HUGH McCluggage's place among the AFL's best is assured but Brisbane's new vice-captain is only looking to get better.

Ahead of the Lions' clash with Melbourne on Friday night, the star midfielder joins Cal Twomey in Cal's Q&A to discuss the club's round one result, his ascent to a leadership role, the difference between today's draftees and when he was selected, his recent trip to Nepal and why he's a reluctant piano man.

Obvious question first up: what happened on the weekend against Port Adelaide?
It obviously wasn't the way we wanted to start the year, we had some pretty solid form in the practice matches and coming into round one were a step off. It probably wasn't us but at the same time we take nothing away from what Port Adelaide did. They're going to be a really good side, they were quicker than us, they were more switched on and we were really disappointed by it but we think it's an outlier.

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How do the premiership hopes sit on the group this year? Is there a weight attached to it?
We embrace the fact we've been able to get in some really good players and we're seen as a team that can challenge for the premiership. I don't think the year's a waste if you don't win it. That's obviously the ultimate goal for every single team but we've seen plenty of teams that have had to bide their time at the top, you just have to look at Geelong last year. They made prelims and finals year after year for seven, eight, nine years before they eventually tasted success. While we don't want to have to wait that long we just have to stay consistent in what we do and keep trusting that we have the right people in the right positions.

You start this year in a different position as well as vice-captain at the Lions. Had a leadership role always been on your radar?
When I first got to the club it was a long way off. As you probably know, I was a quiet kid and I just liked to get stuck into things and let my actions do the talking. The thing that I'm most proud of is I haven't had to change who I am to get to this position. I've just gone about my business and tried to be a good person first and foremost. I probably didn't think I'd be vice-captain by the time I was 24/25 but I'm super proud of it.


You say 'quiet kid'... We went to America for the AFL Academy in your draft year back in 2016 and I can't remember you saying too much on that trip.
That was actually my first trip with the Academy and coming from a smaller town and not knowing too many of the boys was pretty daunting. In hindsight I wish I had have come out of my shell a little bit earlier but it's easy to say now that you're looking back. I remember Mick Ablett, who was a coach then, telling me I needed to come out of my shell and give people a little bit more because he thought I had a bit to offer. Little pieces of advice like that along the way have helped to shape who I am now.

There was an interview process as part of the leadership decisions. How did you fare with that?
It was an amazing experience. We had to nominate to take part in that process. We had 'Fages' (coach Chris Fagan), our chairman Andrew Wellington, (CEO) Greg Swann and a couple of other figures at the club who were a part of our leadership process sitting in on that interview. They asked a series of questions to us – along the lines of what leader we saw ourselves as and what we'd each bring that's different to everyone else. I just tried to be who I am. It was a great process and not just for now but also into the future when AFL footy stops and you go into the real world and you might have to go through that process for another job.

Where do you want to take your game further this season – what's your next step?
Playing a little bit more inside and being able to win my own footy a bit more. I probably showed glimpses of that in the practice matches but then on the weekend I went away from my strengths as a player in hunting and following up and going contest to contest with my work rate. I want to be able to win my own ball but at the same time want to recognise when I might be able to push forward and play there or on a wing.

What have you done to the All-Australian selectors? You've been in the squad of 40 the last four years without getting a nod in the final 22.
To be honest, I still think personally I have more improvement left in me and a little bit of a way to go to get to that really top level of players in the competition. Because of that, I actually haven't been too disappointed. Obviously it is a nice recognition if you are to make the team but I look at the players in there and they're all amazing players. It's something to strive for, as is the fact we haven't been able to take that final step yet as a team. Individually you are proud of those accolades if they come along but at the same time it's not my No.1 priority at all. Winning a premiership is what you play footy for and what would be most memorable.

Hugh McCluggage tackles Xavier Duursma during Brisbane's loss to Port Adelaide in round one, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos


There's been so much discussion on the new recruits. Give us a word on each of them. Josh Dunkley?

Jack Gunston?

Conor McKenna?

Will Ashcroft?

Will lived with you a little bit last year when he trained with the Lions. How was that and how have you seen him develop since then?
When he came to live with me he blew me away how professional he was, and everyone has spoken about that. He's an extremely level-headed kid. He was probably trying to find his feet in those couple of weeks he was up here then and he did his work whereas when you're drafted you have to come out of your shell a bit more and he's been able to do that. He's having a laugh around the club and enjoying the company of the boys. I've seen a development in the way he's been interacting with all the players already. He brings a lot of value to our club as a player and person, as do all the recruits we've got and I think he's just going to keep improving.

Brisbane teammates celebrate a Will Ashcroft goal in the round one clash between Port Adelaide and Brisbane at the Adelaide Oval on March 18, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

I heard you speak about him looping up a handball to himself over a teammate in a drill recently, and I've seen him do that before at under-18 level. You were a pick No.3 in your draft year – how would you compare yourself to Will at the same age?
When he did that handball, I said 'Mate, what were you thinking then? How'd you do that?' and he said 'Oh, just playing on instinct' but I had a feeling he'd probably done that before and practised it because that's the way he is. The kids coming in these days are so readymade and you can tell they've done the work. They have this confidence that they can go out there against AFL footballers and play well and he's no different to that. I look back to when I came in and I was probably running around like a headless chook trying to impact the game with a light frame.

You were right in the mix for Essendon's No.1 pick that year. At the time how desperate were you to be the top pick?
I was probably a little bit different. Everything happened so quickly for me in my draft year that I never really thought about the fact I could go in the draft, let alone that high. By the time it came around I was just pumped to be going anywhere. I don't think anything would have changed if it had have been pick one, two, three or later down the draft. There's a lot more media around the draft now and a lot more pressure as well so that probably drives the motivation to be the best player in the class and go No.1.


You arrived at Brisbane that year in 2016 and Chris Fagan had just come on board as coach. How did you feel about leaving home and heading to Queensland?
There were a few nerves and the unknown about what the environment would be like. I came in the same time as Fages and he was able to imprint really good values on the place at an early stage and so was David Noble, he was terrific for us in that period of time. It's always hard leaving home but I'd been to Ballarat for school at Clarendon College which made it easier and I was moving up with Jarrod Berry, who was a good mate of mine. I don't think I could have been any more ready or well set up for the move, to be honest. Probably mum and dad were the ones affected the most. You get picked up and then you're on a plane five hours away from home but they've adapted really well.

Were you confident you'd stay as long as you have? You hit free agency next year, do you see yourself staying up there forever?
At the start you come in and want to suss out the environment and Fages was really quick to put in place a leadership program and good people in and around the club. I knew from an early stage it was a place I wanted to be. Ever since then we've kept improving on and off the field and I'm really settled here at the minute. I'm really loving playing footy here and I've got a really close group of mates in the playing group. My life is pretty settled up in Brisbane, so I couldn’t be happier at the moment.

Do you go back and get your hands dirty at the family dairy in the off-season? I've been out to your place down Warrnambool way and you had the gloves on that day helping out milking the cows.
It's probably dropped off as time's gone on and dad just enjoys spending time with me when I'm at home. We've actually been getting out and doing other stuff together and going on a few trips – golf, fishing, all this sort of stuff that I didn't get as much time to do when I was younger. On Christmas Day you can never find workers so we'll get in the dairy milking the cows a couple of times. We have our Chrissy lunch and then have to leave the backyard cricket and head over to the dairy for a couple of hours just to put them through. I actually quite enjoy that because myself, my brother and dad and mum and my sister all get in there and it's like the good old times.


It's a long way from Nepal, where you spent some time in the off-season. Tell us why you headed over there.
At the midway point of last season I was sitting with our careers advisor and I wasn't doing much off-field and I just wanted to try something completely different. My interests were in helping people and that led to the World Youth International charity, who are partners with the club. They run a nurses in action program over in Kenya and Nepal and also have a school over in Nepal. They said 'Why don't you come over and we'll work out something for you to do in the off-season?' We were able to put together a fundraising appeal to donate some sporting and music equipment and ended up getting $30,000 which I was amazed about. I went over there and presented them with that and did a week and a half of teaching and playing cricket and soccer in the afternoons which was amazing fun.

You were also teaching some of the students how to play piano, which has been a part of your life as well. When did you start that?
Growing up my grandparents always played it and mum and dad got me into lessons early on, which I absolutely hated. To be honest I hated it through all my schooling – I'd always try and hide the fact I was off to play piano and do music lessons and they'd say 'stick at it, it's always good to have something other than sport in your life that you can go back to'. I'm so glad I did it now. I don't really play for other people that much, it's more so something I do to get away and relax when I'm at home.

On a finishing note then, what's your favourite song to play?
Maybe the main theme from Toy Story, I can belt that out. It's always a bit of a favourite. Or Chariots of Fire, that's quite easy as well. Every time there's a piano in a meeting room or on a trip we do the boys always try to get me to jump on but I'm a little bit hesitant most times.