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Footy Fix: Chris Fagan's finest hour? How the Lions gave the Dees - and Simon Goodwin - the mother of all baths

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11th April, 2024
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19 months ago, a banged-up Brisbane came to the MCG as heavy underdogs, faced a formidable Melbourne outfit that stood among the premiership favourites, and emerged with their greatest triumph under Chris Fagan.

This latest victory over the Demons on their own turf, from equally unlikely odds, might not be quite the equal of a semi-final on the road, but it might be Chris Fagan’s best as coach.

His Lions, after more than a month of near wall to wall criticism, seemingly facing the inevitable downward spiral that comes for every contender eventually, arrived at the ‘G with a plan to bring down a red-hot Dees outfit, executed it flawlessly, and head back to Queensland with reputations near restored at a single stroke.

Forget the eventual 22-point margin, brought down into the realms of respectable, along with every other stat the Lions dominated all night, by the Dees booting the game’s last four goals with the sting well and truly out of the contest. This was a shellacking in all but name, and I have no doubt the Demons especially will treat it as such during the week to come as they head into a bye that now seems badly needed.

So stunning was the performance, so perfectly honed was every tactic to clamp down on Melbourne’s strengths and ruthlessly expose their weaknesses, that I’m honestly not sure whether it’s replicable for the rest of the Lions’ season. We’ve seen this sort of raging against the dying of the light from many a falling powerhouse before, from Richmond and Hawthorn following their era of flags galore, that briefly fool everyone into thinking their reign continues, only for Father Time to once again prove undefeated.

It will take us some weeks to know for sure whether that’s the case here; whether Fagan imbued his charges with the tactical tools to muster one glorious surge of energy that made them all but unbeatable against the Demons, or if this is something more lasting. You can find evidence for both if you look hard enough.

Zac Bailey celebrates a goal.

Zac Bailey celebrates a goal. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

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Offensively, the Lions were sharper at the contest, dominating clearances and winning disputed balls at virtually every opportunity; but this was far from a side simply, as Jonathan Brown loves to claim, going in harder and wanting it more. There was method to the madness.

At every stoppage around the ground, Christian Petracca, the Demons’ – nay, maybe the AFL’s – most dangerous midfielder at exploding from the coalface and surging his team forward, was consistently buffeted, checked and scragged away from influencing those loose balls.

To achieve this, the Lions pushed extra numbers up to the stoppages, usually a wingman – be it Callum Ah Chee, or Jaspa Fletcher, or Cam Rayner coming up from half-forward to impose (more on him later), Petracca barely had a clear run at the ball all night.

The result? One of the 2021 Norm Smith Medallist’s worst matches in red and blue – 20 disposals, two clearances (his equal-worst in a game since 2022, and equal second-worst since Round 1, 2021), and frazzled enough to mark 70 metres from goal in the third quarter, wait, assess his options, and bomb brainlessly to the two Lions all on their own deep inside 50, in what might be the worst decision he’s ever made on a footy field.

At other times, the Dees have been able to cover for a down game for Petracca by virtue of Clayton Oliver’s game-breaking presence, but whether hampered by his hand injury or still lacking full fitness following his interrupted pre-season, he is looking a long way off his best.

There was no fear in the Lions’ approach to handling him, no concern about what he could do to them with hands on the ball. When he picked it up, he was immediately beset upon, giving away two free kicks in the process, and his timing and ball-winning nous were both subdued enough to leave him with a mere 18 disposals for the night – half of what he can produce at his best, with not a tag in sight.

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Oliver had one clearance for the night, and was even shifted to half-back in the second half in a desperate bid by Simon Goodwin to inject some life into his on-ball brigade, which only started working when it was far too late. And even then, Oliver continued to struggle – this non-tackle on Hugh McCluggage to allow him to waltz through and soccer through a goal in the third term, all but sealing the match, is on the podium as one of the poorest efforts I’ve seen from a modern great.

And then there was this, too.

Three clearances combined for the Dees’ best two midfielders – one of them quelled by the Lions, the other by his own physical limitations. Max Gawn genuinely had one of the finest nights of his career in the ruck and it didn’t make a damn bit of difference.

Negating Petracca enabled the Lions’ two bulls, Lachie Neale and the explosive Rayner, free reign to work their usual magic. Rayner had career-highs for clearances and inside 50s by the 20-minute mark of the first term – yes, that’s correct, the FIRST TERM – and it was as much to do with the extra exposure on-ball Fagan afforded him as the extra man in and around stoppages as it was natural ability coming to the fore. Of his nine clearances for the night, just one was out of the centre.

It was a shared load from the Lions around the ball, with Neale’s 24 disposals at the low end of his usually prolific range and Hugh McCluggage finding greater influence with his two goals as with his 23 touches in a classic high-impact game.

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Up until the last quarter, the Lions were +15 on the clearance count – and just as damagingly, scoring from them too up forward, which up until now has been a classically Melbourne trait in 2024.

The below clip isn’t one of the five goals they kicked from stoppages in the first half, but it is reflective of how they managed it: Gawn wins the hitout decisively, but the Lions are aware he, when faced with a non-ruckman like Joe Daniher, will attempt to gain territory and hit to the boundary side to attempt to minimise the damage of a turnover.

It’s predictable, and it’s exactly where Hugh McCluggage finds himself unopposed, who only misses out on a goal by virtue of a shocking bounce.

But winning the clearances is one thing – Port Adelaide did similarly a fortnight ago and still lost – and then there’s using it effectively. But just as they had a plan to influence Petracca, so too did Fagan’s Lions come prepared to nullify Steven May and Jake Lever, the former especially.

The Dees’ twin towers love nothing more than long, telegraphed balls into predictable spots going inside 50 – they intercept those balls for a living, whether by marking strongly or by getting a strong fist into the ball and neutralising the contest.

The Lions’ response was simple, and superbly executed. To half time, 23 of their 29 kicks inside 50 were directed between 30 and 50 metres out from goal. Some were lowered-eyes passes to leading forwards, many were less precise, but as a rule, Brisbane refused to kick the ball at the teeth of goal.

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It was exactly what Joe Daniher and Eric Hipwood needed – with speed on their side compared to their Demon counterparts, they regularly used the space in front of them to their advantage; pushing back to within 30 metres of goal, with May and Lever playing back shoulder, as is their want, there was space galore ahead of them to work into.

With five marks inside 50 between them – and a further three to Charlie Cameron, another superbly speedy customer – the Lions took full toll, reacting nearly universally quicker to those lower, less penetrative entries than the Dees because, well, they’d planned for them coming. Four of their seven goals in the first half were scored within that 30-50m range, and a further one from outside 50.

May went into the sheds at half time with just two marks to his name, too.

None of it was rocket science. All of it was backed up by the ferocious pressure of a side desperate to prove they remain a force – their pressure factor of 208 midway through the second quarter is ferocious by anyone’s standards, never mind for a Brisbane team whose greatest damage is usually done with the footy rather than without it.

But rarely has Fagan so comprehensively outcoached a rival as he did to Goodwin, and never have his team so flawlessly executed the plans he and his support staff designed for them.

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This is a famous win by anyone’s measure. Let’s just wait and see if they can replicate it before re-anointing Brisbane as a powerhouse once more.

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