Carlton will this weekend celebrate the 30th anniversary of their premiership against Hawthorn that came at a time when the Blues were a power club. The 1987 flag erased the pain of the losing '86 grand final, also against the Hawks. Robert Walls, having enjoyed three flags as a player with the Blues, was coach, the legendary Stephen Kernahan was captain and David Rhys-Jones would claim the Norm Smith medal. They turned back time with Jon Pierik.
Pierik: Let's set the scene for '87. It was a year of VFL expansion, with the Brisbane Bears and West Coast Eagles coming aboard. At Princes Park, a year after an interstate raid that netted Stephen Kernahan, Craig Bradley, Peter Motley and Jon Dorotich, another strong shopping spree had yielded forwards Richard Dennis and Peter Sartori from Western Australia, and star rover Mark Naley from South Australia. Of course, there was the pain of losing the '86 grand final to the Hawks. What's your memory of that pre-season?
Rhys-Jones: It was probably the hardest pre-season we had all done mainly because we had been beaten. In '86, we were just never in the game. I played on Gary Ayres and he won the Norm Smith medal. On Mad Monday after '86, I was called 'Smithy' all day. You take it in jest but it does hit you a bit, too.
Walls: You are spot on. I was only looking at it the other day – the '87 premiership team, the average number of games played was about 70. Probably in the last 50 years, it was the most inexperienced. If you go further, I think you might find the team that was inexperienced further was Carlton's '68 premiership team. It was a feeling that 'we have got to do it' because the grand-final loss in '86 was pretty comprehensive. We weren't just beaten, we were beaten by a lot. It was a pretty embarrassing defeat.
Pierik: Kernahan was made captain aged only 23. Marc Maclure had retired the year previously but there were other more experienced players who could have done the job. Why 'Sticks'?
Walls: I had made up my mind – most of us had. Even though Sticks had only been there for one year, it was felt he was the man for the job. It wasn't a tough call. In one year, he earned the respect of everybody at the club and he went on to captain Carlton for 12 years, the longest of everybody.
Kernahan: There had been some talk about that. The senior players we had at the footy club, I didn't feel I had earned the right. I will never forget it – I got called into match committee and Wes [Lofts, chairman of selectors and club powerbroker] and Wallsy said we want you to captain the club. I thought, 'I will have to go home and think about this', but they said, 'nah, we want you to do it'. There were probably about 10 blokes that could have captained the side in that era ... with blokes like Wayne Johnston, Kenny Hunter, Justin Madden and Rhys and other experienced players.
Pierik: Come '87, you lost in round one to the Hawks by 45 points at Princes Park, but would win 11 of the next 12. But you again lost to the Hawks, this time by a point at Waverley. There was chat you couldn't handle the Hawks' heat.
Walls: It [round one] was just a kick in the guts. One thing I do remember from that year is that every Hawthorn training session we had it was monitored, we had someone there. It was usually an injured player ... and they would give me a written report on what they did. So, even though there were 13 other teams in the comp, we knew they were the ones we had to beat if we were going to win the premiership ... because I got a report on every training session they did, I knew that they didn't do anywhere near the amount of physical training that we did. We did combative training, a lot of one-on-one, two-on-two, three-on-three, gut-busting training sessions. I knew they didn't. I knew they very much relied on their skill and experience and talent. Leaping forward to grand-final day, when it was a 30-degree day, not that I told anybody, and I didn't tell the boys, I was really confident that we would win because I knew physically we were so much stronger than any team in the comp and it bore out that day."
Pierik: You would lose only four times through the home-and-away rounds, but needed a goal after the siren by Kernahan against North Melbourne in round 22 to claim top spot and have the week off. How important was that?
Walls: It was significant that Stephen kicked the goal. He is our captain, he is our leader – bang, he has done the job.
Kernahan: It was better than losing.
Rhys-Jones: During '86, '87, I would have backed him every day of the week – I don't know what went wrong after!
Pierik: Off the field, there was much for the club to deal with. Premiership defender Des English was fighting leukemia and then, after the round-six loss to the Swans, Peter Motley was driving from training and crashed. He would never play again. How did that shake the club?
Walls: "Motts" knocked everyone – the first phone call I got ... at about 9.30pm, the first call said, 'we think Peter has been in an accident' and I just thought I hope he is OK. Then I got another phone call to say, 'we think he might have a broken leg'. The third phone call I got was that 'he is fighting for his life'. That just put everything into perspective it ... knocked everybody. I will never forget Peter's father, Geof, he came and stayed by his bedside for months. I used to go and see him on a Saturday morning often before I went to a game. As the year went on and Des had his cancer and Bernie Evans got the one-week suspension [missing the grand final], there was definitely a resolve in the group.
Kernahan: We played Geelong at Waverley in round seven – I don't know how we won that day. What we had heard, he was hanging by a thread. We were thinking we could lose our mate. I don't know how we got up that day, but we did.
Pierik: He had played only 19 games to that point, generally at half-back. How good would he have been?
Walls: His first year, he was disappointed in the sense that he thought he could step in and just be a really top-line player straight away. I think he felt he was a midfielder, centreman and we played him across the half-back line a fair bit. I think the next year, my thoughts were that he was ready to blossom. There is no doubt what his two mates [Kernahan and Craig Bradley] would have achieved.
Kernahan: He was used to getting 35 touches and 15 marks on ball in Adelaide. It would have been a big change for him coming back and playing half-back. He was as fit as Craig Bradley. He could have been anything and played for a long time, just like 'Braddles'.
Rhys-Jones: He was going to be a superstar – there was no doubt about that. That's probably what kept him alive – he was a strong young bloke, he never drank, he never smoked.
Pierik: Back on the field, you knocked over the Hawks, again in the second semi, with Kernahan booting three. That gave you another week off. Did you think you would be playing Melbourne in the grand final before Jim Stynes infamously ran over the mark and gave Gary Buckenara a shot at goal that he stole victory with? And what about a speech given by Wallabies coach turned radio broadcaster, Alan Jones.
Rhys-Jones: I can tell you one thing. I was sitting next to Wayne Johnston [at the preliminary final] and said, 'we've got this Jonno, we have got this in the bag'. They have just smashed each other, it was a physical, brutal game of footy.
Walls: We went to the ... Dandenongs after that game, to a resort up there, had a couple of drinks and a good meal. Jones came in by [club powerbroker Dick Pratt's] helicopter on the Sunday morning.
Kernahan: I will never forget that – 'minute by minute'. It was something Alan Jones spoke to us about. He said, 'It might not be this minute but the next minute – your time will come'.
Walls: I reckon half a dozen blokes had it [written] on their hand when they ran out on the ground – minute by minute. He left a really solid message with everybody.
Pierik: Dorotich had played on Dermott Brereton for two years but Rhys was famously switched on to him in the grand final. Why and when was that plan hatched? Rhys would go on and claim the Norm Smith against a Hawthorn side missing the injured Jason Dunstall, who had booted six in the '86 grand final.
Walls: I didn't know that Dunstall was not playing until the team ran out. I just felt David was the man to play on Dermott. I felt he had the mobility and agility to do it and the will. I found with David ... if I played him on Joe Blow, there is every chance he would beat [Rhys] ... no respect. But if you played him on a quality opponent, his pride took over. Also, if he brought the ball to ground, at ground level he would be really good. At Tuesday match committee, I put my team up ... and I know when I wrote centre half-back Rhys ... 'Loftsy' shuffled and lit up a cigarette and said, 'why do you want him'. They didn't agree with me. Goughy [football manager Stephen Gough] rang me when I got home and said, 'what do you think?' I said, 'that's what I want'. He said, 'you have got to stick to what you want'. I needed that reassurance. On the Thursday night, big Jack Elliott came up to me and said, 'what's this about Rhys at centre half-back?' I remember him saying,'Dora has been there all year, why do you want to change a winning line-up?'
Rhys-Jones: I reckon the in second semi, the year before, I had played a much better game [on the wing]. It was more the fact that Dermott was such a great player, and even the Channel Two commentary, I think it was Bobby Skilton, said, 'Rhys-Jones has gone to Brereton, and this will play into Hawthorn's hands'. No one thought I could do it. For some reason I got to the ground really early that day and there was no one there, and Dr Fraser walked in and said, 'how are you feeling?' I said, 'I am either going to be the best on the ground or the worst on the ground'.
Pierik: Lofts once told me he went up to Wayne Johnston not long before the bounce and said to him that 'Dipper' was playing well. 'Dipper' being Hawks' enforcer Robert DiPierdomenico, who had physically crunched Robert Flower in the preliminary final. We know how the 'Dominator" reacted, by elbowing Dipper in the head in the opening minutes.
Rhys Jones: If you go back before that, Johnno stayed outside the centre square and came in just before the ball was going to bounced. They ended up having five in the middle [conceding a free kick]. They got outsmarted from the first bounce. Ian Robinson, the umpire there, is still filthy to this day that he never got the chance to bounce the ball to start the grand final.
Walls: It's the only grand final where there is no opening bounce.
Pierik: It was the hottest grand final on record at 30.7 degrees. It was so hot Steve Silvagni and Michael Tuck even wore short sleeves. You booted five goals to two in the final term to claim a 33-point win.
Rhys-Jones: We got on top early but they were in front at quarter-time. I couldn't believe it.
Walls: It was good to see Tucky wear a short-sleeve jumper. In your head, that was a good sign – it was even better to see 'Harry' Madden come through at the centre bounce and break his nose!
Pierik: There were a couple of touching moments post-match when Bradley presented his premiership medal to Motley in the rooms. And Peter Dean on the dais yelled, 'Motts, Dessie, you're f---ing bloody beautiful'. Robert, you were quoted at the time as all but urging your team to win two in a row. You made the preliminary final in 1988, losing to the Demons, and that was to be the end of a mini era.
Walls: We were such a young team and I felt we did have it in front of us – but I shouldn't have said that. Think it but don't say it.
Rhys-Jones: I remember we went down to Anglesea the next year and you have a couple of younger guys ... I was sitting there thinking these blokes have got a little bit ahead of themselves.