Craig Starcevich is one of few professional Australian Rules football players who’s experienced winning an AFL premiership both as a player and a coach. And he’s the only person in Aussie Rules history to have won both an AFL and AFLW premiership, winning the latter as a coach.
“I consider myself very lucky to have been at clubs at the right time,” Craig explains. “I'm also a big advocate for the saying, ‘the harder you work, the luckier you get’. Having like-minded people around you who work really hard and are driven is usually a decent recipe for achieving success,” he adds.
Hard work and drive are consistent themes throughout Craig’s sporting career. It took him to competitive levels in both cricket and AFL in his formative years. “Growing up in Perth, it was cricket in the summer and footy in the winter, and that was it,” he says. “If you wanted to be accepted at school and all the usual things you're craving when you're a kid, you'd play footy if you lived in Perth.”
Dedicated to play for East Perth
In his early sporting career, Craig’s primary ambition was to play for East Perth. “They were my heroes,” he says. “They were a very successful club in the WAFL, and I lived in their zone, so it was a club I really wanted to play for.
“My goal was to get a game for East Perth and see how far I could take my cricket as well because I was a very keen cricketer growing up. Both of these were tracking alongside each other until I got to an age where I had to pick which one I was going to concentrate on.
“I remember those long hot summers in Perth with the East Perth Football Club and how much time and energy that took. Over time, that meant that I couldn't focus on cricket anymore and had to throw everything into football,” he explains.
Craig’s dream to play for East Perth was realised when he joined the Royals in 1985. He played 37 games for his childhood hero side and was awarded the best and fairest player in 1986. On the back of this, he was drafted to Collingwood to play in the VFL.
VFL debut in 1987
Craig made his VFL debut in 1987, playing a key positional role. He came off the bench in Collingwood's 1990 premiership winning side to be a solid contributor during the Grand Final.
“When I moved to Melbourne, I was 19,” Craig explains. “I left Perth at a relatively young age and was completely wet behind the ears. I knew nothing about the outside world or living away from home, so adjusting to life in Victoria took a little time. But once you get into the football scene in that city, playing for one of the biggest clubs, it's a fantastic experience.
“Collingwood had a successful under-19s team that played really well and won a premiership before I arrived. There were a lot of players in the team around my age, so we all came through together and had some heartbreak in the '88 and '89 final series, until we got to '90,” he adds. “On the sixth of October '90, which will always be etched in our minds, we broke a 32-year drought, and the Collingwood Footy Club won that flag.
“After winning that one, we all thought it would last forever, and we'd be winning every year. But it doesn't always work out that way,” he says. “The winning night was amazing. The spectators and supporters were beside themselves – it was an amazing experience.”
Surprise trade to Brisbane in 1993
Craig went on to play 124 games and kick 162 goals for Collingwood in his six years with the Magpies. Then, in one of the biggest and most unusual trades in AFL history, Craig, Troy Lehmann and Chris Scott were traded to the Brisbane Bears in 1993 in exchange for Nathan Buckley.
Craig is honest in his appraisal of how he felt about the trade at the time: “Back in the early '90s, to be traded to Brisbane was just about the worst sentence in footy at that time,” he admits, “so there was a bit of trepidation.
“However, I thought it was an okay idea because Alastair Lynch had just signed a 10-year deal with Brisbane, which made it more credible for me to come here. He paved the way for a lot of us around that time to come up [to Brisbane] at the same time,” he adds. Craig played 20 games and kicked 16 goals for Brisbane before retiring as a player in 1995.
From player to top AFL conditioning coach
He then moved on to become one of the most prominent fitness trainers in the AFL, describing his move from player to strength and conditioning coach as “a huge, huge blessing.”
“I had a degree in sports science, so I was able to slot into coaching, apply my empathy as a player, and overlay the knowledge I had through my degree. It helped put me in a really good position to understand the game and its requirements,” he explains.
“During my time with the Brisbane Lions from '97 through to 2005, we had an extraordinary period between '01 and '04, where the Lions were in four Grand Finals in a row and won three of them,” he says. “That was an amazing time with a very special group of players and staff.”
Once he’d finished up his conditioning and coaching role with the Lions, Craig moved into an administrative and talent identification role within the code. But, while on a talent recruitment trip to Perth, he met Jan Cooper, who was the national manager of the AFLW.
“I met her in 2010 and she shared her vision that they would have a national competition within 10 years,” he explains. “She asked if she could bring in some of the prominent WA girls into our talent squad and, with some trepidation, I said ‘Yes, why not?’.
“It turns out they were extraordinarily good,” he adds, “which shouldn’t have surprised me. It did at the time, though, because I had no concept of where women’s footy was in its development.”
Craig then moved into a female talent development role back in Queensland and was preparing for the national league that was due to kick off in 2020. “We then got the news it had been brought forward and I remember the excitement of the kids and older girls, saying ‘Wow, this thing’s actually gonna happen!’”
Coach of Brisbane Lions AFLW
With his background as a player and credentials as a coach, Craig was appointed coach of the Brisbane Lions AFLW team ahead of the inaugural season, where they won the Minor Premiership.
“I was really lucky to be asked by the Brisbane Lions to be their inaugural coach, and our first job was to pull a team together that would be competitive. We wanted to paint ourselves in a good light and be one of the shining lights in the competition from the get-go – a team the Lions fans could be proud of.
“As it turned out, we had a pretty strong team, so we brought in a handful of players from interstate, but most were Queensland-born and developed. Lo and behold, we got through the season undefeated. The top two teams played off in the first Grand Final but unfortunately, we didn't win that one,” he explains.
Since then, the Lions have been an AFLW success story, reaching the finals in six of the first seven seasons. Building on the success of the formative years and the dividends received from the Brisbane Lions Academy, Craig then successfully coached the team to win the AFLW 2021 Premiership.
Invest time in individual players
“We got to the last game of 2021 and we played Adelaide at the Adelaide Oval and were successful,” he says. “It was an amazing experience, especially seeing that part of the winning group was six Brisbane Lions Academy girls that had come through.
“I had also coached quite a few of them in the Queensland under-18 team in previous years. There's nothing like knowing the kids when they first start the game, seeing their development, and knowing how they tick, and what things can be improved. To see the joy on their faces when they won that senior premiership in '21 was pretty amazing,” he says.
“The big thing I've learned is that you can never invest too much time in individual players,” he adds. “They're always a little bit unsure of where they're at. Even the best ones in your group need a bit of reassurance and comfort knowing they’re performing well.”