Ex-Lions unsurprised by McRae's AFL rise

·5-min read

There should have been an inkling leadership was in Craig McRae's future when the Brisbane forward pulled out his itinerary for Mad Monday.

The left-footed dynamo was responsible for planning the Lions' end-of-season celebrations.

It was a role the now-Collingwood coach took seriously.

"He would have races he'd record, he'd have a tote game for the day," former teammate Jason Akermanis told AAP.

"He really started the fancy dress for Mad Mondays, like he invented all of that."

For former defender Chris Johnson, it was McRae's attention to detail and care that stood out.

"I can't remember too many end-of-season celebrations that had itineraries and that's what Fly would do," Johnson told AAP.

"Fly would actually have an itinerary by the hour, by the minute: what was happening, when it was happening, who was actually doing it.

"He wasn't the one actually doing it, he actually delegated people that it was their responsibility to do it.

"So he was a guy that brought people together to have a really fun time in a safe environment."

That collaborative energy ultimately tracked through McRae's time at the Lions.

When they met in 1994, Akermanis remembers thinking his new teammate, three years his senior, was "a bit serious" before realising just how often McRae landed "straight-face jokes".

Johnson's first impression of McRae was "the small guy that had the biggest shoulders and the biggest biceps within the football club".

Then, through three premierships, McRae became known for taking possession, wheeling on to his left and hitting up key forwards with aplomb.

But for his fellow Lions it was McRae's character, authenticity and care for his club mates that stood out.

"You could always see that he had that talent of talking to groups," Akermanis said.

"His humour would always shine through and I think that's why he's probably one of the most liked players I've ever played with in any team I've ever been involved in, just because of his demeanour.

"He's got a very unique way of of telling you what he thinks but never really getting anyone ruffled.

"He doesn't conflict with a lot of people. That's why I think his relationship-style coaching will always work because of the way that he does that."

Akermanis remembered having to push McRae to apply for the Collingwood role last year.

When his friend suggested he was too low-profile to get the job, the Brownlow Medallist reminded McRae that he was a "good enough coach".

"I got tipped off about two weeks before he got the job and I texted him 'congratulations' and he said 'for what?'" Akermanis said.

"I said 'well, you've got the Collingwood job'' and he said 'I've still got another interview to go' and I said 'well act surprised'.

"Then after he got the job, two weeks later, I said 'did you act surprised?'

"He said 'I think I did a pretty good job.'"

In just over a year in the job, McRae has reinvigorated Collingwood while garnering plenty of respect for his calm, authentic approach.

In the process, he's taken the Magpies from 17th on the ladder to a top-four finish and a preliminary final.

"He's just transformed all of his learnings that he's had within the AFL as a player, and just put it into coaching," Johnson said.

"(McRae's success is) no surprise to me because he's a quality person and he's a genuine carer of people.

"He actually just had the ability to build on common ground with all people, from the guy who had been there 10 years at the football club, to the guy in his first year."

There has also been McRae's focus on a winning mentality, something Johnson believes is part of the Collingwood coach's ingrained personality, part the influence of mentor Leigh Matthews.

"Craig's put his own mix in there and probably just sprinkled a bit of Leigh Matthews brilliance in there," Johnson said.

Akermanis says there's another element: his pal is a born winner, and where he goes, success follows.

"Everywhere he goes, he wins - and that's not an accident," he said.

"There's a reason for that. Little things like you leave the room spotless when you leave, respecting wherever you go anywhere in the country.

"It's like the All Blacks used to have when they'd go somewhere.

"That winning culture from the oldest player all the way through permeates and that's really what he's always instilled, and that's why I think he's had so much success as a coach, as a player."

So can Akermanis and Johnson's former teammate cap off a stellar year with a premiership?

"Regardless of whether he goes through and wins the premiership, I think he is certainly the coach of the year, without a doubt," Johnson said.

"Can they do it? Well, they're a 25 per cent chance like the other three teams. Anyone could do it.

"The way Collingwood are playing at the moment, they're playing with a lot of speed on the ball and if they can just keep that speed going, they can beat anyone."

Akermanis puts it more succinctly.

"He can do anything," he said.

"He's a winner."