Hugh McCluggage during Brisbane's official team photo day at Brighton Homes Arena on February 14, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

BRISBANE'S rise from rock bottom to a Grand Final can be traced back to the arrival of Chris Fagan as coach in late 2016.

Less than two months after Fagan and football manager David Noble walked through the Gabba doors, they were followed by a crop of draftees the Lions hoped would start turning the club's fortunes, led by fresh-faced Victorian Hugh McCluggage.

The South Warrnambool product came with huge wraps, taken at No.3 in the draft, with his combination of hard work and exquisite ball use catching the eyes of recruiters around the country.

But what was he walking into?

Along with best mate Jarrod Berry, who was taken at No.17 that year, he was coming to a club that had just finished 17th, with the supplements saga-ravaged Essendon the only team below them.

Brisbane draftees Jarrod Berry and Hugh McCluggage in front of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2016. Picture: AFL Photos

It had been seven years since a finals appearance, just three since the departure of the 'Go Home Five' and two since a change of CEO ushered in Greg Swann.

With huge debt and rundown training facilities, the Lions were in turmoil, floundering on and off the field.

Being his first foray into the AFL, McCluggage didn't know any different though as the club went about establishing a new culture.

"You hear a few things about what the club was like before you get here, and you watch a bit of media, and you see they're not going so well on the field firstly and off the field in a few different areas," McCluggage told

"Straight away there was a massive change, and it goes to show no matter where you're at, you can change things really quickly.

"We had a lot of good people here. We probably just didn't have the things in place to make sure we could get to a higher level as a club and team.

"Ever since then I've been involved in a club that's hard-working and has a growth mindset. Everyone wants to improve all the time."

That mindset was driven by Fagan.

Chris Fagan and the Brisbane players before their qualifying final against Port Adelaide at the Gabba on September 9, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

He's still the only senior coach McCluggage has had, and the 25-year-old recalls their early meetings and the belief Fagan installed in him.

Not only that, but Fagan was positive about the entire Lions' list, despite the difficult situation he walked into.

"I hadn't watched a whole lot of Brisbane footy," McCluggage said.

"Back home I never had Foxtel, so you never got a Brisbane game. They were always playing on a Sunday at 1.40 or 4.40.

"He filled me with confidence that with guys like Dayne Zorko, Ryan Lester, Harris Andrews, 'Richy' (Daniel Rich), 'Hippy' (Eric Hipwood), that we had a really solid group of people that were here that just hadn't been in the right environment to that point of their career.

"I believed him in that regard.

"I just had a lot of faith in him, he's a really down to earth guy. Everyone uses the term father figure, but it's true, he really took us under his arm, our group in particular, because we came at the same time as him, he obviously took a bit of a liking to us.

"I had confidence we could get to where we are, but I knew it was going to be a long road."


McCluggage and Berry were drafted from country Victoria, along with Alex Witherden and Cedric Cox, as the Lions went about rebuilding.

Twelve months later Cam Rayner, Zac Bailey, Brandon Starcevich and Jack Payne came on-board as a young nucleus was formed.

But McCluggage says it was the relationships further up the list that helped him settle the quickest.

In his first season at the club, it was brothers-in-law Zorko and Lester that helped the young guys settle best.

"It takes everyone a while to fit into a new group when you've got 40 guys to meet, it can be tough," he said.

"They'd lost a couple of guys in their golf group, so 'Bez' (Berry) and I slipped straight into that, and we were out at Brisbane Golf Club with them most Wednesdays.

"That's where you build that rapport and that relationship with those guys.

"They slowly started inviting us to lunches after that with the older guys and soon enough you're part of the group.

"We probably owe a fair bit to 'Zorks' and 'Frog' (Lester) for making that investment in us and inviting us to spend five hours with them on a Wednesday when they didn't have to do that.

"Those things are small, but they go a long way."

It's now McCluggage and Berry, among others, that have extended that hand to the likes of Jaxon Prior and Harry Sharp to help integrate them into the Lions' culture.

All the while those young players developed, with McCluggage making the All-Australian squad of 40 in four consecutive years without winning a jacket.


Brisbane added experienced pieces around their young talent, with Charlie Cameron, Lachie Neale, Joe Daniher and Josh Dunkley all making a huge difference.

But McCluggage says above all else it's the environment that has created the harmony and infrastructure to attract players, keep players and get the most out of a team that is now one win away from a flag.

"The one thing I've noticed that has changed the most is just the acceptance of everyone and every single personality," he said.

"You can see that from the outside, you've got all different personalities that get on really really well.

"There's not much more important than that in an organisation, I don't think."