Will The Brisbane Lions' Tame Off-Season Come Back To Bite Them?

Like an elaborate magic act, the Brisbane Lions morphed form a 5-17 wooden spooner into a legitimate league force, seemingly overnight, with the only thing missing being a puff of smoke.

In a season where Victoria’s health pandemic threw the competition into a tailspin, it was Queensland, and chiefly Brisbane, who saved the day, not only handling the influx of games impeccably, but capping the season off with an historic night Grand Final at the Gabba.

And while the Lions missed out on taking part in the league’s showpiece event, they made sure they left their mark on an unforgettable year thanks to Lachie Neale winning the Brownlow medal in laughably easy fashion

Footy in Brisbane is once again very much relevant again.

For the second year in a row the Lions missed out a minor premiership by percentage only, and became just the second team to win a final against the all-conquering Tigers over the last four years. 

In 2020, the Lions were the fourth youngest team in the league, and quite easily the youngest among all finalists, and when coupled with the widely applauded picks-ups of Joe Daniher and Nakia Cockatoo, have the age profile of a club the bookies have had little hesitation installing as fourth favourites for the 2021 flag. 

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Yet while there’s clearly so much to be enthused about with the Lions, is it reasonable to argue they didn’t do enough over the last few weeks to genuinely bridge the gap between themselves and the league’s very best? 

This off-season witnessed 234 transactions, including 32 players finding new homes with this year’s finalists among the busiest.

Collingwood’s fire-sale has been well documented, and Richmond could afford the luxury of sitting back and twirling its moustache, yet everyone else was elbowing each other out of the way as though it were the Boxing Day sales.

Geelong added in a Coleman medalist (Jeremy Cameron), a two-time best and fairest winner (Shaun Higgins) and a triple-premiership player (Isaac Smith). The Dogs bought in Adam Treloar, the Power added Orazio Fantasia. In Brad Crouch, St Kilda also bought in a Best and Fairest Winner, while the Eagles traded in Alex Witherden, who’s quietly averaged 20.9possessions over his career.

While everyone was feasting, the Lions actually shed talent. 

By trading out Witherden and sending Stef Martin to the Bulldogs, Brisbane bought their number of Stats Insider top-250 players down from 11 to 9, which now stands as the second lowest figure in the league. 

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While Daniher and Cockatoo are being applauded as low-risk, high-reward additions, do they move the needle enough to eat into the supremacy of Richmond, or the sheer audacity of Geelong? 

Ultimately, did they do enough to make up for their awful Preliminary Final beatdown by the Cats, let alone take another step and win on Grand Final day? 

The Lions are unquestionably made of firm stuff. No club accidentally completely overhauls its entrenched awfulness in such short time and backs it up with an even stronger cameo. 

They’ve drafted well, developed even better, and have hit their trade targets like strategic drone strikes. Grant Birchalland Lincoln McCarthy are a couple of examples of the Lions revitalising careers which appeared doomed, while the acquisitions of Lachie Neale and Charlie Cameron have constituted some of the best work seen in the trade period over the last couple of decades. 

Outside of trades, in Harris Andrews they have the game’s premier full back, while there’s a certain former #1 pick in Cam Rayner who the footy world is watching as if an explosive device, waiting for him to detonate into super-stardom at any moment.

The Lions are going to be fine, but to return to their most pressing question, did they do enough to push themselves into an immediate flag winning position?

In his six seasons with the Cats, Cockatoo managed just 34 games, averaging a modest 9.6 disposals per match. At his best, he's a smooth-moving former top-ten pick who could theoretically take off like his former Geelong teammate Lincoln McCarthy. For now though, no-one would argue he’s been anything but a bust.

As for Daniher, all 18 clubs, including his former employer, would kill to get their hands on him, especially through not having to part with any draft capital to secure his services. Yet the two elephants in the room remain his health and his abhorrent kicking, the latter of which will be shoehorned into a club who’s own kicking for goal was the league’s very worst in 2020.  

Sure, Daniher and Cockatoo are two potentially excellent pick-ups, but ‘potential’ really remains the key word here, as the duo have combined for just 17 games over the last 3 years.

The completely understandable retort to questioning Brisbane’s off-season is to propose an alternative to their relative in-action. After all, they kept their impressive core, kept their draft picks too and added some high potential without risk.  

Yet could they, or perhaps should they, have been a little more ambitious along the lines of say Geelong or the Bulldogs? Could they have weaselled their way into discussions around Cameron or Treloar? Would Ben Brown have been a better, more reliable fit than Daniher? Could the Lions, like Essendon, have sniffed around a young, contracted premiership winner and offered him a more expansive role?

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It’s of course a ludicrously easy game to speculate on could offs and should offs, especially at this time of the year when no actual shots have been fired. 

And ultimately, Cockatoo may well start bouncing out of packs at the Gabba, launching balls forward to Joe Daniher who's taken up a familiar position aboard someone else’s shoulders. And heck, Daniher might even go back and slot this imaginary goal as well. Yet the thing is, we’re playing an imaginative exercise here which isn’t ordinarily the script wannabe premiers recite to themselves. 

It wasn’t hard to imagine Tom Lynch being great at Richmond because that’s precisely what he’d been on the Goal Coast. Similarly, the Bulldogs don’t have to squint too hard to imagine Adam Treloar being great for them, nor will the Cats have too many concerns about Jeremy Cameron’s health or consistency.

Yes, footy is relevant in Brisbane again, and the Lions are building something undeniably special. Yet in comparison with their Finals' brethren, there was something rather hollow, potentially self-sacrificing about their approach to this year’s trade period.

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James Rosewarne

James is a writer and Managing Editor at Stats Insider. He likes fiction and music. He is a stingray attack survivor. He lives in Wollongong.

Email- james@thehypometer.com for story ideas or opportunities.

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