Brisbane Lions fans haven’t had much to roar about in 2014, and rightfully so. They’ve been beaten from pillar to post, with six of their 10 losses by over 50 points. Add the exodus of five highly regarded youngsters during last year’s trade period and what you appear to have is a club in crisis.
The fall from grace has spiked one of football’s sliding doors moments. Brisbane, once a league powerhouse and destination club, has become a shadow of its former self. The abrupt and poorly-timed sacking of Michael Voss has contributed significantly, and the Lions now have finally seen club great Jonathan Brown play his final.
It’s a warts and all position to be in. A club exposed, from a list management perspective the Lions regrettably said goodbye with anguish to to their two first round draft picks of 2010 in Jared Polec (Port Adelaide) and Patrick Karnezis (Collingw00d) and their three first-round selections of 2011 in Billy Longer (St Kilda), Sam Docherty (Carlton) and Elliot Yeo (West Coast).
It’s a feat that has put the club back. Despite none of them having chalked up 25 games of experience when they left, they were a key group of kids who were earmarked to drive the next generation Lions.
Amidst the departures, and with the warm glow of hindsight on their side, Brisbane arguably holds the league’s biggest silver lining.
The Lions were able to boost their stocks bringing in five AFL-AIS members in James Aish, Lewis Taylor, Darcy Gardiner, Tom Cutler and Nick Robertson in last year’s draft, all of which have already tasted senior action this year. Throw in the TAC Cup’s best swingman in Daniel McStay who debuted on the weekend and the Lions have a well-hyped class of 2013 who have vowed to stick together.
But its the success of the club’s academy program that looms as the cornerstone of Brisbane’s future. The Brisbane Lions academy, which is designed to nurture and develop Queensland players, has designated catchment areas throughout the state. The Lions are able to nurture each player under the watchful eyes of their administration, with the potential for the shining lights to play for the club’s NEAFL side.
As a result, the Lions have the first option of recruiting academy players to the senior or rookie list, and while other clubs may bid in the same process they would for a father-son selection, Brisbane ultimately have the last say in whether they recruit them or not.
The success of Brisbane’s academy side showed glimpses last year that the club had a golden goose. It successfully delivered athletic key forward Jonathan Freeman, whom Adelaide made a bid for. The Lions were also able to rookie list Isaac Conway, a stocky inside midfielder with a habit of finding the ball, and agile ruckman Archie Smith, a towering 200 cm monster who crossed over from basketball.
But this year looms as the one that could net them the jackpot.
Heading the list of likely draftees is Aspley star Liam Dawson. The AFL-AIS member was a prominent bottom-age prospect last year, and at at 187 cm and 82 kg is physically ready for senior football. Dawson, a midfielder-cum-defender, is quick, and reads the ball particularly well in the air with clean hands that won’t look out of place at the elite level. With a knack for cracking in for the hard ball, he has courage in spades to match his terrific skill set. The starlet’s talent has been rewarded with an All Australian guernsey as a 17-year-old in 2013, an MVP for Queensland and a shared victory of the Hunter Harrison Medal in last year’s National Championships as the best player in division two.
Morningside’s gun forward and AFL-AIS member Matt Hammelman is the next cab off the rank and looms as a hot prospect who will be chased hard during the bidding process. Hammelmann opened up his 2014 National Championships by taking 12 marks and kicking four goals in a dominant display against Tasmania in the state’s 29-point win. The tall, athletic forward is an elite mark, super quick on the lead and tracks the ball well at ground level. He works back hard in the contest, and is a clean and reliable set shot for goal. He has also shown an appetite to ruck, and could potentially, alongside one of the Lions’ likely draftees in Patrick McCartin or Peter Wright, become the club’s anchor forward for the next decade.
There’s also a key position defender to compliment McStay and Gardiner, with Nick Jackson, a team-mate of Dawson from Aspley, considered as a likely 19-year-old prospect. Jackson has developed rapidly since being overlooked in 2013, and is best described as a high-production defender who takes a lot of defensive marks thanks to his ability to read the play and peel off his opponent. He has strong awareness in the contest, and doesn’t mind a physical one-on-one scrap. In particular he has a lot of aggression and uses the ball very well for a big man by foot. A potential future leader, he isn’t afraid to bark orders and direct traffic on field as a general in defence.
There’s also the likes of tall forward Matthew Uebergang from Ipswich, who runs a 20-metre sprint in 2.90, and key forward/ruckman Harris Andrews who offers himself up as a relief ruckman, but spends the majority of his time holding a key post at either side of the ground.
It’s a lot to take in, especially considering the club already has 12 players 195 centimetres or over. Although Brent Staker and Daniel Merrett are in the twilight of their careers, the club has an array of tall talent that could be bolstered with potentially a few more.
Sitting in 17th, the Lions could also enter the 2014 draft with the number one or two selection, with three gun key position players making up the likely first three selections.
It’s an enviable position to be in, with the likes of St Kilda, Carlton and the Western Bulldogs, amongst other clubs, desperately seeking depth in their key position stocks. With their crop of academy talent, however, the Lions are seemingly finding themselves with a luxury perhaps only Greater Western Sydney can rival.
This year’s top three selections loom to be Vic Country’s McCartin, Vic Metro’s Wright and South Australia’s Sam Durdin. Of the three, McCartin is the draft’s pure full forward and a direct replacement for Jonathan Brown. Wright is similar to Matthew Leuenberger, but also boasts a penetrating and accurate kick. Whether he’ll spend his days up forward or in the ruck is uncertain at this stage. Then there’s Durdin, a talented utility who is better situated in defence, but is the best swingman the draft has to offer considering his forward and ruck prowess.
Whilst the future for the moment looks bleak, with just four wins on the board so far for the season after last year’s 10, a brighter future is coming. Short-term pain will see long-term gain with coach Justin Leppitsch blooding his Lion cubs alongside club stars Tom Rockliff and Jack Redden. What Brisbane fans have to look forward to is a pathway through drafting and nurturing that can see the once-fearsome roar of the early 2000s return to the Lions’ den.