Marc Greig was a “shy country boy” from Horsham and, at 16, “quite short and skinny” when he arrived at North Ballarat Rebels.
Shane Fisher, a 15-year-old from Lexton, found the club completely different to what he was used to “running around out in the bush”.
Both went on to become an integral part of the Rebels’ back six in 1997 and members of the club’s only premiership team, with Greig winning the best and fairest award.
Greig said a key part of the team’s success was the leadership, starting from the captain Shane O’Bree, and the bond between the players.
“It was just one of those special groups I think,” Greig said.
“And that’s why you win premierships, because you’ve got people there for the right reasons and, while talent does win out eventually, you still need to get together and respect each other and trust one another.”
Fisher recalled how challenges throughout the 1997 season helped instill belief rather than discourage the group.
“One of those was the semi-final when Eastern Ranges were giving us a fair touch up at half time and even three quarter-time,” he said.
“When we won that game out at Waverley, there was a fair belief that we could make something of this.”
Reflecting back on the grand final, Greig said one of the key stories belonged to Adam Goodes and his performance in the forward line.
“(I) obviously went to school with Adam in Horsham, so we spent a lot of time together,” Greig said.
“And at lunch time and recesses he wasn’t the best kick… that’s why he played at centre half back.
“(In the grand final) he went forward… and Goodesy kicked six goals and did his career a world of good.”
While the Rebels were down by a point at three-quarter time, they went on to win by 35 points.
“I think about seven minutes to go you kind of knew you probably got it, and that is another experience in itself,” Fisher said.
“I was sitting on the bench (when the game ended) because I had done my calf with about 10 minutes to go… it was fairly wild celebrations when the siren went.
“We did a lap of victory around the MCG, and I wasn’t too concerned about my calf at that stage.”
Fisher advised any young footballer who had the opportunity to participate in the Rebels’ program to take it with two hands.
“It sets a lot of kids up not just in footy, but in life, and in becoming a better person,” he said.
North Ballarat Rebels premiership coach Garry Fletcher said while the TAC Cup competition was a pathway for young footballers to enter the AFL draft, the club’s success in 1997 came down to putting the team ahead of the individual.
“There was a lot of talent there, but the fact they wanted to play for the team and do well for each other, that was the key,” Fletcher said.
“I think we were able to convince the group that if the team did well everyone was going to be successful.”
Fletcher said part of this approach involved camps and team building exercises.
Hamilton-based development manager Jock Whiting recalled the impact of a preseason camp in Ararat.
Fletcher had instructed the staff and players to carry a stone up a mountain, where they formed the word ‘Rebels’ before sitting down for a chat.
“I think probably then we had a team that was a tight-knit unit and from the previous year we were building on a reasonable outcome,” Whiting said.
“We probably thought in that preseason we had a group capable of achieving some good things.”
Not only did this “team” approach result in a premiership, but seven players went on to play AFL football.
- Adam Goodes
- Shane O'Bree
- James Walker
- Jeremy Clayton
- Marcus Picken
- Shannon Watt
- Sam Cranage
When the Rebels trailed by about 40 points against the Eastern Ranges in a semi-final and a point at three-quarter time against Dandenong Stingrays in the grand final, they drew on these experiences.
Whiting pointed out while the Rebels have had some really strong teams over the years, two of which went undefeated in the regular season, only one group had achieved the ultimate prize.
He said other key ingredients had included the depth of the team and the coach.
“I recall Garry Fletcher was really relaxed at three quarter time,” Whiting said.
“I was up in the box and he said, ‘look the processes are right, we just have to go out there and have faith in our group’.”
But Fletcher maintained the club’s success went beyond his role.
“(General manager) Tony Frawley did a great job in getting a fantastic group of staff members around, from the coaches to the trainers and managers,” he said.
“We had a fantastic group of people that just got on really well together and I think that created a good environment for the young boys.”
For Fletcher, the most special part about winning the premiership was to see the effect it had on everyone who had contributed to the club.
“Obviously the players were very excited, but to see the joy and happiness on the volunteers’ faces, who had put a lot of hours and effort into the club, was fantastic,” he said.
North Ballarat Rebels made history in TAC Cup competition when they won their first and only premiership in 1997.
Dandenong Stingrays were the dominate team that season and boasted a number of soon-to-be AFL stars.
But for the Rebels, the work towards the club’s greatest achievement to date started seasons earlier.
After a tough inaugural year in 1993 and a finals appearance in 1994, the club identified a group of promising 16-year-olds in 1995.
“We took the group to Adelaide for a whole week and we knew we had something pretty special,” Rebels founder and general manager Tony Frawley said.
“You sort of have a rare situation where you had the three regions, Ballarat, Wimmera and Western, strong at the one time.”
When Garry Fletcher took over as coach in 1995, the club blooded the group of talented youngsters into the under-18 competition and most played in the preliminary final the following year.
By the time the season started in 1997, the team had both experience and skill.
But it was not until the national championships that the extent of this talent truly dawned on Frawley.
“I remember this vividly, we had 14 players in the Victorian Country team, which is unheard of… we knew we had a strong squad,” he said.
“And when our kids were away in the national championships, 14 of our best players away, we still won games against other clubs we were that strong.”
The Rebels brought in Sam Cranage and Marcus Picken from the south western region to fill the void.
Both went on to play in the grand final and be selected in the national draft.
Looking back on the grand final teams, Frawley described some of the match ups as “amazing”.
Travis Johnstone on James Walker, Trent Croad on Adam Goodes, Nick Preston on Brendon Fevola, Marc Greig on Stephen Milne, Shane O’Bree on Adam Ramanauskas.
But it was not these names that had Frawley worried on selection night.
“Adam Goodes had been playing in the backline throughout the finals…. and the coach, Garry Fletcher, announced to everyone that Adam was going to play full forward,” Frawley said.
“Everyone thought he was crazy… we all thought we were not going to get anywhere near it because he wouldn’t be able to perform at that level.”
Goodes had a best on ground performance, kicking six goals in the forward line in the Rebels’ 35-point victory.
Frawley now calls it a “master stroke” from the coach, with the game putting the spotlight on Goodes ahead of the draft.
While Frawley’s career expands to roles such as the boss of AFL Northern Territory, the Rebels’ premiership remains a highlight.
“Some of those kids you remember all your life,” he said.
“It was a special day because three regions had come together and beat the best of the metropolitan teams.”
- Mars Stadium, Sunday, August 20, from noon
TAC Cup triple header
- Geelong Falcons v Murray Bushrangers, 10.30am
- Gippsland Power v Bendigo Pioneers, 1pm
- Greater Western Victoria Rebels v Dandenong Stingrays, 3.30pm