Line in the sand game: Why are there so many doubts about the high-flying Brisbane Lions?

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Perceptions in football can be hard to shift. Back in April, three games into the regular season, the Brisbane Lions looked shaky, losing two of their first three games and showing an odd lack of appetite for the contest against Port Adelaide in round one, which shocked even coach Chris Fagan at the time.

Since round four, though, they’ve won 14 of their past 18 games. Joe Daniher, who had endured a horror start, and around whom so much discussion of the Lions circles, has compiled his most consistent season since being an All-Australian at the Bombers in 2017.

Joe Daniher’s third season at Brisbane has been his best for the club.Credit: AFL Photos

And the Lions are far from reliant on Daniher. They have arguably the best fleet of small forwards in the competition, led by Charlie Cameron, on track to exceed 50 goals for another season – a target he hasn’t missed since 2019, other than the COVID-interrupted 2020.

Defensively, they’re sound. Harris Andrews is back in the sort of touch that helped him win dual All-Australian jackets in 2019 and 2020, Jack Payne has emerged as a key pillar after the loss of Marcus Adams to concussion, and there’s plenty of zippy rebound — so much that stalwart Daniel Rich has lost his place.

Most importantly, the Lions have improved their team defence, in no small part thanks to the recruitment of Josh Dunkley from the Western Bulldogs. Dunkley is an elite two-way runner who has offered cover for the Lions’ best player, Brownlow medallist Lachie Neale.

So how come so few experts seem to rate their flag chances?

With just two games remaining in the regular season, the Brisbane Lions loom as the giant X-factor of the looming finals series. Despite the team brimming with elite talent, and hovering around the mark for five years now, doubts linger over how far Fagan’s men can go.

But, thanks to Port’s recent month-long slump and Melbourne’s narrow loss to Carlton last week, the Lions have pushed up to second on the ladder.

They’ve won their past five games against Collingwood. Four of those games have been at home at the Gabba and one at Docklands, where on Friday night they get their chance to all but sew up a top-two spot.

That would put them within touching distance of not just one, but two home finals at the Gabba which, in theory, would put them within reach of a grand final berth.

Recruit Josh Dunkley, defenders Jack Payne and Harris Andrews and Brownlow medallist and midfielder Lachie Neale have all helped Brisbane reach second spot on the ladder.Credit: Getty

The Lions’ home advantage at the Gabba in recent years has been as pronounced as any in football.

One of the perceived problems: make it through to the last Saturday in September, and they’ll have to prove themselves at the home of football.

How bad is Brisbane’s record at the MCG?

It’s pretty bad. Since 2014, when the Lions rolled Collingwood in round 21, the Lions have prevailed just once.

But it should be kept in perspective because the Lions rarely play there: in the nine years since, they’ve played just 15 games at the home of football.

Importantly, the Lions’ most recent victory at the venue was arguably a more significant breakthrough, when they came from behind to defeat Melbourne by 13 points in last year’s semi-final. That just might be a truer indication of their capability.

What about at Marvel Stadium?

Conversely, the Lions hold no fear on the slightly smaller dimensions of Marvel Stadium. Since the starting their rise up the ladder in 2019, they’ve won eight of 10 games at Docklands.

Unfortunately for the Lions, they won’t be playing finals there.

Is their Gabba fortress impenetrable?

The Lions haven’t lost at the Gabba all year. Since 2019, their overall win-loss record at their home ground is 49–8. This compares favourably to Geelong’s lauded 32–6 record at GMHBA Stadium in the same period.

But that doesn’t mean Brisbane is invincible on their home deck. They were lucky to escape against Adelaide last week when inaccuracy cost the Crows a rare away victory of their own, kicking themselves out of it with 2.5 to 1.1 in the final quarter.

And back in round two, the Lions had Melbourne on toast until the lights went out with 12 minutes to go. A 40-point margin was whittled back to 11 by the final siren, causing more than a few jitters in the home crowd. Which brings us to another query: do the Lions struggle to close out games.

Are the Lions vulnerable late?

In round 18, the Lions were all over the Dees again – this time at the MCG. They led by 28 points late in the third quarter, only to be overrun when the home team kicked four goals in the last seven minutes to pip the Lions by a point.

The Lions were also jumped by Melbourne early in that game, conceding the first four goals in eight minutes. In between, they played some of their best and most exhilarating football of the year. So, which version is the real Lions?

They appear to have learned from that experience, holding out Fremantle by three points in Perth, then the Crows by a goal last week.

Is their midfield good enough?

This might be the more important and fundamental question. Fagan has admitted that in previous years when Neale was collared, the opposition was a long way to beating Brisbane.

The addition of Dunkley and Will Ashcroft has alleviated that situation in 2023. Neale hasn’t produced the same eye-popping numbers statistically this season, but the load has been spread to more shoulders, and, if anything, he’s been more effective.

The long-term loss of the gifted Ashcroft to a knee injury is shattering. Hugh McCluggage and Jarrod Berry have spent most of their careers on a wing, but can also play inside and have done so with success. However, both lack speed.

Fagan has also tried high half-forwards Cam Rayner and Zac Bailey in the middle, both of whom offer breakaway pace and power, but with limited success. And both are more valuable to the Lions in attack.

They’ll get a good test at Marvel Stadium on Friday night. If the Lions can’t beat the Magpies – who will be without their three best and most dynamic players: Darcy Moore; Jordan De Goey; and, Nick Daicos – good luck beating them on the wide-open plains of the MCG in front of a baying crowd in September.

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