The next five days of football are the most important we’ve seen this year.
While the rest of the AFL world was busy scrutinising the academy system, Brisbane quietly went about finding gems in its unofficial pool of talent.
Going into AFL draft night, the Lions were expected to nab two players from their academy. However, Peter Schwab and the recruiting team left Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion with a trio of North Ballarat Rebels – Brisbane’s new informal recruiting zone.
Not in Brisbane’s wildest dreams did they imagine they would secure Hugh McLuggage, who they rated as the best player in the draft.
Stephen Conole submitted his selection faster than the babysitter’s boyfriend leaves when a car pulls into the driveway, opting against the fiery Ben Ainsworth, who previously expressed a desire to join the club.
What made this turn of events more astonishing was the fact Brisbane had traded down in the draft.
During this year’s exchange period, the Lions packaged picks two, 31, 51 and 60 to GWS for picks three and 16.
Regardless of what happened with the remaining five selections, the Lions would be content with their night, having secured who they thought was the best player in this year’s talent pool.
But their cheesy grins soon turned to beaming smiles when McCluggage’s Rebels teammate Jarrod Berry slipped through to Brisbane at pick 17. The Lions were hopeful but didn’t think the highly-rated leader would be available, especially with West Coast and Port Adelaide looming at picks 13 and 16.
Like McCluggage at pick three, this was a simple decision for Brisbane’s recruiting team, who were “ecstatic” to pick up someone they rated as the second-best leader in the entire pool.
Their next pick was another win – rebounding defender Alex Witherden. The Geelong Falcons’ product played just two games this year before breaking his leg in a school competition.
However, Brisbane’s recruiters had seen enough through his bottom-age year to rank him in their top 20. In the likely event that Berry was taken before pick 17, the Lions were preparing to select Witherden. To their amazement, they landed both, the club hoping they can eventually develop into rounded midfielders.
Cedric Cox was the surprise at 24, after the Lions asked for extra time to decide. An over-aged player, Cox, like McCluggage and Berry, played for the Rebels and caught the eyes of recruiters with his agility and foot skills.
The big factor that sold Brisbane was his scope for improvement. Cox played senior country football in Halls Creek and Camperdown before finishing 2016 with North Ballarat.
The Lions believe that once Cox enters a professional environment and begins training regularly he will blossom.
Then came the time to wait for bids on their academy players, Declan Watson and Jacob Allison.
But they didn’t get to wait as long as they would’ve liked, as North Melbourne intervened at pick 34, bidding on Watson.
This bid for the intercepting defender came at least seven picks too early for Brisbane, as it meant they would have to forfeit points from their second-round pick next year, instead of their third-rounder, to pay the deficit.
Brisbane’s recruiters are bullish about next year’s draft and preferred to not hinder their second-round pick, likely to be between 19 and 25, letting Watson join North Melbourne. This wasn’t ideal, but it goes to show the academies are fulfilling their purpose, increasing the entire talent pool and not just for the northern clubs.
Fortunately, Allison’s bid came right when Brisbane expected it (pick 55) and they happily matched. The academy player didn’t kick-on as hoped in 2016, following a promising under-age year which saw him named All-Australian.
Allison lacks inside ability, consistency, and there is uncertainty over his best position. However, Brisbane hopes to groom him as an outside player, earmarking a future on the wing to use his run-and-carry and long-ranging kick.
The tools are there for Allison, and the recruiters recognise that – it’s just about bringing all his skills together consistently.
Brisbane’s final pick was a case of best available, and they opted for Sandringham Dragons’ best and fairest winner Corey Lyons.
As a Lions’ supporter, it’s hard not to be pleased. The club sought runners and placed a premium on good foot skills, and they’ve nailed that brief with McCluggage, Berry, Witherden, Cox, Allison and Lyons.
Hopefully, this marks the start of a golden period for the Ballarat, ahem, Brisbane, Lions.