2.1 (13)
3 mins Kennedy's kick from the rear central edge of the centre square is smothered by Lloyd and the ball spills loose. Somerville is first to reach it, and he sends an unwieldy looking eft foot kick to within 20 metres of the Essendon goal, where the ball bounces high, eliciting an aerial contest between Alessio and Dickfos. Alessio gets his right hand to the ball first and brings it to ground. Then, as the ball bounces, and with his right hand pinned behind him by Dickfos, he uses his free left hand to steer the ball onto his left boot and through for a goal, all n one fluid, polished movement. It is a morale-bolstering moment. Brisbane 4.6; Essendon 3.1
14 mins After close to 10 minutes of almost constant attacking pressure, Essendon finally convert when Steve Alessio pierces the centre after marking strongly 40 metres from goal, adjacent to the left point post. Brisbane 4.7; Essendon 4.2
16 mins Bewick intercepts the ball near the right rear edge of the centre square and runs on, bouncing twice, before selling a dummy handball to Champion, and taking a further bounce which brings him to within 55 metres from goal. Bewick steadies and, with meticulous deliberation, steers his long, low kick just inside the left goal post and marginally over the line to capture the lead for the Bombers. Essendon 5.2; Brisbane 4.7
17 mins Within 30 seconds, Justin Leppitsch replies with a goal every bit as good. Tapping the ball ahead of himself as he runs along the 50 metre arc in the direction of the half forward right boundary, he finally collects the ball 15 metres inside the boundary line. Turning to his left, he baulks around Fletcher, takes a couple of bounces to move within 25 metres of goal, and nonchalantly splits the centre. Brisbane 5.7; Essendon 5.2
19 mins From a ball up midway between right centre wing and half forward right for Brisbane, Adrian Fletcher sharks the ball, turns onto his right foot and, from just outside 50, kicks towards centre half forward where Leppitsch leaps high to mark on his chest in front of Hird before casually steering his kick home. Brisbane 6.7; Essendon 5.2
21 mins A ball up occurs just inside the Bombers' attacking 50, adjacent to their right point post. Somerville taps the ball to Blumfield whose low left foot kick travels forward through a cluster of bodies and into space. James Hird (right) reacts first, reaching the ball a couple of metres ahead of his nearest opponent and dashing on into an open goal for the easiest six-pointer of the game. Brisbane 6.7; Essendon 6.2
23 mins Almost exactly 50 metres straight out from the Essendon goal, James Hird takes a superb mark ahead of Matthew Kennedy. As he falls to his knees, and with his back to goal, he off loads by hand to Cockatoo-Collins, in metres of space, running in from Hird's left. After taking half a dozen strides, Cockatoo- Collins straightens up, steadies, and punches a low, careful kick towards goal. The ball bounces almost on the goal line before evading Champion's flailing arms and floating over to put the Bombers in front by a point. Essendon 7.2; Brisbane 6.7
25 mins From a boundary throw in in Essendon's right forward pocket Matthew Clarke gets his palm to the ball only to see it go straight to Bewick just inside the boundary. In a split second, Bewick manages to get boot to ball and steer a round the corner snapshot right through the centre. Essendon 8.2; Brisbane 6.7
Brisbane add one further behind to their total when Leppitsch misses an easy set shot from 30 metres out directly in front. By attacking the ball and the man with calculated ferocity the Bombers have managed to turn the game on its head and they now look to be in the box seat.
HALF TIME: Essendon 8.2 (50); Brisbane 6.8 (44)
3 mins Bewick on right centre wing releases Wanganeen with a high, looping handball, and the 1993 Brownlow Medallist, realising at once that there is no one between him and the Essendon goal, hurtles ahead, bouncing four times, before eventually spearing the ball home from 15 metres out, deep in the right forward pocket. Essendon 9.2; Brisbane 6.8
7 mins Andrew Gowers near Brisbane's left half forward flank boundary receives the ball and swings around onto his favoured left foot before launching a high, booming kick to the front of the goal square. Dion Scott has maneuvered himself into front position, and marks strongly. However, he then appears to play on, and is immediately brought crashing to earth by Wallis, only for the umpire, somewhat contentiously, to allow Scott to go back and take his kick. Scott duly converts. Essendon 9.3; Brisbane 7.8
9 mins Champion (left) marks on his chest on right centre wing and is then collected high by Olarenshaw. The umpire has no hesitation in awarding a 50 metre penalty, but Champion, who has scored only one goal all season, still has much to do as he will be kicking from a distance of 60 metres. However, the former Woodville star makes light of his task, unleashing a thumping, towering drop punt that never looks like missing. Head drooping in anguish, Olarenshaw makes his way to the Essendon coaching dug-out, no doubt anticipating a friendly 'phone call from Sheedy. Essendon 9.3; Brisbane 8.8
12 mins Roger Merrett wins the hit-out at a boundary throw in in Brisbane's left forward pocket. The ball bounces once, before being hacked out of the air and across the face of goal by Dustin Fletcher. The ball is fielded by Ashcroft at half forward right who, as he is ridden to he ground by O'Donnell, squeezes out a handball to Akermanis, whose round the corner snapshot just evades Blumfield's attempted spoil and sails through for a goal. Brisbane 9.8; Essendon 9.3
15 mins From a boundary throw in in Essendon's right forward pocket, Steve Alessio catches the ball cleanly and immediately throws the ball onto his boot. Despite travelling further vertically than it does horizontally, the ball nevertheless carries far enough, and is sufficiently straight, to restore the Bombers' lead. Essendon 10.3; Brisbane 9.8
16 mins Brisbane effect the classic quick reply as Voss, from near the centre circle, sends a probing kick towards centre half forward where Merrett, tumbling forwards, marks on his chest. With only his second kick of the match the Bears legend spears his second goal. Brisbane 10.8; Essendon 10.3
28 mins Alastair Lynch, having just returned to the ground from the interchange bench, pounces on the ball near Brisbane's left point post, moves back in field, and, with his right foot, snaps truly over his left shoulder. Brisbane 11.9; Essendon 10.4
Mark Mercuri's behind after a towering mark over Richard Champion is the only additional score of a term which has seen Brisbane regain the initiative.
THREE QUARTER TIME: Brisbane 11.9 (75); Essendon 10.5 (65)
2 mins Half a dozen players set themselves to contest Lappin's kick in the centre half forward region for Brisbane. Hardwick looks to be in a good position to take the defending mark, but the ball bounces off his chest straight to Leppitsch who, with a couple of metres of space to work in, has time to steer his kick deliberately towards the vacant goal square where it bounces once before tumbling through for full points. Brisbane 12.9; Essendon 10.6
3 mins Essendon's response is almost instantaneous. Calthorpe runs through the centre of he ground and kicks towards Alessio just inside 50. With his back to goal, Alessio deftly taps he ball to his left to Fletcher, who has been moved onto the forward lines this term. Fletcher's snapshot looks to be floating across the face of goal but, after landing in the goal square, it bounces sharply away to the right like an off break, eluding Champion's desperate lunge as it crosses the line for a vital score. Brisbane 12.9; Essendon 11.6
8 mins Harvey is pinged for deliberately forcing the ball out of bounds at half forward right for the Bears. From the resultant free kick, Darryl White sends the ball to the teeth of the goal square where it spins off hands to the rear of the pack straight to Leppitsch, three metres from goal, and incapable of missing. Brisbane 13.9; Essendon 11.6
11 mins Midway between left centre wing and half forward left for Brisbane, Ashcroft (left) wins a hard ball in a surging pack of players and handballs in field to Fletcher, who immediately relays it to Chris Scott. The ensuing kick travels to centre half forward where Dion Scott, metres ahead of his minder, marks comfortably before goaling with aplomb. Brisbane 14.9; Essendon 11.6
13 mins As Hardwick and Lynch jostle one another while attempting to gain possession near the boundary line in Brisbane's right forward pocket region the ball strikes Hardwick's toe and bounces out of bounds on the full. From the ensuing free, and on an angle of roughly 80 degrees, Lynch's checkside punt kick is perfectly measured, and splits the centre at goal post height. Lynch is today playing his 150th League game, and his first ever final. Brisbane 15.9; Essendon 11.7
15 mins Mark Mercuri, having marked 60 metres from goal slightly to the left of centre, spots Fletcher one out with Champion in the goal square, and pumps the ball in that direction. Using his body cleverly, Fletcher unbalances his opponent and is able to mark, in the end, uncontested. From barely 15 metres out directly in front the result is never in doubt. Brisbane 15.9; Essendon 12.7
17 mins Bewick's flaccid looking kick from the right front edge of the centre square bounces 20 metres inside Essendon's 50, slightly to the left of goal. Mercuri, running out from goal, collects the ball, and handballs left across his body to Wanganeen (right), who careers forward, narrowly evades Kennedy's desperate lunge, and then straightens up and stabs the ball effortlessly home from a distance of 30 metres. Brisbane 15.10; Essendon 13.7
20 mins The umpire bounces the ball 40 metres from Essendon's goal and more or less adjacent to the right behind post. Somerville catches the ball cleanly and finds Hird with a handball. The Bomber champion is immediately wrapped up in a tackle which dislodges the ball, but Blumfield is backing up well, and swoops in to gather before handballing backwards to Mercuri. From a distance of 45 metres out directly in front Mercuri prods his kick forward to the edge of the goal square where it bounces high in the air and, with Fletcher stolidly fending off Champion, sails on through for a goal. Brisbane 15.10; Essendon 14.7
22 mins Wanganeen receives the ball 10 metres in front of the centre circle, immediately discerns that there is a good deal of space ahead of him, and dashes forward. After running a good 20 to 25 metres without bouncing the ball, he straightens up and propels a typically low trajectory drop punt towards the goal square. The ball just eludes a pack of players stationed just in front of the square and bounces through for the former Port Adelaide man's third goal of the second half. Brisbane 15.11; Essendon 15.7
25 mins Mercuri's shot for goal after marking 50 metres out directly in front veers away to the right for a minor score. Brisbane 15.11; Essendon 15.8
28 mins In the vicinity of centre half forward, with his back to goal, Mercuri handballs 10 metres to his left, putting Wanganeen in the clear 40 metres from goal. However, on this occasion Wanganeen's stabbing kick is ill directed, registering only a behind. Brisbane 15.11; Essendon 15.9
32 mins After Brisbane have missed a series of scoring opportunities the Bombers swiftly transfer the ball to the other end of the ground with a series of crisp, purposeful kicks that unerringly find their target each time. The move culminates in a high kick to the goal square from Matthew Lloyd, which tumbles off the hands of the waiting pack and is collected by Gavin Wanganeen, 5 metres from goal, slightly to the right of the right goal post. Wanganeen is immediately grabbed from behind and brought to ground, but just manages to get his boot feebly to ball, only to see his groggy looking kick strike the goal post. Essendon's last chance has gone. Brisbane 15.11; Essendon 15.10
The siren sounds 30 seconds later and the predominantly pro-Bears crowd rejoice.
FINAL SCORE: Brisbane 15.11 (101); Essendon 15.10 (100).
However, it soon emerges that Essendon fans have equal cause to celebrate. The Bombers reward for this defeat? A home final the following week against the higher-ranking West Coast, a game which Essendon duly wins by 77 points before bowing out of flag contention in the Preliminary Final against Sydney.
Brisbane meanwhile also go on to reach the preliminary final after a 26.14 (170) to 10.13 (73) semi final defeat of Carlton at the Gabba the following week. Eventual premiers North Melbourne prove too strong in the Preliminary Final, however, winning 17.12 (114) to 11.10 (76), and bringing the 10-year history of the Brisbane Bears to a close. Queensland football supporters will have to wait until the dawn of a new century to experience that ultimate, elusive thrill of victory on AFL Grand Final day.
Brisbane: 4.6 6.8 11.9 15.11 101
Essendon: 2.1 8.2 10.5 15.10 100
Brisbane: Champion, Fletcher, D.Scott, Leppitsch, Voss, McRae
Essendon: Hird, Wanganeen, Bewick, Fletcher, Alessio, Doolan
Brisbane: Leppitsch, A.Lynch 4; D.Scott 3; Merrett 2; Akermanis, Champion
Essendon: Alessio, Wanganeen 3; Bewick, Fletcher, Hird 2; Cockatoo-Collins, Mercuri, O'Donnell
Attendance: 22,003 at the Gabba
- 'Inside Football', 11/9/96, page 32.
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