Brisbane premiership star Nigel Lappin’s incredible 2003 Grand Final

Two cracked ribs, one punctured lung and a third premiership medal — Nigel Lappin’s journey to the 2003 Grand Final and his performance in it, has become the stuff of legend.

They are the stories that become legend.

The injuries that the stars of the competition roll the dice on when the stakes are at their highest.

Some fire, some backfire, as clubs and players go all-in for glory.

History is littered with shattered teams burdened by injured players. But many have run the gauntlet and got away with it.

As the AFL season hurtles into another finals series, Sam Edmund looks back at some of September’s greatest injury tales.

This is Gotta Play Hurt.

Nigel Lappin feels the pain of the contest against the Swans in the 2003 preliminary final.
Nigel Lappin feels the pain of the contest against the Swans in the 2003 preliminary final.
Nigel Lappin arriving at the in grand final week, 2003.
Nigel Lappin arriving at the in grand final week, 2003.

Claire Lappin has just brought the car to a stop outside the Gabba.

It is the Monday of 2003 Grand Final week and Claire is dropping her husband Nigel off at the club.

She is driving because Lappin has struggled to move in the 36 hours since copping a knee to the ribs in the last quarter of Saturday night’s preliminary final win over Sydney.

Brisbane Lions coach Leigh Matthews is watching his gun wingman — and he’s worried.

“He could hardly get out of the car, he was that sore,” Matthews says.

“I thought to myself, ‘Oh God’.”

Lappin’s teammate Shaun Hart had inadvertently cannoned into Lappin as he stood under a high ball at Stadium Australia, setting in motion an injury story for the ages.

Lappin walks gingerly into Lions headquarters on that Monday with two broken ribs and little chance of facing Collingwood in five days’ time.

A Lions medico attends to Lappin during the preliminary final.
A Lions medico attends to Lappin during the preliminary final.

“I sort of knew from my own experience with cracked ribs that you feel like you’re going to die for two or three days,” Matthews says.

“You can come good quickly, but that aside, he wouldn’t have come good as quick as he did without some medical help.”

There are few stories in footy as big as a star player with a serious injury in Grand Final week and the Lions are determined to keep Lappin’s race against time in the cone of silence.

The only problem is, Lappin’s teammate Jason Akermanis doesn’t do silence.

A routine midweek press conference becomes infamous when “Aka” drops the injury bombshell.

Matthews is so angry that he would later admit that he had Brownlow medallist Akermanis’ papers stamped.

“If we’d lost the 2003 Grand Final, “Aka” would never have played for the Lions again,’’ Matthews says.

“That’s how savage the reaction would have been — but we won it so you kind of move on.”

If time heals all wounds, Matthews this week has a softer take.

“Aka told the world Nige had cracked ribs, but anyone would have known to be honest,” he says.

“He wasn’t moving too well. For a couple of days he was really, really sore.

“The medical people consulted with the pain management specialists and they thought maybe we can deaden the pain sufficiently for him to play.”

Lappin is named and so is an anaesthetist, who is among the Lions’ travelling party with one job — give the midfielder the best chance to face the Pies.

Lappin was in trouble as soon as he came off in the prelim.
Lappin was in trouble as soon as he came off in the prelim.

Then, on the eve of the 2013 decider, Brisbane’s ho-hum captains run at the Albert Ground on St Kilda Road finishes with what Jonathan Brown describes as “the most brutal thing I’ve ever seen”.

“The fitness test is Leigh kicking the ball to Nigel (who) runs out and has to take the mark,” Brown says.

“One of the emergencies runs in from the side from 10m away and spear tackles him, not once, but over and over again.

“He had to take the mark in outstretched hands. Aaron Shattock was the hitter for want of a better word. He had to drill him with a tackle from the side in the rib cage.

“It was just so graphic and ‘Nige’ had to keep getting up and doing it over and over again.

“‘Lappo’ is so tough, he wouldn’t give in. They did it over and over again. He was in a lot of pain, but he wouldn’t give in. They probably would have done it 15-20 times.”

Matthews says: “It was physical. We all had to know if he could take the normal match day pounding and come out of it OK.”

Lappin tackles Lions teammate Aaron Shattock in a grand final eve training session — right in front of coach Leigh Matthews.
Lappin tackles Lions teammate Aaron Shattock in a grand final eve training session — right in front of coach Leigh Matthews.

But Lappin doesn’t come out of it OK. The ferocious fitness test has punctured his lung.

“He got through and he was probably worse off after it because it flared up again, but we had to know,” Matthews says.

On Grand Final morning, Lappin is taken to hospital on the way to the MCG where modern medicine plays its part.

But with only 45 minutes until the opening bounce the Lions are still unsure whether Lappin should play, even with the rib guard he’s been cleared to use.

By now, emergency Chris Scott is stripped to play. In 2003, teams could lodge their team sheet as late as 40 minutes before the first bounce. Now it’s 90 minutes.

“I feel like I was stretching just near Chris when Leigh walked over and tapped him on the shoulder and said: ‘Nige is playing, you’re not’,” Brown says.

“I remember being there and thinking, ‘F–k, it’s a brutal business’.”

Lappin is deployed in a different role, off a back-flank, and gathers 19 disposals in a serviceable performance that never looks like backfiring in the Lions’ 50-point smashing of Collingwood.

“He went out that day and played with two busted ribs and along with that, he was wondering why it was hard to breathe,” Brown says.

“He played the Grand Final with two busted ribs and a punctured lung from that fitness test.

“After the game he went straight to hospital and spent about three or four days in hospital to recover.”

Lappin declined the opportunity to look back on the 2003 Grand Final, having never been comfortable talking about himself.

But 16 years on, Matthews looks back on Lappin’s heroics as “an unbelievably courageous thing to do”.

“No one could tell him he was OK. He had to say whether he was or not,” Matthews says.

“There is a mental and physical aspect to these things. The mind over matter of a Grand Final or a big final, it’s the last game of the year and all that. It’s the one-day thing.

“Things might be done on that occasion, but no one would even think about doing it elsewhere because your mind wouldn’t allow it.”

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