Dejected Brisbane players and coach Chris Fagan after their semi-final loss to GWS. Picture: AAP
Dejected Brisbane players and coach Chris Fagan after their semi-final loss to GWS. Picture: AAP

Why Lions can take next step in 2020

BRISBANE were the surprise bolters of 2019 and a straight-sets finals exit shouldn't detract from their outstanding season.

Having had that exposure to finals football and with the second-youngest list in the competition, the Lions are laying the foundations for success.

Can the Lions handle the extra attention they'll get in 2020? Here are eight reasons why they can.

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1. UPWARD TREND

After winning five games in each of the 2017 and 2018 seasons, last season was a breakout campaign for the Lions under coach Chris Fagan. The side won 16 games to finish second on the ladder, stunning the football world before bowing out of finals in straight sets. But the experience should prove invaluable going forward. While veteran defender Luke Hodge has hung up the boots, the Lions' list is largely young and improving and that bodes well for them to again push their case as a serious contender in 2020 and potentially take another step or two forward.

Chris Fagan led the Lions to a remarkable surge up the ladder in 2019. Picture: Getty Images
Chris Fagan led the Lions to a remarkable surge up the ladder in 2019. Picture: Getty Images

 

2. GRANT BIRCHALL

One out, one in. While Hodge might have retired from the Brisbane backline, one of his four-time Hawthorn premiership teammates in Grant Birchall has been added to help fill the void. Yes, Birchall has had knee and hamstring issues which have restricted him to just eight games in the past three years, but the Lions would not have picked up the unrestricted free agent if they did not believe he could get his body right. Birchall has spoken of his hope a "fresh start" will help and is confident that at 31 years old he can still have a meaningful impact. An All-Australian in 2012, Birchall averaged 22.9 disposals across 24 games in his last full season in 2016.

 

3. NO.1 MIDFIELD

You read that right. Forget Collingwood, West Coast or Greater Western Sydney. It is the Lions who have the No.1 midfield in the competition according to Champion Data. The calculations, which are based purely on individual talent, not only include the primary on-ballers but also the wings. Lachie Neale, who finished equal-third in the Brownlow Medal in 2019, leads the charge in the Brisbane engine room along with captain Dayne Zorko, Jarryd Lyons and wingman Mitch Robinson - all of whom are rated elite in their positions by the AFL's official statisticians. From a team perspective the No.1 rating matches up, with the Lions ranked second for clearances and fourth for inside-50s last season.

Dayne Zorko’s Lions midfield has been rated the best by Champion Data. Picture: AAP
Dayne Zorko’s Lions midfield has been rated the best by Champion Data. Picture: AAP

 

4. SECOND-YOUNGEST LIST

Brisbane will start next season with an average list age of just 23.43 years old. That puts them ahead of only Gold Coast Suns (23.24). That is excitimg for a team that played finals last season because it suggests there is more upside to come. Developing key forward Eric Hipwood, wingman Hugh McCluggage, former No.1 draft pick Cam Rayner, midfielder Jarrod Berry, key defender Alex Witherden and 2019 Rising Star nominee Noah Answerth will all start next season under the age of 23. Their ceilings are seemingly much higher than what they have produced to date.

 

5. ERIC HIPWOOD

Young key position players generally take time to develop and forward Eric Hipwood is no different. While still producing a solid 2019 season, he perhaps did not take the step forward many had thought he might. However, entering his fifth season, now is his time to shine. The 204cm big man booted 35.29 from 23 games last season but ranked below average for disposals, kicking and one-on-one contests. The Lions clearly believe he can take further steps forward, though, after signing him to a three-year contract extension estimated to be worth $2 million in September. Brisbane believes Hipwood has been crucial to the growth of their forward line in recent years with his team-first. Former St Kilda and Essendon star Brendon Goddard believes Hipwood will add some real consistency to his game in 2020.

Eric Hipwood is ready to make his stamp on the competition. Picture: Getty Images
Eric Hipwood is ready to make his stamp on the competition. Picture: Getty Images

 

6. SCORING POWER

The Brisbane forward line has plenty of firepower and finished last season as the highest scoring team in the competition. The Lions averaged 91 points a game during the home-and-away season, consistently finding a wide range of avenues to goal. Including finals, Charlie Cameron kicked 57 goals, Hipwood contributed 35, midfielder Zorko logged 23, wingman McCluggage kicked 23 and key forward Daniel McStay booted 21 goals. Mid-sized forward Lincoln McCarthy and Cam Rayner each kicked 20 goals to make for a total of seven players who contributed 20 or more goals. Geelong was the only other club to match that feat.

 

7. CAM ELLIS-YOLMEN

The former Adelaide onballer did not gather much fanfare when he was signed as a free agent during the trade period, but the Lions are excited by what they have picked up. Ellis-Yolmen was somewhat a forgotten player last season, not featuring for the Crows after Round 13 because of a stress reaction in his right leg. However, across 10 games in the first half of the season he averaged 23.5 disposals (12.3 contested), 4.9 clearances, 5.5 tackles and 93 SuperCoach ranking points. He will still be in his prime at 27 when next season starts and the Lions think he can add another big body to their midfield and provide clean clearances while also potentially pinch-hitting forward.

Brisbane recruits Grant Birchall and Cameron Ellis-Yolmen. Picture: Getty Images
Brisbane recruits Grant Birchall and Cameron Ellis-Yolmen. Picture: Getty Images

 

8. DEVEN ROBERTSON

Brisbane's first pick in the 2019 AFL National Draft did not come until No.22. But they managed to pick up a player who some clubs rated as a potential top 10. The nephew of former West Coast captain Darren Glass, Robertson captained Western Australia at the national championships and was named the best-and-fairest player in Division 1 after breaking Sam Walsh's record for the most disposals at the tournament by averaging 30 a match. A tough ball-winning machine, Robertson looks ready to feature at some stage next year and looms as a serious talent of the future.

CHAMPION DATA SAYS

It's no surprise that Brisbane's strength is in their midfield, rated as the No.1 midfield and ruck combination in the competition. They have three elite players in Dayne Zorko, Jarryd Lyons and Lachie Neale while new recruit Cam Ellis-Yolmen is rated above average.

HOW YOUR CLUB IS TRACKING

2015: 17th - W4, L18

2016: 17th - W3, L19

2017: 18th - W5, L17

2018: 15th - W5, L17

2019: 2nd - W16, L6, SF