At the end of any year, it is often a time to reflect. This is no different for sports fans looking back on the…
Much like the previous few seasons, the Brisbane Lions and their supporter base entered season 2023 with a heightened level of hope and optimism.
With off-season acquisitions such as Josh Dunkley, Will Ashcroft and Conor McKenna bolstering an already impressive playing list, the Lions were primed in 2023 and left with no excuses not to perform on the big stage. Despite this optimism, there was an equal level of anxiousness to see if they could deliver at the pointy end of the season, given Brisbane was dismantled to the tune of 71 points by a rampant Geelong outfit in the 2022 preliminary final.
It was evident at various stages throughout the season this 2023 version of the Brisbane Lions had a steelier resolve about them, as they were able to respond during games when challenged by the opposition and showed the composure to close out tight games when momentum was against them- Round 19’s 11-point victory against Geelong immediately springs to mind.
Brisbane also showed great improvement in one of the main areas where they looked vulnerable in 2022: team defence. After publicly acknowledging their system defence needed tinkering over the off-season, the proof was in the pudding. Their average points conceded per game in 2023 was only 77 points, down from 82 points during the 2022 season.
After a rollercoaster back half of the 2022 home-and-away season and finishing in sixth with a 15-7 record, the Lions were more consistent throughout the 2023 season, finishing in second position on the ladder with a 17-6 home-and-away record. A large reason for this was due to their performances at the Gabba, where they had an impeccable record of 13-0 with an average winning margin of 34 points in 2023. Playing Brisbane at the Gabba is widely considered the toughest road trip in the AFL, as their win-loss record now extends to 51-8 at the venue since the start of 2019.
By winning their last four games of the year, the Lions secured a top-two finish and became the only side in the AFL to play finals in each of the past five seasons. Chris Fagan’s men also gave themselves the luxury of not having to jump on a plane until grand final day –assuming they were good enough to make it that far. They were indeed good enough despite falling agonisingly short against Collingwood on the last Saturday in September.
The season summed up in one word…
For various (and somewhat obvious) reasons, this was Brisbane’s biggest team highlight of the season. The Lions’ failure to reach the granny in the last few seasons has been well documented, with two heavy preliminary final defeats in 2020 and 2022 against Geelong still vivid in fans’ memories. 15 minutes into the first quarter of this preliminary final against the Blues, it appeared this season might end in a similar vein.
Carlton had jumped the Lions by piling on the first five goals of the game to send the Gabba crowd (well, the Lions portion in attendance at least) into a state of shock. Personally, the most important moment of the match followed soon after as Eric Hipwood went back from 45 metres out and kicked the home side’s first goal to arrest some of the momentum. From that point forward, Brisbane controlled the majority of the game and finished 16-point victors to secure their first GF berth since 2004.
Fresh off the mid-season bye, Brisbane took on the 16th-placed Hawthorn on a cold Saturday afternoon at the MCG. After an away loss to Adelaide in their last outing, a response was expected from the Lions; however, that response never came in this clash. Right from the outset, they looked slow and lethargic on the wide expansions of the MCG, with the fleet-footed Hawthorn using a clear handballing tactic to slice through Brisbane’s team defence at will.
This loss was a 2023 lowlight for various other reasons as well: Firstly, it gave the ongoing ‘MCG hoodoo’ talk a lot of traction in the media (despite beating Melbourne at the venue in the 2022 semi-final). Secondly, unbeknownst at the time, this game turned out to be Daniel Rich’s final game at AFL level.
The sudden retirement of Marcus Adams to concussion prior to the 2023 season left a gaping hole in the Lions’ key defensive posts… enter Jack Payne. Although Payne had been a solid contributor in some of the club’s big finals in previous seasons, he often found himself stuck behind Adams, All-Australian defender Harris Andrews and the reliable Darcy Gardiner in the key defenders pecking order. Along with one-on-one strength, the 24-year-old’s speed and athleticism for his size helped him become one of the most improved players in the competition in 2023, forming a formidable partnership with co-captain Andrews.
Payne’s ability to lock down the opposition’s best key forward also freed up Andrews – allowing him to play more of a roaming/intercepting role on a ‘lesser’ opponent at times. His breakout performance came under Friday night lights against Carlton in Round 8, keeping two-time Coleman medallist Charlie Curnow to just one goal and ten disposals. After injury prevented him from playing in the grand final, Payne will look to establish himself as one of the competition’s best key defenders in 2024.
Will the Lions go one better next season?