Brereton was and is an utterly Hawthorn figure after five premierships. But he started his football life a Collingwood fan and ended it a Collingwood player.
On this day, indeed in his year as a Magpie, he was influential in the moulding of one of the game’s under-rated stars. Sav Rocca.
Rocca kicked nine that Anzac Day.
Brereton recently re-commentated the drawn first Anzac Day game for Fox. It will be shown on Saturday. “It struck me how watchable and how exciting the game was from 1995,” he said. “Sav was fantastic. Looking back neither team had a win but the two best players on the ground were Collingwood players – Sav and Nathan Buckley. Buckley was extraordinary that day.” Rocca kicked nine but Buckley got the three Brownlow votes. Rocca got two. For the record Ricky Olarenshaw got one. Rocca did, though, win the first Anzac Medal.
“I knew Sav was a good player I had forgotten how good, he was better than a good player,” Brereton said.
“His size, he was built to play full-forward to lead at the ball, mark it and kick goals. He was a beautiful kick. At the time he just needed to know how to turn an eight- or nine-possession game into a 12 or 13-possession game and get a few cheapies.”
Brereton was brought in by Leigh Matthews, in part to teach him how to find those cheapies, but also how to own the position and not be cowed by the bluster of full-backs.
“Leigh [Matthews] said to me in the time leading up to me being drafted. His exact words were, ‘We are a bit young, but in the backline I have Christian and Kelly and they can teach the younger blokes and in the middle I’ve got Brown and Buckley and McGuane but we are headless up forward, we have this young kid Sav Rocca but some of the leading full-backs put it over him and bluffed him out of it’. He needed someone to help him,” Brereton recalled.
“People would get confused with Sav and misunderstand confidence with fear. There was not one ounce of scared in him. He was just a nice well-groomed, well-mannered well-cared-for Italian boy whose mum probably cooked him dinner every night of his life. He didn’t think anyone was his enemy.
“Blokes like Mick Martyn will just put it over him and huff and puff and intimidate him out of it.”
Brereton, the archetype of an alpha forward, offered Rocca a lesson in how to call out the bully the night Collingwood played North Melbourne. Martyn was in the goal square before the first siren when the Collingwood forwards approached. Rocca had kicked 10 the week before against the Crows and as Brereton puts it, Martyn was waiting like a gunslinger for Rocca and eyeballing him.
An all-in brawl broke out before the first bounce. Brereton had Martyn in a choke hold on the ground. Martyn had wanted to give Rocca a lesson. So did Brereton.
“Sav just needed to see that the big bad wolf could have his head knocked off and get pushed around too,” Brereton said.
“We lost that night I think but Sav kicked four or five and broke the mould of what he had been.
“Yes, [that year] I would give him instructions and point where to go but the worst thing is if you are a 30-year-old and you give them instructions and they don’t carry them out.
“The relief I felt on Anzac Day was him kicking the goals, because if I block a couple of times and he gets it and doesn’t kick it. The relief I felt was he was able to take those marks and kick those goals.”
Rocca began that season in the VFL. He finished it winning the Copeland Trophy in a team that had Nathan Buckley, Gavin Brown, Graham Wright, Scott Burns and Mick McGuane.
“I didn’t play a great game, there were other circumstances surrounding that with my daughter being born,” Brereton said.
“I probably should not have played – I was listless and was pretty ordinary – but I am glad I did. It was an amazing game of football.”
Michael Gleeson is an award-winning senior sports writer specialising in AFL and athletics.