The year to date
After a positive finish to the 2014 season, Brisbane’s year to date has been disheartening. Two wins from 12 sees them 17th, only better than a makeshift Gold Coast side, and with an even worse percentage. There have been flashes of optimism – games against Carlton, Collingwood, GWS and both Adelaide sides – and more prolonged bursts of worse.
The Lions haven’t experienced a tidal wave of injuries like their neighbours in Gold Coast but Jack Redden, Tom Rockliff and Pearce Hanley, the midfield triumvirate that led Brisbane 12 months ago, are yet to play together this season. That Hanley returned from a hip injury the week after Rockliff’s third injury of the season – his ribs, again – is cruel.
Daniel Merrett, a crucially big body capable at either end of the ground, appeared in round one and is yet to be seen since. Claye Beams, Nick Robertson and Jaden McGrath all impressed before going down with injury. Michael Close only managed 18 minutes against North Melbourne. Brent Staker has scarcely been seen and Matt Maguire, forced to retire due to concussion, was never seen at all. All up that’s three main midfielders, three useful support acts and four key position players interrupted. Do that to any side and they will struggle.
This has tested their depth and brought to the fore a new mix of players, some of which have relished the opportunity, more of which have not. All up it culminates in a frustrating start to the year for Justin Leppitsch and his men, one they’d rather forget as they build toward launching themselves into 2016 and beyond.
When all is in sync this side can damage via run and carry and smart ball movement, playing to their young forward line’s strengths by letting them lead and out-position defenders rather than kicking it long and letting them be outmuscled in the air. It is an appealing brand of footy to watch, if only in fits and spurts this season, and it is something to work with.
This midfield was praised prior to last season’s trade window but in some ways it is peculiar to note two of their best midfielders all season have been Dayne Beams and Allen Christensen. Beams has been outstanding, truly deserving of a lot more praise than he has received, hitting the same lofty standards he managed at Collingwood even without the support around him. Christensen has been handy as a goal-kicking midfielder, necessary in a team lacking threatening options up forward, kicking the third-most goals and leading the team in score involvements.
The form of Stefan Martin also warrants significant praise. Forced to share the ruck duties with Matthew Leuenberger, who has struggled, is a little degrading of Martin’s efforts as a top five ruckman in the league and the game’s premier and prototype ruckman/midfielder. He ranks first among ruckmen for disposals, marks, clearances, inside 50s and goal assists in 2015, an extraordinary feat in a side sitting 17th.
Lewis Taylor’s efforts must not go unnoticed either. A move to the defensive side of midfield has helped him win plenty of the ball and play smart, helping the Lions maintain possession, perhaps more crucial to the Lions at this point in time than the run and gun into the forward line that saw him win the AFL’s Rising Star Award in 2014.
The Lions’ depth has been tested this season but the response has been inadequate. Especially for a side that ended its 2014 campaign in strong form and more reason to be optimistic than many of its peers in the bottom half of the ladder.
Brisbane’s conversion going forward is currently the worst in the competition. The short-term pain of a forward line led by just-turned-20-year-old McStay and nifty small forward Josh Green was obvious in the pre-season and it’s little surprise to see the Lions posting low scores from week to week. Nonetheless the Lions will be persistent with them, and others such as Jordon Bourke, to keep presenting and creating options; there is little else they can do.
This Brisbane team also seems to lack support and fluency. Despite injury, Daniel Rich and Mitch Robinson have been moved around the field, Dayne Zorko hasn’t spent as much time in the middle as he could, and alternatives such as Ryan Lester and James Aish aren’t receiving the opportunity. It has left too much for too few.
When combined with statistically the worst backline in the competition – a backline that surely misses Joel Patfull, as well as injuries to Merrett, Staker and Maguire – it results in a team easy to beat in the middle of the ground, easy to move the ball forward against and easy to score.
Where to from here?
Ideally the Lions’ main men pull together and set themselves up for another strong run home. The Lions did this last season too, going 1-8 before the bye and 6-7 after. Chances are the Lions won’t discover similar form but they need to come close, to end the season on an optimistic – if not previously heard – note.
Whichever way it will be six years in a row finishing no higher than 12th. It is a dismal, ugly record, and it means Brisbane is the one club in the league that needs form as immediately as it possibly can. They play Melbourne away, North Melbourne, Gold Coast and Carlton at home in a five-week stretch starting in round 16, by which point many players should have returned.
This is exactly when Brisbane needs to play their best – all four sides are susceptible. Strong performances win or lose, will remind themselves and the league this side is still capable of reasonable football.
You can follow Ethan on Twitter: @ethan_meldrum