A straight sets exit potentially awaits the Brisbane Lions, but it isn’t as cataclysmic as it may seem on paper.
The fixture against the Bulldogs has notoriously been close. The last six games between the two teams have been decided by an average of 17.5 points. The last five that have been at the Gabba decided by 14.2 points.
This is a Brisbane team that has had to handle expectations in 2021 with varying levels of success, and one that is still developing into a bonafide contender.
Yes, key pillars like Dayne Zorko (32 years old), Mitch Robinson (32), Grant Birchall (33) and Daniel Rich (31) aren’t getting any younger, but as a group, this is a youthful, developing squad.
A third year in contention saw Brisbane sit as the premiership tip for many a pundit pre-season, yet a slow start and COVID fixturing dramas ended up affecting the perception of the team.
An incredibly strong middle stanza catapulted the Lions back up the ladder and strength in the backend of the season secured them a top-four spot.
Given the circumstances and the expectations, does a total of one finals win in what would be five finals matches create cause for concern?
It’s understandable if you were to answer in the affirmative here.
Three top-four finishes, two in the top-two is a fair turnaround from having two wins midway through 2018, but to suggest these finishes to diehard supporters at that point in time would’ve been accepted gleefully.
In fact, a counterargument could be that the Lions haven’t quite hit their true premiership window.
Indeed, 2019 was an incredible ride, a swift rise to success immediately boosted by a coach that had a little time to create the style he wanted and the on-field leadership of Luke Hodge. Might we look at the exceptional rise as an aberration, perhaps in the mould of the Bulldogs in 2016 or Richmond in 2017, without the shock success?
In any other season, we could’ve seen some sort of regression to the mean after 2019 as the club tried to find its feet in the top half of the ladder, let alone as a contender.
Instead, we had almost an entire season of football played in Queensland in 2020, and Brisbane played just three games outside of their home state. Add in shorter games, a more comfortable environment and significant advantages in conditions, and we had a preliminary final team perhaps created in a mirage.
Maybe that’s not fair. It’s certainly not looking to discredit the work the club put in.
But we must be genuinely realistic and consider the fact that even at this time, the core of the group was so young and playing such buoyant, pressure-free football.
Surely, then, two years’ worth of playing finals makes another straight sets exit unacceptable?
Maybe. Kind of.
We touched on the slow start, we touched on the fantastic form through the middle and the resolute end to the home-and-away season.
The Lions have faced strong expectations for the first time, genuinely, since their meteoric rise. Boldly, they’ve adopted a completely different style to almost every other team in the competition.
Brisbane has been the best offensive unit in the AFL by far, finishing 137 points clear of second-place, ironically their upcoming opponents.
They’re a direct, kick-first team, averaging a clear competition-best 6.28 disposals per inside 50. The Lions have been the best clearance team, as well as having the second-most metres gained in the AFL.
It’s a two-fold strategy; the midfield is really strong and diverse, looking to feed the ball into space or gain field position obsessively while adopting a pure counter-attacking approach when winning the turnover in defence.
Daniel Rich deserved his recognition in 2021 and looks set to play for another five years, averaging the most kicks, rebounds and metres gained in the league, while Dayne Zorko, Hugh McCluggage and Mitch Robinson are among the most attacking ball users in the league.
Coach Chris Fagan’s bold strategy has held up well when the team are fit and firing, a fully functioning Brisbane team in 2021 has been among the most efficient in modern history.
When Eric Hipwood went down, there was genuine concern.
The friendly draw after that point, against Richmond, Gold Coast, Hawthorn, Fremantle, Collingwood and West Coast, really assisted the club to adjust their forward line.
Crucially, Daniel McStay stood up in that time, just as Marcus Adams had when Darcy Gardiner went down. McStay kicked 14 goals, averaging six marks and four marks in those six games and covered the absence extremely well.
The 26-year-old was injured early against the Demons and the Lions looked toothless in attack.
With such two key offensive absences, it means the Lions must adjust their gameplan ahead of a semi-final.
Is this a valid excuse if Brisbane loses to the Bulldogs this weekend, ending their season after the semi-final?
Yes and no.
What faces this Lions team is a different sort of pressure to what they tend to deal with.
Of course, they’ll play against an opposition that is hoping to have genuinely recaptured some form in the elimination final after three horrific weeks to end the home-and-away season.
On top of that, though, is the absolute necessity to adjust on the fly in the most important game of their season.
Tom Fullarton has been playing as a peripheral figure and isn’t really a natural key forward, while Jarrod Berry is inevitably the tall midfielder that will play predominately forward. Joe Daniher has spent the season playing such a high role up the ground.
Jack Payne has been brought in, leaving them with four lockdown defenders in the 22. With Connor Ballenden an emergency, either Payne or Adams must be playing deep forward, or a late change awaits.
That strategy seems extremely risky for a final, more than likely to be ineffective.
The option that would make the most sense, is also extremely foreign. Brisbane might need to play small-ball. Charlie Cameron, Lincoln McCarthy and the plethora of rotational midfield/forwards are certainly up to it, but it’s a responsibility they’re unfamiliar with.
Small-ball never worked for the Rockets or the Clippers and they had over 70 games to try and nail it, while the Lions have been traditionally bold yet pretty regimented without a heap of backup options in their arsenal.
It makes this game against the Bulldogs really tough. The opposition are simply a good mindset away from recapturing grand final-worthy form, and Brisbane are adjusting on the run.
To the initial point though, a straight sets exit isn’t the end of the world for Fagan and his troops.
They’re undermanned in their offensive strength, which obviously hurts. And while there may be initial disappointment and the media will have a field day, this is a squad building for multiple attacks on the premiership and they’re only now approaching their window.
Brisbane’s best players are in their peak and the core future pieces are ranging between 22 and 27 years of age.
Let’s readjust our expectations and see where this team is.
The Lions have three years of finals experience under their belt and will enter 2022 with a vision of winning the flag.
So no, a straight sets exit wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing for the Lions.
If anything, it will only be the motivation needed to skyrocket them into true premiership favouritism.