Luke Ryan completed the journey from Melbourne based tradesman to bonafide AFL star on Thursday night when he became the 2020 Doig Medallist as Fremantle’s best and fairest.
Already announced as an All-Australian this year, Ryan polled 207 votes to win the medal from three-time winner and captain Nathan Fyfe who polled 167 votes despite missing multiple games with a hamstring problem.
Ryan became the first defender since Dale Kickett in 1997 to win the Doig Medal.
In a remarkable finish, three players tied in third place on 150 votes with Adam Cerra pipping Andrew Brayshaw (fourth) and David Mundy (fifth) on a countback.
Mundy’s fifth placing made it 10 times in 12 years that he had finished in the club’s top five.
Matt Taberner, Ethan Hughes, Michael Walters, Caleb Serong and James Aish rounded out the top 10 of the count, which was held at Crown Burswood last night and attended by forward Jesse Hogan, who has been the subject of trade speculation over the past few weeks.
The 24-year-old Ryan was spotted while playing VFL for Coburg under former North Melbourne star and Subiaco premiership coach Peter German. Overlooked in several drafts, he was the 66th player picked overall in the 2016 national draft and made his debut for the Dockers in 2017.
He played 11 games in 2017 and has played 55 of a possible 61 games since, establishing himself as a roll-off intercept defender who can play on taller opponents.
He finished sixth in the Dockers’ best and fairest last year but rocketed to prominence in 2020 when Fremantle lost their two primary tall defenders Joel Hamling and Alex Pearce before round one, then lost Griffin Logue who had slotted into the role as lead tall defender.
Logue suffered a turf toe injury in round five against Adelaide and did not play again.
That left the 186cm Ryan and his close friend and housemate, 193cm tall Brennan Cox to fill the tall defensive posts at Fremantle.
At times it also meant Ryan was matching up on opponents of the size and quality of Geelong spearhead Tom Hawkins and West Coast duo Jack Darling and Josh Kennedy.
Embracing the challenge he was rarely beaten and never disgraced. He averaged 18.5 disposals per game with five marks and 6.5 rebounds from defensive fifty. He led the AFL in rebounds, led the Dockers in intercept marks and metres gained and ranked second in disposals, kicking efficiency and spoils.
In other awards Rising Star winner Caleb Serong won the Dockers Beacon Award, Ethan Hughes won the Players Trademark award and Pearce, who spent the season recovering from another broken leg, won Best Clubman.
Two of the club’s best defenders Kickett and Roger Hayden were awarded life membership while veteran recruiter John Nykyforak was recognised with the Con Regan Medal which is given for outstanding and longstanding service for the club.
Nykyforak has been talent spotting for the Dockers for 25 consecutive years.
Canberra five-eighth Jack Wighton was crowned the NRL’s Dally M Medal winner only hours after the result was accidentally reported in the media.
The Daily Telegraph had published a story on its website earlier on Monday evening revealing Wighton had claimed the NRL’s highest individual honour.
The Daily Telegraph journalist Phil Rothfield acknowledged the newspaper’s website had published the result before it was officially announced.
“Owing to a production error that was out of my control, The Daily Telegraph website accidentally published the winner of the Dally M award before the official announcement tonight,” Rothfield wrote on Twitter.
“We apologise sincerely for the mistake.”
Wighton became the first Raider to win the Dally M Medal since Laurie Daley in 1995.
He polled 26 votes across the 20 rounds of the minor premiership to finish ahead of Parramatta’s Clint Gutherson (25 votes) and Penrith’s Nathan Cleary (24).
Wighton was also named in the Dally M Team of the Year at five-eighth.
Among the other awards announced as part of the virtual ceremony was the NRLW’s Dally M Medal, which went to Brisbane’s Ali Brigginshaw.
Penrith’s Ivan Cleary was named Coach of the Year and Wests Tigers’ Harry Grant was crowned Rookie of the Year.
The Brisbane Lions midfielder played junior football for the Kybybolite Tigers, winning a premiership in 2004, and about 100 locals watched last night’s count together at the clubrooms.
“I did say, at the end of the count, once Lachie was crowned the Brownlow Medallist, that everyone in the room would remember where they were on October 18 to celebrate that little bit of history,” club president Jamie Tidy said.
“Our club has had some rough times but that’s up there with some of the more special things that can happen at a little country footy club.
‘They’d all love to have him home’
Ms Taylor said her son was lucky to be in a job he loved, but had worked hard to get there.
“It’s his passion and he’s always wanted to play football in the AFL,” she said.
She said she was closely watching the Brownlow count, but became less stressed towards the end.
“I was doing the maths around [round] 10 onwards trying to work out, so about round 14–15 I was quietly confident, as long as he polled in one more game.”
Ms Taylor has received messages of support from Kybybolite locals wishing Neale well over the past couple of weeks.
Mr Tidy said the club had been lucky with its juniors, with five junior colt premierships in a row when Neale was in the team, alongside former AFL footballers Jack Trengove and Alex Forster.
“We’ve got a very long and proud history of good coaches and good juniors,” he said.
He said he hoped Neale’s win would inspire the club to make a little bit more history.
“Unfortunately, it’s been 46 years since our last A-grade [premiership], which I believe is the longest premiership drought in South Australian country football,” he said.
Australians love to travel, to explore this wide brown land of ours. It’s fair to say that the 2020 lockdown has changed our travelling habits.
Instead of soaking in the rays on the beach and the plains inland, most Australians have had to explore the outside world in their screens and in books.
Instead of visiting Lake Grace (population 507), you can look at the small streets and three footy ovals, or read up on its history. Instead of rolling through Moggs Creek (population 89) on the way to the Twelve Apostles, you can look at the satellite view of the town.
Almost everywhere in the world, from Aachen to Zuwarah is at your fingertips, but not under your feet. For now, the closest that most people can get to visiting a place is through an illuminated screen.
To that extent, welcome to Kybybolite, South Australia (just).
Just a two-by-two block, footy oval and some netball courts. If you don’t zoom in on it enough, it sort of disappears. If it took three hours to do all 97 kilometres of streets in Brighton, Karen, it’ll take you about 10 minutes to finish Kyby.
Just 102 people lived in Kybybolite in 2016, with an average age of 42. Mostly farming and agricultural, and best known for a research farm in town.
And the products of the mid-2000s crop of the Kyby Tigers under-14s side.
The productive crop
Most small towns, even footy-mad small towns, rarely boast elite footy players. It’s a product of Australia’s disparate landscape. Lake Grace may lay claim to Nat Fyfe, and Lance Franklin is a proud product of Dowerin, but they usually are one-offs.
That junior side, from little Kyby in the borderlands, can lay claim to three AFL players. It places the town as one of the most productive per capita places for elite footballers in recent history.
Only Osborne in NSW (the “club without a town”) and Kalkee in the Wimmera can claim per capita bragging rights over Kybybolite, but Kyby is unique in producing three AFL players from the same generation, even the same junior sides.
The first was a sure pick to be a star — Jack Trengove. Trengove got nabbed by Melbourne at pick number two in the 2009 draft, and became the youngest captain in VFL/AFL history by age 20.
When he played, he was good. But it took time to get back out there. Trengove finished up his career at Port, with 89 games under his belt. A good career for any player, despite the hype.
After Trengove came Alex Forster, a mid-sized defender who had gained attention through his draft year. Forster made the Under-18 All Australian Team, and played league football for Glenelg as well. Forster profiled as a good ball user out of defence who could also stick with opponents, but like Trengove, injuries changed his trajectory.
The former number 29 draft pick managed only one game in his two years on an AFL list, but he has gone on to be a solid player at SANFL and country levels since.
And then at pick 58 there was Lachie.
Why did Neale fall?
Despite playing local senior footy from the age of 16, being selected in the midfield of the SA under-18 side and getting senior SANFL games while still being under-18 eligible, Neale was a fringe prospect as a junior.
He literally slipped under the radar.
As the AFL evolved into a more professional sport, emphasis was increasingly placed on finding the right body types to fill roles, and moulding players to fill them.
As legendary NBA coach Red Auerbach (allegedly) said, “you can’t teach height”. You can teach tall players to do different things, but you can’t grow shorter players to be taller.
Coming into his draft year, Neale was small. At 174 centimetres, only a handful of players had been taken fresh in the national draft at that height or below between 1999 and 2010, and just four in the top 50.
In more recent years, the trend away from shorter players has changed. Perhaps the realisation hit that for as much of the game known in the northern states as aerial ping-pong is played above the head, a lot of the important bits are played at ground level.
Neale himself put it best, when interviewed before the draft:
As Neale entered his draft year, two things broke his way. First, he grew about an inch, which may have been enough in the eyes of some recruiters. It is hard to believe that such a minor factor can change opinions, but footy is often a game of small margins.
Second, and far more importantly, Neale played so well that he couldn’t be refused. He racked up touches at the Under-18 Championships, in schoolboy footy and at local level.
He also proved that he could compete against bigger bodies in senior footy. Neale enhanced his reputation the same way former Kyby teammate Trengove did — he stood out in a senior SANFL final.
While none of the ardent draft watchers placed Neale in their Phantom Drafts and there was no sizzle reel online for him, Neale was picked up by Fremantle in the third round of the draft at pick 58 — one round later than his other former Kyby teammate, Forster.
It was late, but Neale had the same opportunity as the number one pick.
The evolution of Neale
Neale started at Freo as a small forward, like many draftees. Playing senior footy almost immediately post draft, it didn’t take long for him to find a place in a strong Dockers outfit. His first year was almost unrecognisable from the player we know today.
For a player who averaged more than seven clearances per game last year, he only earnt seven in his entire first season.
Over time, Neale was added to an already potent Dockers midfield mix, floating between Fyfe, Mundy, Barlow and Co. Once he proved height didn’t matter when the ball was on the deck, he was able to truly show what he could do.
It took until 2016 until Neale locked his spot up in the Fremantle inner core — after the peak years of the Dockers had ebbed away.
How Neale stood out this year
Before 2020, everyone knew Neale could win the hard ball and ensure his team would keep it. This year, he introduced the most dangerous element of all for a modern player — risk.
With a better set defensive structure behind him, Neale was willing to try to do more with the ball and live with the consequences that it occasionally wouldn’t come off.
A turnover in the forward line for the Lions is usually just another chance for its stellar intercept markers to create another attacking opportunity, and lock the ball in their forward half.
Neale’s disposal efficiency sank this year, and his turnovers rose, but so did his score involvements and metres gained (when adjusted for shorter games). Instead of being a ball accumulator, he became a super aggressive weapon.
Neale also has the most shots on goal per game of any season in his career to date — better than even when he was playing as a forward. While Brisbane seems to encourage more risky shots on goal, Neale is also finding space to get those shots off.
In modern footy, that extra split second is what separates a good player from a great one.
The arrival of Jarryd Lyons and development of young players like Jarrod Berry and Hugh McCluggage, has allowed Neale to further evolve his role. Even in the accumulation of individual awards, the team is paramount in footy.
Playing in a good team helps of course (just four of 23 Brownlow winners since 2000 played for sides that missed finals) but one player can only do so much.
On Saturday night, Neale dominated in the clinches and was arguably the best on ground for the Lions. Sometimes the other team is just better on the day.
The Brownlow Medal 2020 ceremony usually takes place in Melbourne, but this year’s event was spread out across Australia.
The bulk of the players in the Queensland bubble were at an event at Carrara Stadium on the Gold Coast.
And there were events in Perth and Adelaide, as well as in Sydney and Melbourne.
Things may be all over the place due to coronavirus, but the footy stars and their partners still delivered looks — even though attendees were reportedly told they didn’t need to follow a strict black tie dress code this year.
Here’s who dressed up and who didn’t (spoiler alert: everyone did).
The Brisbane Lions’ Lachie Neale and partner Julie didn’t hold back, with the new first lady of footy donning a sheer floor-length gown and tousled waves.
And Hawthorn’s Jack Gunston rocked a suit and a face mask, captioning his Instagram outfit post: “Brownlow Medal Victorian Style.”
Meanwhile, Melbourne’s Christian Petracca and his partner Bella were #Brownlow ready in Brisbane.
The Brisbane Lions’ Charlie Cameron went for a suave dark velvet ensemble, with his partner Caitlin Seeto in an equally elegant black number.
West Coast Eagles player Luke Shuey and his partner Dani were dressed to the nines.
Shuey said he was disappointed not to be playing this weekend.
Melbourne’s Jack Viney and his wife Charlotte posed for pictures with their baby daughter Mila Grace.
And the Sydney Swans’ Luke Parker cut a dapper figure next to partner Kate Lawrence, who stood out in a red number.
Equally sharp were the Melbourne Demons’ Steven May and partner Briana.
The Western Bulldogs’ Marcus Bontempelli and Tom Libatore brought their fashion A game, both rocking up to the Gold Coast event in style.
Libatore’s suit even covered up his, “My god you’re greasy” tattoo.
The 2020 Brownlow Medal is here — but not as you know it.
Follow all the glamour and drama of the night, with Brisbane’s Lachie Neale the favourite to take home the medal.
By Dean Bilton
What do we know about tonight?
While much of how tonight will work is a mystery, there are a few things we know for sure. We know that players will be gathering in little mini-Brownlow events all over the country, so as to stay in line with coronavirus restrictions. We know that Lachie Neale is the favourite. That’s about it.
By Dean Bilton
A Brownlow Medal night with a difference
Hello one and all and welcome, on this fine Sunday night in mid-October, to the 2020 Brownlow Medal. A strange season in a strange year has tossed up a strange Brownlow night, with so many of the event’s traditions made impossible by the rona and whatnot.
And so we are left with… whatever this is. A rearranged and rescheduled digital ceremony that, if nothing else, should at least allow us to crown and celebrate the best player of this AFL season.
How will it work? Not really sure! Will everyone still be wearing the fancy clothes? Don’t know! Can anyone stop Lachie Neale from winning? Probably not! But we’re going to have some fun finding out. Stick around for the night as we navigate this peculiar COVID Brownlow together.
Honours for SANFL’s fairest and most brilliant individual player has been awarded to a North Adelaide player for the first time in 10 years after midfielder Campbell Combe received the 2020 Magarey Medal.
Campbell Combe wins fairest and most brilliant player with 19 umpire votes
RO Shearman Medal awarded to Glenelg’s Matthew Snook with 68 coaches’ votes
Former Sturt premiership coach Marty Mattner returns to lead the Blues while Norwood’s coach departs Redlegs
In a televised virtual presentation held Tuesday night, the left footer polled 19 umpire votes ahead of Glenelg’s Matthew Snook on 17 votes, and Sturt co-captain James Battersby on 16.
Combe is the first Rooster to win the medal since James Allan won his third in 2011 but said he would not celebrate until after this weekend’s SANFL Grand Final against Woodville-West Torrens at Adelaide Oval.
From a farming family in Crystal Brook, Combe first joined the league in 2014 where he played 12 senior games before returning to the farm to work the following year.
He played for the Crystal Brook Roosters from 2016 to 2018 before returning to Prospect in 2019 and has since played 45 league games.
A virtual event
Taking a precautionary approach due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Magarey Medal vote count this year was not given its usual treatment with a black-tie event involving all the league’s big names.
Combe, accompanied by teammates and club officials, was instead presented the medal at the North Adelaide Football Club by SA Football Commission chairman Rob Kerin.
“I had plenty of support there in the crowd which helped ease things.”
Last year’s Magarey Medal winner Luke Partington was on the leader board again, sharing fourth place with South Adelaide’s Joel Cross and retiring Sturt player Sam Colquhoun, who all received 15 votes each.
In equal fifth place was Woodville-West Torrens’ Joseph Sinor and Jack Hayes with 11 votes each.
Glenelg’s Matthew Snook was also awarded the RO Shearman Medal, the SANFL coaches’ best player medal, with a dominating 68 votes over Battersby with 53 votes and Combe with 52.
This year’s Ken Farmer Medal for the most goals during the minor round was awarded in a tie to last year’s winner, Glenelg’s Liam McBean, and Woodville-West Torrens’ James Rowe, who each kicked 38 goals.
Blues favourite returns
Also announced Tuesday night, Sturt Football Club welcomed two-time premiership coach and premiership player Marty Mattner back into the fold as its senior coach.
Mattner led the team to back-to-back premierships in 2016 and 2017 in his first two years at the helm.
He last coached for the Double Blues in 2018 before leaving to work as an assistant coach for the Adelaide Crows’ AFL side, but lost his job earlier this year along with other staff members when the AFL season was postponed due to COVID-19.
Mattner replaces Nathan Grima, whose two-year contract was not renewed at the end of this season.
Grima, a popular coach among the players, took the Double Blues to an elimination final in 2019 but his team did not make it past the minor round in 2020.
Jarrod Cotton is also parting ways with his team after four years as Norwood’s senior coach.
He took the Redlegs to the major round in his first three years, including a Grand Final appearance in 2018 after winning the minor premiership, but his team did not make the finals this year.
Pinpoints of light from camera flashes sparkle around the crowd of 112,000 people, like stars on the clearest of nights.
There has never been this many people at an Olympic Games athletics session and there hasn’t been since.
They’re here to see one woman, and the sense of expectation is like an electric current buzzing around the crowd.
It’s September 25, 2000 and Cathy Freeman is about to race in the 400 metres.
Australia’s two best athletics commentators, Channel 7’s Bruce McAvaney and the ABC’s Tim Lane (now with 3AW), are here to record history in real time for an audience of millions.
Because this is a night like no other. Never has one night of competition brought together so many of athletics’ biggest names.
“It was an incredible feeling all night. I mean it was an atmosphere of happiness, joy, expectation, it was like a carnival, it was contagious,” McAvaney says.
It isn’t just Freeman here to make history.
There’s American superstar Michael Johnson, aiming to become the first man to win two 400-metre golds; Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie, doubling up in the 10,000 metres and a gripping women’s pole vault final that unveils a new Australian sporting star who had come from Russia.
Despite the pulling power of the sport’s greatest names, however, this night is all about Freeman and the crushing weight of expectation on her slight, but strong figure.
First up: Freeman’s moment of reckoning
“She was the symbol of the games and reconciliation in the home country,” Lane says.
“There was fear almost, because no-one wanted to see her fail in that moment and there’d rarely been an Olympic athlete step out under the sort of scrutiny and pressure that she’d been under.”
And she’s first up.
McAvaney had already covered several Olympic Games and world championships, and yet his mouth had gone dry.
“I had this feeling … this was something that I hadn’t experienced before as a broadcaster,” he says.
“I realised that a moment had arrived, and I said to myself consciously: ‘Just relax, go slow, enjoy, you’ve prepared well and do your best.'”
Cathy Freeman crosses the line, finally an Olympic champion, slumps onto the track and pushes her hood off her head. The camera is tight on her face revealing, what? Anguish. Relief. Disbelief. Pain.
“It was almost perfect in a way because it was just, this weight on her shoulders for four years and suddenly it was released and she had that beautiful moment to herself,” McAvaney says.
The moment of enormous tension is over and there’s a slight sense of a let-down despite the show that’s about to come — Michael Johnson — one of the greatest athletes of all time.
Next: Michael Johnson creates history
“Honestly, there was such euphoria in the stadium it was like the race after the Melbourne Cup in a sense,” Lane says.
“I mean people wanted to see Michael Johnson but nevertheless it was anti-climactic in the extreme.”
“Out he comes, Michael Johnson, one of the 10 greatest Olympians, track and field, trying to do something no-one else had done,” McAvaney adds.
The aim: to become the first man to win consecutive Olympic 400 metres golds.
“Four years earlier he’d set a world record in the 200 metres and blown the field out of the water in the 400 metres,” Lane says.
McAvaney adds he was no certainty either.
“He hadn’t made the Olympic team in the 200 metres. He certainly wasn’t the athlete he was in ’96.”
The doubts were unfounded; he surges around the bend and streets away on the home straight.
Then: The ‘greatest thing’ of the night
The greatest race of the night is next: Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie in the 10,000 metres, as he, like Johnson, tries to defend his Olympic title.
McAvaney almost chokes up as he remembers a stunning race as Gebrselassie was challenged By Kenya’s Paul Tergat, who exploded to the lead with 200 metres to go.
“What I remember so much about that race is the courage of Gebrselassie. He had an Achilles problem, he looked beaten a couple of times,” he says.
“That last 200 metres for me is one of the greatest things I’ve seen in sport, to this day.”
“They just went hell for leather,” he adds.
“To see them running so fast at the end of 10,000 metres and Tergat looked as though this time he was going to turn the tables.
“But Gebrselassie, who was the king, just found that little bit extra and was able to get there in the last couple of strides.”
“He went from an all-time great to arguably the greatest ever at that moment and he did it through sheer courage, sheer will,” McAvaney says.
And still, there is more.
Gabriela Szabo from Romania winning the women’s 5,000 metres in a stunning final, desperately holding off Ireland’s Sonia Sullivan over the last 200 metres.
McAvaney’s co-commentator, Sebastian Coe (now Lord) calls it “one of the best distance races I’ve ever seen”.
Finally: An unknown makes her mark
While history is being made on the track, a tantalising sub-plot is playing out at dizzying heights.
Tatiana Grigorieva was a hurdler in Russia, but after emigrating to Australia in 1997 she took up the pole vault and immediately made her mark, winning the bronze medal at the 1999 World Championships.
But to the average Australian audience she’s a virtual unknown as she takes on the hot favourite, Stacy Dragila from the US.
The two battle vault by vault to the backdrop of the track races, before taking centre stage with Dragila eventually prevailing.
“Had it been on its own away from Freeman, Johnson, Gebrselassie, it would have been the absolute highlight of what was a terrific night of athletics,” McAvaney says.
“As it turned out, it was part of a jigsaw puzzle that was arguably the night of nights in Olympics athletics history.”
As the night ends, the two commentators leave the stadium talking with their colleagues from around the world about what they say was the greatest night of Olympic competition ever.
“Everyone thought that was the best night they’ve ever been to,” McAvaney says.
“I think at the end of the night we all felt that we would never see the likes of it again because it was impossible to imagine the stars could ever align like that again,” Lane says.
“Twenty years have passed, and that judgement in my mind stands as true now as it did then.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that, I don’t think I ever will.”
The AFL has announced the 2020 Brownlow Medal count will be conducted as a “virtual event” with no standalone ceremony because of COVID-19 restrictions.
The Brownlow Medal count will be broadcast as a “made-for-TV event” on October 18
The award is traditionally celebrated as part of a gala ceremony in Melbourne with more than 1,000 guests in attendance
Brisbane Lions midfielder Lachie Neale is the favourite to win the 2020 Brownlow Medal
The AFL’s best and fairest award ceremony is traditionally held as a gala event in Melbourne featuring more than 1,000 guests on the Monday evening prior to the grand final.
The league released a statement on Wednesday evening confirming it had opted for a “made-for-TV event” to take place on October 18, which is the Sunday before the grand final.
AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan will be in Queensland to read the votes on the evening, with the Seven Network to broadcast the event.
“The Charles Brownlow Medal is our game’s highest individual honour and continues to be the most prestigious night of the AFL calendar,” AFL commercial manager Kylie Rogers said in a statement.
“It’s incredibly difficult to get people together in indoor event spaces in a responsible manner given the current environment, and the community’s safety has been at the forefront of every decision we’ve made.
“While the glamour of the red carpet will be missed this year, we are looking forward to delivering a special format made specifically for the broadcast audience at home, so our fans can continue to celebrate their heroes and their achievements this year.”
The decision to alter the Brownlow Medal count is the latest change to tradition the AFL has been forced to make in light of coronavirus.