If you’ve read it once then be prepared to read it again when I say that it’s difficult to really get a grasp on these pre-season games. Usually, there are two or three games in the pre-season before the men’s season officially kicks off, but how much do you need to read into it when there’s one official pre-season game on the calendar?

Yes, Brisbane and the Gold Coast Suns squared off in a practice match that was unfortunately not aired anywhere until well after the fact, but from all reports it was Brisbane domination, so what better than to do it all again in one more dress rehearsal?

To be honest, you should be expecting nothing but big things for the Brisbane Lions in 2021. They finished the home and away season in the top two for the past two seasons and could’ve actually gone all the way to the Grand Final. Ultimately however, they fell at the second-to-final hurdle and looked a bit like boys to the Geelong’s men as the Cats romped them around the ground.

Another summer in the gym and running it out, plus the additions of Joe Daniher and Nakia Cockatoo – if fit – they could be just what Chris Fagan needs to jump that last hurdle and go on to claim the ultimate goal. There is a reason I had them down as my favourites to win the flag – the favourites not named Richmond of course.

Their midfield core is set and sound, the defence has got arguably the best key defender in the game and is surrounded by a lot of experienced heads and good young role players. And the addition of Daniher basically completes a forward line that has dangerous talent in there anyway.

Then we’ve got the Gold Coast Suns.

They’re going to be an interesting case this season. They started very well for themselves last season, winning three of their first four and were competitive in most of their games up until the halfway point. Then it became what has been the case for the past number of seasons, they crumbled towards the end of the year and got blown out in games.

There’s a lot of promising signs, however. The talented kids are re-committing to the club and that’s the best possible sign, considering that everyone that was drafted to the Suns five years ago would’ve been out the door after their initial contract was up. The culture looks a lot more stable and dare I say, sunny as opposed to five years ago.

The next step on this road is being able to string a consistently competitive season. We know that on their day, the Suns can bring it and when they do that, they become a fun side to watch. But sustainability around the contest has crucified them towards the back-end of the season far too many times, when does it end?

That question won’t be answered anytime soon I feel. But in the meantime, here was some key observations that I took out of the AAMI Series encounter between the two Queensland sides.

 

JOE’S GONNA LOOK REAL GOOD

So I’ve touched on Joe already and how I think he’ll complete Brisbane’s forward line a bit, so it makes some sense to touch on it more here.

In terms of goal output, he didn’t exactly get going until later in the game, but the way he presented himself up the ground in the opening half shows that he has got past the injury-plagued stage of his career. At his best, Daniher is close to unstoppable, with his ability to jump for marks at the highest point. When he does that and when he gets full confidence in his body again, he is going to look very good.

He got moved as a deep forward in the second half, and looked more prominent, kicking two of his three goals playing more of a deep attacking role before relieving in the ruck. Having him play deep allows Eric Hipwood to play more of a role up the ground, because he’s that quick and that mobile for someone who’s close to two metres tall and vice versa, because everyone needs a break right?

Also, just a quick note here on his set shots. At Essendon, I found him as a more unreliable person in front of goal unless he snapped it around the corner, but in terms of the traditional run-up, he did that a few times and it came off really well. Looks like he’s really done some work on that over the off-season, which makes him all the more dangerous as a player.

 

THE RAYNER INJURY

Much has been talked about Cam Rayner since being drafted at number one in the 2017 AFL Draft. But for all that talk, he has made a bit of a habit in disappearing a lot during games. Playing that half-forward role predominantly can do that, but there was a lot of buzz and hype surrounding him this year.

Listening in on the radio as I was watching the game – because you know, Fox Footy commentary is largely garbage in comparison – there was much said about Rayner shedding kilos off his body, playing extended minutes in the middle and the wing, there was plenty to be excited about. For the Lions to make the next step in 2021, he needs to have a big year and get himself involved in the play more.

That all got flipped upside down in the second quarter when he attempted to smother a handball and with an awkward step on his right foot, you could see on the slow-motion replay that it the knee just gave way. In a sense, I could almost feel it happening and here I am sitting in a suburban Melbourne house, thousands of bloody kilometres away!

In terms of output before the injury, he wasn’t getting involved a lot in the play, but putting that aside for a moment, it’s just an unfortunate thing to happen, because who knows what the season would’ve brought to him if that had not have happened. It hasn’t been confirmed yet at the time of writing, but I’ve seen enough knee injuries during this time to know that’s going to take at least 12 months off your career.

 

MARKOV MACHKA

In the limited time that Oleg Markov was in Richmond colours last year, there was plenty to really like about him. In years previous, I have lamented about his lack of efficiency by foot, but last year he has really picked up on that and could actually be one of the more bargain pick-ups of the year, with the Suns only having to give up a future-third round selection.

You can scoff at the term ‘boom recruit’ if you like, personally I think the term gets thrown around very much. But I think he could actually make a claim as a recruit of the year candidate. His first half was simply enormous and hard to ignore.

By half time, he had 15 disposals to his name, using the footy to run and create plays off the half back line. He also took seven marks, showcasing his ability to position himself as an intercept player. He ended up with 21 disposals for the match on 71 percent game time, so I think he was taken off a little bit in the second half. But I think Suns’ fans should be impressed with what he brought to the table.

 

THE ROWELL AND ANDERSON SHOW

What, you thought I was going to leave Matt Rowell out, did you?

Well, you thought wrong! Matt Rowell was one of the best things going around in 2020 before those ungrateful schmucks at Geelong ruined all the fun and ruined his shoulder, thanks for that! But in all seriousness, the fact that Rowell had polled three Brownlow votes in three consecutive games as an 18 year old is something that shouldn’t be slept on and I reckon he’d have that down on his lovely little paperback notebook, bless him to bits.

His first ‘official’ game (can we call it that?) he recorded the 20 disposals, the seven clearances, but didn’t feature as prominently as he was last year, but let’s cut the kid some slack right? I thought overall it was a solid return after a long layoff.

But I think the focus should be shifted more to Rowell’s good mate Noah Anderson, who showed strong signs playing more in the middle. Last year, he was sort of thrown around a little bit, played some minutes on the wing, at half forward, at half back – if he was playing at the Western Bulldogs, Luke Beveridge probably would have thrown him in the ruck as well.

But in this one he was playing predominantly in the stoppages and centre bounces and accustomed himself well, recording the 23 touches and seven clearances, including four of those from the centre bounces. I hope he plays more with Rowell this year in the middle, because these two are just so tight-knit together, you’d think that they’d be able to produce something magical here.

 

WHEN THE LIONS WENT TO WORK

The first half was controlled a lot by the Suns and their ball movement sort of reflected that a) they were willing to run a lot and b) the Lions were sort of just rolling through the motions.

If you don’t believe that last part, then check out these half time numbers from the midfield group in particular…

Lachie Neale – seven touches
Dayne Zorko – six touches
Jarryd Lyons – six touches in just the first quarter
Hugh McCluggage – seven touches

If you thought that was damning, the Suns torched them on contested ball in the second quarter, recording 20 more contested possessions, led by none other than Rowell and Anderson, who had 12 between them in the second term alone.

Whether or not they were being trialled in different positions or they sort of felt like phoning it in, whatever rev-up Chris Fagan gave them at half time (don’t we love that?) it worked, because the Lions mentioned above got seriously going.

Neale had the 13 disposals in the third quarter and generated so much in the middle. Lyons had the seven touches after going through the entire second quarter without a disposal. Dayne Zorko had the seven touches and kicked two goals, showcasing the class we’ve come to know and expect, and Hugh McCluggage was doing his thing on the wing as he has done the past few years.

It also got a lift from the likes of Lincoln McCarthy, who struggled to introduce himself to the footy at numerous stages in the first half, and Charlie Cameron was getting himself involved a little more in the third term as well after a relatively quiet opening half.

The Lions kicked 7.8 – 15 scoring shots from 24 inside 50 entries in the third quarter on the back of relentless hunting for the footy, and should’ve had the game sewn up then and there. That’s the sort of footy that the Lions are capable of in 2021, but it’s all about finding the consistency in this team.

 

OTHER BITS

What role Alex Sexton has this year will be interesting to see – kicked 6.3 but a lot has been talked about being dropped mid last year for a lack of defensive presence. That may be so, but the fact that he can find himself in capable scoring positions so often, just makes him too valuable to drop him.

Speaking of Suns that will be interesting to see, Will Brodie was on the outer last year, and was about 80 percent out the door and on the way home to Victoria, but he put in a very nice shift here – 25 touches, 11 score involvements, seven inside 50s and three clearances. Could have a big year for the Suns if he continues to put in these performances.

Watching big Oscar McInerney against Jarrod Witts was an entertaining battle. McInerney is going to be the number one ruck at the Lions this year, with Stefan Martin now out of the side for good, but I thought Witts absolutely dominated him in the hitouts at stages, but McInerney didn’t stop trying all night, so I’ll give him that.

Brandon Ellis and Lachie Weller combining for 60 disposals on both wings was really good to see. A lot of people slept on Ellis’ ability to run and spread on the outside last year and I think he looms as another important player this year. Weller’s use of the footy is just such a pleasure to watch.

I’ve been high on Jarrod Berry since coming into the AFL and I hope this is the year he breaks out. I thought he played a very strong game, getting around as many contests as he can and finished with 28 disposals, nine marks and seven score involvements. Also kicked one goal, but should’ve really have been three, because he missed a couple of really gettable set shots in the third term.

This young Tom Fullarton chap looks like he’ll be something – kicked two goals on the back of really good crumbing work at ground level. The scary thing is that he’s a 200 centimetre player as well, so I shudder to think how he goes in the air. Is there room for him round one? Well I think you can play four talls if some have that ability to cover ground and play a few other positions. I don’t doubt this guy can do that.

Another small Zac Bailey update – I still love the guy, shock horror that one. He featured in a few centre bounce stoppages, which I thought was intriguing. Had the five clearances and finished with a couple of goals from 17 touches.

Sam Day kicked three goals and presented very well on the lead – he looks set for a big year, which would be nice considering the horrid injury history he has endured over the past number of years.

Darcy MacPherson looks like he’ll be in for another good year as well. I love the way he goes about his footy – just attacks the footy and if the Suns don’t have it, he attacks the opposition. He had 22 disposals and 10 tackles.

I don’t think Jarrod Harbrow is best 22 quality anymore. It’s sad for me to say that, because he’s been such a great contributor to the game for so long and has provided sound leadership at the Suns since making his way over from the Western Bulldogs. He looked very panicky in one-on-ones and sort of erred with the footy at numerous times.

And on that somewhat sour note, it brings to an end the first men’s review of the season. We head into the real stuff in the AFL Men’s competition, can’t believe it’s less than two weeks away.

It’ll be interesting to see what lies ahead for both of these sides. The Lions open their campaign against the Sydney Swans on a Saturday night at home, whilst the Suns make the journey West to take on the West Coast Eagles in a Sunday twilight game at Optus Stadium.