Brisbane has defeated Adelaide by 18 points in the 2021 AFLW Grand Final.

A crowd of 22,934 people watched the Brisbane Lions claim the AFLW premiership cup on Saturday afternoon, as the Crows lost an enthralling Grand Final at Adelaide Oval.

The first half was a veritable arm-wrestle, with the margin never exceeding six points in either direction. Courtney Hodder delivered Brisbane the opening goal, before majors from Stevie-Lee Thompson and Danielle Ponter handed Adelaide the lead. Hodder fired again to level the scores, and after Adelaide superstar Erin Phillips missed for a behind, Jess Wuetschner took her opportunity to put the Lions five points ahead at the main break.

The Grand Final, which had theretofore been a close contest, was dominated by the Lions thereafter. Brisbane’s lead was extended to 10 points through yet another Wuetschner goal, to 16 points by way of a Lauren Arnell major, then to 22 points when Isabel Dawes chimed in late in the third quarter.

The Crows, left with the task of pulling off the equal-largest comeback in AFLW history, gathered around injured captain Chelsea Randall at the last break, desperate for inspiration. But despite a quick goal from Eloise Jones, the Crows otherwise failed to threaten Brisbane’s lead in the final term, as the Lions skillfully repelled a deluge of entries into Adelaide’s forward 50. Ultimately, the Lions prevailed, 6.2 (38) to 3.2 (20) after a low-scoring final quarter.

Brisbane’s five-year journey to its first AFLW premiership was a capricious one, to say the least.

The Lions surprised pundits in the league’s inaugural season, demonstrating the incredible talent that had emerged in the non-traditional football state of Queensland as they claimed top spot on the ladder after going through the home-and-away season without a loss. But the Lions’ unbeaten streak came to an end in the 2017 Grand Final, when they fell six points short of the Crows at Carrara Stadium. For the Lions, the premiership was lost, but a rivalry was born.

Brisbane qualified for the Grand Final once again in 2018, and once again lost by just six points. The heartbreak of the previous year increased twofold as the devastated Lions watched the Bulldogs lift the premiership cup at Princes Park. Then came the expansion club signing period, which saw the Lions lose Kaitlyn Ashmore, Jamie Stanton, Tahlia Randall and Brittany Gibson to the newly-active Kangaroos. It was a sour blow to an already dejected Brisbane side.

In 2019, the Lions lost their way, finishing the season with just two wins and in terrible form. The impending admission of Gold Coast – and three other clubs – into the league painted a bleak picture of the Lions’ future. Another pillaging of Brisbane’s squad was anticipated, and it eventuated on an astonishing scale. Sam Virgo, Leah Kaslar, Lauren Bella, Tori Groves-Little, Paige Parker, Jacqui Yorston and Emma Pittman departed for the Suns; Nat Exon and Kate McCarthy went to St Kilda; Sabrina Frederick and McKenzie Dowrick were traded to Richmond and West Coast respectively. The Lions had been torn apart, in what was supposed to be the final nail in the coffin of the side’s premiership hopes.

Yet Brisbane’s stint at rock bottom was short-lived. In 2020, the Lions exceeded expectations with a surprisingly adequate season that ultimately earned the side a finals berth. Brisbane’s season came to an end after three consecutive losses, the last of which occurred in a semi final against Carlton, but there were positive signs along the way. Although they had not yet returned to their pre-expansion dominance, the worst that could be said about the rebuilding Lions was that they were merely middle-of-the-road.

Along came the 2021 season, and the Lions began with three convincing wins. Brisbane defeated the Tigers by 29 points in round one, held Gold Coast to a record low score in a 63-point round two victory, and registered a 45-point win over West Coast in round three. But after three wins against mediocre opponents, Brisbane’s first real test came in round four, with a clash against the reigning premiers. In the first quarter, Adelaide jumped out to a 17-point lead, a deficit from which the Lions never fully recovered, but Brisbane’s competitive performance after quarter time proved that the Lions could go toe-to-toe with the best.

In the four weeks that followed, Brisbane recorded four impressive victories. In round five, the Lions travelled to Perth to defeat a Fremantle side that had not lost a game since 2019. A 38-point victory against the Giants in round six was followed by a win over Collingwood in difficult circumstances, with the game against the Magpies suddenly moved from Brisbane to Melbourne due to pandemic-related restrictions. In the final two rounds, the Lions comfortably defeated the Kangaroos and fell just two points short of the Demons.

Brisbane had done enough to finish in the top two, advancing straight to the preliminary finals, where the Lions overcame the Magpies once more. Such was Brisbane’s dominance, it was easy to forget that the Lions had ever been as weak as they once were. Brisbane had quietly transformed its list, developing new local players to replace those it had lost; its resurgence fueled by sheer resilience. To qualify for the Grand Final, so soon after losing so many players to other clubs, was a tremendous achievement – but there was one more obstacle to overcome.

It was fitting, in a way, that Brisbane’s Grand Final opponent would be Adelaide. Since that historic day in 2017, a fierce rivalry had been brewing. Although the Lions held a winning record over the Crows, the narrative favoured Adelaide. How could it not? Adelaide had played in four finals and won them all; the Lions had played three finals and lost each time. In knockout matches, the Crows knew how to prevail when it mattered, and in diametric contrast, the Lions held a reputation for the exact opposite.

But that reputation exists no more – and this may be the sweetest aspect of Brisbane’s incredible Grand Final triumph. Having overcome the loss of so many players, the descent to mediocrity and the chaos of COVID-19, a reconstructed Brisbane side did the one thing that its prototype failed to do: win a premiership.