CHRIS McLaren, the man credited with changing the definition of a tall running defender, earns a place in Hampden league history today.
McLaren, who was thrust into the captaincy at 20 years of age, lines up for his 250th game with the Saints when they clash with Warrnambool in a grand final rematch at Reid Oval. It also earns him league life membership.
While McLaren’s ability to change games with his dash and long kicking out of defence are his trademarks, former Saints coach Jason Mifsud knew when he made him skipper at such a young age in 2000, he was a unique talent.
The pair played alongside each other in the losing 2000 and 2001 grand finals before lifting the cup when Koroit won its first premiership in 30 years in 2003.
“On any measure Chris is a champion of the club in every sense of the word, as a person and player,” Mifsud said.
“When he was appointed captain we were looking for someone to take the club into its next stage and Chris appealed because he had good values and carried himself really well.
“We had a dynamic group of personalities in our playing group and Chris was able to give me unbending feedback on how the group was feeling at any time.”
Mifsud said McLaren’s approach to being a defender changed the competition.
“As a player I think he redefined the way a running defender played in the Hampden league. His ability to rebound, break the lines and carry the ball stood him apart.
“He was very damaging. He was quick and kicked the ball a good distance so he provided us with those 100-metre possessions.”
Today, at 34, McLaren leads in other ways under coach Adam Dowie.
McLaren coached Koroit in 2011-12 and then stood aside, encouraging the club to appoint Dowie in a move he believed the club needed to take it forward.
Dowie led Koroit to a grand final last season. With a 4-1 win loss record so far this season, the Saints are looking to extend a run of finals appearances that stretches back to 2000.
“In this day and age when money is such an influence on people, Chris is working in a different stratosphere,” Dowie said of McLaren.
“His loyalty and the way he conducts himself is amazing and he has the respect of everyone around the club and it’s hard not to be full of admiration for him. It is hard coming into a club when the former coach is still there but instantly I felt comfortable with Chris.”
McLaren’s senior career at Koroit began in 1997 under coach Noel Mugavin.
He played for the Geelong Falcons in 1998 in a team that was a losing grand finalist and included Jonathan Brown and Cameron Ling.
In 1999 McLaren returned to Koroit, with only a year at South Fremantle in 2004 breaking his stellar service to the Saints.
McLaren’s record is as impressive as any to wear the red, white and black.
Seven players have been part of all Koroit’s 2003, 2007 and 2009 premiership teams, with McLaren the last of that group still playing.
He is the only player to have played in the Saints’ six grand finals since their golden run began in 2000, lining up in losing grand finals in 2000, 2001 and 2013.
He was premiership captain in 2003 and 2007 and won the club best and fairest in the 2009 flag-winning season.
Not surprisingly, the premierships are dear.
“The first one sticks out. We had lost a few grand finals through the juniors and then the one with the Falcons and the two senior ones,” McLaren said.
“So it was great to win one and to come back like we did in the second half was just amazing.
“In 2007 it was obviously very special to get to play in a premiership with my brothers Liam and Joe and 2009 with Joe coaching also added a bit more to that.”
Fittingly, Warrnambool will be the opponent for McLaren’s milestone game. He has played against the Blues in three grand finals and respects them.
“Growing up we were taught to hate Warrnambool, but to be honest they are the opposition club I have the most respect for,” he said.
“I have some good mates in there and we have had some great battles with them over the years and hopefully that will be the case again.”