So close and yet so far for the Lions and Zac Bailey!
We hate overreacting to results, particularly when 2021 has shown a level of unpredictability even the world’s greatest novelists would struggle to manufacture.
Certainly on one hand, Brisbane’s loss to St Kilda, just their second since Round 5, can be written off as one of those days, played at an unfamiliar venue on the back of a couple of crushing wins.
Every team is entitled to an off-day, it’s what makes our competition so great. This year has proven that any team can beat another at the drop of a hat with no logic in play.
There is a little niggle though, an unshakeable feeling that the Lions’ Round 17 defeat is cause for slight concern.
The 32-point margin isn’t insignificant, it’s more than a comfortable win given where both these teams were just a fortnight ago. We need to look beyond margins and results though and assess where the Lions currently sit, because it looks to be slightly uncomfortable for the coaching staff and fans alike.
By nature of their style of play, Brisbane aren’t looking to overpossess the ball, preferring to use their elite foot skills to carve up an opposition. Indeed, the club is ranked 16th for disposals and 18th for running bounces.
Where the Lions do sit well is having the best kick-to-handball ratio in the competition, ranking third in clearances, first in inside 50s, fourth in marks inside 50, third in contested marks and second in intercepts.
It’s a relatively simple style of play, where Brisbane has a strong aerial advantage around the ground which makes the kicking game much more effective and an elite on-ball unit that is able to extract the ball and get it to the distributors who simply need to aim for the big targets.
Despite such low possession numbers, Chris Fagan’s group only averages six fewer disposals than their opposition in 2021, while averaging ten more marks, six more inside 50s, three more clearances and 285.2 more metres gained, prioritising strength in the air to gain better field position than their opposition.
With all this in mind, it makes it quite worrying that St Kilda finished with 95 more disposals, 44 more marks, 11 more inside 50s, six more contested marks and 14 more tackles to top it off. Brisbane conceded 20 marks inside 50 and let the Saints operate at a staggering 78.9 per cent disposal efficiency. For reference, St Kilda have been mediocre statistically in all categories other than tackles.
Even on their off days, the best teams can still maintain their identity’s integrity and show some signs of strength.
Some may point to the shattering news of Eric Hipwood rupturing his ACL and the effect that had on the team. It was difficult to cover mid-game without doubt, although it likely evened up the battle between St Kilda’s defence and Brisbane’s offence given the undersized Saints outside of Dougal Howard.
Of course, Brisbane were inaccurate, but even with greater accuracy, we cannot shy away from the one-sided nature of the contest; if anything, it would only mask reality and as we have seen with Port Adelaide from earlier in the season, that helps no one.
If Hipwood’s injury was difficult to cover mid-game, it’s most certainly going to be difficult to cover when the backups simply cannot offer the same output.
The 23-year-old leads the club for marks inside 50, a key part of their offensive play. The ability to identify targets and hit up intelligent leads is vital to the kick-first approach Brisbane have adopted and removing the best exponent hurts.
Joe Daniher’s inclusion made Hipwood a more effective player, averaging a career-high five marks and two marks inside 50 a game, kicking 26 goals and 19 behinds in 15 games. In turn, the 204-centimetre forward freed the former Bomber to play a much higher role outside the forward 50 and his form created space for Daniel McStay, Charlie Cameron and Lincoln McCarthy to push career-highs in marks in the arc.
Outside of pure offensive numbers, Hipwood was looking more confident with his attack on the ball and his fit within a group rather than being the only key forward.
The injury is so heartbreaking for both player and club and given the depth at Brisbane, covering it will be a little difficult.
Coming out of Saturday night’s fixture with these concerns was only made worse earlier in the week when Marcus Adams was ruled out for at least a month with more foot issues.
The 28-year-old found continuity in his footy and actually became an excellent lockdown defender when more responsibility was required of him. Previously he had been rated about average for his one-on-one work, but quickly turned into being the Lions’ best key defender in that area.
Crucially, Adams was able to soften the blow of Darcy Gardiner’s absence and later that of Ryan Lester who, despite being the same height as Adams, plays a completely different, yet very effective role.
The defensive group underwent a shift requiring Harris Andrews to be more accountable and Adams to play on a damaging key forward to ensure Jack Payne’s one-on-ones were kept to a minimum.
As mentioned, a vital part of Brisbane’s game is intercepting and contested marking, particularly when the effective, dour defence of Gardiner is missing. Adams has averaged 2.6 intercept marks per game in 2021 as well as 1.6 contested marks, ranked second and third respectively.
Since being destroyed by Jack Riewoldt in Round 10, Adams lost just 11.54 per cent of his one-on-one contests, despite a significant uptick in contests defended and having lost 35 per cent up until that point, as well increasing his spoils per game from 3.9 to 5.7.
Considering the numbers being removed from the defensive 50 and the role Adams was playing, we start to get a little more concerned about the Lions and perhaps the lingering effects of the loss to St Kilda.
The timing of two MCG contests could be better for the club, given they have won just twice in their last 21 matches at the venue, although the COVID situation could change plans.
And the fixture isn’t too unfriendly necessarily, with Richmond, Hawthorn, Gold Coast, Fremantle, Collingwood and West Coast wrapping up the home-and-away season.
But to simply sweep aside the Round 17 performance against St Kilda and subsequent absences that have stemmed from that loss would be a gross misjudgment on the part of any footy fan.
Given the longer-term absences, we can expect that the Lions will find a way to have these two covered by the time finals come around but given the reserves are fresh off a 109-point loss, it isn’t as though the depth is performing brilliantly.
The defensive side of things will presumably be covered by Ryan Lester.
It does require another shuffle up in terms of responsibility, though. Much like Adams had to cover Gardiner, there’ll be a lot needed from Jack Payne, whose one-on-one work has been below average this season.
Size-wise, he shouldn’t be beaten much given the strength he possesses, but we need to see a swift improvement in Payne’s ability to hold his ground, and to be able to cover the space to defend a lead.
By the time September arrives, there’s every chance both Gardiner and Adams will be back, so this is an important six weeks for the young defender.
It’s a little murkier at the other end of the ground, as the Lions don’t have great coverage offensively and may end up trying a couple of different things in the run home.
Tom Fullarton and Connor Ballenden are the two obvious candidates to fill the role, with the former more of an athletic ruck type that can cover ground as we’ve seen in the VFL and at AFL level this season. He has kicked five goals and 14 behinds in his eight reserves games to date, averaging only three marks a game in his last five outings.
Ballenden may need to be called upon later in the year should his hamstring injury rule him out in the immediate future. Into his fourth season, the 22-year-old is at a make-or-break stage but he has the size to cause issues and while performing a different role at VFL level, is a great marking option and can move around well. How translatable that’ll be given the minimal senior exposure he has had is an unknown.
Of course, another option could be to solidify the midfield by letting Jarrod Berry spend some time forward as an inside 50 option upon his return, rather than wasting him away with 50 per cent time on ground, allowing for the Lions to show a slightly different approach which is necessary to have as back up.
But ultimately, these are really important times for the Brisbane Lions.
A professional outfit like them should still look to finish in the top four given what’s to come, but how much damage the team can do when key pillars are missing and with a newly-found blueprint on how to stop their style from being effective should be brought into question.
Brisbane have been one of the most impressive teams over the past few years, their rise has been admirable and they’re pushing hard for a premiership.
How seriously they take their current situation will be the key to how the rest of 2021 plays out.
This goes one of two ways, and let’s hope Chris Fagan and his coaching staff are able to adapt.