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AFL Media reviews Lions' 2019 season

In a nutshell

An incredible season for the Lions. Started with a bang by beating premier West Coast in round one and remained in the top eight all year. A nine-game winning streak after the bye catapulted them into second place, and even though home losses to Richmond and Greater Western Sydney in the finals was a sour note to finish, the strides forward cannot be overstated.

What we said in the pre-season

Only one AFL.com.au reporter had the Lions finishing in the top eight, and most had them in the 13-15th range. We predicted Lachie Neale would be the recruit of the year and Charlie Cameron a surprise Virgin Australia AFL All Australian – so those two were on the money at least.

Charlie Cameron, Harris Andrews and Lachie Neale all represented the Lions in the All Australian team.

What worked 

Off-season recruiting
A home run here. All four players brought in from other clubs – Lachie Neale, Lincoln McCarthy, Marcus Adams and Jarryd Lyons – had huge impacts. Throw in draftee Noah Answerth, taken with pick No.55, and there was a lot of successful turnover from a 2018 team that showed plenty of promise. List manager Dom Ambrogio and his team deserve a pay rise.

Moving Mitch Robinson to the wing
Whether it was good luck or smart decision-making, this move proved to be a masterstroke. Robinson had played mainly as a half-forward and inside midfielder at Brisbane, but floundering in the Lions' 'B' team during pre-season, was moved to the wing. He flourished, mixing his trademark aggression with hard two-way running and an ability to go forward and kick goals. 

Making the Gabba a fortress again
It's been a long time since playing in Brisbane was a difficult road trip, but as the wins mounted, the city began to buzz and the crowds returned to the Gabba. The Lions lost just once in the home and away season, to Collingwood, to finish with a stunning 10-1 record. They officially won over the fans of Brisbane for the first time in a decade, drawing in excess of 100,000 people to the final three matches against Geelong, Richmond and GWS.

What failed

Small moments on the big stage
The Lions will rue little things in both finals. Horrible goalkicking against Richmond cost them a sizeable half-time lead, while a series of minor mishaps against the Giants came back to haunt them - gifting a goal to Jeremy Finlayson after an unnecessary scuffle, not getting a touch on a long Finlayson shot that bounced through and leaving Josh Kelly unmarked in the pocket. Whether it was stage fright or a lack of concentration, the consequences for simple mistakes in September are huge. 

Inability to find a running defender
Zac Bailey was tried in defence early in the year but after hurting his hamstring twice in the first eight rounds, that plan was shelved. Brisbane has great kickers in its back half and was desperate to add some run-and-carry to that part of the ground, but couldn't find a suitable answer. As teams put even more homework into them, it's a weapon they could do with. 

Goalkicking woes
Of all the teams in the top eight, Brisbane converted the worst around goal. They barely kicked more goals than behinds and if you factor in all shots at goal, Eric Hipwood, Dayne Zorko, Hugh McCluggage and Cam Rayner were all well below 50 percent. The inaccuracy was apparent through the season but really came back to bite in both finals.

Overall rating

A-
You only get an A-plus for a premiership and winning a final would have been an A, but this season was a raging success.

The coach

Chris Fagan deserves all the credit in the world. While there was a huge jump in performance this year, this resurrection project has been a slow build since he walked into the club three years ago. Fagan gives his players confidence, has built continuity by playing the same system and walked the tightrope between being excited with their progress and grounded as they rapidly improved.

MVP

Lachie Neale: Delivered more than the club could have ever dreamed of. A clearance and contested-ball king, Neale was the engine that drove the Lions' midfield. His clean hands and ability to set up teammates was a thing of beauty and earned him a much deserved first All Australian jacket.

Surprise packet

Noah Answerth: With apologies to Daniel Rich and Mitch Robinson - who both had career best seasons in their 11th year – the young defender's progress was a revelation. A low draft pick, Answerth forced his way into the team in round six and never relinquished his spot. He took on some of the game's best small forwards and his disciplined uncompromising approach quickly made him a fan favourite.

Get excited

Hugh McCluggage: The yin to Mitch Robinson's yang, McCluggage locked down the other wing spot and took a giant leap in his third season. The game began to slow down around the 21-year-old, allowing him to use his precise kicking skills to hurt opponents in general play and on the scoreboard (23 goals).

Disappointment

Tom Cutler: A permanent fixture with 18 games in 2018, the beautifully balanced wing/half-back just couldn't get going. His hard-running and long kicking is an asset, but in his three games this season, Cutler got lost defensively and tried to do too much with the ball.

Best win

Round 17: Brisbane 14.13 (97) d Port Adelaide 6.13 (49)
Seven days after winning on the road against Greater Western Sydney, the Lions headed to Adelaide and were ambushed by a Power outfit intent on bashing their young opponents. Brisbane kicked the game's first seven goals and never looked back, stamping themselves as a top-eight lock and outside premiership force.

Best individual performance 

Lachie Neale: Round two v North Melbourne
One of many monster days for Neale, this was as much about when as how many. Although the numbers – 43 disposals, 16 contested, eight clearances – are eye-popping, it was the fourth quarter heroics that were memorable. With the game in the balance, Neale put on a clinic, winning four centre clearances and powering the Lions to victory.

Low point

The round 12 loss to Carlton came completely out of the blue (pun intended). It was Brisbane's last match before the bye and with a six-goal lead early in the second quarter, it looked like heading to the week off with an 8-4 record. But Patrick Cripps lifted the Blues to an unlikely comeback victory. The loss reminded the Lions they weren't good enough to get ahead of themselves and raised questions about the legitimacy of their finals' aspirations.

The big questions 

Is this the start of a sustained run in finals?
The pieces are in place for a long tilt at success, but Melbourne's fall from grace in 2019 is a great cautionary tale. They are well stocked in defence, midfield and forward, but many players still have deficiencies that opponents will now pour hours and hours of homework into. The Lions will go from hunter to hunted. 

Do they need to find a genuine full forward?
The three-pronged tall forward line of Eric Hipwood, Dan McStay and Oscar McInerney all did their jobs, but when the Lions were beaten, invariably opponents were able to not only nullify the trio, but more worryingly, outmark them. Hipwood and McStay can play the lead role but are more suited to coming up the ground as the second and third options. 

Will Cam Rayner make a jump next year?
The former No.1 draft pick plays one of the most difficult positions on the ground and had an up-and-down second season. If he comes back fitter and is able to mix his time between the forward line and midfield, Brisbane has a matchwinner on its hands that can help it take the next step.

Season in a movie title

The Boys Are Back (2009)

Who's done?

Retirements: Luke Hodge

Delistings: TBC 

Unsigned free agents: Ryan Bastinac, Ryan Lester

How should they approach trade and draft period? 

They're probably one or two quality players away from being a premiership contender, so the Trade Period again looms as crucial, if not as active as previous years. A running half-back would complement beautifully. Whatever picks are left at the draft – and they don't need many – should be used to bolster the midfield that might be looking for younger bodies in two years when those players are ready to play AFL.

Early call for 2020

It's hard to envisage Brisbane not making finals again – and next time winning at least one. They'll get a tougher draw, play more marquee games in front of bigger crowds and have a target on their back, though, so it won't be straightforward.

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs