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For the Brisbane Lions, the only way is up

The Brisbane Lions are finally looking like a decent footy team. (AAP Image/Dan Peled)
Expert
7th March, 2017
6

The Brisbane Lions haven’t been a good team in a while, but with a new coach, and new captain, and plenty of youth, we are beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Last season
They may have narrowly avoided the wooden spoon for the second year running, but the Lions hit rock bottom in 2016.

A brutal early fixture turned out as poorly as expected. Brisbane faced five of the eventual top-eight teams in the opening six rounds and were belted in all but one of them, a surprisingly feisty clash with the Swans that they dropped by just three points. It was probably their best performance of the season.

They did manage to top the Suns in the Round 4 Q-Clash – incredibly, the only time in the past three seasons they’ve won a game in the first five rounds – but would have to wait until Round 18 against the Bombers to claim their second win.

Defensively, they were among the worst teams we’ve ever seen, conceding an almost unfathomable 130.5 points per game. That’s almost four goals a game worse than the next worst team, Essendon, and close to double the 66.8 points the stingy Swans gave up.

Not only were the Lions the worst team at defending every aspect of the game – turnovers, stoppages, kick-ins – but according to Champion Data they also used the corridor when coming out of defensive 50 more than any other team. That’s like playing Russian roulette with a bullet in every chamber.

Brisbane Lions AFL 2015

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Comings and goings
Daniel Merrett pulled the pin on a solid career, ruckman Trent West hung up the boots after 70 games over nine seasons between the Cats and Lions, and talented Irishman Pearce Hanley took his questionable commitment to the Gold Coast.

Into the club came a bunch of youngsters, most notable highly regarded No.3 pick Hugh McCluggage. Jack Frost arrived from Collingwood via a trade – he’ll slot straight into the key defensive post vacated by Merrett.

The most meaningful change occurred off the field, of course. After three seasons and just 14 wins, Justin Leppitsch was shown the door. Brisbane’s problems ran much deeper than the senior coach, but it was untenable for him to stay.

In came Chris Fagan, from the ever-expanding Alastair Clarkson coaching tree, to take up the head coaching gig. David Noble might be just as important in his role as head of football operations.

chris-fagan-brisbane-lions-afl-2016

Strengths
Strength is a relative term. The Lions have been a bad team and will likely remain a bad team for a little while at least.

There is, however, real top-end talent in the midfield. Oft-injured though he may be, new skipper Dayne Beams is one of the elite players of the competition whenever he’s on the field.

Dayne Zorko deserved to make the All-Australian squad of 40 after an excellent 2016 and Tom Rockliff is a very good, occasionally great, footballer. Stefan Martin is one of the AFL’s better ruckmen.

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Daniel Rich, Mitch Robinson, Allen Christensen, Tom Bell and Ryan Bastinac are mature players who can rotate through the middle. It’s not an on-ball brigade that’s going to keep the Giants or Bulldogs up at night, but those veterans should at the very least make life a little easier for developing youngsters such as Rhys Mathieson, Ben Keays and McCluggage.

Mathieson is so far best known for his ability to draw high tackles, but he’s also a tough bugger with a habit of finding the footy in dangerous positions. Opposition fans will loathe him, and that should please Brisbane supporters.

The key posts look in good hands for as long as Harris Andrews and Josh Schache are in maroon, blue and gold. Some patience will be required with Schache, but Andrews is already a very nice player and an excellent reader of the play.

Weaknesses
Once you get past the first 8-10 players, this team is seriously young and inexperienced, and with that will come inconsistency. The depth simply isn’t there to compete every week with more seasoned opponents.

Finding goal kickers will continue to be a problem. Zorko and Josh Walker topped the club’s goalkicking with 23 each last year – they were the only Lions to boot more than 18.

What to expect in 2017
It’s dangerous to read too much into pre-season footy, but – like Brendon Bolton at the Blues 12 months ago – Fagan appears to have the Lions much more organised defensively.

They also look more composed and patient with ball in hand in defence. How they hold up under real home-and-away heat is yet to be seen, but they’re promising signs.

Second-year key-forward giants Schache and Eric Hipwood have both shown promise, but this early in their development, it’s more realistic to expect good moments than months.

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It’s an important year for Daniel McStay. The 21-year-old stagnated under Leppitsch – he wasn’t alone there – but as he comes into his fourth season, the Lions will be hoping he can find some consistency and cement his place in the side.

He looks most suited to playing as an aggressive key defender, but could evolve into a capable swingman.

Best 22
Picking a best-22 for a developing side such as the Lions is a tricky exercise, as what’s ‘best’ depends on their motivations and I’m sure even Fagan won’t be settled on his best side until the week before the season. But here goes:

B: Daniel McStay – Jack Frost – Tom Cutler
HB: Darcy Gardiner – Harris Andrews – Daniel Rich
C: Allen Christensen – Tom Rockliff – Ryan Bastinac
HF: Tom Bell – Eric Hipwood – Mitch Robinson
FF: Lewis Taylor – Josh Schache – Josh Walker
Foll: Stefan Martin – Dayne Beams – Dayne Zorko
Int: Rhys Mathieson – Ben Keays – Hugh McCluggage – Sam Mayes

The verdict
There will still be plenty of losses, but even the semblance of a modern team defence should mean at minimum a three-goal improvement.

With the scoreboard not ticking over as furiously, Brisbane should be in more games for longer.

When you’re coming off a 3-19 season, every game looks tough, but if they can grab a couple of early wins in what looks a reasonable opening month (Suns away, Bombers home, Saints away, Tigers home), they could easily double their 2016 win total.

Predicted finish: Bottom four

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