When Brisbane are on, they are something to behold.
For two and a half quarters against Carlton at the Gabba, from the dying stages of the first term to midway through the last, the Lions were on. And it was breathtaking.
Keidean Coleman played the game of his life from half-back, intercepting everything that came his way, getting the Lions going with precise kicking, and even pushing up to the brink of 50, where he had a hand in an equal game-high seven scores.
Lachie Neale was once again rampant in the midfield after a slow start, turning the tables on Patrick Cripps, Sam Walsh and co. with another supreme performance. Alongside him, Josh Dunkley’s second term for the ages was crucial in turning the tide, while Oscar McInerney’s reach, deft tapwork and ability to press forward made mincemeat of the Marc Pittonet-Tom De Koning combination that had nullified Max Gawn a week ago.
On the outside, Jarrod Berry played possibly his best game of the season to continually give the Lions an outlet option, with his speed, endurance and smart kicking more than making up for a quiet game from Hugh McCluggage on the inside.
Down back, Darcy Gardiner stepped into the breach left by Jack Payne to nullify Charlie Curnow; in front of them, Harris Andrews’ aerial efforts were dazzling. Conor McKenna and Ryan Lester were very nearly as damaging as Coleman once the game tipped the Lions’ way.
In attack, Lincoln McCarthy’s pressure first cut the Blues’ defensive structure to ribbons, before his goal nous and accurate kicking saw him cash in with two goals.
Charlie Cameron got better as the game wore on, Joe Daniher more precise.
In the middle two quarters, the stats said everything you needed to know about the Lions’ utter dominance. From 11-22 down in inside 50s at quarter time (the Blues’ number the most the Lions have conceded in a quarter all year) they’d go 39-18 from then until three quarter time. After a 9-5 clearance disadvantage early, including 5-1 from centre bounces as Walsh started hot, the Lions would go 39-21 for the rest of the match.
Every single stat that, nine times out of ten, pinpoints the Lions’ dominance, was decisively in their favour. In anyone’s book, that’s a thrashing.
Any team that can get jumped like the Lions were by the Blues in the first 25 minutes, conceding five goals to zero to leave their season on the brink, and rebound so devastatingly, is something special. If those two and half quarters of mayhem were how they played all match long, they’d have won by 10 goals and be going into this grand final as premiership favourites.
But everything they did so brilliantly in the second and third quarters – their dynamic running, precise kicking, super-fast transition speed and deadly forward line – was as noticeable for being unstoppable during their golden run as it was for being just about totally absent in the first term.
No doubt the Collingwood brains trust will have been jotting down notes furiously about how the Blues were able to shut down the Lions’ transition play – from nine defensive 50 possession chains in that opening term, the Lions, among the best in the league at scoring from the back half, failed to register a single goal.
There was haphazard bombing to contests, long but ill-thought-out kicks straight to Blues outnumbers, or just straight up turnovers: all under a suffocating blanket of Blues pressure.
22 inside 50s in the first term is a simple staggering amount to give up in a preliminary final; really, the Lions’ defence did well to hold out for as long as they did, as it was only with three quick goals late in the quarter that the margin accurately reflected the Blues’ stunning start.
The Lions have always had issues in coping with manic pressure on their running half-backs, which with six tackles inside 50 to quarter time the Blues certainly brought. It proved crucial in their most recent loss to Gold Coast, and was a big reason why Chris Fagan has deemed the older, slower Daniel Rich surplus to requirements in the back end of the season.
Pressured into submission early by a ferocious Carlton team effort, the Blues’ smothering effect was epitomised by the fact the Lions, the heaviest-kicking team in the competition all year whose kick-handball ratio is 2:1, had 46 passes by foot and 43 by hand at quarter time.
The home team, as a comparison, would have 177 kicks and 66 handballs for the rest of the match as they got the game back on their own terms.
Denied any tempo early by that same pressure, 14 marks to quarter time became 104 by the end, the Lions even exceeding their own competition third-best average of 99 per game.
The Blues, it seemed, had one shot to fire before they could give no more – those two middle quarters told of a team fatigued, and after those elimination and semi final thrillers, who could blame them?
But that shot was a pretty spectacular one all the same. Teams don’t usually lose finals from a five-goal head start, and certainly not as comprehensively as this.
It was only when the Lions, seemingly assured of a grand final spot, slackened in the last that the Blues could rally, turning just one goal from late in the first quarter to midway through the last to two in three minutes to draw the margin back to 16 points.
Essentially, my point is this: the Lions are, for all their many strengths, still so vulnerable. Because as good as that period of dominance was, that they only ended up winning by 16 points, on their impregnable home patch, against a side that ended with quite literally nothing in the tank after a gruelling September, could prove just as significant as what they can do at their best.
The Pies won’t be as easy to flick the switch on as the Blues were this week; their pressure won’t abate quite as quickly as Carlton’s, nor will they find it as straightforward to get the match back on their terms.
Pound for pound, Brisbane are stronger than Collingwood – their forward lines are a world apart, the Lions’ midfield is a supreme, well-oiled machine and the Magpies’ is only middle of the road, and both backlines are packed with stars both for defence and attack.
Let’s put it this way: if the Lions again decide not to show up for the first quarter, I can’t see it working out quite as well as it did here.
Brisbane are still such a bizarre team to try and get a read on: it sure feels like they should be even more dominant than they are, a grand final berth notwithstanding.
Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe I’m just a miserable bastard who hates fun and can’t accept that every team is going to have weaknesses.
But my gut feeling remains the same as it has been since the Lions knocked off the Magpies in Round 23: if they can’t win the flag from here, it’ll be an egregious waste of the spectacular talent on their list.
And if any team can find a way to turn those periods of vulnerability into a critical, grand final-defining weakness for longer than the single quarter Carlton managed it, you can bet your bottom dollar it’ll be Collingwood.
At the very least, if it’s the Pies who draw the margin to 16 points midway through the final quarter at the MCG next week, every single person associated with Brisbane will break out in a cold sweat.