In 2019, the Lions shocked the footy world with a surge back into relevancy and a top-four finish.
Since then, Brisbane have been knocking on the door to success without really kicking it down. Is 2023 the year they finally storm through and claim the flag? Or are they destined to be a club making up the numbers?
The Lions have not sat back and waited for things to go their way – securing Josh Dunkley is a very positive move for a club that has been slightly lacking in deep midfield talent behind Lachie Neale, whilst swapping out Daniel McStay for Jack Gunston gives the forward line a new look.
Are these moves enough?
Can the Lions perform at their peak when the whips are cracking in September?
Or will we be asking similar questions of this club in 12 months’ time and lamenting what could have been?
Let’s find out.
It’s that time of year, already.
Christmas and New Year are now disappearing in the rearview mirror, it is time to get serious. The holidays are finished for AFL players, and the hard stuff is well underway. Yes, the teams had been training for well over a month prior to Christmas, but as we head into 2023, the ante is upped and the intensity increases.
This is where premierships are won and lost. This is where improvements are made and lists come together. New faces, new colours, old heads with renewed passion… so much feeds into the making of a contender. And as the days tick down toward to the intra-club clashes, practice games, and eventually the real stuff, questions are raised about each team and how they’re going to perform in 2023.
We don’t do things by halves here, at The Mongrel. When we do a season preview, we go all out to make sure it is the best, most comprehensive coverage you’ll receive. We pride ourselves on it. If you are going to read one season preview for your team, or any team, this series provides it.
The way it works is as follows.
Each club has a minimum of 15 questions asked about their 2023 season, their coaches, their players, and their expectations. The answers are not glossed over. We dive deep on each and every one – some singular answers would normally be long enough for an entire column. The first five questions/answers are free for you to consume. The next 10-14 for each club are for our members, including a special appearance from Mrs Mongrel to throw her two cents in the mix.
You will not read a deeper season preview than this – I guarantee it.
And with that, let’s jump into The Big Questions relating to the Lions in 2023.
WHAT DOES REPLACING MCSTAY WITH GUNSTON DO TO THE FORWARD SETUP?
It changes it – drastically.
In the McStay, Hipwood, and Daniher trio, the Lions possessed three players who, despite their obvious differences, all enjoyed one aspect of the game – leading up high and engaging between half-forward and the wing.
Of the three, I thought McStay was best suited to the role. He was a solid contested mark and would work his opponent over with repeat leads to find space. When he did this, it often opened up territory behind him for either of Daniher or Hipwood to lead into.
But with him gone, and Gunston in the mix, it means that a job previously shared between three players is now the property of just two.
And that is an excellent thing.
Gunston does his best work inside 50 – right where you want a dangerous forward to be. Despite not being a hulking individual, he uses what size he has way better than McStay did in one-on-one contests. You’d almost call Gunston’s ability to beat his man “deceptive”. He just has this knack of putting a hip into an opponent about to leap, or running an opponent under the footy at just the right time – they’re things you cannot teach. Footballers know how to do it.
As much as you may find Hipwood or Daniher leading the key forwards in goals (or Charlie Cameron for that matter if you want to consider him as one – he is targeted often inside 50), it will be Gunston causing the chaos, as he will be afforded the third… maybe the fourth-best defender. And despite his age, he really hasn’t had a luxury like that in a long time.
The only issue with the swap of McStay for Gunston is that it places a timer on this Lions forward setup.
Gunston is 31 with a recent history of back-related issues. Anyone who has had back-related issues will tell you – they don’t just go away. When they’re bad… they’re really bad. When they’re good… they’re still not great. Whilst a nucleus of Daniher (28), Hipwood (25), and McStay (27) gave the Lions ample time, Gunston’s age and potential for injury make things a little more urgent.
And maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world.
Brisbane have long been viewed as a young team coming together. The reality is that their captain is 34 at the start of the season. Their most reliable rebounding defender is 32, and they have just recruited a 31-year-old to give them something different inside 50.
If they were thinking they’re still a team on the rise, think again – their time has arrived, and they need to grab it with both hands.
Gunston has a shelf life of two years at Brisbane. He is a high-quality player capable of stepping up on the big stage, and if he meanders through the year, finding his feet, only to land on them around September, he may well be the nudge the Lions need to get them over the hump.
WHAT DOES CHARLIE CAMERON HAVE TO DO TO BE DULY RECOGNISED?
Is there a question in your mind as to who the best small forward in the league has been for the past four seasons?
I have no question – it is Charlie Cameron, by the length of the Doomben straight (changed that one for the locals… you’re welcome). Yet, when we look at the AFL honours, we see that Charlie has been recognised for his consistently brilliant work just once as an All-Australian.
If he were a petty kind of guy, he’d have every right to be pissed off. I’m guessing he’s not petty…
… but I am!
Since he was named to the team in 2019, Charlie has sat and watched as Dustin Martin, Liam Ryan, Toby Greene, Tom Papley, and Tyson Stengle have all been fitted for AA Blazers. Yep, sat and watched despite arguably deserving to be in front of all of them.
From 2020-22, Charlie has slotted 140 goals. Despite what people say about forward pressure and working up the ground, the main objective of the elusive small forward is to slot goals.
Tom Papley has 101 over the same period. Liam Ryan has 69. Toby Greene has 99. Hell, even Charlie Curnow has 66 – he was thrown into a forward pocket so the selectors could fit Tom Hawkins in the team (so they could give him the captaincy, you see?).
I don’t think there is any grand conspiracy going on, here. Not at all, but what I do see is disrespect levelled at one of the modern great small forwards, constantly overlooked despite being the best at his craft.
Like it or not, many in the footy world use All-Australian selections as a way of deciding just how great a player was in hindsight. Mark Ricciuto – eight-time All-Australian. Wayne Carey… six-time All-Australian.
Hell, if you operate that way, Marcus Bontempelli is a better forward than Charlie Cameron! He has been selected twice in the forward line!
In 2019, Charlie Cameron kicked 57 goals to leave no doubt as to who should be the AA small forward. In 2021, he had 55 – not good enough, apparently. In 2022, he had 54 – not good enough, again, it seems.
Charlie needs a 60-goal season in 2023 not only to get the recognition he deserves, but to stick it up the backsides of those who have taken what he offers for granted over the last few years. And if he does that, let’s see them find a reason NOT to have him in the AA team this season.
They may still try. Hopefully, they’ll fail.
WHAT SHOULD WE EXPECT FROM WILL ASHCROFT?
It’s funny – I ask this question, but it is more pointed at you and me, this time. What should Will Ashcroft expect from us in 2023?
When it is thrown into reverse and redirected toward us, the answer becomes clear.
2022 gave us all, as footy fans, a lesson when it comes to first-year players. North Melbourne recruited their young white knight, Jason Horne-Francis – anointed as the saviour before he played a game. And we all know how that ended up.
What we sometimes lose sight of is that these kids coming into the game… they’re just that – kids! Despite a dad in the family business, Ashcroft will be just 18 when the season begins, yet, as the number one overall pick, he already has expectations on him to burst out of the blocks and become a star.
We’ve been spoilt in that regard in recent years with the rise of Sam Walsh and Nick Daicos in their first seasons. Sure, it can be done – those two are proof of that – but if a kid is a little different, or has a bit of trouble with the steep AFL learning curve, it seems as though the AFL media sharpen their knives and move in for the kill.
We have to be better than that. Better than the journos, at least, I suppose.
Given that, what should we expect from Will Ashcroft?
Moments… that’s all. Just moments in games where you see the oak tree in the acorn. A sidestep and dish, a beautiful handball in traffic to set up a running teammate. Maybe a nice spot-up kick that hits a teammate lace-out.
That’s what you want to see from a kid who has huge wraps on him. No breaking two tackles and dominating a game. No 35 disposal contests where he takes all before him – if he is good enough and has the right support, those types of performances will come, in time. But to expect them right off the bat… you might be setting the kid up to fail, and yourself to be disappointed.
And that would be wrong on both fronts.
IS THIS THE LONG-AWAITED ALL-AUSTRALIAN SEASON FOR HUGH MCCLUGGAGE?
You know, if players were picked in their actual positions in the All-Australian team, he might already have a blazer hanging in his wardrobe for his work on the wing several seasons ago.
But we know that’s not the case, and given I have already given the selectors a blast for their continued omission of Charlie Cameron – I don’t want t turn this into a huge bitch-fest.
Regardless, Clug has now moved away from the wing and is entrenched in the Brisbane midfield, where his run and carry have become important components of the Lions’ breaks out of the guts. Given that, I am sorry to say, Lions fans, it will take something incredibly special to see him become an AA player in the role he is occupying now – the competition is pretty bloody fierce.
Whilst he has hovered around the 24-25 touches per game over the last two seasons, the elite at the position are up around the 28-29 touches per game… and plenty of those blokes are missing out, as well.
Looking at the players who made the cut in 2022, Patrick Cripps leads the way with 28.14 and almost a goal per game.
Touk Miller is at 28.45, Clayton Oliver is at 32.74, Lachie Neale is at 29.96, and Andrew Brayshaw is at 29.33.
However, Callum Mills is the odd man out, at just 24.4 disposals per game. His 6.32 tackles make up for a bit of that, but it is proof that if you are excelling in two areas, you might sneak in.
As has been the case for a while now, Clug has to do something that he has struggled with to get him over the line – he needs to hit the scoreboard, and hit it hard. It’s the thing that sees players like Bont, Martin, Danger, and Petracca slot in on the half-forward line. They’re great in the guts, but they also go forward and slot goals.
McCluggage finds himself in the position to have plenty of shots at goal, but his conversion has been an issue. He ran at 44.5% accuracy in 2022 which is not terrible, but it is also not enough to push him past the glut of mids that are vying for All-Australian honours. He kicked 20 goals last year – three less than his career-high in 2019, but he either starts converting more, or adds to the number of times he has made the AA squad of 40 (currently sitting at three times).
Time to stop being the bridesmaid and take the game by the scruff of the neck.
IS ANYTHING SHORT OF A GRAND FINAL A FAILURE IN 2023?
It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but yes… absolutely it is.
I had a few discussions with Sydney supporters over the last 12 months as to what success looks like. It was in regard to Buddy Franklin’s tenure in red and white and how it will be viewed by history. Their arguments had validity – memberships up, attendance up, a marquee player in red and white…
… but no ultimate success. No premierships.
For all the pomp and circumstance (Randy Savage’s theme song… just sayin’) surrounding Franklin, and for all the benefits he has brought to the club, when I asked those same Swans supporters if they’d give it all up for a premiership, the answer came back pretty quickly.
Absolutely, they would.
And so it is with the Lions, as well.
They were a non-entity in 2018 – a bottom-four side. And in 2019, they came from nowhere to commence a run of top-four finishes and finals runs, but even penultimate success has eluded this club.
This is not a game of lawn bowls. Being “close” isn’t good enough, and coming into a season where you’d think they’re going to make finals again, this’ll be the fifth year in the upper bracket. We can no longer make excuses for this group.
They’re no longer upstarts.
They’re no longer a team coming together under a new coach.
This is a battle-hardened unit that is built to win a premiership.
Though it may seem unfair to some, however, it is clear to me – failure to get into a position to win on the last Saturday in September in 2023 is a failure. And it’s a huge failure considering where they’ve been and where they are now situated. You can point to other markers that indicate “success” but in the end, only one thing will cap this current Brisbane era.
This season, it’s s a flag or bust.
This ends the free component of the article. The next five or so thousand words are for our members. Want to join us?