AFL: Hawthorn Hawks and best friends Luke Breust and Liam Shiels describe their extraordinary journey to game 250
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AFL: Hawthorn Hawks and best friends Luke Breust and Liam Shiels describe their extraordinary journey to game 250

It wasn’t Liam Shiels’ first impression but a lasting one.

This was the night Alastair Clarkson fell in love with the then-freshman Hawk. Former Tiger Will Thursfield probably doesn’t have very fond memories.

AFL: Hawthorn Hawks and best friends Luke Breust and Liam Shiels describe their extraordinary journey to game 250

Shiels ran down one of the MCG wings but was furious after he shook off his kick while the bobbing Sherrin was still in sight.

“I put my head down, and there was a big collision,” said Shiels.

“We came from different directions and were both a little bit frontal, and I turned a little bit and got (Thursfield’s) shoulder, and he took off with a collarbone injury.”

Since then, every Shiels highlight tape has contained that ferocious passage.

It was his 10th senior game, but Clarkson told him afterward that he would play weekly if he continued to do such things.

Shiels is still at it, 239 games later, for his 250th on Sunday against Collingwood, the club he grew up for and who wanted to draft him 14 years ago.

What makes this weekend’s milestone even more special is that his big buddy, Luke Breust, happens to, or probably doesn’t, also play game 250.

They arrived at Waverley Park the same year – Shiels as the No. 34 draft pick and Breust via the rookie draft – and have been inseparable since.

Their wives, Claire and Anthea, are also close. Shiels became a father in March, and Breust is under pressure to get Tommy, a boyfriend.

They played in four major finals and won three premierships together as part of a golden era for Hawthorn, alongside Sam Mitchell, who now coaches them.

Camera icon Liam Shiels (left) and Luke Breust clicked when they lobbed to Waverley Park after the 2008 AFL draft. Credit: News Limited

Mitchell was part of Breust’s coming-of-age moment, even if it didn’t resemble Shiels’s against Richmond.

All of the 2008 club’s conscripts were quickly shoved into John Donahue’s jiu-jitsu classes at Chadstone, which was an eye-opening experience for Breust, who weighed 70kg at the time, dripping.

In one session, Breust was grouped with Mitchell and Taylor Duryea for a tackling drill while Shiels watched closely.

Mitchell’s job was to round up Breust and pack him into a tackle. That’s not what was going on.

“I remember you stepped on him, and he said, ‘No, no, go again,’ and then you stepped on him again, and he said, ‘I’ll get you for the third time,'” Shiels said.

“He knew exactly where you would go a third time, but ‘Punky’ still stepped on him.”

Camera IconLuke Breust (far left) and Liam Shiels (second from right) with fellow 2008 Hawthorn conscripts Shane Savage and Ryan Schoenmakers. Credit: News Limited

For Breust, it remains one of his strongest early memories and a turning point in the belief that he could make it at the AFL level.

Tigers three-time premiership coach and ex-Hawks assistant Damien Hardwick reportedly described Breust’s sidestep as Chris Heffernan-esque in those early days.

There were challenging times before that, including a preseason game in which Breust failed to log a single elimination.

“It doesn’t help if you come in on a Monday morning, and you’re in the meeting, and the first thing Clarko says is, ‘Where’s Punk?'” Breust said.

“You kind of do this one already (hide), trying to dodge and weave, then it’s like, ‘Yeah, here’, and he asks, ‘How many touches have you had?’ It’s not a great feeling.

“You automatically start doubting yourself. I weighed 70 kilos then, but luckily I had another one the following week and got some belongings, so that was nice.”

But while Shiels made an immediate impression, the marksman Breust, who went on to become a double All-Australian, had to wait until his third season – after piling up double-digit pounds – to make his AFL debut.

His football chance almost didn’t happen at all.

Overlooked in the national draw, Breust was just another wannabe workout alongside Jeff Garlett, Riley Milne, and Haydn Kiel leading up to the rookie draw.

Garlett was seen as the superior little forward option at the time – and is also Lance Franklin’s cousin – and the Sydney Swans had already ruled out Breust, from Temora in the country NSW, as an Academy option.

Carlton dove for Garlett first, leaving Breust with the Hawks at number 47. North Melbourne later indicated it would have considered him at number 54, but there was no certainty.

“I’d talked to a few SANFL clubs, but I probably would have gone home, went to Wagga University, and did a business degree, which I’ve now completed,” Breust said.

Camera icon Luke Breust (far right) with (from left) Jack Gunston and Grant Birchall and the 2013 AFL Premiership Cup Credit: News Corp Australia

That sliding door moment paid off for Hawthorn and the man responsible for recruiting both Shiels and Breust, Graham Wright.

Wright is now the football boss of the Magpies, so he will have an extra interest in Sunday’s game.

“I’ve been thrilled to be a small part of their journey and to watch them develop into three-time premiership players, leaders, and outstanding young men off the field,” Wright said this week.

“They are both stars, humble and down to earth.”

Neither Shiels nor Breust has given full thought to their extraordinary success at Hawthorn, although the latter pointed out that he’s become a Saints fan and doesn’t take his flag for granted.

But their story is as much a story of friendship and bonds as premierships.

They were both in the ’70s group’ with the Hawks, made up of third through fifth-year football players. They were Paul Puopolo, Ben Stratton, Duryea, Ben McEvoy, and Matt Suckling.

Each player on the list was assigned to a particular development group, but this one was arguably the most influential.

They saw themselves as the heartbeat of the brown and gold, self-charged with encouraging the rest of their teammates (“I swear, sometimes other guys on the team would get a little jealous that they weren’t part of it”).

The 1970s group would meet before the competition to discuss their priorities, including whether any members were out of order and needed extra help.

There were also special occasions when they would meet midway through the match, such as the famous 2013 preliminary final win over Geelong when game-winner Shaun Burgoyne went crazy in the last term.

Shiels: “There was a lot of faith. It was like, ‘We’re right in this game; let’s bring a little spark’.”

Breust: “Sometimes it’s as easy as recognizing tyour situation

“Like, it’s a big moment; three-quarters of a time from a prelim against a rival we hadn’t beaten in 11 games, so sometimes you almost relax even when you say that out loud.”

These are very different times for rebuilding Hawks, Breust, and Shiels in 2022.

Breust seriously thought about the progress made in the Giants’ trading period last year and the added safety that would come with it. At the same time, Shiels was dropped after round 1 and played regularly as a medical substitute.

But Shiels is far from beaten and would ideally like to play beyond this season.

He still lives by the mantra of former assistant Brendon Bolton: “be reliable; you don’t have to be remarkable”.

“I kind of said, ‘Yeah, okay, challenge accepted,'” Shiels said.

“I know where the football club is, and I’m happy to help these young children develop if that means Hawthorn will win another premiership in the next two or three years.”