The Brisbane Lions made good on the 2019 pre-season speculation, finishing second on the AFL ladder.
How often does that happen, really? A side is talked up, the media goes into overdrive and promotes their chances, and then the team actually comes out and delivers in a way that even those who waited for the drop in form had to sit back and consider just how incorrect they’d been.
I was neither here nor there on the Lions in 2019. You could see the abundant talent, and it became a game of “ifs and buts” as to whether things would all come together to produce a season worth remembering. They did, and the Lions combined to manufacture win after win before being dealt some harsh lessons in the finals.
Will that straight-sets exit hold them in good stead going forward? What did they learn? What have they lost? And what have they added since?
The Brisbane Lions now faces a new challenge – they are no longer the surprise packet of the league, and will have a target on their back for the remaining 16 games of the 2020 AFL season. But are they good enough to shake off a second set of high expectations to back up their break-out season? Are they capable of lifting, and raising their collective game to a new level?
As much as a collective effort will give the Lions the boost they need, there are individuals within that team who have things to prove on a personal level. Whether they were down on form, failed to meet expectations, or were beaten in a key game, these blokes could very well provide the spark that lights the Brisbane flame in 2020.
Here are the players with points to prove in 2020.
A message was sent loud and clear in Round One, with the Lions’ recruit left out of the side.
I am a big Cam Ellis-Yolmen fan, and thought he would find the opportunity with the Lions that was so fleeting in Adelaide. With his big body, and ability to wade through packs, I was envisioning him clearing a path for Lachie Neale and standing in tackles before dishing off the handball.
And then he wasn’t selected to play the first game, and my confidence in him was a little shaken.
That’s not to say he won’t do those things. His non-selection for Round One may be the foot in the backside required to educate him that it wasn’t that he was being overlooked in Adelaide – maybe he just wasn’t working hard enough. I mean, if it happened at Adelaide, and then it happens at Brisbane, maybe the problem lies with CEY?
In an ideal world, he is the perfect fit for the Lions midfield. He offers the power to mix it with the big boys in the midfield, and there were times last season when I saw him hold the ball over his head and simply run through attempted tackles as though they weren’t there. By doing that, he created space and dished off to runners after taking the contact – he made the Crows look good in patches. That is the sort of play that will make life a lot easier for the smaller ball-winners.
At his best, he is a highly-capable 20+ disposal player, and that is the baseline for him in terms of what he offers this team.
20 touches, five clearances and five tackles a game may sound like a steep ask, but his 2019 stats with the Crows actually exceed those numbers (except clearances – he was at 4.90).
CEY was recruited for a very good reason, and the Lions’ expectations are that he will meet their targets for him. It was not an ideal start, for Ellis-Yolmen or the Lions, and his efforts to become an integral part of this team will play a huge role in Brisbane’s efforts to go further into the finals this season.
About eighteen months or so ago, the Melbourne media went into overdrive, basically bending over backwards to get Charlie Curnow’s picture in the paper as the next big thing.
That hasn’t quite worked the way they wanted, but I remember sitting back at the time and wondering whether they hadn’t noticed this other bloke at all – a beanpole at Brisbane who was doing just as well as Curnow, only to no fanfare or attention.
It’s time for Eric Hipwood to start commanding the respect of the footy world.
After improving his game in 2018, his development seemed to plateau last year. It was as though there was just as much baby giraffe about him as there was ravenous lion. However, whilst Charlie Curnow has struggled with injury, Hipwood remains a veritable ironman for the Lions, playing 20+ games in each of the last three seasons.
So, how can Hipwood start to impact games more in 2020?
Contested marking has been an issue to this point, but as he gets stronger (this is year five), he should be able to start creating a bit of distance between himself and his opponent, and that will put him in great positions to capitalise on his reach.
Hipwood jumped to 1.22 contested grabs per game in 2019, and clunked a few rippers in the semi-final loss to the Giants. I watched that day thinking that this is the player the Lions need him to be! He kicked three and looked like a difference-maker.
Hipwood is now 22 years old. Sure, he looks like a moderately attractive woman at times, but it’s time he became THE man in the Brisbane forward line. He is probably as far removed from Jonathan Brown as you’ll ever get, but for the first time in years, Brisbane could have a genuine star forward on their hands with Hipwood.
Two contested grabs per game, 13-14 touches, and two goals per game. Very doable if you ask me.
Oh, and more lion, less giraffe.
Charlie had a brilliant 2019, establishing himself as the most dangerous small forward in the game. 57 goals is the kind of return reserved for the best small men the game has seen in the modern era, but there are a few hills to climb for Charlie as we reboot the 2020 season.
In Adelaide, Cameron learned from one of the best. In the years 2015-17, Eddie Betts averaged an incredible 64.33 goals per year. This is the challenge thrown at the feet of Charlie. 2019 was tremendous. 2020 has to be better again.
I am not talking about sheer numbers, of course – it would be close to impossible for a small forward to hit those targets with a reduced amount of games to deal with, but in terms of goals per game, Eddie sat at 2.71 goals per game in that three-year stretch. Charlie was at 2.38 in 2019. It’s a steep hill to climb, and a more difficult one to stay atop.
Cameron was Betts’ heir apparent in Adelaide before taking his talents to Brisbane, but he would still be looking at Betts’ achievements as a target to shoot for.
But the challenge does not stop there for Cameron. He has another mountain to climb in 2020. And that mountain is named Dylan Grimes.
Charlie had his colours lowered against the Tigers’ number one defender in 2019, and it happened in consecutive games. After such a stellar year, Cameron found himself unable to conquer one last foe, with Grimes clearly getting the better of him.
He will get at least one chance for redemption in 2020.
With no double-up games unless the teams meet in the finals, Charlie Cameron will circle the game against the Tigers as soon as it is announced.
The Lions are a very good team, and it will take both exceptional teamwork and some mercurial individual moments to take down Richmond. Cameron can provide those moments, but he will have to deal with Grimes in the process.
If he can do that, Brisbane might be able to leap over one of the biggest hurdles the season can provide.
All things being fair and equal, Hugh McCluggage had a strong claim on an All-Australian blazer in 2019, and when I say “all things being fair” I mean players being selected in their actual positions.
McCluggage is a wingman, and a damn good one. He has the knack for finding space, or creating it where there was seemingly none prior. It is a talent very few players possess – most notably, Scott Pendlebury.
Last year we had both Marcus Bontempelli and Tim Kelly sitting on the wings in the AFL Team of the Year, and whilst they are great players, and very worthy of their spot in any great team…they’re not wingmen, are they?
And so we come to McCluggage.
He should have a goal this season to be so damn good at his job that it becomes impossible for the AA selectors to ignore a genuine winger in the team. He made the jump to 22.65 touches per game (+3.29 on 2018) last season and looked like he got better as the season wore on. Is 2020 the year he breaks through and establishes himself as a genuine star of the game?
Right now, in speaking with other footy lovers, you get the feeling that everyone looks as McCluggage as a kid with a lot of talent, and whilst the talent-aspect is hard to dispute, 2020 has to be the year the “kid” becomes the “man” for the Lions. He is 22, but the Lions need him to grow up fast.
They already have one genuine superstar, and I will sing Lachie Neale’s praises until the (Adelaide) cows come home, but having two players capable of tearing a game to shreds in the midfield… that’s when you start laying teams to waste.
25 touches and a top ten berth in Inside 50s for the year – attainable goals for McCluggage this season.
And if that happens, the AA blazer takes care of itself.
Luke Hodge has gone and it leaves a rather sizeable hole in the Brisbane defence.
Two years ago, I didn’t think Hodge would be overly successful in Queensland. I thought an ageing body and a struggling defence would see him become frustrated. Boy, I was very wrong.
He offered a cool head in a crisis and made teammates walk taller, to the point where I thought he was right up there amongst the best for the Lions in last season’s finals. The question is; who plays that role for Brisbane this season?
They offered a lifeline to Grant Birchall, but already we’ve seen injury impact his season, missing the opener. If you’re a Lions fan, you should probably get used to seeing him sitting on the sidelines. It’s where he spent most of the last few seasons at Hawthorn.
So, who does that leave?
Harris Andrews? He’s the best contest-killer in the game, but is he ready to be promoted into the vacant ‘General’ position?
Daniel Rich? Seems a little subdued, and truth be told, I think he benefitted most from having Hodge back there. It allowed him to get out and be a little more loosy-goosy from the backline. I reckon he’ll miss Hodge more than any other player.
Now we’re talking. From a personal standpoint, Witherden went backwards with Hodge in defence, mainly because he is best-suited to the role Hodge played so well. He was almost collateral damage, dropping a disposal per game in 2018, and a further four touches per game in 2019.
He was still there – not missing due to injury, but he was not used anywhere near as much as the release man in the Lions’ defensive 50. In a sense, I suppose a bit of credit has to go to the young man if he was willingly sacrificing his role to allow Hodge to play it.
But that was then; this is now.
Witherden will have to climb back above 22 touches per game and start being more of a controlling presence in defence to ignite the Lions’ transition into attack. The league leader for Rebound 50s in 2019 was Tom Stewart, with 8.08 per game. Rich slotted in at equal sixth, with 6.46, and Witherden was down at 28, with 4.78 per game. I would love to see him up around six per game this season. And I’d love to see him exert some leadership back there as well.
There is a fair whack of pressure that comes with being a number one pick, and for every year that the enormous potential isn’t realised, that pressure intensifies.
Cam Rayner is still a baby in AFL terms – just 20 years old, but with 47 games under his belt, and entering his third season, he needs to be more than a player who flashes in and out of the game, and sometimes doesn’t flash at all (unlike my mate, Joe Ganino… keep it in your pants, Joe!).
Rayner averaged under ten touches per game last season, and if we’re being brutally honest, was carried through some rough patches of form by a Lions team playing at their optimum. He registered nine or fewer possessions on 13 occasions last year, and if the Lions had fallen in a heap, I have no doubt that he would’ve been sent back to the NEAFL to find some form.
But the Lions didn’t fall in a heap. They didn’t really stumble until very late in the season, and by that stage Chris Fagan had a settled side, with Rayner in the mix.
Will he be cut the same slack in 2020 if we see him missing for large amounts of games?
Taken in the same draft, Jaidyn Stephenson, Aaron Naughton and Liam Ryan are all offering more than Rayner at this stage, but he has just as much talent as any of them. This has to be the season he makes the leap they already have, and puts the competition on notice.
But what does that look like?
Rayner has stats like a key forward, only without the goals to back it up. If he is going to trundle about inside forward 50 and hardly touch it, when he finally gets his hands on it, he needs to punish teams.
0.91 goals per game in 2018, and 0.83 goals per game in 2019 are nowhere near it. He needs to be up around that 1.50 goals per game, starting this year. It takes a lot of heat off Charlie Cameron, and by doing so, he’ll be paying his way in that forward half.
The early comparisons to Dustin Martin were incredibly unfair on Rayner. He is obviously a very different player. He may one day reach a very high level, but the comparisons to Dusty, even at the same age, are way off base. That said, if Rayner starts closing that gap, even just a little, the Lions are a better team for it.
At 23 years old, we find Rhys Mathieson at the crossroads of his AFL career.
After a promising 13 games in 2018, the man known as ‘Beast Mode’ (although I think the Junkyard Dog is a better fit) compiled just nine in 2019 – a step backwards as the club took a leap forward.
Things like that normally do not regularly bode well.
Mathieson is a grunt worker, a scrapper, and the sort of player that an offence-minded midfield could really do with, but is he still in the mix at the Lions? Or has that ship now sailed?
The addition of Lachie Neale and Jarryd Lyons last year, and Cam Ellis-Yolmen this season added depth to the Brisbane midfield division, and pushed Mathieson down the list in the process. Spots in this team will not be gifted – he will have to force his way back into consideration. That comes with both hard work, and an element of luck.
Is he capable, or is his future at another club?
Mathieson is contracted until the end of the 2021 season, but it is 2020 that will dictate whether he stays in Brisbane beyond this year.
Neale, Lyons, Ellis-Yolmen, Jarrod Berry, Hugh McCluggage, Dayne Zorko – I can’t see those blokes moving anywhere anytime soon. The only one in what could be considered the twilight of his career is Mitch Robinson, who turns 31 next month. However, he has been playing great footy, and in an industry where your shelf-life is limited, does Mathieson have time to play with while he waits for Robbo to finish up? It might be a while, yet.
Either he plays a fair bit this season, or his future lies elsewhere, sadly.
There are those who were stunned when Dev Robertson fell into the second round after leading West Australia to the National Championship in the Under 18s carnival.
The Lions traded up in order the snare the 18-year-old and must be pinching themselves to have secured such a highly-rated player with a second-rounder. It cost them pick 23 and a future second-rounder, receiving a future fourth-rounder in return, but I have a feeling many teams will rue a missed opportunity with this kid.
Robertson is driven, but if he needed any more motivation to make his mark on the Lions, falling to pick 22 would be it.
In some mock drafts, Robertson was pegged as a mid-first rounder. Our own Tom Basso had him sitting at pick 12, and heading to the Hawks. Seeing others picked before him, and sitting there waiting for his name to be called… it had to sting more than a bit as Carlton selected Sam Philp, and Richmond picked up Thomson Dow to conclude the first night of the draft. Robertson sat at Marvel Stadium and left without a team. He’d be back the next day, but at that point, he was a disappointed young man.
They say revenge is a dish best served cold, and whilst I am sure motivation will not be an issue for a young man who has already displayed copious amounts of leadership qualities, I would not be surprised at all if Dev Robertson commences a career that will see him extract a little bit of vengeance on every team that passed him over.
After dropping their Round One clash to the Hawks (who they’ve had the wood over for a couple of years), the Lions find themselves stationed in Queensland for the first month of the restart. They have to make this period a success. There is no ifs, buts, or maybes about it – a winning record after five games is paramount to a finals berth this season.
They’ll be eliminating both WA and SA trips, but there will be plenty of travel to both Sydney and Melbourne to come, given their next four games are allocated as home games.
A 3-2 record is a must after this section of the fixture. An absolute must.