DEFENCE was the centre of Melbourne's DNA in 2021, with a "special" backline group that challenged itself to be great at the start of the season and achieved it on Saturday night.

Led by lynchpins Steven May and Jake Lever, the Demon backline includes a collection of both experience and incredible youth that came together in a perfect way.

They are a tight-knit group that was already gathering for a photo on Optus Stadium when Max Gawn took to the stage to collect the premiership cup.

Plenty more followed in the rooms after a season as the game's best ranked defence, holding the Bulldogs to just three goals in the second half and taking their biggest scalp yet.   

"It means so much to us and we've built such a strong connection as a team within a team," May told  

"I'm so proud of each and every one of them with the amount of work they've put in this year and their drive to get better every session.

"Jake Lever and myself get spoken about a lot, but all of them are incredible and I'm so proud to be a part of that group."

Melbourne defensive coach Troy Chaplin instructs Alex Neal-Bullen during a training session on September 17, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

The Demons defenders have been coached "really hard" this season by assistant coach Troy Chaplin, whose students included seven-game premiership player Jake Bowey, second-year Demon Trent Rivers and unheralded shutdown player Harrison Petty.

He has got the best out of that young trio, as well as gun rebounder Christian Salem and the experienced Michael Hibberd.

The coach "saw something special" in the defenders and coached them to be great.

"You always see it as a team within a team, but this group is really special. They're a special group to me," Chaplin said.  

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"I love every single one of them. For 'Bowser' to come in and play in a flag in his seventh game, Rivers in his second year. Then the older boys, 'Mayesy' and 'Rick' (Lever) both came here and they walk away premiership players.

"But it's the way they've gone about it and that's what makes me so proud of them.

"They work their butts off day in and day out with purpose and they want to be great. They challenge each other to be great."

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The Demons have rewarded themselves for a special year but will want to go again, Chaplin said, and triumph again as the hunted.

"That's the drive of this group," he said.

"A lot of people wrote us off last year, but we knew inside the club that we were right where we needed to be.

"They've been the best defensive group all year."

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Melbourne's Steven May (left) and James Harmes celebrate victory in the 2021 Toyota AFL Grand Final. Picture: AFL Photos

Like Chaplin, Lever knew the Demons had the talent at their disposal to be great but said they needed to put it all together.

When the Bulldogs pulled 19 points clear early in the third quarter, he drew on the belief built this season.  


"The way we finish off games now and the way we train and believe in our game plan and ourselves, it is fantastic," Lever said.  

"It bloody did feel like they were coming, and I was getting a little bit nervous.

"But the belief we had, I spoke to the backs, and Mayesy spoke to the backs, and we just said, 'Boys we're doing so much right, we just need to get it back up the other end and the forwards will do the rest'."