A GREAT coach can get a hunch on a player and see that person in a different role that no one else has envisaged.
A move seemingly with no rhyme or reason can change a game, and sometimes it changes the entire direction of a player’s career, and that of his club.
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John Cahill's mid-1977 hunch about his teenage half-forward flanker found him the centrepiece of eight of his 10 premierships as coach of Port Adelaide, and has delivered Greg Phillips into the Australian Football Hall of Fame.
Phillips enters the Hall of Fame as the dominant South Australian key defender of his era, playing 343 games for his beloved Magpies between 1976-93, as well as a four-year stint with Collingwood between 1983-86 for a further 84 VFL games. Another 20 appearances for SA as an automatic state selection puts his senior game tally at 447.
Always a Magpie, wherever he went.
Port was a lesser team during his absence over the border and nigh unstoppable when Phillips patrolled centre half-back across the suburbs of Adelaide, claiming eight flags in all in 1977, ‘79-81, ‘88-90 and 1992, the last as captain.
Debuting early in the 1976 season a month after turning 17, Phillips began his SANFL career as a forward and occasional ruck-rover. Despite his youth, he was more than serviceable and held his position all year, appearing on Grand Final day when the hot-favourite Magpies were taken apart by Sturt champion Rick Davies.
As Phillips’ career headed into year two in 1977, Cahill would spend hours fretting on the best version of a jigsaw puzzle to construct his side, searching to end a 12-year flag drought that had seen the club lose its past six Grand Finals.
The Magpies had talent but successive finishes of third, third and second needed something to change to take that last, biggest step of all.
"For whatever reason, I’m not sure why, I just felt that Greg could be a key defender and that Tim Evans, who we recruited from Geelong as a centre-half back, could be a full forward," Cahill remembers.
Like most junior stars, Phillips was always on-ball or key forward in his younger years, and had never seen the defensive end of the ground, but Cahill says the leadership of the young tyro was evident when he accepted his coach’s call without question.
"I’d been thinking about it for a couple of weeks and one week midway through the season we just made the change because I decided I had to back what I was thinking and find out if I was right or wrong," Cahill says.
"For the rest of my time coaching Greg across the next 15-16 years, both in Adelaide and Victoria, I never once had to think about his position again. We just wrote his name down at centre half-back every time we had match committee."
For a big defender who played around 100kg, he was agile and simply didn’t fumble at ground level. In the air, he was the perfect mix of the discipline to always punch when behind, and the strength and reliability to mark when in front. He was tactically astute when he saw the game, and ran the defence virtually from day one.
Once Phillips was ensconced, Cahill re-jigged his entire line-up around his bulwark.
"When I played with Port Adelaide from the late 1950s through to the mid 1970s, we were very dour and very tough as a defensive unit, but we didn’t have a lot of flair," Cahill says.
"Once I had Greg controlling defence, we started to put a lot of quick, attacking outside players around him at half-back and the back pockets, because we knew Greg would usually get the ball or create a contest, and we would be away and create our run to attack."
Four flags followed in the next five years and, after returning from his stint in Victoria, he added a matching set of four more flags in the second half of his career at Alberton.
While he loved his time in Victoria, making life-long friends with a number of the Collingwood contingent, the club was struggling to keep pace with the better sides and Phillips yearned for success again with Port. On the home front, three young daughters approaching school age made it an easy decision to return to Adelaide, enabling extra family support for wife Julie.
Phillips was also the glue off the field wherever he went -- the contagious laugh, the quick line, the practical joke or the ice-breaker when required across a long season.
Phillips and Cahill were inextricably linked and the big man says the Hall of Fame coach is why he joins him as Port’s latest inductee.
"John backed me every day of my career as a Port Adelaide footballer," Phillips says.
"John made every player believe in himself to be the best we could be, and he was relentlessly positive about what we could achieve whenever we played.
"His constant message was about making those on the ground around you proud of your role for the team and representing your family and friends off the ground to always deliver your best effort."
In return, Cahill is happy to tell the world that his own induction as a coach a number of years back was in no small part due to Phillips’ dominance in the back half of the ground.
"I personally think it is overdue for Greg, but it’s tough to get into the Hall of Fame because they only accept great players, and Greg is a great player," says Cahill.
Greg Phillips played in eight premierships and each is special in its own way.
Premiership No.1: 1977 – 17.11.113 def Glenelg 16.9.105
The flag was Port’s first since 1965, the longest drought in club history to that point, and followed six Grand Final losses. Phillips was 18 years old.
PHILLIPS: "I just remember the joy on the people’s faces, particularly the older ones, that we’d won a flag again after a down period. A tough, hard high-scoring game that was never won until the closing moments, and we overcame a lot of adversity with injury that day."
Premiership No.2: 1979 – 9.9.63 def South Adelaide 3.14.32
A cold, wet blustery day where every goal was scored to the one end. Phillips dominated centre half-back with a supreme defensive effort.
PHILLIPS: "Not a game you would ever watch again for any highlights. We had to try and score as much as we could with the wind and then do everything possible to stall and run time down when we were against the wind. Knock it out, stop play, do the little things all day. It was a hard, hard way to get a win, so it was very satisfying."
Premiership No.3: 1980 – 11.15.81 def Norwood 9.9.63
At that time, the 1980 Port outfit was the highest-scoring team in SANFL history and perhaps the best post-war team the SANFL has seen, with just two losses across the season.
PHILLIPS: "We were stacked with talent that year and were dominant. In the Grand Final, we were up against the traditional rival and they made it so hard all day. We only got them right at the end to break away. A fantastic game."
Premiership No.4: 1981 – 14.11.95 def Glenelg 6.8.44
The Magpies blew the game apart in the opening 20 minutes, surging to a five-goal lead.
PHILLIPS: "Halfway through the year, a 17-year-old Craig Bradley comes into the senior side and you know immediately he would be an all-time great, with the skills and the commitment he had. He kicked three goals in that grand final as a boy, the most of any player for the match, and he’s the overwhelming memory of that game and that season."
Premiership No.5: 1988 – 12.12.84 def Glenelg 8.7.55
Trailing at the first break by three goals, the Magpies storm over Glenelg, yet again.
PHILLIPS: "After being in Victoria, this is a new team with just myself and Bruce Abernethy left from the 1981 premiership. It was the start of success for a whole new crop of outstanding Port players."
Premiership No.6: 1989 – 15.18.108 def North Adelaide 1.18.14
Port Adelaide lost its last two minor round games, among just four losses for the year, to surrender top spot to the Roosters. Dominance was emphatically re-asserted with wins over North in the second semi-final and Grand Final.
PHILLIPS: "On some lucky days in a game, you just feel really early that it’s your day and that you will win that day. That was a day when everything was going right for us immediately, we were incredibly strong in defence and we dominated that game."
Premiership No.7: 1990 – 16.12.108 def Glenelg 13.15.93
Another Magpies-Bays encounter that is infamous for several reasons, most particularly Port’s attempts to enter the AFL and the court case run against them by the rest of the competition. An SANFL post-match tradition of the Grand Final captains and coaches heading into the opposite rooms was ended after this year when Glenelg coach Graham Cornes told the Port rooms that the competition SA knew was being ended by the club’s efforts to break away, and Magpie runner David Arnfield heckled him while some players told him to respect the presence of the losing coach.
PHILLIPS: "We had the world against us that year with everything going on off-field, and the post-match stuff in the rooms was pretty controversial at the time. We had lost the second semi to Glenelg, so we were the underdogs on the day, which made it special. On the field, the big memory is Gavin Wanganeen as part of our premiership at 17. Like Bradley, you knew immediately he would be an all-time great. I tell young people I got to play with him for one year."
Premiership No.8: 1992 – 17.3.105 def Glenelg 7.7.49
A fifth Grand Final against Glenelg for a 5-0 return, this time with Phillips as captain of the Magpies. Seven-year-old daughter Erin joined her dad on the ground for the lap with the premiership cup.
PHILLIPS: "It was a great honour to be captain for a premiership side. Nathan Buckley was our dominant player as a young guy in his first full season. Bradley, Wanganeen and Buckley were all incredibly gifted young players. Buckley was always going to be a great player because he was so committed to improving at every single thing he did that related to his football – skills, preparation, fitness. He wanted to be the best at everything."
Greg Phillips by the numbers
Played 343 games and scored 93 goals for Port Adelaide: 1976-1982, 1987-1993
Played 84 games and scored 12 goals for Collingwood: 1983-1986
Eight-time SANFL Premiership player: 1977, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1992
Port Adelaide captain: 1991-1993
Port Adelaide Best & Fairest: 1988
All Australian: 1980
Played 20 State games for SA: 1978 – 1990
Fos Williams Medallist: 1982
Centre half-back in Port Adelaide’s ‘Greatest Team’ (1870 – 2000)
Inducted into the SANFL Hall of Fame in 2002
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