FOR CRAIG McRae, involvement at the highest levels of football has always been about role play.
Identifying the role, embracing and executing the role, understanding that everyone in a football club has one.
As a highly gifted, 10-season player for the mighty Brisbane Lions, McRae played with, and was loved by, people who were in the process of becoming AFL greats. Michael Voss, Jason Akermanis and Simon Black racked up Brownlows, Norm Smiths, best-and-fairests, All-Australians, MVPs and Halls Of Fame. McRae was in the background. Playing his role. A beautifully skilled, hard-tackling, goalkicking forward. An actor the stars could trust to nail his lines in every scene.
In the 17 years which ensued, the role play continued as he worked in elite sets run by Mick Malthouse, Damien Hardwick and Alastair Clarkson all the way through to being just days from his first official outing in the biggest role of his sporting life.
The co-star, background, key cameo actor is now the headline act in the biggest gig in football. On Friday March 18, the 48-year-old McRae will be the 16th person to coach Collingwood in a VFL/AFL game.
"It's still not real, it feels quite surreal driving past this place, with its history, and with the coaches who have coached this footy club, and with all its history," McRae said.
In this interview on AFL.com.au, McRae wanted to talk about his players, not himself. That's how he has always been. Merely a cast member, never its lead act. But also as always, he understands the way the game works, particularly the media's interest in those in charge of football clubs, particularly this club and the iconic names before him.
"I'm not Bucks (Nathan Buckley)," he said. "It is (a different Collingwood), and not just because of me. The whole place is changing. There were many changes before myself. There are new coaches around, there is a new gameplan, I suppose it is a new era."
McRae qualified as a teacher while still playing with Brisbane, and loves that aspect of coaching. When he closed his playing career after the 2004 Grand Final, McRae had development coaching roles at Richmond and Brisbane, then in 2011-15, he was head of development at Collingwood. It was then back to Richmond as a key assistant and then head coach of the Tigers' VFL team, then a stint as an assistant at Hawthorn.
Matthews always told him to be himself, "because that is how I got to sit in this chair".
"I learnt so much at Richmond under Dimma (Hardwick) about system and game plan, and role players, and I mean, I'm sitting here today, and I was a role player for the Brisbane Lions for many years," McRae said.
"That was my responsibility as a player. We are going to be really clear on roles and responsibilities.
"And I just want to see continuous growth, I want to see us fighting for every opportunity, looking like winners even when the scoreboard is the other way. Leigh always said we are not a prediction industry, but we have goals and aspirations to get better. I would like to do our fans really proud, they come to watch us play and you know the players are giving great effort all the time and that we look really well connected."
Asked what he wanted to be known for as a coach, McRae said: "Yeah … be real. Be authentic. Be me. I like to deal in facts. A lot of media try to create stories, which is going to be interesting how that crosses over with the facts, but I just want to be myself. And however long this lasts, I want to be grateful for this opportunity. I'm never going to lose sight of that."
From his 2011-15 period as Magpies' head of development, McRae had already strong relationships with many key Collingwood players before being appointed coach. Scott Pendlebury, Jamie Elliott, Darcy Moore, Taylor Adams, Brodie Grundy, Steele Sidebottom, Jordan De Goey, Brayden Maynard and Jack Crisp were people well known to and by him. There's massive rapport with Mason Cox, a player he actually taught how to kick when he first arrived in late 2015.
"With Brodie, there are little things which are really clear to him," McRae said. "Keep a real focus, let him play to his strengths, and I'd love him to be that ruckman where you compete really well in the air but also be so supportive at ground level. I think that is the best version that I've seen of Brodie. We are being clear of what we want when the ball is not in his area. We need him to the best player he can be, and he got an opportunity to lead this team from that. He can influence a game from that role."
McRae on Moore: "He is an exceptional talent, and he is an exceptional human being. I think he can be such a great leader on and off the field for us. He is highly intelligent. He is game ready, he reads the game really well. He is going to be hard opponent to stop."
On De Goey: "He has stepped straight back, he is a good teammate. He has missed a couple of weeks with a slight injury. But to fit into the system. We don't need him to do more than his role, to fit in and be a great teammate. We just want Jordy to be the best version of himself and as we have said, just be a better version."
With so much change at Collingwood, including Scott Pendlebury's role from midfield to defence, one thing remains. Pendlebury will be captain for McRae's first year in charge, a ninth consecutive season with the official (c) beside that name.
And as McRae fine tunes his plans for that first game against the Saints and the 21 matches which follow, when he steps out in charge of the biggest club in the land, he does so knowing that he could not be more ready for the moment.
"This is my story, it is no-one else's journey," McRae said. "Everyone has got their own story to tell. I look back at, not strategically but somewhat being a little bit selective in, some of the decisions I made. I had opportunities to go from head of development to assistant, but I didn't think that was my journey at that time, so that longer journey to get here may have served me well. Time will tell."