AFL.com.au's chief football correspondent, Damian Barrett, will tackle footy's biggest issues and biggest personalities in an exclusive column every Tuesday. Today, Barrett speaks with Collingwood's premiership coach, Craig McRae
THE AFL's newest premiership coach, Craig McRae, doesn't intend staying in his profession forever.
Certainly not 15 years, maybe not even five.
Contracted until the end of 2026, McRae this week revealed to AFL.com.au he was "not thinking long-term with this".
"No," he said when asked if he saw himself coaching in 15 years.
Five? "Not sure. I am deliberate in saying that, because I know this is not forever and I am really conscious of that. I'm not going to put a ceiling on it but also I am a realist. When I stepped in, I don't know if you remember my first interviews? I am pumped to be here, I am, but I know it is not forever. I am really conscious to sit in it and appreciate the opportunity I've been given. But I'm not thinking long-term with this.
"I've got three years (on a contract), and every moment will be to assess what is important in my life, and the job I'm doing. The wins and losses will decide most things. Very rarely you get to write your own script to go out of this. I just don't think things are forever. I'm not thinking that way, anyway."
McRae's transparency about his own future comes four and a half months after he led Collingwood to the 2023 Grand Final win against Brisbane, which followed a heartbreaking preliminary final finish in 2022.
After 17 seasons as an assistant coach in the AFL system, McRae's two seasons as a senior coach – shaped by his mantra of risk-taking, exciting, fun football – have produced 38 wins from 51 matches, including wins by seven, one and four points in three finals last year.
In the days leading into his first season in charge two years ago, a relatively unknown and apprehensive McRae said it was "surreal" he had been given a chance to lead Australia's biggest club.
In the days leading into his third season, he is again in fantasy mode, this time because of the two words that will forever follow his name – premiership coach.
"That bit hasn't sunk in, that bit doesn't seem real," McRae said. "I don't know when it will. To think that Leigh (Matthews) and Mick (Malthouse) are the last premiership coaches of this footy club, and where my mind takes me when I think of those two personalities in particular, it doesn't seem right that this little guy from O'Sullivan Beach (a small seaside suburb south of Adelaide) is now there. I don't know when that will feel normal. It may never."
McRae's ideal world is one where few people know who he is. No limelight, a type of life he was able to live before late 2021.
As a brilliantly skilled and hard-tackling forward for Brisbane for 10 seasons from 1995, he was able to blend into a premiership-winning dynasty, ecstatic that Vossy, Aker, Lethal, Blacky and Browny were the focus of most fanfare. After playing retirement, he worked without profile beneath icons Matthews, Malthouse, Damien Hardwick and Alastair Clarkson.
Rock star status has descended, though, in the 126 days which have followed Collingwood's four-point win against the Lions on September 30 last year.
"Yeah, it has changed my life, considerably – I am not used to the accolades or attention, the photos, the recognition, it is something I've never had, and is taking some getting used to," McRae said.
"(And) the joy brought to so many people, I couldn't envisage that, no chance. I nod with you (on that) because I have been lucky enough to hear the stories of people we have touched.
"The storytelling of the wins and the joy that that the premiership has brought and what it meant to so many people, I will never lose sight of that. It's incredible, no way in the world could you have forecast it."
After qualifying for the Grand Final with a one-point win against GWS in last year's preliminary final, September 30 – AFL Grand Final day, 2023 – loomed as one of the biggest moments of his life.
Unbeknown to all bar a select trusted few, a far bigger moment for McRae was already in his diary for that day. Wife Gabrielle was due to give birth. At 7.45am, Maggie was born. At 2.30pm the Grand Final started. Somehow, McRae was present – physically and more importantly, emotionally – for both moments.
"Aah, September 30, 2023 … our lives changed forever," McRae said. "My wife's and my life completely changed. The joy of birth and then the Collingwood premiership. It has taken us in a different direction. I didn't get to go home (between Maggie's birth and the Grand Final), there wasn't time. But I had a sense of calmness. The joy of having the birth of your child, nothing compares.
"And I don't want to sound trivial here, but the Grand Final is nothing, really, compared to that, and the winning and losing … this is forever. I had a good sense of perspective on that … I honestly, and my wife will hate me saying this, but I didn't find it that hard. I found it relatively easy. She did all the work, let's be clear.
"Stay in the moment, and worry what's next. It's good and bad, it helps me in a lot of things, and on this occasion, it helped. I enjoyed it. Can we do that again, somehow? Maybe not the birth, that was a bit much. How do you create those moments in your life where they are just so significant and joyful? It's enthralling; really, really special for our family. Four months now. The Collingwood coaching is this much of my life, and fatherhood is going to be everything. I've got great perspective. Fatherhood and being a good husband are important to me."
In a text exchange to confirm a piece of background information after the interview with AFL.com.au, McRae, 50, said "I love my humble beginnings" when referring to his place of youth, O'Sullivan Beach.
O'Sullivan Beach was the origin for his unique story, or journey as he regularly refers to it, before playing stints at Glenelg and the Brisbane Bears, who became the Lions in his third AFL season, and prior to his assistant coaching stints at Brisbane, Richmond and Hawthorn.
Those humble beginnings, and everything he has crammed in since, mean that talking openly about his life, including the uncertainty around his coaching tenure, is no big deal to him.
"I will keep reassessing things (in my life), what it means to my family … the cost-reward is something I will manage," he said.
"I don't know if I am making big headlines here, because I don't mean to. I'm thinking about the birth of my child only (on Grand Final day last year), and then going to the Grand Final. That's how I think. I don't want to forecast too far ahead. That's not how I live."
At every step of his life, McRae has made sure to thank those who helped him. For his two seasons as a player at Glenelg in 1993-94, before Matthews and Malthouse were to enter his journey, it was Mark Williams. "'Choco' believed in me before I did, and so I never forget that," McRae volunteered out of nowhere at one stage.
McRae believes in his players like Williams and Matthews did in him. He taught Mason Cox how to kick a Sherrin after he arrived from the United States, and coached him to a premiership last year. He gave Oleg Markov a place on an AFL list a year ago when he was football-club homeless.
"Give people opportunities and keep backing them in and see what you get," McRae said.
"I only said to Oleg yesterday how proud I am of his story. He put some flowers on my desk. You would be so proud of him if you are connected to him. And I don't want to wait five years, 10 years, to be old and grey, or more grey, because the moment could be gone. Right now, it is incredible, let's appreciate it. Don't forget how far you've come, young fella."
The flowers gifted to him by Markov were sitting on McRae's desk this day, near his computer screen and notepad, next to a wall adorned by images of Matthews and Malthouse.
"I'm trying to make sure I live in the moment and cherish this," McRae said. "Those things are important. Stay in the moment. Smell the roses."