After meticulously deconstructing the Giants last weekend, I’m now convinced the Brisbane Lions have what it takes to go deep into September and be a blue chip contender.
This idea has taken some getting used to, considering that they won the wooden spoon only two seasons ago and it’s been a decade since they featured in finals football. But this year, Brisbane look more skilled and dangerous than ever before.
During the 20-point win over GWS, we got to see first-hand what makes Brisbane a premiership threat. Within 33 seconds, we saw the speed of Charlie Cameron, who beat Heath Shaw on a fast break inside 50 to kick a goal.
Then, we saw the rebounding skills of Daniel Rich ending with a set shot for Lincoln McCarthy. In the second quarter, we saw an opportunistic goal from Cameron Rayner who intercepted a Shaw kick-in. We saw a classy snap-goal from Lachie Neale after he crumbed a loose ball in the forward pocket.
To start the third quarter, McCarthy stood firm amid a sea of tackled bodies to keep his feet, gather, and goal from five metres out. We saw fast breaks, man-on-man defensive stops and efficient ball use under pressure.
This is how the Lions play football in 2019. This is the stuff that wins premierships.
Fagan’s Lions are 10-5 – the same record as Collingwood – and own a 4-1 record over the top eight clubs including wins against West Coast, Port Adelaide, Adelaide, and the Giants. They are yet to play Richmond and Geelong, with those major tests coming in the last two weeks of the season.
Their home record at the Gabba sits at an impressive 6-1, which bodes well for the Lions as they play four more games there. Something must also be said about how they’ve won 34 quarters this season, only six fewer than Geelong’s league-leading 40. It’s a consistency we just haven’t seen for quite some time.
The shift in form at Brisbane has been an across-the-ground improvement. The arrival of Neale has helped vastly in getting the ball and he’s having a year to remember, delivering an average of 32.4 touches at 79 per cent efficiency.
He’s been the quarterback of this team. If he’s not getting the ball, he’s working hard to be where he needs to be to kick goals or bring in other players that have an opportunity to score. He leads the league with effective disposals (386), clearances (121) and is ranked fourth for contested possessions.
No-one would argue against Neale being on course for a shot at winning this year’s Brownlow.
Dayne Zorko has been his usual workhorse self. He leads the league in inside 50s (92) and also tackles inside 50 (33). Not only is he driving opportunities deep into the forward line, but he’s also creating the pressure that often results in goals.
Factor in too how the forward line is functioning with a great blend of contested markers, speed on the ground and exciting instinct players in the Eddie-Betts-like Cameron, Rayner and Allen Christensen.
Over the last three years, Brisbane were ranked 10th, 12th and 14th for goals per game. In 2019 they average 13 goals per game, ranked third in the AFL behind the Giants and Cats.
The improvement has been significant, and this should worry the rest of the AFL.
Daniel Rich has now carved out a nice role as the Lions’ best defensive rebounder, ranked 10th in the league with 90 rebounds. What he provides in run and dash off half back generally results in a score, and his decision-making has been critical.
Hugh McCluggage, Mitch Robinson, McCarthy and Jarryd Lyons have added efficient ball use, goal sense, grunt and inside 50 opportunities.
However you want to describe this collection of artillery, this Queensland team is proving that what they bring to the table works against good teams.
The key to any deep finals run is staving off injuries. Right now, Brisbane have no injuries to key players which gives them the best chance to compete during finals.
This will be a major barrier to overcome if injuries start to evolve. The forward line would collapse if Eric Hipwood or Daniel McStay – two of their best contested markers and goal scorers – get hurt. Both forwards are the glue that holds the forward line together.
Charlie Cameron is a crafty, energetic forward who adds speed and forward pressure. With 29 goals – the most at the club – he’s become a pivotal part of how the forward line functions once the ball is on the ground. Without his presence, the Lions become too immobile and stagnant.
At the other end of the field, the backline would leak goals without Harris Andrews, who has taken 21 contested marks – ranked 23 in the AFL – and ranks No.1 for one-percenters.
Any team that has won a premiership in recent years has been close to full strength. The Lions can’t afford breakdowns to key personnel.
Defensively, Brisbane could be better. They are ranked 10th for points against which puts them in the same defensive class as the Bulldogs, Swans and Roos.
They are ranked 10th for second quarters won which they will need to fix if they want to compete against Geelong who deliver four consistent quarters every week.
But these are fastidious qualms. The Lions defence is generally sound. They kept the Eagles to 58 points and held the Giants to only 74 when they did a job on Jeremy Cameron – the league leader in goals – who only kicked two grubby majors. What they do in defence might not look sexy but it seems to get results.
AFL fans who have been paying attention over the last few seasons will know that it’s the “Anyone Can Win It” league now. Largely thanks to the Bulldogs of 2016 and the Tigers of 2017, we all now think 14 teams can win the premiership in any given year. These days, it’s all about timing your run.
Even if you didn’t buy the Lions’ good early season form, you better get on board now. The Lions are coming in hot.
Brisbane are absolutely a premiership contender. They’re not perfect, but they have everything needed on their list to win it all.