After being heavily raided in the off-season two years in a row, you might expect the Lions to be a shambles with very few good players left. Yet somehow they look to have accumulated one of the strongest midfields in the country.
The Brisbane Lions have started 2018 like anybody would have expected them to.
Two competitive losses against sides further ahead of them in the development curve are likely to be followed by considerably less competitive losses against two sides in the upper echelons of the ladder. At 0-2 and staring at being 0-4, no alarm bells are ringing yet.
Coach Chris Fagan praised his players’ efforts in both defeats, and the comebacks mounted in the second half, particularly against Melbourne, could certainly be described as gallant.
Perhaps even gutsy, for not two seasons ago, the Queensland outfit would have almost certainly rolled over very easily.
The fight in this group cannot be questioned. They are well led by the likes of Dayne Beams and Dayne Zorko, well coached by Fagan and the club is well-run again for the first time in almost 15 years.
But the Lions are no longer bound by youth. They now boast nine players with 100-plus games of experience and five genuine stars of the competition.
The likes of Beams, Zorko, Luke Hodge, Stefan Martin and Charlie Cameron are in the elite category for their position. Depending on his luck, Allen Christensen may well join them by season’s end.
The Lions also boast a core of middling players with enough runs on the board to be respectable players. Mitch Robinson, Ryan Lester, Daniel Rich, Ryan Bastinac and Lewis Taylor are very solid players with above average output, particularly in a side that’s been so unquestionably poor for the past few seasons.
The Lions were previously said to be talent-rich, but lacking experience. No longer the latter. With eight to ten players who could be reasonably classified as ‘experienced’ in their starting side, the time is absolutely now for the club to make the next step.
It is this crossroads which makes the past two weeks such frustrating losses.
While Brisbane showed considerable fight in hauling in huge margins, such margins should not have been given to the opposition in the first place. A bad 20 minutes either side of quarter-time against the Saints and a poor first 40 minutes against the Demons conspired to ultimately cost the side victory.
Catch-up football is extraordinarily unsuccessful at the best of times, and the Lions could only muster enough energy to get their noses in front, before surrendering the game by squandering gettable chances and falling victim to the inevitable momentum shift and drop-off in effort that comes from the physical and mental toll of catch-up football.
What compounds these poor periods early in games is that it is the experienced players making mistakes. Zorko had a poor first seven quarters of the season, then missed a dolly in the last quarter against Melbourne.
Had he kicked that goal, or shown any leadership in the first half, Brisbane would have likely proved too much for Melbourne to reel in.
Luke Hodge, brought in to be the ‘general’ of a young defence, and lead a developing back line through these sorts of poor periods, was culpable for two of the Demon’s five first-quarter goals on Saturday night.
Although he was superb in Round 1, Hodge’s primary job is to steer the Brisbane ship through choppy waters during games. He failed to do so against Melbourne.
It is not just the senior players who are responsible for these slips. For all Fagan’s work in rebuilding and repairing a poor culture, as a coach he faces his biggest test this season. Can he improve this side and not just make it competitive, but successful?
To do so, Fagan and his team need to implement a set of contingency tactics for derailing opposition momentum and stopping the runs of six or seven goals that have continued to plague the Lions throughout his tenure.
While under siege in the last two weeks, the Lions have continued with their high-risk attacking brand of football that makes for exciting neutral viewing, but also leads to turnovers that cost vital goals.
This is the first of many crossroads for Brisbane. The talent is there, and the experience is beginning to build. However, Chris Fagan and his staff must translate these glimpses into tangible outcomes to abate long-suffering Lions supporters, who will quickly grow tired of ‘honourable’ losses.
Success is possible. The Lions really should be 2-0 this season and have the whole footy world talking about them. Instead, they face the prospect of yet another poor start, sapping their confidence and turning the fans away.
The talent is there. So is the application. The Lions have done well to get this far, this quickly. Although the journey will be a long one, they find themselves facing their first Test. Costly periods during games continue to cost this side valuable wins.
These periods are no longer acceptable. If Chris Fagan and the leaders can find a way to rectify this, the club can finally begin the long climb up the ladder.