For the first time in a very long time, the Brisbane Lions will be the centre of attention when they welcome Collingwood to the Gabba on Easter Thursday.
After 15 years in the doldrums besides a solitary finals appearance in 2009, the Lions have started this season impressively by winning their first three matches, including the defeat of reigning premiers West Coast at home before running into a red-hot Essendon at the MCG last weekend, going down by 47 points.
Despite that result, it is the best start to a season Brisbane have enjoyed since 2010, when they won their first four matches only to then win just three more and finish 13th on the ladder.
And with the Gold Coast Suns also starting the season with three wins from four matches, the state of Australian rules football in Queensland is starting to become much brighter again.
Not since the early part of this millennium – when the Lions claimed a hat trick of flags under the coaching of Leigh Matthews – have AFL fans in Queensland had much joy, with both the Lions and Suns toiling in the bottom half of the ladder for the most part of this decade.
What didn’t help the Lions’ cause was the gradual retirement of many of its triple-premiership-winning stars, with Ashley McGrath the last player from any of those sides to retire when he bowed out in 2014.
The side struggled under the coaching of Justin Leppitsch, who was sacked at the end of the 2016 season after overseeing just 14 wins from 66 matches in charge.
Under Chris Fagan, progress has been slow but steady, with the Lions winning five matches in his first two seasons in charge (2017 and 2018), but the side appears poised to continue climbing up the ladder in 2019, with some even touting them as potential finalists.
Star recruit Lachie Neale has been their best player so far, racking up 155 disposals in just four matches, while Oscar McInerney and Eric Hipwood have also taken their game to a new level in 2019.
Just how far they have come will be put to the test when they host Collingwood in an Easter Thursday blockbuster at the Gabba. This is the teams’ first meeting on this day since 2004, and the Lions’ first such match since 2014 when they hosted Richmond.
Lighting the fuse for this match will be the return of Dayne Beams, the former Lions captain who agreed to stay with the club before suddenly changing his mind and requesting a trade back to the Pies.
Beams said during the week that he has watched a lot of their matches as a supporter and has enjoyed watching them play to their potential – something they couldn’t do on a regular basis during his time at the Gabba.
The older generation of Lions fans will also recall that Nathan Buckley spent one season at the Brisbane Bears in the early 1990s before departing for Collingwood, stating his desire to play finals football on a regular basis and eventually feature in a premiership.
Ironically, Buckley and his Pies would be on the receiving end as the Lions claimed two of their three premierships at their expense, the other being against Essendon in 2001. Buckley’s first grand final as coach also ended in heartbreak as they lost to the West Coast Eagles by just five points last year.
The disappointment of that grand final defeat in 2002 is best illustrated by the sight of Buckley removing the Norm Smith Medal from his neck after accepting it during the post-match ceremony.
As fate would have it, the 46-year-old is due to present the Norm Smith Medal to the best player on field in this year’s grand final, and it would be somewhat awkward if he were to present it to a rival player should Collingwood fall at the same stage again.
To the present now, and the Pies have started the season moderately, winning against Richmond and the Western Bulldogs while being beaten by the Geelong Cats and West Coast Eagles at the MCG.
Last Friday night against the Dogs, Buckley’s men had to come from behind to edge out the plucky Dogs by 14 points.
They will head up to the Gabba with a recent good record against the Lions, winning ten of their last 12 dating back to the start of the 2009 season. They haven’t lost in Brisbane since 2010, the year the Pies won their last flag.
It will also be their first match away from the MCG this season.
The Lions’ improved form this season, as well as the Pies’ traditional pulling power when they play outside of Victoria, will combine for the first sell-out at the Gabba since Round 2, 2010, when 36,780 fans saw the Lions – led by twin towers Jonathan Brown and Brendan Fevola – defeat the latter’s old club Carlton by 19 points.
However, the figure to beat is the 37,224 fans who watched the Lions thrash the Pies by 78 points in Round 15, 2005. To date, it remains the best-attended AFL match at the Gabba.
While it’s unlikely either figure will be beaten on Thursday night, officials will still be expecting a massive crowd of up to 35,000.
Not only will the thousands of Pies fans be making the trip up from Melbourne, they won’t have to face any competition from the NRL’s Brisbane Broncos, who will play on a day other than Thursday or Friday for the first time this season.
What the fans can expect to see is a good contest, and if the Lions can take down the Pies at home for the first time in nine years, it will help them regain their place among the AFL’s elite.