And then there were five. Welcome to lucky part number 13 of my season reviews on every side.
We are getting to the pointy end now with today’s subject the Brisbane Lions.
The Lions had another golden opportunity to win a flag and squandered it with their second straight sets exit from the finals in three years. At their best, the Brisbane Lions’ football was scintillating and brutal, however, the issue was injuries finally appeared to have reared their ugly head taking out Cam Rayner and Eric Hipwood from their side.
In this review, we will discuss what worked for the Lions, what failed, questions that remain and how they can improve before finishing off with a letter grade and a dramatically-too-early prediction for next season. Now without further ado, let us begin with what worked for the Lions.
The Joe Daniher trade
A lot has been made of the fact that Joe Daniher essentially went missing in the finals, and those criticisms are fair. However, before that point he was one of the most consistent key forwards in the competition kicking goals in every game bar one. Now, people might point out the fact that he’s on a very healthy pay packet, however, I would point out that the Bombers are a nightmare to deal with at the trade table.
Now onto his season itself. He was a cog of a forward machine that was well-oiled and brutally efficient. He was second in the Lions goal kicking with 46 (his second best return since his Critchon Medal-winning season), elite for disposals (14.3), and metres gained (313.6).
He appeared to relish not being ‘the man’ in the Lions’ forward line and enjoyed the freedom to roam up the ground and use his exemplary field kick to deliver the ball inside 50 as a true centre half forward assisting the deeper forwards like Charlie Cameron, Lincoln McArthy and Dan McStay.
Their development from the 2017 draft
The Lions had a historically bad year in 2017, however, out of the ashes of that season the core of their young side did emerge. Cameron Rayner, Zac Bailey, Brandon Starcevich, Connor Ballenden and Jack Payne were all drafted in this draft and have featured for the Lions at the top level since then.
Aside from Rayner, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament in 2021’s pre-season, I do not think you can grade any of them too harshly. Zac Bailey and Brandon Starcevich have become integral parts of the Brisbane Lions’ line-up at either end of the ground. Starcevich is one of the most talented lock down small defenders frequently finding himself in opposition to the dangerous medium talls like Dustin Martin and Jake Stringer.
Bailey, on the other hand, is a forward midfielder who is rated as above average to elite in disposals, goals, and score involvements. The South Australian has taken his game to a new level such that he may have even gone ahead of Cam Rayner in the value he represents to the Brisbane Lions.
Their obscenely deep midfield
The Lions have been building an exceptionally deep midfield that can match it with some of the strongest in the competition. The question at the crux of the list management decisions determining whether a player can become a midfielder in Chris Fagan’s system is: “Are they tough?”.
It is this perception of toughness that determines the suitability for the Brisbane midfield. Now, one criticism of this is that it can create a one-paced midfield with poor disposal because of how much they’ve developed their inside ball winning abilities.
However, any midfield that features Lachie Neale, Hugh McCluggage, and Jarrod Lyons is pretty good. When you combine that with the raw explosiveness of Zac Bailey and Cam Rayner, the stalwart tagging of Deven Robertson and the combativeness of Mitch Robinson the midfield becomes far greater than the sum of its parts.
Bailey in particular took his game to a new level this season and will only benefit from the return of Rayner into the midfield allowing him to return to the forward line and further his craft to go with his 31 goals this year.
Dayne Zorko has an ageless quality about him to go along with his fifth Merrett Murray Medal. It’s a very good example in the litany of trading failures that have dominated the Gold Coast history.
It appears that the good luck of Brisbane has finally come to an end. They have had extremely bad luck with injuries this year with multiple ACL injuries for Cam Rayner and Eric Hipwood depriving their forward line of two potent agents.
It was clear that Harris Andrews was clearly carrying a high ankle sprain in the finals limiting his intercepting ability in the back line. Moreover, the reigning Brownlow Medallist missed several games as a result of various injuries throughout the year, crippling his chances of going back-to-back in the Brownlow.
It only brought into stark relief how privileged a run with injuries the Lions have had to this point as Lincoln Mcarthy, Joe Daniher and Nakia Cockatoo all feature prominently across the season despite each of these players being extremely injury-prone at their former clubs.
Despite the injuries, the Lions were still able to make the top four, and while they crashed out in straight sets, they have secured the bulk of their young talent.
Lack of speed in the backline
The backline of the Lions is nothing if not stout, and they do have weapons available to them, the penetrating kick of Daniel Rich, the lanky arms of Harris Andrews, and the lockdown role that Starcevich and Marcus Adams play to release their more attacking counter parts.
The one aspect I would criticise the Lions for is they lack speed to move the ball from end to end, they lack the 100-metre players who can run 20-30 metres and kick the ball 50-80 metres.
What they need is a player behind the ball that can provide important run and carry while keeping up with the quicker small forwards. You can argue that Callum Ah Chee represents that, but who else do they have at his position? Kedian Coleman whose played primarily as a forward.
The Lions’ backline is sure to get a bit more speed with the retirement of the injury-prone Grant Birchall but I believe they urgently need it to stretch defences.
How long can the Lions remain up the top?
The Lions have made the finals the last three years. However, they did give up a golden opportunity in 2020 to take out the ultimate prize when the entire finals series was played in Queensland. So, the question remains: how long can they contend?
Furthermore, can they contend with an atrocious record at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. I think they have at least 2-3 years left in them, however after that the salary cap will become onerously tight for the Lions and they will inevitably have to begin trading talent out to keep the salary cap from bursting.
Can they go deeper into September?
Short answer? Yes, they certainly can. Longer answer is they have been agonisingly close two of the last three years. They unexpectedly made the top four in 2019 and that has given everyone something of a false dawn about the Lions – they’re expected to be more advanced than they are.
Draft more outside run
The Lions currently have picks 14 and 18 in the first round of the 2021 draft, giving them a strong hand to either move up the draft or take them to add another injection of youth.
I think they will end up doing a combination of the two, they will use one of the picks to draft a player like Darcy Wilmot or Machito Owens (brilliant name, by the way) and the other to strengthen their hand for next year’s draft where they have Will Ashcroft – the son of Marcus Ashcroft – coming through as a top-five selection.
Get back up for the Big O and Joey
The Lions are sorely lacking in key position depth in the ruck and the key forward position with the likely absence of Eric Hipwood for the majority of next season.
Now, the news of a link to Peter Ladhams, Levi Casboult and even the American Pie, Mason Cox. What they need is a forward ruck that can stretch the opposition defence while also providing relief to Joe Daniher who has shown he is essentially the biggest half forward flanker ever.
Best and fairest: Dayne Zorko
Zorko won his fifth Merrett-Murray Medal to really etch his name into the folklore of the Brisbane Lions. He was considerably more combative this season spending more time on the forward flank and providing pressure and dare to add a different element to the half forward flank and rotating through the midfield.
He may be agonisingly disappointed but he does provide the Lions with leadership to ensure they can stay in games.
Best win: Collingwood, Round 2
What’s better than a Collingwood loss? A Collingwood loss by one point with a goal after the siren by a clinical Zac Bailey. My own very healthy anti-Collingwood bias is showing here but I loved this win from the Lions, particularly the week they had where they had been robbed of the win the week before.
Letter Grade: C-
They’re in a holding pattern after the last year. They managed to scrape into the top four by the skin of their teeth but they crashed out in straight sets for the second time in three years. However, they didn’t crash out of finals or anything too traumatic (like Richmond), so they get a C. They need to ensure that they can play a plan B otherwise they may regret going so hard for the now.
Way-too-early prediction: 2nd to 7th
The Lions haven’t lost any talent. Even Lachie Neale has recommitted to the Lions for the remaining two years of his deal despite the natural lure of home with his partner’s pregnancy. I think they will still be contending to be a premiership threat next year, however, questions remain around the game style and ensuring they can reliably contend going forward.
There you have it, folks. Congratulations for reading through to the end. Come back tomorrow for the next part in the series – Port Adelaide.
As always, leave your thoughts and comments in the comments section below and I will do my best to respond.