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Departing Craig leaves lasting legacy on game

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NEIL Craig will sit in an AFL coach’s box — as a full-time club staffer — for the last time on Saturday.

The long journey in Australian football — that began on April 14, 1973 in SANFL league company at Norwood as a 17-year-old country recruit from Sandilands on the Yorke Peninsula — ends with Carlton at the SCG.

And it has been some journey that — despite Craig’s original reluctance — has not been restricted to SA football. Nor to Australian football, as is remembered with his work with the Australian Olympic cycling team and SA Sports Institute.

Norwood, Sturt and North Adelaide as a player in the SANFL.

Adelaide, Melbourne, Essendon and Carlton as a coach or assistant coach in the AFL. And, repeatedly forgotten, Craig was the first SANFL player claimed — at No. 2 by Footscray — in a VFL draft in 1981.

Not to be forgotten is the influence Craig had on Australian football, particularly in his start-up years as Crows coach in 2005-6; his strong-willed nature that defined his character as a player and coach; and the Lycra one-piece jumpers at Norwood.

As a player, Craig found success — both as an individual and in a team. He was only 15 when he won the 1971 McCallum Medal as the best player in the SANFL under-17 competition and followed up with the Tomkins Medal in the under-19s the next season.

Neil Craig, third from left, celebrates the 1975 premiership win with his Norwood teammates.

At 22, Craig had two SANFL league premierships with Norwood — and already an eye on developing his path to coaching by moving to Sturt in 1980 to learn from the “Master” Jack Oatey and then to North Adelaide in 1987 to take in Michael Nunan’s forthright concepts.

As a coach, Craig remained unfulfilled.

He guided Norwood to one grand final in his five SANFL seasons back at The Parade — the 1993 disaster against Woodville-West Torrens. This game carries the story — perhaps folklore — of Craig seeking out Oatey on the eve of the grand final for that last bit of advice, that last note on what creates a premiership side.

Craig should have unlocked that secret at the Crows, after being the mastermind of its fitness program for Malcolm Blight’s premiership double in 1997-98. He revolutionised AFL tactics in 2005-6 with his zone defence. How the Crows stumbled in the 2005 and 2006 major round — winning just two of six finals — remains a question of whether Craig suffered from his perceived stubbornness on match days.

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And yet legendary cycling coach Charlie Walsh, who was one of Craig’s right-hand men at Adelaide, regrets not taking issue with Craig when he started to compromise on that supposed stubbornness as his time came to an end at West Lakes in 2011.

After first not seeing himself capable of wearing any other club tie — or of finding satisfaction in the Melbourne football culture — Craig did accept the opportunity to add his knowledge, expertise and guidance to troubled football programs at Melbourne, Essendon and finally Carlton.

Craig leaves saying: “This game has given me so much … and I reflect on my career with much fondness and appreciation.” He gave the game a fair bit too — and that should be appreciated.


Originally published as Departing Craig leaves lasting legacy on game

Source: sports dailytelegraph

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