Lions out to prove rise is no fluke
GET better, not bitter.
That is the 2020 vision for Brisbane Lions vice-captain and All-Australian defender Harris Andrews.
It is also the mantra for the club as a whole.
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After roaring up the AFL ladder to finish second at the end of the 2019 home-and-away season and qualify for its first finals appearance since 2009, Brisbane made a straight-sets September exit.
Back-to-back losses to eventual grand finalists Richmond and Greater Western Sydney at the Gabba left a bitter aftertaste to what was a feast of entertaining football throughout the year, a style that helped earn the Lions a bumper blockbuster draw this season.
With the extra exposure to the bright lights of prime time and the rapid-fire journey from the outhouse to the penthouse, there is greater expectations on the Lions.
Andrews, 23, was outstanding in defence last season to claim his first All-Australian blazer and he added an All-Stars State of Origin guernsey to his collection last month to underline his standing as one of the pre-eminent key defenders in the competition.
Brisbane has not been shy about addressing the back-to-back finals losses.
The pre-season tone has been more about using the defeats as learning experiences rather than lamenting inaccurate goalkicking or deviations from the game style that carried the Lions into September in the first place.
"This pre-season, I've focused on my ability to play my role for the team 100 per cent of the time because it is something I went away from a little during last year's finals,'' he said.
"I didn't have the finals I wanted to have. They were a huge learning curve for me.''
Andrews said senior coach Chris Fagan was a calming and consistent influence over the Lions' playing group. After being an integral part of Hawthorn's sustained success, the players deeply trust that Fagan knows what he is talking about.
"Overall, to perform the way we did last year was really exciting for us but internally, we haven't raised expectations around this year. 'Fages' has harped on all summer about the importance of continuing to do what we do, which is focus on consistent improvement,'' Andrews said.
It seems a matter of when - not if - Andrews eventually inherits the Lions' captaincy from Dayne Zorko.
He credits the likes of backline coach Murray Davis and former Lions defenders Daniel Merrett and Justin Clarke for shaping his early days while the retired Luke Hodge - who has a part-time mentoring coach role at Brisbane - has also had a profound influence on his football and his leadership.
"'Hodgey' was huge for me. And he still is,'' Andrews said.
"I still like to bounce ideas off him. We talk all the time and I get a lot out of those conversations. It's great to still have him around the footy club.
"But Hodgey won't be there on the field with us any more so that load has to be spread among us all.''
Fagan says Brisbane's 2019 finals campaign will be a valuable learning tool.
"What we saw is that when the better teams play each other, it comes down to little moments and the ability to do the right thing every time, under pressure,'' Fagan said.
"You learn that you can't go to sleep in an opposition forward 50 stoppage, you can't afford to let good kickers run past an opposition ruckman who has marked 50 metres out from goal.
"It was a little about finishing off in front of goal and handling a bit of anxiety, but ultimately it's about staying in the moment.
"It's about the stuff that you have to go through and experience to truly learn.''
Arrivals: Callum Ah Chee (traded from Gold Coast); Grant Birchall (unrestricted free agent from Hawthorn); Cameron Ellis-Yolman (unrestricted free agent from Adelaide); Deven Robertson, Keidean Coleman, Jaxon Prior, Brock Smith (all draft).
Departures: Luke Hodge (retired); Ryan Bastinac (delisted); Tom Cutler (traded to Essendon); Lewis Taylor (traded to Sydney); Ben Keays, Nick Robertson, Josh Walker (all delisted).
The Lions ticked a few boxes over summer on the recruitment front. Speed (Ah Chee), experience (Birchall) and bolstering midfield depth (Ellis-Yolmen) were three key areas for Brisbane who showed a ruthless side by delisting the likes of Walker and Robertson who could be considered unlucky to feel the sharp edge of the axe. They also wanted to build depth across half-back hence Prior and Smith were pounced upon at the draft after they managed to snare impressive WA midfielder Deven Robertson with the first pick of the second round.
They still lack a reliable tall target up forward to help Eric Hipwood with Dan McStay fading in and out of games and back-up ruckman Oscar McInerney not always assured of a game. But there is midfield depth to burn headed by ball magnet Lachie Neale and a solid backline unit while the Lions have had very little injury concerns over the summer to have a full, settled and happy list to pick from.
How do they handle the blockbuster fixture?
Once near-permanent residents of the Sunday 4.40pm twilight graveyard shift, Brisbane's stunning 2019 season has earned them a bumper 2020 fixture. It includes prime time clashes with Collingwood on Easter Thursday (Round 4) and reigning premier Richmond on Friday, May 8 (Round 8). The Lions will also host Melbourne on Friday night football in Round 14 and then take on Hawthorn at the Gabba the following Thursday night.
By finishing inside the top six, they also have a tougher draw overall.
Ruckman Stef Martin turns 34 in November but insists he has years left in his legs and feels like he is physically closer to 25. Is in the best shape of his career after a full pre-season and there is every chance he'll be offered another deal if he holds up physically. Allen Christensen and Rhys Mathieson are also out of contract. Brisbane have been quick to extend the deals of some players before they reach the final year of their current deal.
IT'S A BIG YEAR FOR
Allen Christensen. Off-contract at the end of 2020 and on the fringe of senior selection after an injury-disrupted pre-season. The 2011 premiership player with Geelong arrived at the Gabba at the end of 2014 and has been used through the midfield and the forward line where Brisbane now have a host of options. Played in the seniors in the back half of 2019 including both finals but competition for spots is intense. Turns 29 in May and cannot afford to be hit by injury again.
Eric Hipwood has taken his running to another level and put on some weight at the same time while Cam Rayner has changed his body shape and is attacking contests with zeal. Rayner is keen to spend more time in the midfield and has trained accordingly. Hugh McCluggage has also been a standout. After an impressive 2019 on the wing, he is another player keen to get on the ball. Was red-hot in the first quarter against Port Adelaide when he started in the middle of the ground to show the results of the hard summer slog.
BEST PLAYER YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF
Key position player Sam Skinner. Played just the one senior game in 2017 when he kicked two goals against West Coast. But the Gippsland product has been cruelled by three knee reconstructions. The first came in his draft year which forced him to slide to pick no.47 in the 2015 draft. He hurt his knee again after being named to make his senior debut in 2016. Played in Brisbane's undefeated NEAFL team in 2019 after fighting back from his third reconstruction in late 2017 and has impressed during match simulations in the pre-season, kicking three goals in one hitout during Brisbane's week-long camp in Hobart. Standing at 198cm and tipping the scales at 96kg, he can hold down a key position at either end of the ground or pinch-hit in the ruck.