New Lions coach Justin Leppitsch to call disgruntled players

Justin Leppitsch with Brisbane Lions Chairman Angus Johnson. Photo: Angela Wylie Angus Johnson has more on his mind than a new coach. Photo: Angela Wylie

Justin Leppitsch’s immediate priority as Brisbane’s new coach is to hit the phones to persuade the club’s band of disgruntled young players to stay at the club.

Leppitsch, 38 next week, was unveiled as the successor to Michael Voss – both were teammates during the Lions’ stunning triple-premiership stint just over a decade ago – in Melbourne on Wednesday morning. He said he was “very comfortable” in taking the position on a three-year contract, despite the turmoil engulfing the Lions’ board, centred on the tenure of chairman Angus Johnson.

“My job is to coach the team but I still understand within that you need a stable organisation and the club’s very aware of that – and that’s going to happen,” Leppitsch said. “Things will sort out, and we’ll strive to win this premiership.”

Johnson attended the unveiling but was steadfast in refusing to comment on the turmoil – which prompted the AFL to summon warring Lions directors to Melbourne for mediation – and whether he would be leading the club next season.

“The club made a statement yesterday – other than that [there is nothing more to say]. Today is about Justin Leppitsch,” Johnson said.

“We’re two years into a five-year strategic plan. That strategic plan has been embraced by all of our stakeholders, it’s been embraced by the AFL, our corporate sponsors. We’re achieving what we want to achieve – I’d say after two years we’re actually slightly ahead, and very confident with where the club is going, very very comfortable about where we are going to end up. Having Justin on board is going to ensure that we get there.”

Leppitsch has been recruited from Richmond, where he was the assistant coach in charge of defence. He was hailed by Johnson for his “outstanding references, experience, knowledge of the game and a desire to ensure he gets the absolute best out of everyone… players and staff”.

“It was an easy decision for the selection committee and the board… he’s just an outstanding individual. We couldn’t have hoped to get a better senior coach,” the chairman said of Leppitsch.

General manager of football operations Dean Warren, who chaired the coach selection committee, said Leppitsch’s status as a respected premiership defender for the Lions was not a key factor in his appointment but was instead “an added bonus”. He would not, however, detail how he thought Leppitsch would be superior to Voss, who was sacked late in the season.

“It’s an inappropriate question. Justin has been selected as our senior coach. Technically he’s very good, he’s an innovator of the game, understands what a competitive game plan looks like, has got very good presentation skills and can articulate his game plan,” Warren said.

Leppitsch confirmed his immediate priority was resolving the Lions’ “list issues”, and that he would contact out-of-contract players – Elliott Yeo, Patrick Karnezis, Jared Polec, Billy Longer, Sam Docherty, James Polkinghorne, Aaron Cornelius and also veteran Brent Staker – to sell his vision for the club.

“I’ll do that today, no doubt. It’s critically important we get started on that. I’d love to keep every one of the players, let’s be honest. They’re draft picks over the past few seasons and we need to get them on board. They’re a very important part of the future,” he said.

“I’ll do my very best to… present to them in a way that shows a very bright and clear future, and a pathway for them. I’m looking forward to starting and making those calls.”

While Leppitsch reiterated his goal to “keep the kids and ratify the issues they may have” he also said it was “more important for the club that we’re not in this position again, that we put parameters in place that our players want to stay and play for longer-term deals”.

Leppitsch did not give any clear indication on whether he wanted veterans Jonathan Brown and Simon Black, both former teammates of his, to play on in 2014. His only response was that it was crucial that any decision was made “in the right way”, and that if one or both were to depart if would have to be done “jointly and respectfully”.

The new coach also declined to say whether he would ask the Lions to pursue out-of-contract midfielder Dustin Martin, who he has worked with at Richmond.

“Obviously I know ‘Dusty’ well… I do have my views but I won’t share them here today,” he said.

“Every player is a package… you see that with what’s going on now at Collingwood with Heath Shaw.

“I won’t touch on Dustin’s particular issue, but… we have positives and negatives, or ticks and crosses. You have a lot of ticks and limited crosses [and you’re secure], or if they start evening up you may find your way out the door.”

Leppitsch said he would refrain from making “bold statements” regarding the timeframe for the Lions to be challenging for a premiership.

“I don’t think [first-year Port Adelaide coach] Ken Hinkley would have sat here last year and said ‘We’re going to play in the second week of finals’. Sometimes you get an immediate response, sometimes it takes a bit longer,” he said.

Leppitsch said he would demand competitiveness from his team, but also stressed the importance of creating a consistently enjoyable atmosphere for the players.

“If you don’t actually have fun along the journey you don’t perform, you’ll never actually enjoy turning up to training every day and giving your best. My goal really is to create an enjoyable working environment that… expects hard work,” he said.

Leppitsch also said he was not daunted by the requirement for him to not only coach the team but also promote the Lions in a region that also boasts rugby league, rugby union and soccer teams.

“I understand the Queensland marketplace. We don’t understand how good we’ve got it in Melbourne sometimes. In my time at Richmond you’ve not had to worry about building the game, but I understand that’s a very big component up there in Queensland,” he said.

Leppitsch said he was confident the board would give him sufficient money to properly equip the football depart. He said he has begun to his plan his panel of assistants, suggesting “a number of additions” could be made, but would not give any names as he admitted some were under contract.

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