By MARC McGOWAN, AFL.com.au
Triple premiership forward Jonathan Brown’s brother is responsible for igniting the fire under Brisbane Lions success story and former excavator operator Matt Eagles.
The Lions inserted legitimacy into Eagles’ extraordinary AFL journey on Friday when they revealed they were retaining 2016’s The Recruit winner on their rookie list for next year.
He will remain a category B rookie, but his advanced age – he turns 28 in February – suggests coach Chris Fagan believes he can make a senior impact next year, possibly alongside Harris Andrews.
Eagles was playing for Brisbane-based Yeronga, where he kicked 116 goals in 31 games, when clubmates Matt Brown and Tim Notting, the 208-game former Lion, asked him in no uncertain terms: “What the hell are you doing?”
The dreadlocked 200cm giant subsequently applied for the Fox Footy program, and the rest is history.
Eagles knew three days after his Jeremy McGovern-like NEAFL Grand Final performance, including a competition-high 17 intercept possessions and eight intercept marks, that his AFL story would continue.
“I came in as a ruckman and forward at the start, but I struggled a little bit with all the new structures and being in the (AFL) environment all the time,” he told AFL Media.
“But they put me in the backline, which was new to me, and I just adapted to that quite quickly and started getting some form halfway through the season and really jelled with the boys.
“I’ve surprised myself and I like the direction the club’s going. Getting another pre-season under my belt will help … I’ll get together with Harris, spend some more time with him, and it will be good having Luke Hodge around.”
The Recruit‘s first experiment, Johann Wagner, came and went in a flash in an uneasy experience on Port Adelaide’s list last year, later admitting he never felt like he belonged.
Eagles looked like he might go down a similar path as the AFL’s emphasis on complex structures and game-plans befuddled the ruckman-forward.
The Lions then transformed the ex-VFL and SANFL footballer into a key defender – something completely foreign to him – and the move began paying dividends midway through the NEAFL season.
Eagles, who grew up in Adelaide and worked in the mines, still looked an extreme longshot to survive, but a stellar NEAFL finals campaign made him a keeper – even with the club cutting 10 players.
“Coming from where I did is hard, because it’s totally different. No one’s been through it except Johann, so it was tricky to fit in early,” he said.
“It seems kind of weird, but it’s a bit like high school, and if you don’t get around the boys, you’re an outsider. But I’ve created a really good bond with them.”
Lions football boss David Noble admitted they were not expecting Eagles to improve enough to demand a list spot, but said he had “earned his stripes”.
“We believed when we got him we were getting a really good player in the NEAFL who would be great support for some of our younger guys,” Noble told AFL Media.
“What has surprised us is his continued improvement … there’s been a significant shift in all aspects from playing to body shape, so he has a chance to continue to develop and maybe play.
“It doesn’t mean he’ll play 22 AFL games next year, but he’s certainly given himself a chance.”
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