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The "Ifs", "Buts" and Other Stuff - Brisbane Lions

There are so many intangibles in an AFL round, let alone a season. An injury, a miskick, a dropped mark – little things can change the trajectory of a season for a player, or a team.

Take Richmond as an example. 2018 was destined to be their year. They owned the home and away season, finishing a couple of games clear on top. Many had their name engraved on the premiership cup by halfway through the year, but the thing about finals is that on any given day, upsets happen  – Hawthorn knocked over Geelong in 2008, Carlton over Essendon in 1999, and Collingwood over Richmond in 2018 joined that list.

An injury to Dustin Martin and an illness to David Astbury gave the Pies the window of opportunity they needed. Add to that a career-best outing from the oft-maligned Mason Cox, and you have the perfect ingredients for an upset.

For teams to be successful, things need to go right. West Coast got players back at the right time – Jack Darling and Josh Kennedy got the time and games into their legs before the finals – Darling more so than Kennedy if we’re being honest. Collingwood had the rise of Mason Cox provide the catalyst for their run into the Grand Final. And the others saw their dreams evaporate as a result.

2019 will be no different. There are so many things that can go right or wrong in a game, let alone a season. As such, we’re going to stay away from traditional “prediction” articles and will instead concentrate on the “ifs”, “buts” and “other stuff” at each club. There are dozens of ifs and buts, and we’ll only look at a few for each here, as I’ll be writing forever if I try to cover them all. Let’s start with the Lions.

IF…

… Eric Hipwood and Harris Andrews take the next step, the Lions have the perfect set of bookends.

There are  teams that would kill for this kind of tandem to work with at either end of the ground. Andrews looked set to enter the frame for All-Australian selection prior to an unfortunate collision with Jeremy Cameron’s elbow in Round 14. His form to that point of the season was excellent, and in a team expected to drop plenty of matches, and leak plenty of goals along the way, his work in both one-on-one contests and as a floating defender was excellent.

He is now entering year five, and it is no coincidence that his defensive prowess and ability to read the play has gone to another level with Luke Hodge pointing fingers and commanding the troops in the back half. As his body has matured, as has his understanding of the game.

Andrews’ performance against Sydney in Round 10, 2018 saw him break the single game record for spoils, finishing with 23. That’s 23 times he got his fist to the ball in marking contests - quite amazing. You think the Swans may have… you know, lowered their eyes at some point and stopped bombing it into his vicinity? It is that sort of game that made people take notice, and they didn’t stop noticing, as Andrews impressed all season.

We had him in our rolling AA team after R13.

At the other end, Eric Hipwood needs to become more ferocious lion, and less baby giraffe. There are times when he looks like the most dangerous man on the park, and at others, like a tangle of arms, legs and neck. With the inability to look angry (look up some pics. He looks like a grumpy baby… it’s pretty cute), Hipwood needs to add a bit more grunt to his game and command the respect of defenders, evem when things aren’t going his way.

The skills are there and the opportunity to make the leap with a team on the brink of a rise is sitting right before him. It’s 2019 that we see if Hipwood will become the player Brisbane want him to be, or cruise along, happy to flitter in and out with more poor games than good ones to his name.

Consistency is the key for Hipwood - he has to eliminate the sub-10 disposal games from his CV (he had nine of them in 2018), and start narrowing the gap between his best and worst. He went over five marks on just five occasions last season, but when he got the space to move, and use his speed and agility, we started to see big returns. His six goal haul against Carlton was hopefully something Lions fans can start seeing more of, and it rammed home that Hipwood isn’t that far away from where the lauded Charlie Curnow currently sits amongst good, young forwards. However, we see no two-page spreads in the Melbourne papers where Dermott Brereton is seeking Hipwood out to chat about the finer points of developing his forward craft, do we? Maybe Jonathon Brown could do it for Hipwood?

Hipwood v Curnow

2018 stats courtesy afltables.com

With gifted smalls and mids at his feet, Hipwood should have the confidence to fly for most long balls inside 50 in 2019. Maybe he can use Big Oscar McInerny as a stepladder at some point. Might wanna pack some high altitude gear if he attempts that ascent.

… Daniel McStay has a breakout year, the Lions leap into finals contention.

Well, it has to be either him or Hipwood taking the step, and since we covered Easy E above, it’s McStay’s turn.

This will be year six for McStay - ample time to refine his game and build an AFL-body in a team where expectations weren’t all that high. But the expectations are gaining momentum, and it’s time for those kids who required patience initially, to start rewarding the supporters, and the team.

McStay kicked 22 goals from 19 games in 2018, and really, though he’s been trialed in different roles, he looks best suited as a forward, particularly one who can lead up beyond the half forward line and play the role of valuable link-man. He didn’t kick a bag of goals in 2018, his best return coming with three goals against Fremantle in Round 15. Like Hipwood, he needs to cut the single-digit possession games considerably. He failed to reach double figures in 10 games in 2018, with three of those coming in the last four rounds.

McStay has all the talent, but he needs to start delivering. 35 goals is his pass mark if he plays permanent forward. It’s a considerable leap from his 22 in 2018, but if the Lions are to start pressing for finals, the status quo won’t get the job done.

 

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Look! Mongrel Punt Stubby Holders. Buy one and be cooler than all your friends! It also helps the site out.

 

… Charlie Cameron is fit, the Lions have exactly what they need as a small forward.

Cameron’s move from Adelaide at the conclusion of the 2017 season wasn’t given anywhere near as much press as it deserved. If it didn’t get it initially, it probably should’ve got it once you saw how the Crows struggled without Eddie Betts playing well.

Alas, Charlie was in Brisbane. But things didn’t go exactly as planned there, either. After a very promising start to his career as a Lion (nine goals in the first three weeks), Cameron’s season ended in Round 11 after a Lisfranc injury (I still really don’t know what the Lisfranc is, but I am sure one of you can explain it… if you can get me past “it’s a ligament in the foot”, that’d be great).

What Cameron provides in the Brisbane forward line is a spark that most teams lack. He can take a grab, has excellent second efforts, and loves a goal. He was on track for 35-ish goals in 2018 before the injury, perhaps 40 if he managed to kick a bag one day. He is the player that will aid the development of Cam Rayner and Lewis Taylor in terms of getting to the right spots, hitting the front and centres well, and fighting to keep the ball alive.

How does a forward set up with McStay, Hipwood, Rayner, Taylor and Cameron sound? Pretty potent, if you ask me. Throw the Big O in there as a long bomb target, and it’s a forward line that’ll cause some headaches.

Cameron is a classic goal sneak, and they are few and far between in the current AFL. If he stays on the park, Brisbane are a much better side.

 

… Jarryd Lyons is prepared to work hard, he could be one of the best mids in the comp.

You hear some strange things about Jarryd Lyons. A lot of it has to do with attitude, and if you’re getting dropped by the Gold Coast Suns, and then delisted by them as well, there has to be some questions asked.

He finished 9th in the AFL with 13.2 contested touches per game, and equal third overall with 7.2 clearances per game. You don’t just give those sorts of players away, do you?

Well, if you’re the Suns, maybe you do – and that’s why you find yourself in the place you are.

But at Brisbane, I am guessing they don’t even want to find out why Lyons was so readily allowed to leave. They will want only his best, all of the time, and that’s where Jarrod Berry comes in.

“Hold on…” I hear you thinking. Berry has just 37 games under his belt. Is he the right man to be laying down the work-ethic law to Lyons? After all, the newcomer has almost three times that amount of games to his name, despite having seven seasons in the system (13 games per year on average, for those playing at home).

Berry is learning the ropes from some of the best on-ballers in the game, and he’s doing it by becoming a colossal pain in the ass to them whenever they play the Lions. He sees how hard they work, he watches where they go, how they find the ball, and learns how to stop them. He has to work for every touch, and makes his opponents do the same. For mine, he is one of the hardest workers I've seen, and he would expect his teammates to work just as hard.

Actually, I couldn’t think of anyone better to pair up with Lyons in every training session. With the backing of say… four-time premiership player Luke Hodge, a youngster like Berry, with leadership qualities written all over him, pairing up with Lyons at training for competitive drills, always being the one to want to challenge himself by throwing his hat into the ring to cover the clearance-winner, would speak volumes to his teammates. It would also test Lyons out pretty early. How hard is he willing to work? What’s his temperament like? Will he stand the heat?

Berry is the young lion (pardon the pun) climbing the hill. He’s hungry, and he sees this former Sun wander in who has had chances at two other teams… and walked from both.

For all the individual brilliance that highlights footy, it remains a team game, and what I saw from Lyons and heard about him was that this is an area he failed to fully grasp.

There needs to be a strong precedent set for Lyons at Brisbane. With the impending exodus from Gold Coast, it would’ve honestly been very difficult to imbue a sense of pride in team performance. But at Brisbane, the focus is already on collective improvement. It’s not hoped for – it’s expected. If Lyons can’t fall into line with one of the hardest working young players in the group, maybe his time in the game will be short. At his third club already, how many chances do you get?

For mine, I fully expect Lyons to come out firing in 2019. I expect him to be at the pointy end of performance for Brisbane. Until about Round Eight. Then the grind of the AFL season kicks in and we’ll see the mettle of Jarryd Lyons tested. We’ll see if he wants to be there, and wants to be part of a winner, or whether he is just pleased with being on (another) AFL list.

 

BUT IF…

… one of either Zorko or Neale goes down, the Lions are extremely thin in the middle.

I just wrote about Lyons, but I am leaving him out of this equation until I see that his heart is in it at Brisbane. Until then, like a naughty dog with an open pack of chips nearby, he cannot be trusted.

The recruitment of Lachie Neale was a wonderful addition to Brisbane, and would’ve perfectly rounded out the Zorko/Beams combination. Those three would’ve terrorised opposition coaches. But then Beams got home-away-from-homesick, didn’t he? He backflipped on what he’d just stated weeks before at the Brisbane Best and Fairest award. Yeah, it doesn’t sit well with me, but hopefully it steels this group and they are galvanised by those who are there; not by the one who isn’t.

That said, with Rayner set to spend a little more time running through the guts, and Witherden probably ready for some midfield time, the experience of Zorko and Neale in the middle is paramount to Brisbane’s 2019 improvement. Neale is as close to untaggable as you get – wins his own footy and is a complete machine, week in and week out.

Zorko, on the other hand… it appears as though clubs think they can get to Zorko, and despite four-straight Merrett-Murray medals (bloody impressive!), there hangs a question over his head as to whether he is mentally tough enough to overcome close attention.

If you were an opposition club, who would you be focusing on? I’d be sending my best defensive player to Zorko – not because I think he is better than Neale, but because I think he’s easier to stop. As good as Rayner is/will be, he is nowhere near ready to step into a full time midfield role. Berry and Lyons are nice additions to a quality midfield, but they cannot be thrust into a role where they’re carrying it. Witherden may take time as well, once he gets his chance.

At all costs, Neale and Zorko have to be protected. If one goes down, the pressure on the other multiplies.

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… Stef Martin falls away, the Big O doesn’t seem ready.

In a similar spot to the mids, are the Brisbane ruck division. Stefan Martin did a mountain of work in 2018, and early in the season, was right in the mix in terms of the best big men in the game, along with Grundy, Gawn and Nic Nat.

His ability to act as a fourth midfielder, collecting almost 19 touches per game, was invaluable to the Lions. But behind him, things get a little thin. Oscar McInerny looks like one of those players that really could go either way. Almost a little too big to play forward, he seems really well coordinated and has a beautiful pair of hands but, as with all overly big men, he can seem a little ungainly. Maybe he just looks ungainly? Maybe it’s an elaborate ruse!!!

However, unlike a lot of the very big men in the game, he actually looks like a threat in the air, and has good timing when attacking marks. That said, in his short career, he’s only ever taken over five marks in a game on one occasion. I’m torn on which way to go with him. As a “get out of jail” kick down the line, he could be very effective, but once the ball is on the deck, I can’t see him doing too much.

If we see Martin go down, it falls to the Big O, Hipwood and maybe the basically unproven Archie Smith who didn't get on the park in 2018 to hold down the ruck spot. Not sure you’re gonna get great results from that pairing, and I’m not sure robbing the forward line to bolster the ruck position will be effective, either.

So, a bit of doom and gloom – if Martin, and either of Neale and Zorko have the injury bug bite, the mooted Brisbane revival may just be on hold for twelve months.

 

 OTHER STUFF

Hugh McLuggage - what can we expect from him in his third year? Interestingly, in all five Brisbane wins in 2018, McLuggage had a minimum of 20 touches in each game. As a matter of fact, when he plays well, Brisbane plays well. He averaged 24.4 touches per win last year, as opposed to his 17.88 possessions in losses. Get the ball into his hands!

How long will Alex Witherden hold down a defensive spot? He looks great, and a move into the midfield may be a necessity at some point. Entering his third year, with a career average of 22.77 touches per game, it seems as though he’s easily found his niche in the back half, but that half back running role is a great developmental position for youngsters, and Witherden making his way into the midfield may have a dual effect if another kid, such as Zac Bailey or Cedric Cox can slot into the role. Big shoes to fill in that role, I know, but I am sure Brisbane have a contingency plan in place, and according to track-watchers, Cox is looking really good.

The Draw is a favourable one for Brisbane, as you’d expect. They get Gold Coast twice, and would relatively happy with seeing the Hawks twice as well after two wins last season. They would start to feel pretty comfortable that they can match it with anyone at home, as well.

That said, it looks a tough run through the first five weeks, with the Eagles, Power and Magpies visiting the Gabba, and North Melbourne and Essendon on the road. Looking at that, they could very well limp into their Round Six clash with the Suns desperate for a win. In effect, how they handle themselves over the course of that first five weeks may well dictate their season. Can they go a step further against the Pies at the Gabba this year? Last year’s game there was a blinder.

Many have touted the Lions as potential finalists in 2019. Personally, I can’t see it happening. The stars would have to align, and all the players you’d want to improve would have to do so - that rarely happens. I hate putting a number on it, but 7-8 wins would be a more reasonable result.

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