Memories of the Brisbane premiership three-peat from earlier this century dim with every passing year.
The Lions have finished higher than tenth only once in the last 12 seasons, and have finished no higher than twelfth in the last seven years. You’ll get long odds of them breaking out of that bracket in 2017.
Brisbane are one of only two sides to hit this year under the charge of a new coach, the other being Melbourne, who are implementing their Paul Roos-to-Simon Goodwin succession plan. Chris Fagan, thus, is the only coach taking on a job and a list with completely fresh eyes and mind.
Brisbane has arguably the most undecided best 22 in the competition. They had a look at 40 players at senior level last year and with the youngest and most inexperienced list in the league, they are in full re-build mode.
Here is an approximation of what Fagan might have to work with if all his players remain fit and healthy, which was a challenge in itself during the Justin Leppitsch years.
Brisbane Lions’ best 22
|B||Darcy Gardiner||Jack Frost||Marco Paparone|
|HB||Tom Cutler||Harris Andrews||Sam Mayes|
|C||Daniel Rich||Dayne Beams||Mitch Robinson|
|HF||Tom Bell||Daniel McStay||Lewis Taylor|
|F||Allen Christensen||Josh Schache||Eric Hipwood|
|Foll||Stef Martin||Tom Rockliff||Dayne Zorko|
|Int||Ryan Bastinac||Rhys Mathieson||Ben Keays||Hugh McLuggage|
Emergencies: Michael Close, Ryan Lester, Claye Beams
Names not displayed above are Rohan Bewick, Ryan Harwood and Josh Walker. Add those to the likes of Ryan Lester and Claye Beams as emergencies, and you have a pile of dead wood in the all-important mid-20s age bracket.
Can Chris Fagan get the best out of this lot, or will their cards be marked early, and chances given to the unproven youth?
As we have known for some time now, Brisbane have some experienced talent through the midfield, and a series of key position players, in their very early 20s, at either end of the ground.
The younger key position generation is, experience-wise, led by Daniel McStay (41 games) and Harris Andrews (36), and is also comprised Josh Schache (17), Michael Close (17), Jono Freeman (14), Eric Hipwood (10), Matthew Hammelmann (9) and Sam Skinner, who was cruelly denied a debut last year.
A group of footballers doesn’t come much rawer than what we see above, but all have shown more than glimpses of talent in their brief senior showings to date.
The senior players will carry the midfield, and they have multiple players who could lay claim to being in the top 50 in the competition.
Dayne Beams was on track to become an all-time great, and hopefully he can still find his best football after being hit hard by injuries in recent seasons. Dayne Zorko is a triple-threat gun with his knack for finding the ball, sticking tackles and hitting the scoreboard.
Tom Rockliff is sometimes maligned for winning too much of the ball, but there have to be worse crimes than that on an AFL field. He leaves it all out there every week, and you’d rather have him in your team than not. A career year might just be in the offing too.
Daniel Rich will continue to launch his left foot missiles, even if we wish it would happen more often. Mitch Robinson’s midfield cannonball routine will be performed again, even though he has more to his game than that.
The supporting cast through the middle is led by Ryan Bastinac, who finished seventh in the best and fairest in his first year as a Lion after 120 games with the Kangaroos. Tom Bell had an impact when available, and he’ll be looking to average 20 touches a game and kick 30 goals for the year.
Two first-year players that impressed at Brisbane last year were the controversial Rhys Mathieson, and fellow 20-year-old Ben Keays. Both had more contested possessions than uncontested, which is a great sign they’ve got a thirst for the contest. It’s the first thing you want when looking to improve a struggling side.
Stef Martin stamped himself an All-Australian contender in 2015, but couldn’t back-up similar results in 2016. This wasn’t helped by being knocked into a parallel universe by Steven May in Round 4 against the Gold Coast, and he’ll be looking to bounce back.
Goals look like they’ll be hard to come by as the young key forwards learn their craft. Allen Christensen and Lewis Taylor will need to create chances and then take them when they come.
It’s unlikely the Lions will be as offensively minded this season. The usual imprimatur of a new coach taking over a bad team is to shore up the defensive side of the game. Given Brisbane gave up the third-most points against of any side in the last 20 years in 2016, we can assume it will be a priority for Chris Fagan.
The Lions’ backline will be populated by honest battlers and good ordinary players, alongside the talent mentioned above. Fagan may look to put some polish back there, and sometimes players just click under a new coach. It will be interesting to see who can make a quantum leap under his tutelage.
Fagan, renowned as a developer of young talent, is on the record as demanding a selfless brand of football from his players. If he has set up an environment where young players can thrive, who knows what they will be capable of.
Certainly, Hugh McCluggage has the profile of a first-year player ready to have an impact and looked the part in his first pre-season game. He is one of seven draftees from the 2015-16 AFL national drafts that we are yet to see.
Carlton exceeded all external expectations under Brendon Bolton last year, and Brisbane fans will no doubt be hoping for a similar story at their club. Modest hopes, yes, but such is the position they find themselves in.
Predicted ladder spread: 15th-18th
Predicted finish: 18th
Best and fairest: Dayne Beams
Leading goalkicker: Allen Christensen
All-Australian potential: Dayne Beams, Stef Martin, Tom Rockliff, Dayne Zorko
Rising Star candidates: Jarrod Berry, Eric Hipwood, Hugh McCluggage