Fate – according to the popular children’s author Lemony Snicket – is like a strange restaurant serving food you never asked for and don’t always like.
But last year the Brisbane Lions were largely pleased with the smorgasbord that fate laid out for them. They were the overwhelming beneficiaries of a series of otherwise unfortunate events.
With the AFL fleeing COVID-19-ravaged Victoria for Queensland, the Lions were handed the most powerful home ground advantage of any club. They had the bounce of every ball in their close games, winning all five of their matches, which were decided by 12 points or fewer.
When the Gabba was confirmed as the venue for the grand final for the first time in history, it seemed fate was about to deliver them the most delicious meal of all.
However, when it arrived – the dish was cold. Despite beating the eventual premier Richmond in their qualifying final, the Lions missed out on a fairy-tale home grand final by losing to Geelong by 40 points in the prelim.
Coming into this season, Brisbane had a point to prove. It’s place in the top echelon of contenders was being questioned.
With just three losses so far, the Lions are answering their critics.
Hit after hit
Brisbane’s creativity in attack was a key to its success last year. No club generated more scoring opportunities.
But the Lions were also one of the more inaccurate sides in front of goals. That waywardness was partially a product of grabbing any scoring opportunities that were presented to them. Often those shots were rushed and from tight angles.
At the end of last season, Brisbane brought in mercurial forward Joe Daniher from Essendon as a difference-maker up forward. Daniher, an imposing tall target with a cannon for a leg, had been sidelined with various injuries and ailments for most of the last three years.
So far, his body has held up. His presence has opened up the Lions’ forward setup. Brisbane is one of only two sides with six players who have each kicked at least 10 goals this year. They’ve also improved their accuracy.
For the first time since 2011, Brisbane has two key position forwards averaging more than a goal-and-a-half per game.
Daniher’s arrival has created space where there was none before. Doubts about how he’d operate alongside Eric Hipwood have disappeared, with defences stretched by the lanky duo.
Daniher is of the new mould of key position forward, as skilled at generating chances as they are finishing them. While his goal kicking has sometimes been sub-par, his field kicking has almost always been exceptional.
The Brisbane forward line is a microcosm of the team as a whole: locally grown talent surrounded by high-profile recruits and some shrewd bets on undervalued players.
No, it’s not “Moneyball”, or anything close to that oft-misunderstood idea. Instead, it’s a balanced approach to list-building using all types of opportunities. It’s also helped each group across the ground grow and evolve over time.
Despite the improved overall performance of the Lions’ forward line, their number of scoring shots has dropped this year. There might be a perfectly reasonable explanation for it too.
Dealing through damage
It’s a problem that two teams have had to face in the last three years: how to keep your midfield churning without one of the best players in the game. In 2019, Hawthorn was unable to cope with the loss to injury of Brownlow medallist Tom Mitchell, and rapidly slid down the ladder.
After last year winning the competition’s top individual award, Brisbane midfielder Lachie Neale has struggled through injury and form issues this season. When he has managed to take to the field, he hasn’t looked anything like the spellbinding player of 2020. Losing a player of Neale’s quality is a blow for any side, but the Lions have been able to adapt and maintain their strength in the midfield territory battle.
So far in 2021, the midfield load has been shared across a wider variety of players. Older heads such as Dayne Zorko and Jarryd Lyons have taken on more responsibility.
The Lions are winning more clearances — both at stoppages and centre bounces — than their opponents. They have been particularly dangerous in these situations inside 50.
While not quite as productive as their 2020 midfield unit, the 2021 version is more than holding its own.
Losing key players to injury is something the Lions largely haven’t faced over the past three years. Since 2018, Brisbane’s core group has featured in more games than that of any other side. This led to questions about the depth of its list, with several players largely unexposed at the top level.
This year, vital cogs such as Neale, Cam Rayner, Darcy Gardiner, Jarrod Berry and Daniel McStay have been sidelined at various times. While it’s not an injury crisis on the level that some other clubs have dealt with, it has exposed more of the Lions’ young cubs. So far, they’ve come through with shining colours.
Where it ends
After starting the season with two losses, Brisbane has rebounded by winning eight of its last nine games. That streak includes wins against last year’s premier Richmond and minor premier Port Adelaide. All three of its losses so far have come against sides likely to feature in September, including to the second-placed Western Bulldogs.
This week, the Lions face the league-leading Melbourne Demons. The Demons’ defence is rock solid, and their ability to win it out of the middle will challenge Brisbane’s onballers.
But if they can pass this test, it might be time to start considering what fate will be serving up for dinner later this year.