THE GOOD, BAD AND UGLY – BRISBANE 2020 SEASON PREVIEW

 

So, we’re making this an annual tradition now – extensive season previews for all 18 teams in this format because… well, people seem to like the Good, Bad, Ugly format for game reviews and I thought why not? Also, I really like Clint Eastwood.

Brisbane broke through and made finals in 2019. They thumbed their collective nose at those who thought they weren’t ready and not only pushed into the top eight, but into the top two, and opened the eyes of the footy world to a new breed of young Lions, spearheaded by their newly-recruited superstar, Lachie Neale.

As we enter 2020, they are looking at going one step better – at least.

Can they do it? Let’s explore with a little bit of the old good, bad and ugly, Mongrel-style.

 

THE GOOD

 

PLENTY OF ROOM TO IMPROVE?

Brisbane made the leap quite a few were expecting in 2019, but the manner in which they did so surprised even those who thought they’d improve. They hit the season like they were shot out of a cannon, upsetting the reigning premiers in Round One, and they barely looked back.

I have to admit, I thought at some point they’d hit the wall and lose a few on the trot. I thought they’d fall back to the pack and end up in a battle for fifth, sixth and seventh, but I was more than happy to be wrong as the Lions continued to roll.

Whilst the end of the season refused to cooperate and allow the fairy tale ending, the campaign as a whole was a huge success for the Lions, far exceeding the expectations of most. The great thing about it was that they did it without many of their stars performing at their peak. There is still a mountain of improvement left in this team as they strive to get back to the finals and atone for their straight sets exit.

Players such as Cam Rayner, Eric Hipwood, Daniel McStay, Hugh McCluggage, Harris Andrews and Jarrod Berry have significant improvement left in them and in the next couple of years could become the names on the tips of the football public’s tongues. Whilst other teams have struggled to get out of the bottom five, the Brisbane Lions left their previous incarnation for dead, embracing their new arrivals (Neale, Lyons) and allowing them to guide their way into a fresh, new, exciting era.

There has been a little speculation as to whether the Lions can do it all again, and do it better in 2020, but they’ve had the taste of success now, and they’re hungry for more. We may have seen the Brisbane renaissance in 2019. What can we see from them in 2020?

 

A POINT TO PROVE

If there is one player in Brisbane who will need no motivation to work hard on the track this season, it’s Charlie Cameron.

After a home and away season where he cemented himself as the premier small forward in the caper, Charlie ran into some trouble. That trouble has a name – Dylan Grimes.

In back to back games, Charlie looked way too concerned with the way Grimes was opting to play him, and I believe he allowed his opponent into his head. I watched as he initiated holding against Grimes, only to release and claim he was being held, himself.

Cameron came into those two games against Grimes in scintillating form, notching 11 goals in the previous two weeks, but it all stopped there. He averaged just seven touches against Grimes, and three total goals were nowhere near enough to keep his team in the game. The following week, Charlie was in the headlines again; this time for an unfortunate injury that was a huge talking point in the game. Charlie showed enormous courage to continue on with an arm that was clearly injured, but it was not the way you wanted to see him in finals – struggling to overcome an injury.

Cameron will be looking at making headlines for the right reasons again in 2020, and he will have his return date with Dylan Grimes circled on the calendar. He’ll get that in Round Eight, at the Gabba again, and if he has learnt a couple of lessons, I think we’ll see Charlie Cameron play a very different game this time round.

Whilst you could argue that 2019 was already Charlie Cameron’s year, the lasting images for him will be of him tangling with Grimes and nursing an injured arm as Adam Kennedy tried to get to it. 2020 is his time to give people a bit more remember him by.

 

BUT HE DOESN’T HURT TEAMS…

Have you heard the argument against the influence of Lachie Neale on the Lions? I have, several times, and I have come to the conclusion that the people stating Neale doesn’t have a big influence on games either watched him on a rare off-day, or haven’t watched him at all.

Neale is a star of the highest order, and it is no coincidence that the revival of the Lions went hand in hand with Neale’s arrival on the scene.

You think about it – Dayne Beams is no slouch, and he had some great years in Brisbane, but you take him out of the side and add in Neale and suddenly they’re leaping from second last to second?

Yeah, he has no influence.

I watched his first four games with a smile on my face, knowing that he was finally going to get the recognition he deserved after playing in the shadow of Nat Fyfe at Freo. I was genuinely pleased for him.

Brisbane fans must smile when people say Neale has no real influence in the same manner Hawthorn fans smile when people say it about Tom Mitchell. Look at what happened to the Hawks without Mitchell in there in 2019 – I have the feeling Brisbane are in the same boat. Neale just makes the whole team better.

Let people say he has little influence. Let them believe it. And let them lament it when Lachie Neale tears their team a new one when they meet. He will. It’s inevitable, because he is that good.

 

ATONEMENT

In a recent article on… somewhere, Alex Witherden said he was embarrassed about the way he handled the situation that led to the running Brent Daniels goal in the semi-final last season. The goal gave the Giants the lead and they were never headed.

Witherden was caught ball-watching and was drawn to the contest, allowing his man to hit the spillage hard, gather and run in to slot a ripping goal.

And thus, the wonderful season of the Lions came to an end, and Witherden was left to lament what could’ve been.

But there is more for Witherden to think about over the next couple of months, as he looks set to assume a lot of the responsibility for the direction of the Lions defence in the absence of Luke Hodge. Big shoes to fill.

Witherden played a slightly diminished role in 2019 and looked a far cry from the star on the rise of his first two seasons in the league. Whilst a little more attentive defensively, he was unable to accumulate the same number of possessions as previous seasons, taking a back seat to any of Andrews, Rich and even Hodge in terms of Brisbane’s most important defenders.

So, what changes headed into the 2020 season, and how does Witherden atone for what was not only a poor moment in the finals, but a slight drop off in overall production in 2019? And really, does he have to?

Let’s start at the last question first. He doesn’t have to atone for anything. As long as the Lions maintain their winning ways, it matters not that Witherden’s numbers are down. That’s an individualistic way to view things in what remains a team sport. If he averages 15 touches per game but the Lions win, he’d take that, so in terms of his numbers, let’s forget about it.

The stats may not matter, but that finals moment has obviously had an impact on him – it was the focus of an entire article (which can mean nothing… I might do an article on how moustaches impact the aerodynamic flight of wingmen at one stage – it doesn’t mean it’s THAT important). Teams employ professionals to deal with the psychological fallout from situations like this, and Witherden will have worked through what it was, what it meant and how he will deal with it. My guess is that in moments where he lacks a bit of motivation, he finds it in wanting to atone for that moment. He will use it as a driver.

He will have his work cut out for him in defence this season, and we’ll get to the reasons why soon enough, but the challenge is there for Witherden to step up into a role, or slide to the side, and allow someone else to do it.

 

THE NEW MODEL

We’ve heard commentators apply the title of ‘Rolls Royce’ to a few players over the journey – most recently to Scott Pendlebury and Shaun Higgins, but there is a new model parading around AFL grounds at the moment.

It was first wheeled out for a drive in 2017 but needed a few kilometres on the clock to really start humming along nicely. After three years of cruising around AFL grounds, the Brisbane Lions might be ready to open up this new model Rolls Royce and really see what it can do.

Hugh McCluggage was not a household name at the beginning of 2019. To be entirely truthful, he is not a household name right now, but things change quickly, and when you watch McCluggage glide through the middle of the Gabba, you can’t help but be taken with just how bloody good he looks with the footy in his hand. He could go from being a good player on the cusp of the All-Australian squad to a superstar of the competition in just one season.

You think I’m joking? You must not watch a lot of Brisbane Lions games.

McCluggage was +3.29 disposals per game in 2019, and established himself as one of the premier wingmen in the game. If the AA selectors actually went with genuine wing players in their team, McCluggage may have had a shot, but with those positions largely viewed as a way to squeeze a couple more mids into the team, he may be unlucky for a while yet.

At just 21 years of age, the young Lion has plenty of room to improve. He already has the patience, poise and vision to capture the attention of most serious football watchers, and after year three, is tracking along very similarly to Pendlebury at the same time. Pendles hit 25 touches per game in his fourth year – it would be the last time he averaged such a paltry amount.

Will McCluggage make a similar leap? Is 2020 the year he truly breaks out and puts his name on the lips of the footy public? If you told Brisbane supporters right now that they have a Scott Pendlebury clone on their hands, what reaction do you think you’d get.

There’d be a lot of smiles on a lot of faces, and given what we’ve seen from McCluggage this far, those smiles might get a little wider in 2020.

 

A HARD EDGE AND THE HEIR APPARENT?

I’m an old fella in terms of being a footy fan. I remember days when things were a little more willing, and you were just as likely to be picked because you could fix a guy up physically as you were for being a good user of the footy.

In many ways, Mitch Robinson is a throwback to a time when players were a little more reckless. Not in a negative way – if anything, Robinson is reckless with his own body before being reckless with that of another. He is one player that is completely unafraid to throw his body into a contest irrespective of who is coming the other way, and when it is his turn to go, he does not hesitate.

I’m a big believer that every team needs someone that gives them a bit of an edge – someone who will push the envelope and fly the flag when necessary. Mitch Robinson is that man for Brisbane.

Robbo had what was probably his best year in footy in 2019. Not only did he find his place in an improving Brisbane team and become vital to their success, he also had a string of games where his football was elite. Yeah, he is known for his bustling and hustling, but from Round 19-21, here at the Mongrel Punt, we adjudged him as the best on ground in three straight games.

There’s not many players in the league that put together a run like that at any stage of the season.

Robbo’s 2019 will sadly also be remembered for two things – one of which he might wish he wasn’t. The hamstring injury that ended his season in the Qualifying Final was a heartbreaker. Robbo is made for finals footy. When the intensity goes up, so does the potential for him to be involved.

The other was the threatening gesture he made to the Port Adelaide bench as a result of Port targeting Lachie Neale. Whilst I am sure soccer mums turned away at the sight of Robbo wanting a bit of argy bargey, and covered the eyes of their precious little flowers in the crowd… personally, I would love to see more of that – pure, unadulterated emotion on the footy field. I loved it.

Mitch Robinson is a player you will never second-guess. He wears his heart on his sleeve and does not take a backwards step. He might be a horror to play against, but as a teammate, if you wanted someone to have your back, you would be hard-pressed to find a better player than him.

Looking for an heir apparent to Robinson’s role, I’m interested to hear what Brisbane fans think of Rhys Mathieson, and whether he could step into a similar position on the team when Robbo has had enough (hopefully a couple of good seasons left, yet). He seems to have the demeanour to play the role, but does he have the consistency? Can he raise his game enough to be a consistent best-22 player?

 

THE CONTEST KILLER

I tend to get a bit caught up when I write about Harris Andrews, as I think that pure defenders don’t often get the credit they deserve. I suppose I’d like that to change and will be doing my little bit to try to do so – I rated the top defenders of 2019 in our pre-season defenders rankings here – it’s a members only article, so be warned.

Now, onto Andrews. He was far and away the best spoiler in the game in 2019, leading the one percenter category by a large margin, totalling 225 for the season. This was 36 in front of the second placed Joel Hamling despite playing one less game than him.

Andrews attacks the contest with intent. In another article I likened him to Ivan Drago in Rocky 4, stalking with that fist cocked, ready to punch the air out of the footy if necessary. With his first All-Australian berth in 2019, it looks as though Andrews is in the box seat to usurp the crown of retired Alex Rance. At just 23, Andrews will get stronger

His presence in the Brisbane defensive 50 underpins their entire defensive structure. He takes the best forward, is versatile, wiry ala Dustin Fletcher and quick as well. He’d be front-runner to repeat as the AA fullback, but will probably get some serious competition from Alex Pearce at Freo if he stays healthy.

 

THE BIG BODIES IN THE MIDFIELD

Righto – this is a story of two parts. I’ll start with the bit where I apologise to Jarryd Lyons for doubting him. Yep, I sat and watched, and waited for Jarryd Lyons to put a foot wrong at the Brisbane Lions in 2019. Well, we’re in 2020 and I’m not waiting any more.

After being delisted by the Gold Coast Suns (after trade period when they could have really got something for him), Lyons made his way to Brisbane, and for some reason, I got the thought in my head that he was somewhat of a malcontent. He was 26 years old and was with his third AFL team. I wondered (aloud and in print) whether the problems were with his former teams, or him?

Look, I will really never know, but what I saw was that Lyons joined Brisbane, worked his backside off and had a very good season, adding a bit more grunt to their midfield to aid Lachie Neale. As a matter of fact, he was the perfect backup to the former Docker, and was second only to Neale in contested touches. His hardness at the contest provided Brisbane with an absolute asset at stoppages, and his 5.8 clearances were just what the doctor ordered.

In trade period, the Lions quietly went about securing the services of Cam Ellis-Yolmen. In an Adelaide team stacked with contested footy winners, CEY often found himself on the outer as he and Hugh Greenwood battled for a spot in the rotation a little too often.

Ellis-Yolmen is a beast, and his acquisition has the potential to be one of the most importing recruiting decisions of the year. He brings a big body and a huge amount of power to the table. Mature, at 27 years old as the season begins, CEY looked as though he realised in 2019 just how hard he is to tackle. I watched him wade through traffic a couple of times with the ball raised above his head, using his chest to bounce off would-be tacklers before disposing of the footy.

That, ladies and gentlemen is the actions of a man who has come to grasp his own strength.

I don’t expect Ellis-Yolmen to collect 30 touches and kick three goals, but what I do expect him to do is create room for Lachie Neale and Hugh McCluggage. I expect him to use his size and power at stoppages to move players off their desired spot and allow his teammates the chance to run onto the footy. And I expect him to stand in tackles before releasing to a runner.

Make no mistake – Cam Ellis-Yolmen is EXACTLY the player the Lions needed this off-season, and they got him. No fanfare. No bells and whistles. Just a big strong body to add to the help for Lachie Neale.

Great pick up by Brisbane.

 

THE BAD

 

A HARDER DRAW?

There are those who speculate that Brisbane made it to the top of the ladder (for a brief time before finishing second) based largely on having a soft draw in 2019. Of course, they neglect to add that there were several teams with a “soft” draw who simply were not good enough to capitalise on it.

Brisbane finished 15th in 2018 and were “rewarded” by playing Port Adelaide, North Melbourne, Western Bulldogs and Gold Coast twice each. Yeah, on paper that’s nice, but you still have to go out and win those games. Brisbane did, with a record of 7-1 in their double ups.

This season, things gets a little hairier. They still get Gold Coast and North Melbourne twice, but also get Hawthorn and Collingwood twice each as well. That’s harder, in theory, but you have to take into account that the Lions whacked the Hawks the last three times they’ve met. If there is one team they have the wood on, it’s Hawthorn.

So, is it a harder draw? Collingwood are no walk in the park by any stretch, and though North Melbourne did not play finals in 2019, they are a side I think will be playing a lot better footy in 2020 – and they could make a similar run to Brisbane in 2019 if things go their way.

Brisbane are a good side. They have pieces in places that some teams don’t even have places! Their great start to 2019 set them up for a run at finals and 2020 will be no different. In the first four weeks, they face the Hawks, Kangaroos, Crows and Magpies. They’ll be looking at having a 3-1 record by that point, but 2-2 could be just as likely. If they get a result like that, they’ll be well on the way.

 

THE WEIGHT OF EXPECTATION

Cast your mind back, as painful as it might be to the 2019 Qualifying Final. Coming off a loss to the Tigers in the final round of the season, Brisbane steeled itself for a repeat date with the Tigers – this time away from the Tigers’ MCG fortress and at their own home stadium.

The Gabba was rocking for the Brisbane v Richmond final, and there was a palpable optimism around the Lions. Richmond weren’t going to beat them twice…. Not when one game was at the Lions’ den! But Richmond have become accustomed to bursting balloons in recent seasons, and as they reeled in the fast-starting, but inaccurate Lions, you could sense the Gabba walls closing in on the young team from Brisbane.

Every mistake, every miss and every turnover was met with a groan. The Brisbane supporters came there expecting to win. Being the surprise team of 2019 was nice, but once finals came around, they weren’t going to make a cursory Oscars speech about it being nice to be nominated and wander off to applaud the winners. They were there for the win.

And as the fans watched their team squander opportunities, they started to sense things slipping away. A seven goal third quarter to the Tigers put paid to any possibility of a Brisbane revival.

Richmond came, saw and conquered, and it left the Lions flat.

Being an upstart team and surprising the opposition is one thing, but Richmond was not going to be startled by the Lions getting off to a fast start. They were not going to panic and go into their shell. They sensed the groundswell of support for Brisbane, they saw the belief in the eyes of supporters and players, and they dashed their hopes not once, but twice in as many games.

Did the Lions feel the pressure at home in front of a packed house in that first final? It was foreign to most of them to be playing in September – maybe it got a bit too much. Maybe the surprise team of 2019 was a bit surprised by the weight of expectation?

There will be no surprising teams in 2020. The Lions go from being one of the hunters to being one of the hunted. How will they handle going into a season in which they’re expected to take at least one more step toward a premiership? It is a different sort of pressure, and it is one that Brisbane was not burdened with all year in 2019.

Until the finals.

Let’s hope they’ve learned to carry that weight.

 

THE UGLY

 

LOSING A SOLDIER… MORE THAN A SOLDIER

You guys all know I’m a Hawthorn man… I don’t want to turn this into a Luke Hodge homage, but I think it is important to look back at the two finals Brisbane played in 2019 and take note of the role Luke Hodge played in those games.

You could present a case that Hodge was the best player for the Lions across both games in the finals, and whilst that is testament to what an incredible player Hodge was, it also presents the Lions with a pretty large set of shoes to fill in defence.

Chris Fagan looked to what he knew and brought in Grant Birchall to fill a bit of a void, but he is short-term replacement at best, and does not fill the on-field leadership hole Hodge left behind.

Think about Hodge in Brisbane and if you were to build a statue of him, what pose would he be striking? My guess is that we would see Hodge with the footy under one arm, pointing with the other arm. He was always shouting instructions, pointing out where the right spot was to be at the right time, always instructing. Who fills that role now? Who has the knowledge and presence to perform the role Hodge played for Brisbane justice?

Is Alex Witherden ready to step up and take the reins of the backline? Could Daniel Rich, coming off a career-best season, look to become a more vocal presence down back? Maybe Marcus Adams is the man to lead down back? Or will the mantle of leadership in defence fall squarely on the shoulders of the best spoiler in the game, Harris Andrews?

The Lions are by no means devoid of capable leaders, or leaders in the making, but leaders the calibre of Hodge do not grow on trees, and if Brisbane are to lock teams up in 2020, someone is going to have to become a commanding presence in that defensive 50. The general has retired – it’s time another soldier received a promotion.

 

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