IT’S THE CROWS BROS
NICK Franc is standing out the back of his Beaufort farmhouse, 30km off the highway to Ballarat, explaining how the Crouch brothers got to be so bloody good. Talking backbone and bush toughness when, right on cue, another icy blast of spring rain blows in from the west. “See, Central Highlands footy – when you’re playing in weather like this, it’s not open, free-flowing footy,” says Franc, a member of Beaufort’s 1996 and most recent senior premiership side. “They’re heavy grounds, small grounds around here – spud fields, a lot of ’em, with that red mud you get in winter. “So she’s hard, contested footy. There’s nowhere to hide. “And those kids – even as 16year-olds playing senior footy against men – they never took a backwards step.” Which is why the Sunday Mail is here in Beaufort, a former goldfields town in Victoria’s west – and home to 800 people, two pubs and a single set of traffic lights – to discover how life chiselled out Adelaide’s boom midfield duo, brothers Matt and Brad Crouch. Because Beaufort, folklore says, is where this young Crows pair – helping spearhead Adelaide’s push towards a first grand final appearance in 19 years – learnt their footy. Where, from the late 1990s, two tackers aged just 15 months apart – and dressed head-to-toe in the red, blue and gold of the Beaufort Crows – would shadow their dad, Phil, a teacher at the town’s high school, as he coached the local footy team. And where, barely seven years ago, each had their first taste of senior football as teenagers, playing in the same Crows colours they would carry into their AFL careers.
“But they’ve never actually lived here in Beaufort,” says Phil, currently serving as the club’s football manager.
“I teach at the school here but we’ve always lived in Ballarat, so that’s where the boys played all their junior footy.
“They grew up around the footy club with me, so they’d come along and ask me for money to buy a Coke and pie at the canteen, they’d have their footy with them, and away they went.
“We’re not really big on talking to the media so we’ve never really said otherwise. I think the boys are just happy enough to go along with the story that they’re from Beaufort.
“To them, this is their footy club.”
And, for evidence, take last Saturday’s Central Highlands grand final at Ballarat’s Mars Stadium.
It was an historic day for the club, battling in both senior and reserves grand finals for the first time in 52 years.
This was an occasion neither brother could miss. So between Adelaide’s qualifying final win over Greater Western Sydney at Adelaide Oval and a threeday training camp on the Gold Coast, they won a leave pass for a flying visit to Ballarat to watch the deciders.
“They haven’t got their heads up their arses,” family friend and long-time Beaufort supporter Ross Day says.
“Phil and (mum) Debbie did a good job there. They haven’t changed. Back here, they’re just Brad and Matt.
“They enjoy their football and that’s what Phil always said: ‘As long as they’re enjoying their footy, that’s all that matters’.”
This 2017 AFL season has been a watershed year for both brothers.
For Brad, now 23, his 18 games represents a long-awaited victory over niggling injuries that had previously kept his immense potential beyond reach.
And for Matt, 22, his AllAustralian selection defies doubt from an early age that he lacked the leg speed to reach the AFL level.
In a telling statistic ahead of Adelaide’s crucial preliminary final against Geelong on Friday night, the siblings have this year combined for more disposals in a season than any set of brothers for as long as the AFL has kept those numbers.
“We knew they would go places,” Day says.
“The knock on Matt was always that he wasn’t quite quick enough. And Brad, we always said he would win a Brownlow.
“You never know, it might turn out the other way around.”
Ask anyone who knew the Crouch boys before they were on an AFL list and the yarns follow a common theme.
Competitive. Combative. Determined. Football, cricket, didn’t matter.
Childhood mate Mat Begbie remembers front-yard footy games involving the Crouch pair and friends including former Essendon player Nick O’Brien and Scott Spriggs, who has played SANFL with Glenelg.
“That was always a pretty competitive environment,” Begbie grins.
“It was usually Brad and Nick on to Matt and me.
“‘Nicko’ was captain of the (North Ballarat Rebels) TAC
PROUD: Former Beaufort player and president Nick Franc.