With the Brisbane Lions' 2017 Toyota AFL Premiership Season set to kick off on Saturday, AFL Media Reporter Michael Whiting tries his best to preview the year ahead:
Whiting's Best 22 – Round 1
B: Darcy Gardiner, Harris Andrews, Ryan Harwood
HB: Daniel Rich, Dan McStay, Sam Mayes
C: Rohan Bewick, Dayne Zorko, Ryan Lester
HF: Mitch Robinson, Eric Hipwood, Lewis Taylor
F: Jake Barrett, Michael Close, Ben Keays
Foll: Stefan Martin, Tom Rockliff, Dayne Beams
I/C: Tom Cutler, Ryan Bastinac, Tom Bell, Nick Robertson
Allen Christensen re-fracturing his collarbone has been the biggest spanner in a strong pre-season for the Lions. The clever former Cat was super fit and will march back into the best 22 when he's healthy in six weeks. No.3 draftee Hugh McCluggage (ankle) and second-year forward Josh Schache (knee) will likely miss the opening round but be available shortly after, while Jarrod Berry (knee) and Marco Paparone (hamstring) are also not far away.
The big question
Can Chris Fagan plug their leaky defence?
Last season the Lions coughed up 130 points a game. Fagan has made it a point of emphasis to improve in 2017. Jack Frost comes in to help the back six, but the Lions will have to work harder on every line to bring that number down to double figures and become more competitive across four quarters.
The continued development of the young key-position players. They're still light-on for experience, but the Lions are slowly developing bookends they can rely on for years to come. Harris Andrews is just 20 but has moved into the club's leadership group and has improved his one-on-one defence to go alongside his terrific intercept marking. At the other end you've got teenagers Schache and Eric Hipwood who, despite playing against physically stronger defenders, should take another gradual step this year.
Who they play
Unlike last season's nightmare early draw, the Lions have been given a friendlier start to 2017. In Gold Coast, Essendon, St Kilda and Richmond, they play four non-finalists from last season and have a fighting chance to sneak some wins. They double up against the Suns, Bombers, Tigers, Port Adelaide and Western Bulldogs. Last year they had a legitimate gripe with the draw, but this year's fixture could not be any fairer.
Fantasy cash cow
Rohan Bewick ($405,000) has had a terrific pre-season and already looks to be thriving under a new coach. The 27-year-old has played just about everywhere on the ground in his 92-game career, but looks to have found a home on the wing. Bewick averaged 81 Fantasy points a game during the JLT Community Series and, with a defined role through the season, looks capable of boosting that with his strong running and aerial ability.
No surprises, but keep an eye on No.3 draft pick Hugh McCluggage. The Lions are crying out for players with genuine class and the young Victorian has it by the truckload. Jake Barrett has impressed since coming north from the Giants and could carve out a role as a small forward, while Frost should lock down full-back.
Brisbane Lions midfielder Hugh McCluggage. (Photo: AFL Media)
The Lions will have a good year if…
They learn to defend. It's the basis for being competitive, and watching them being carved up like a Christmas ham last season became tiresome. Although they have young key forwards, there are enough midfielders and half-forwards capable of kicking goals, so it will come down to how hard they work without the ball.
They're in trouble if…
The senior players don't produce. There's only a handful of older guys on the list, but Beams, Rockliff, Dayne Zorko, Daniel Rich and Stefan Martin need to stay on the field and play somewhere near their best. If they don't, there's just not enough quality behind them to cover.
It's broad, but being competitive would be a huge step forward. It's a bit of coach-speak, but the number of wins won't be the judge of whether the Lions have succeeded or not. Last season their percentage hovered around a pathetic 60 – if that could be bumped up towards 80, four or five wins would come and Fagan could walk away with a smile.
Player Ratings star
Dayne Zorko, 10th. The dynamic Queenslander won his second successive Merrett Murray Medal last season, averaging 24 disposals and six tackles and kicking 23 goals. He jumped from 19th into 10th on the Player Ratings.
Dayne Zorko in action. (Photo: AFL Media)