The Brisbane Lions’ leap from perennial cellar dweller to flag contender has caught everyone off guard.
Don’t listen to the doubters. The Lions look set to break their ten-year finals drought.
Brisbane sit fifth on the ladder at 9-5 with eight games to go.
In a volatile season where every team has looked competitive, the Lions have done well to ride the highs and lows of 2019.
While Fremantle, the Western Bulldogs, St Kilda and even Gold Coast also started well, Brisbane have – with a few exceptions – been able to back it up week in week out and now look to finish with the title of the most improved team of 2019.
They kicked off the year with three straight wins then were humbled by Essendon and Collingwood before belting Gold Coast and overcoming their hoodoo against the Swans, then losing to the Western Bulldogs.
To an outsider, Brisbane has been a difficult team to get a read on, having wins against quality opposition such as Adelaide, Port Adelaide, West Coast yet dropping games to Carlton, Essendon, Fremantle and the Western Bulldogs.
Pre-season, few people had them in their top eight, while after their three convincing wins, Brisbane looked like a genuine top four team.
When Brisbane dropped two games against Essendon and Collingwood, it started to look like a natural correction to a young team that was over-achieving at the start of the season.
But in retrospect, these losses may have been helpful in allowing Brisbane to reflect on their performance and keep a lid on their finals aspirations.
After Brisbane beat Adelaide, the hype returned, though it was tempered by a close loss to Fremantle the following week.
By the time the Lions beat Hawthorn, people were buzzing and Kane Cornes even asked whether Brisbane could win the premiership. Then came the horror loss to Carlton.
The Lions aren’t consistent, but they keep building, which is credit to their organisation. They are, overall, able to withstand the external noise and continue to deliver.
After the Carlton loss, questions were raised about Brisbane’s capacity to win away from home ahead of their clash at Marvel against St Kilda, yet the Lions came out firing to bank their biggest win for the year.
This is already a vast improvement for the Lions, who sat 2-12 this time last year. This is reason enough to tell Brisbane fans to cool their jets and take it one game at a time.
After all, playing finals this year is pretty ambitious for a team that has spent the past five seasons in the bottom four.
Except that things don’t tend to happen linearly in footy.
The AFL’s efforts towards equalisation with the fixture, a healthy collection of high-draft picks from successive seasons in the bottom four, changes in coaching personnel, some successful trades and the natural development of their young list means that the Lions are well-placed to make finals.
What’s more, the Lions’ NEAFL team currently sits undefeated and top of the ladder with a wealth of players who could readily impact an AFL game if given the call-up.
In fact, without getting too far ahead, this could be the Lions’ best chance in a while as their fixture will almost certainly not be as gentle next year as it was this year.
Veterans such as Luke Hodge will likely retire this season, while it is reasonable to expect that some of the talented players that are confined to the NEAFL (Lewis Taylor and Tom Cutler anyone?) may be tempted by offers of more senior playing time by rival clubs.
Last year, the pass mark to play finals was 13 wins, which means the Lions would have to win four of their next eight games. That’s a manageable task for a team that were 5-3 after their first eight games.
But having gone through the ladder predictor, the pass mark for finals could only be 11 or 12 wins.
There is a gulf between Geelong, who sit 12-2, and the teams immediately below them – Collingwood and West Coast, who both sit 10-4.
The top team is good but the teams below them are less consistent and the teams below them are less consistent still.
Another gulf exists – a gulf that is not easily visible on the ladder – between seventh-placed Richmond and the next three teams, Fremantle, Port Adelaide and Essendon.
There’s only one spot up for grabs between those three teams.
The order may change, but the current top seven will make the eight and will likely sit a game clear of the team that finishes eighth.
The two teams immediately below Brisbane on the ladder – Adelaide and Richmond – will likely pick up their form leading into September and overtake the Lions on the ladder, but that won’t stymie the Lions’ chances of playing finals.
It is possible that one of those teams competing for the eighth spot just blitzes through their last eight games and pushes the Lions out of the eight, but that seems unlikely.
All of those teams have a more difficult fixture than Brisbane and they are less consistent, which is why Brisbane are currently two games clear of them on the ladder.
Brisbane’s run home is varied. They play GWS (away), Port Adelaide (away), North Melbourne (home), Hawthorn (away), the Western Bulldogs (home), Gold Coast (home), Geelong (home) and Richmond (away).
Having four of those eight games at the Gabba, where they have only lost one game this season, will come in handy when it comes to snatching the three or four wins needed to guarantee a spot in September while they will probably start favourites against Hawthorn in Tasmania.
Sure, Brisbane have committed some stinkers – look at their game against Carlton – but they have also won some games that few expected them to win, such as against West Coast and Adelaide. On balance, you can back them to get four wins, you just can’t be sure where they will get their four wins.
They might get less than four wins, but being two wins clear of the eighth, ninth and tenth teams on the ladder means that those teams below them would have to win at least five or six of their next eight games to finish higher than Brisbane.
And none of those teams have a run home that’s any easier than Brisbane’s.
Fremantle and Brisbane have competed for the title of most improved team this season and, at times, Fremantle’s case looked more compelling.
But in recent weeks, the Dockers’ momentum has stalled, and injuries have begun to take their toll.
Freo’s run home sees them play West Coast, Hawthorn (away), Sydney (home), the Western Bulldogs (away), Geelong (home), St Kilda (away), Essendon (home) and Port Adelaide (away).
While Fremantle are capable of beating any of those teams, it will be difficult to do so week in, week out.
They will probably start favourites in their home games against Sydney and Essendon and their away game against St Kilda, but none of them are certain wins.
The other games look tough. West Coast will be looking to consolidate their top two position, Hawthorn will be favourites in Tasmania and Geelong will be confident at Optus while the Round 23 match against Port Adelaide could decide which of those two teams grab the eighth spot on the ladder.
Port Adelaide also have a tough final stretch, playing Adelaide, Brisbane (home), Richmond (away), GWS (home), Essendon (away), Sydney (home), North Melbourne (away) and Fremantle (home).
Five of those eight are against teams currently above them on the ladder, which is hard for a ninth-placed team trying to displace someone in the top eight.
Essendon are a dark horse for the eighth spot.
A few weeks ago, it seemed certain that Essendon would not play finals, and although they’re about as good as Fremantle and Port Adelaide and their fixture is no more difficult, I don’t back them to leapfrog the Lions.
The Bombers have to play Sydney (home), North Melbourne (home), Adelaide (away), Gold Coast (away), Port Adelaide (home), Western Bulldogs (home), Fremantle (away) and Collingwood (away).
They will start favourites in four out of eight, like Brisbane, which means that if those games went as predicted, they would also need to cause two upsets to draw level with the Lions.
Brisbane definitely haven’t been consistent all season but the only team that has is Geelong.
Sitting at fifth on the ladder, a game clear of sixth and two games clear of eighth, is a good place to be for the Lions as they enter the final term of their campaign to make September for the first time since 2009.
For the Lions to get knocked out of the eight, it would require the teams vying for the eighth spot to show some consistency in the last eight games – something that has eluded those teams thus far.