A growing pattern
No one say anything too loudly or proudly, but in a late-2010s AFL landscape, how far away are the Brisbane Lions from a premiership? In the 2015 offseason, fans would’ve scoffed at the same sentiment regarding the Western Bulldogs. They’d just added long-kicking, dashing defender Matthew Suckling from the defending premiers the Hawthorn Hawks, and picked up Josh Dunkley and Jed Adcock in the drafts. Solid additions, but nothing groundbreaking, and certainly no moves considered premiership-winning.
Last year, the Richmond Tigers enjoyed a slightly more productive offseason. They added Josh Caddy, Toby Nankervis, and Dion Prestia in the trade period, and drafted Jack Graham in the third round of the draft. Even fewer were bullish on a premiership for a club who’d otherwise suffered through a season of organisational misery, helmed by under-fire President Peggy O’Neal and Head Coach Damien Hardwick, and well-documented in the media.
Both these teams won premierships the following year. The Bulldogs did so coming from eighth, the lowest-ever seeding of a premiership-winner, while Richmond came from a previous-year finish of 13th, another record. Okay, a Brisbane premiership would be a little different. They won the wooden spoon last year, and no team has ever gone tail to top in consecutive years. The Essendon Bombers came close in 1908, as did the Collingwood Magpies in 1977, both finishing runners-up. However, a record of 5-17 says in any other season, back until at least 1998, they would not have finished last.
Comparisons are flattering
Funnily enough, it is another Lions team, the 1916 VFL Fitzroy Lions, who won the wooden spoon and premiership in the same year, with only four teams contesting the League and everyone qualifying for the finals. Back to the present-day side, and no, you should not expect them to be premiers next year. Even finals would be a noteworthy achievement, but I will claim this as entirely possible. Barring Essendon’s 2017 team, who returned many of their players from previous-year suspensions, the 2011 West Coast Eagles were the last side to make the finals after finishing last the previous year. They finished fourth, and made it as far as the preliminary final, in a season in which they won 13 more home-and-away games.
Let’s draw some comparisons. If Brisbane won 13 more games next year, they would finish with an outstanding record of 18-4. Going off this year’s marks, they would only need to win 7.5 more games next year (at least 28 competition points) to qualify for Finals. Given usual developmental progressions of a team, this would be a brilliant year, but not unachievable, even for a team that has failed to play Finals in its past nine seasons, a period in which 12th has been their highest finish. For the first time since maybe that 2009 season, the Lions own hope for next year.
Strongest trade period in recent memory
In the trade period, the club swapped former captain Tom Rockliff and troubled young star Josh Schache for boom Adelaide Crows forward Charlie Cameron and four-time premiership player and captain Luke Hodge. Brisbane will undoubtedly feel the loss of Rockliff. They will hope his effectivity in the middle will be filled by captain Dayne Beams and Mitch Robinson. What they gain though, are the real headlines.
Cameron will combine with Lance Franklin-like 20-year-old Eric Hipwood, which should offer the Lions’ forward line more dynamism than it has possessed since Alastair Lynch was annually combining with Jason Akermanis for premierships.
Hodge’s leadership could be the big story of the season, as he joins a stunning list makeup which presently includes just seven 100-game plus players, seven teenagers, and only one player 30 and over. We can expect it to have a similar effect to which Robert Murphy did on the 2016 premiers before being struck down with a knee injury.
Temper expectations, but expect improvement
I have previously waxed lyrical about the effect of rookie Head Coach Chris Fagan, widely regarded as one of the smartest men in football. His ability to turn the 2017 Brisbane team into one of the greatest wooden spooners of all-time is far from a novelty. It speaks to his ability as a player manager and tactician, qualities the best Head Coaches of today are proficient in. At Hawthorn, he combined with Hodge for four premierships, in one of the great executive-captain duos of all-time. Can the knowledge and ability they possess combine for one more in Queensland?
In light of all this, let’s resist setting expectations for the Lions. If our past two premiers are any indication, teams perform best with little to no expectations; and expectations in contemporary AFL? Worthless. However, if there’s a team which you’d like to watch out of the corner of your eye, look no farther than the bottom of this year’s ladder. For the first time in years, Brisbane finally look as if they have organisational direction, and the last time they did, they were building one of the great AFL dynasties.
It seems these days, AFL premiers creep up on the rest of the competition, even as late as week one of the finals, and right now, no one’s talking about the Lions. Maybe some time in the next few years, they will be.
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