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Finals Fix: The Lions just cracked September after four years of trying - and everyone else should be terrified

9th September, 2023
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9th September, 2023
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For five consecutive years, Brisbane have either finished the home-and-away season in the top four, or made it to the last four come September.

No other team in the AFL even has a current finals streak of more than three straight years.

Yet despite that extended period at the top, made all the more remarkable by the Lions’ near-decade of despair in or around the bottom six preceding it, the defining feature of Chris Fagan’s time at the helm has been finals heartbreak. Year after year, Brisbane have reached the pointy end as a bona fide flag contender, and year after year, whether it be at their Gabba fortress or on the road, they have come up short.

But those days may, at long last, be over.

The Lions’ 48-point dispatching of Port Adelaide at the Gabba, quite comfortably the most impressive performance of any finalist this weekend, was the comprehensive show of power this club needed to prove to the footy world – and maybe themselves too – that this year would be different.

It has been clear for a while that this is the most talented team in the AFL, one chock full of stars on every line capable of tearing even the most formidable opponents asunder, especially on home soil.

What was unclear was whether the heat of September, and the scars of years past, would combine to reduce the Lions to shadows of their best, as happened in 2019 with a straight-sets exit, 2020 with a home preliminary final capitulation, 2021 with another pair of finals defeats, one resoundingly and the other heartbreakingly, and in 2022 with a prelim destruction that undid the good work of two previous finals wins.

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Well, we now know the answer.

From the moment Zac Bailey snapped a wonderful first goal of the night in the eighth minute, this was a game on the Lions’ terms, with the Power doing all they could to cling to their coat tails and stay alive.

That they managed it until halfway through the third quarter, when a combination of a nightmare five minutes that featured the tactical substitution of Darcy Byrne-Jones mere seconds before Dylan Williams tweaked a hamstring and Trent McKenzie damaged an ankle to expose their vulnerable defence even further, is a credit to Port.

Given Collingwood were hardly emphatic in their qualifying final win on Thursday night, this loss is far from a death knell for their season.

No, the story is the Lions, who must surely now be the premiership favourites, so imperious was their display on Saturday night.

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For the Power, it must have felt like playing Whack-a-mole. Oh, so your tag on Lachie Neale proves successful, with Willem Drew holding him to nine touches at half time and just 19 for the match, eh Ken? Well, what can you do about THIS? *dramatically unfurls Hugh McCluggage for 23 disposals and eight clearances despite a dodgy hip*

Oh, so you’ve kept Charlie Cameron goalless to half time? Well, that simply won’t do at all for Charlie. He’ll soon put that right, and just for good measure, he’ll make it two in a minute. Hope you like listening to John Denver!

So much of what Port Adelaide did at the Gabba worked brilliantly: nullifying Neale allowed them to control the stoppage all evening, especially around the ground, with a 42-39 advantage against the best clearance team in the business.

Ollie Lord played one of the great debut finals from a key forward, not only spooking Harris Andrews into having one of his dirtiest nights in recent memory with just eight disposals and minimal aerial presence, but bagging four goals and looking deadly whenever the ball went his way.

Cameron’s 30-second burst was the only time Ryan Burton lost control of that match-up, even after the Lions began putting the visitors to the sword. Dayne Zorko was barely sighted, Oscar McInerney probably shaded in the ruck duel by the returning Scott Lycett, and the Lions had no answer all night to Connor Rozee and Zak Butters, who were magnificent once again.

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And none of it made a damn bit of difference.

Honestly, what hope does anyone have if Jaspa Fletcher, the OTHER father-son gun, all of 12 games into his AFL career and with five goals and an average of under 12 touches to his name, snags himself three and looks every inch the match-winner that seemingly half this team is?

Or if Cam Rayner, an utter tease for much of his career and whose miserable time at half-back to start this season prompted a radical rethink from Fagan, had the defining performance of his footy life to date, with three of his own and a monstrous influence on every contest his imposing frame and explosive speed drew him to?

Speaking of career games, may I present McCluggage: seemingly out for the game with a hip flexor issue midway through the second term as the Power surged into the only lead they’d hold all night, he’d have seven disposals, three clearances, a goal assist and a major of his own in barely five minutes to put the Lions back in front at the main break. As you do.

And how on earth are you meant to stop Joe Daniher in this kind of mood, who comprehensively bossed Aliir Aliir in every way, and kicked for goal like a dream to boot? Five goals from the big Lion on the Power’s best defender, most sinking the slipper in after half time as the Lions began to dominate.

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With Daniher deployed deep in a change from his usual role, presumably to ensure Aliir was always occupied and unable to rule the skies as is his want, Eric Hipwood roamed freely up the ground and was just as impactful. With just one goal and three behinds, a day out was ruined by errant kicking, but his seven marks to constantly link the Lions’ dashing defence, led by Keidean Coleman, and their menacing forward line was sublime.

With Andrews otherwise engaged, up stepped Brandon Starcevich: smaller, slighter and just about the most unassuming-looking defender in the Lions’ back six, he’s the sort of player you wouldn’t know if he popped up in your Weet-bix but he just happens to be arguably the best small defender in the game.

His 10 intercept possessions, just as comfortable mopping up at ground level as in the air, came while holding Sam Powell-Pepper right up until a pair of cheap last-quarter goals with the match gone.

This is a team so potent that they can kick 19 goals from just 318 disposals – indeed, the 627 touches combined from the two teams must surely be the lowest of the season. The Lions are all about efficiency, and they have the beautiful kicking skills to match: but even for them, who on average kick the ball with two-thirds of their disposals, racking up 223 of them to just 95 handballs was something out of the box.

Charlie Cameron celebrates.

Charlie Cameron celebrates. (Photo by Russell Freeman/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

You give the Lions 67 inside 50s – and really, Port could genuinely do nothing to stop them in the second half – and you’re not winning. Period.

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This was, in all honesty, an unimprovable finals performance: from their stoppage menace, piling on 81 points despite both losing the clearance count and having their best ball-winner in Neale well held, just adds another string to their bow, given their history this year has mostly been in scoring from turnovers.

It’s enough to terrify you if you barrack for Carlton or Melbourne, the Lions’ potential preliminary final opponents… and if you go for Collingwood or GWS, you should probably start getting scared to. The Power, you fancy, don’t need the reminder.

I wrote three weeks ago that this year is the best chance the Lions will ever get at securing the flag that has thus far eluded them.

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Whether that’s true or not will only be known in the seasons to come, but one thing’s for certain now: this, for the first time in 20 years, really feels like Brisbane’s time.

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