The Brisbane Lions are Queens of the Jungle after a final quarter rally propelled them to their second flag in four seasons.
Throughout the years, I know that team success goes from the top brass down to the water boy, but something has to be said about how Craig Starcevich coaches this team.
When the competition began in 2017, everyone wrote them off before a ball was bounced. When expansion tore through the club ahead of the 2019 season and again ahead of the 2020 season, people outside started to doubt whether the club could recover from such a turnover in the list.
After they won their first flag in 2021, it wasn’t too long until players started departing again. Following season seven, the Lions lost a league best and fairest winner, season seven’s leading goal kicker, and an All-Australian small forward.
It can be argued that last year, Emily Bates, Jesse Wardlaw and Greta Bodey were in the top 10 Lions in terms of impact and structure. But somehow and some way, Craig Starcevich and the team not only went to work in replacing these players but to rejig the system so that they could still win games of footy.
It hit bumps during the home and away season, but this team delivered when it mattered the most. Time and time again, this team has been hit with expansion and players leaving, but they keep finding their way back near the top of the AFLW mountain.
This is why Craig Starcevich is, without a shadow of a doubt, the best coach we’ve witnessed at this level. Five Grand Finals and two premierships. Adelaide supporters might Crow about Matthew Clarke being the greatest thing since sliced bread, but for my money, Starcevich has been through the proverbial hell and back with this team.
When Alice O’Loughlin kicked the goal 16 minutes into the third quarter, North went seven points up after conceding the lead to the Lions for the first time earlier in that same term.
It had been a brilliant match, with both sides trading goals. But Brisbane found another level in the last quarter, sending through four unanswered goals to sink North Melbourne and the hopes of their supporters.
When Bre Koenen kicked the goal to seal the game, there was a unanimous murmuring around the AFLW universe that the best-on-ground medal was hers for the taking.
Not too long after that, she was named the best player on the ground, and it was a clean sweep, with all the judges giving her the three votes.
It has been some season for the Lions skipper. Once upon a time, she was a vital cog in a defensive unit that had been unpenetrable at times throughout the years, but this year has seen her be more of a player who has stepped up to any role that Craig Starcevich has seen fit.
She’s played midfield floated up forward, and I’m sure if Starce told her to go up for a ruck contest, she’d probably go and do it—her determination and willingness to play any role.
In this one, she started in defence and racked important intercept marks in the first half when North looked threatening.
Cathy Svarc looked to have been hampered by a knee during this game and looked as if she couldn’t match Jasmine Garner, who, up to halftime, looked to have had one hand firmly on the best-on-ground medal, having had 11 disposals and two goals to this point.
Enter Koenen… or if you’re Jason Bennett, go with the cringe line of Koenen the Barbarian.
The Lions captain was sent to mind Garner around stoppages and centre bounces, and while Garner added 13 more disposals in the second half, a lot of these disposals were rushed and caused disruption to how North like to move the ball.
If you haven’t figured out with this Brisbane side, they love disruption, but we’ll get to that later.
Around stoppages, Koenen applied the pressure and won her share of the contested ball. She was a rock in defence and didn’t stop working to impact as the third player up or in the one-on-ones.
She finished with 19 disposals, 336 metres gained, nine intercept possessions, 10 tackles, seven marks and a goal.
GRIDIN’ IT OUT
The panel voted on only four players for the best player on the ground. Koenen was unanimous… earning three votes from each of the five judges. Garner deserved her plaudits as North’s best player on the ground.
The other two players were Belle Dawes and Nat Grider – the latter only received one vote, which I thought was a bit stiff but highlighted just how important one person saw her game.
She was the second-most important player on the ground for the Lions after Koenen.
I lost count by halftime. How many times did North Melbourne go forward, only to be stopped by Nat Grider marking it, spoiling it, tackling someone, or at least just affecting a potential North Melbourne scoring opportunity?
Her 16 intercept possessions were streets ahead of the following best player, Koenen, with nine for those playing at home. But she also came through with seven tackles and seven marks from 20 disposals and 11 contested possessions.
Grider has been an All-Australian in previous years and a key piece in defence since their re-rise in 2021, but this may have just been the best game we’ve seen from her.
So… I mentioned Brisbane before as being so good at disruptors when it comes to their tackle game.
As I wrote in the preview, both sides have been excellent at bringing the heat when they don’t have the ball. Brisbane has been amazing at it for so long, possibly since the start of the league. In recent times, North has adopted a similar approach regarding being defensively minded around contests.
Both sides went into this game, averaging over 70 tackles per game. By halftime, both sides were well on track to better it – 49 tackles to 46 to the good of Brisbane.
However, only one team in the second half continued to push and drive that defensive edge towards the contest, and it resulted in their opposition to turn the ball over a fair bit, and in a sense, was vital in the fourth quarter, which saw them run all over them.
Brisbane laid 109 tackles –overtaking Sydney’s previous league record in the first week of finals. North Melbourne finished with 75.
I suppose it should also be mentioned here that losing Jenna Bruton in the opening minutes of this game with a suspected ruptured achilles didn’t help North Melbourne’s case to run out of the game, given she’s so important as a midfield rotation.
Many years ago, while I was still a meandering player at the local level, I had the joy and the privilege to watch our under-19s side go all the way to the Grand Final from fifth. While they came up agonisingly short on Grand Final day, the one constant message the players got was to ‘pound the rock’.
For those who don’t know what that means, you’re continually hammering away at something until what you perceive as ‘the rock’ eventually splits. Brisbane tackled North Melbourne into submission until the Roos wilted, and the game opened up.
Four players from the Lions had double figures in tackles – Koenen had 10, Ally Anderson had 12, and Belle Dawes had 13, but leading the way was Courtney Hodder, who had an outstanding game defensively with 18.
Eight came before quarter time, and she continued to pile on the pressure around the forward half and in the stoppages further afield. She proved her stance as one of the game’s best defensive pressure players.
THE PERFORMANCE OF DAKS
One of the big sub-plots in the week going into the Grand Final was whether or not Dakota Davidson would get up.
I don’t need to repeat myself on this because I wrote it up in the preview, but the fitness of Davidson would have to be one of the key contributing factors in helping decide this game. After being named to play on Friday, we wondered how fit she would be.
Well, North’s defensive unit kept her well for three quarters. She was matched well with Sarah Wright for a lot of the game – Wright took her whenever she went higher up the ground and was usually met with Jasmine Ferguson when stationed deep. Emma Kearney also had a few moments with her, which was a bit amusing to see.
With three disposals to her name at three-quarter time, it looked like a quiet day in the office for Davidson. Looking at her move and run around, she seemed pretty comfortable, so I believe she was close enough to 100 per cent. More than not, the Roos’ defence was outplaying her.
However, she finally got up and about when she beat out Sarah Wright twice inside 50. The first instance was Wright anticipating Lulu Pullar would come in and spoil the ball when she couldn’t put a finger on it. The mark was about 35 metres out – straight as an arrow. Also, full marks to Belle Dawes on the kick for placing it in front of her to run onto.
In the second goal, Wright lost her as Davidson read the Taylor Smith kick quicker than anyone else and used her body to get Eliza Shannon out of the way to mark the ball about 20 metres out.
They kicked the goal that got Brisbane back the lead and would never relinquish it. It wasn’t Daks’s best game ever, but for at least 10 minutes, she had the game in the palm of her hands, and she was one of a few key players that got them over the line in that last term.
WHO STOOD UP FOR NORTH MELBOURNE?
For the sake of some transparency, we need to get some North Melbourne content in this review.
I’ll start by saying they had Brisbane beat around the clearances rather convincingly: 10-2 in centre bounces and 31-23 in stoppage work. They also recorded 13 more inside 50s than Brisbane and were on top of the contested possession count, albeit it was only +3 the difference.
Garner was the best player on the ground up to halftime. Still, despite putting up a team-high 24 disposals, it felt as if her impact around the clearances waned a little in the second half as Koenen went to work to stop her influence around the clearances. She only had five of them for the game.
I thought Mia King’s game was absolutely outstanding in terms of playing the contested game. She stood up well early when the sides struggled to break through for a score, putting up seven tackles to quarter time, but didn’t find herself much of the ball.
After that, though, she got the whips cracking offensively. She finished with 16 contested possessions and 12 clearances in a game that capped off an incredible and greatly improved season she had.
For three quarters, I thought Sarah Wright had done a superb job on Davidson, but then she was beaten twice and gave up another free for a hold on Ellie Hampson to give the Lions a break they were searching for. Wright has had a great year here, but that’s football sometimes.
I was also impressed with Alice O’Loughlin’s game in this one. It was hard to pick who was the most dangerous forward for North. Kate Shierlaw had some moments in this game where she threatened – her mark and goal in the third term was bloody excellent – but it felt as if O’Loughlin had more presence both aerially and at ground level – she had nine tackles (three inside 50), and four marks for a return of 1.1 from 15 touches.
When Orla O’Dwyer had the ball in this game, she looked as if she was going to cause damage to the ball. Her goal in the third term to put the Lions ahead was a clever but hard-working goal where she had to push forward to get to the end of it. She finished with 11 kicks, with 348 metres gained.
It was great to see Lily Postlethwaite win her first premiership medal. Following multiple knee reconstructions, she has finally found a spot in the forward half this year and has had a clean run, meaning she can add a layer to their structure offensively. It wasn’t her best game today, but 220 metres gained from eight touches is an excellent return.
Ash Riddell had just the 20 touches, but aside from one passage where she could burst away from the centre bounce, she didn’t have the usual impact around the stoppages in this one: only four clearances.
I would’ve loved to have seen more from Tahlia Randall – I thought this performance was a very disappointing way to close out the season. She had a shot on goal in the second term that sprayed left, but she didn’t see much of the ball afterwards.
I was very impressed with Kim Rennie’s performance. She and Emma King worked well to deliver first use to the midfielders, which was a big reason they won big in the centre clearances. But Rennie’s work around the ground was quite prominent – 11 contested possessions and five intercepts.
I thought a couple of times Emma Kearney got caught searching for a free kick when she had the ball, and the umps got her for that free kick where she dived forward to draw Lily Postlethwaite to fall onto her back. She’s got to be better as a leader than that.
And on that note, that’ll do me for what was a sensational Grand Final. It had big tackles, great play, and heroes who stood up when it mattered most.
Well done to the Brisbane Lions on reaching the top of the mountain once again. Not many people had Brisbane to get to this stage once again following their off-season, and I’ll put my hand up and say that I thought they’d get as far as the preliminary finals. Never again will I write them off, at least for the short term.
As for North Melbourne, while they will go down as the runners-up, their efforts were far from disgraced, for they battled short-handedly for a lot of the game and kept cracking in until they couldn’t give any more. They will still be potent in 2024, and we expect they will be hungry to go further.
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