Forget the finals – the shock news that Lachie Neale could be turning his back on the Brisbane Lions and returning to Fremantle has taken the AFL world by storm.
So, can the Lions make the best of a bad situation? And how much will the Dockers be prepared to give up to lure their prodigal son back home? Here are five burning questions from the biggest trade bombshell of 2021.
Could a Neale deal be the best thing for the Lions?
There was once a time when a star player departing would invariably suck the life out of a team. Think Chris Judd leaving West Coast at the end of 2007; Callan Ward exiting the Bulldogs to be GWS’ inaugural captain; and, yes, Neale himself walking out on Freo at the end of 2018.
Recent history, though, has taught us that no player is too good to be replaced… if you’re smart enough. Gary Ablett and Patrick Dangerfield leaving Geelong and Adelaide respectively in the last decade didn’t stop those two sides reaching – and in the Cats’ case, winning – grand finals in the immediate future.
Hawthorn, of course, crushed Sydney in the big dance in Lance Franklin’s first year with the Swans.
Right now, the Lions hold all the cards. Neale is under contract until the end of 2023 on a whopping deal, and there are no salary cap issues to force an Adam Treloar-type situation. If the Neale deal does get done, there’s no reason Brisbane won’t at least be breaking even.
Impressively, the Lions have won all seven games he’s missed this year, compared to an 8-9 record with him in the side. He’s far from irreplaceable – indeed, the extra responsibility could work wonders for the likes of Hugh McCluggage, Jarrod Berry, and even the self-appointed ‘barometer’, Rhys Mathieson.
The Lions have faltered in finals in each of Neale’s three years at the club, going 1-5 at the pointy end of the season to squander three straight top-four appearances. Getting top value out of the superstar’s departure might just be what they need to take the next step. Which leads us to…
Could draft picks alone get a Neale deal done?
As with any trade, Brisbane have two options when it comes to losing Neale: either top up on draft picks, or look to bring in a gun player.
The Dockers currently only have picks 8 and 27 in the upcoming 2021 draft – that’s certainly not going to be enough to entice the Lions to break Neale’s contract, especially given Collingwood and the Western Bulldogs’ pursuit of father-son options Nick Daicos and Sam Darcy are set to compromise the year’s crop.
However, Adam Cerra’s looming departure from Freo could give them the draft capital they need.
Currently linked to Carlton, Cerra’s worth is seen as somewhere between one and two first-round draft picks. The Blues currently hold picks 6 and 25; both could well be enough for the Dockers to part ways with Cerra if Neale is on the table.
Picks 6, 8 and 25 from the Dockers, Neale and a late-draft steak knives pick from the Lions. Who says no?
… or is a Magpie swoop the Lions’ best bet?
Draft picks alone shouldn’t be enough to sway the Lions, unless their internal thinking about where they’re placed is different from how it appears. They’re a side well and truly in the premiership window, and despite an array of young talent, captain Dayne Zorko and All Australian Daniel Rich are on the wrong side of 30.
Their time is now, and losing Neale for draft options alone – even with a bumper hand – would almost certainly set them back short-term.
Fortunately, there are a number of clubs around the AFL with highly publicised salary cap issues. Collingwood football boss Graham Wright has admitted to a cap “hangover” even after the Pies’ stunning offload of stars in last year’s trade period debacle.
Right now, it’s only speculation, but the Pies have no shortage of quality players that loom as gettable for the right price. Veteran Steele Sidebottom has been touted as potential trade bait for much of the season, while Jordan De Goey’s reported hefty pay packet would no doubt ease the Pies’ financial crisis… if they’re willing to give him up.
Most interestingly, captain Scott Pendlebury caused a stir by claiming he’d be willing to leave Collingwood to pursue a coaching career. Although he later clarified he wanted to stay with the Pies until his playing days are done, the Lions have history with that sort of caper: Luke Hodge’s two-year stint at the Gabba from 2018-19 played a major role in developing their young talent.
Is a superstar Swan the answer?
The Magpies aren’t the only club with salary-cap drama. It has been reported that the Sydney Swans are facing a mounting crisis, with a number of uncontracted guns at risk of departing for greener pastures elsewhere.
Top of the list – and the most obvious like-for-like Neale replacement in the AFL – is Luke Parker. Fresh off a best and fairest, the Swans co-captain is yet to sign a new deal with the club. With money tight and emerging star Jordan Dawson arguably just as high-priority a signing, the 28-year old would be a perfect fit in a Lions’ team with Neale’s mega contract (reportedly $4 million over five years) off the books.
Like the Lions, the Swans are on the hunt for success, but in a far more precarious position than their northern foes. If I’m Brisbane football boss Danny Daly, Parker is the first name on my list.
And what could Neale’s return do for the Dockers?
Despite a six-year finals drought, Freo fans have been patient in coach Justin Longmuir’s first two years at the helm. With development the order of the day, the club has unearthed a champion in the making in Andrew Brayshaw, plus a collection of future backline staples in Hayden Young, Heath Chapman and Griffin Logue. They’ve also got a bloke called Nat Fyfe who apparently goes okay.
Slow and steady improvement can only be tolerated for so long, however; and entering the always-crucial third year in charge, Longmuir and his team would be mad not to move heaven and earth to get Neale back into the purple as soon as possible. With Cerra all but out the door, replacing him with a player of that calibre would be a windfall that the Dockers have seldom seen in their frustrating three decades in the AFL.
The Dockers’ stocks are rock-solid in midfield, but even so, Neale’s arrival can only mean good things. It would lessen the responsibility on the ageless David Mundy, potentially even freeing him up to finish his career where he started, on the half-back line.
An elite contested mark, Fyfe could also be more readily deployed up forward, where the Dockers have struggled for firepower, ranking 16th for goals in 2021. For all Brayshaw’s ability, he has struggled to cope with hard tags in his career to date: having Neale next to him in the guts would ease the pressure at a stroke.
Freo fans are right to expect that their talented young side will end their finals drought in 2022. Add Neale to the mix, and even top-four could be on the table: after all, he took the Lions from 15th all the way to second in his first year there.