Well, where do I start. First of all, I was very excited walking through Fitzroy Gardens to the magnificently lit-up MCG. It was first…
Decorated defender Grant Birchall has been lauded by his long-time coaches as the ultimate low-profile champion after announcing his AFL retirement after 287 games.
A tough, classy half-back, the Tasmanian played 248 games for Hawthorn between 2006 and 2019, with his lethal left boot crucial to claim flags in 2008, 2013, 2014 and 2015.
He won All-Australian selection in 2012 and spent his final two seasons in Brisbane, steering the Lions to within inches of a second-straight preliminary final in his final game last Saturday.
Birchall kept a low profile despite occupying rare air – Cyril Rioli, Luke Hodge, Jordan Lewis, Sam Mitchell and Jarryd Roughead are the only other Hawks involved in all four flags.
“And he’s the humblest one of them too,” Lions coach Chris Fagan, who also worked with Birchall at the Hawks, said.
“I think he averaged about 24 possessions a game in those grand finals at halfback, not midfield where you get plenty of it.
“While he’s not the highest-profile bloke ever to play 280-odd AFL games he’s definitely a champion and one of the standouts in his position.”
His former Hawks coach Alastair Clarkson chimed in with regular slices of humour from a poor internet connection during the press conference.
“He’s such a humble lad, hardly spoke early on … didn’t seek any fanfare,” the coach said of the man known as Beaver after he lost a tooth in the 2008 decider.
“He was a ripper; he was high draft pick and he could have said ‘I’m pretty good here, I want to play in the midfield, do this or do that’.
“But he just played his role and did so for the best part of 14, 15 years.”
After injuries restricted him to eight AFL appearances in his final two years at Hawthorn, Birchall moved to Brisbane at the end of 2020 and played a further 39 games across two seasons all with the COVID-19 cloud hanging over the league.
Those restrictions only strengthened bonds at the Gabba though, Birchall saying it took “four hours” to deliver his retirement announcement on Friday morning to his team because he was an “absolute blubbering mess”.
And while he is still yet to properly reflect on his remarkable feats with Hawthorn, he was clear on how he’s left the Lions who have finished in the top four in the last three seasons but not made a grand final.
“They’ve just got to believe in themselves; that seven-week patch after we started 1-3 (this season) was one of the best patches of footy I’ve ever been involved in,” he said.
“We’ve got the crop of talent and system to do it, we’ve just got to do it at the right time of year.
“A bit of the rub of green certainly helps, but I hope the last couple of the games doesn’t dishearten the boys.
“I hope it makes them harder and stronger; sometimes you have to face a bit of crap before you actually achieve the ultimate.”