The Brisbane Lions are living perilously close to the edge ahead of their Round 4 clash against the Western Bulldogs.
If not for Zac Bailey’s after-the-siren goal, Brisbane would have been the team most spoken about in the media this week.
Of course it was only the week before that the team would have beaten Geelong if not for a controversial decision, which would have left them sitting with two wins after three rounds.
Yet we as a sporting community are far too reactive to results, and the win over Collingwood shouldn’t have let Brisbane fly under the radar.
Put simply, the Lions are yet to actually play finals-quality footy outside of small bursts.
In fact we can go a step further and say that Brisbane’s start to the season has been lazy.
For a team expected to be in Premiership contention – they were certainly my pick – the Lions have been guilty of looking disinterested and lacking in hunger.
They have been a group devoid of belief in themselves.
The Sydney result mightn’t look as bad on paper given what we know, but Brisbane were outhunted at the contest, outworked around the ground and outrun by a youthful outfit.
Against Geelong, the Lions were inefficient, and it took a deficit to click somewhat into gear, finally gaining some of their trademark meterage by foot late and trying to win the ball in close as they were decimated on the outside.
And in their first win of the season, a match riddled with basic errors, they were largely outplayed until a final-stanza blitz from Hugh McCluggage and great games from Dayne Zorko and Jarryd Lyons.
In 2020 the Lions ranked third in the competition for average clearances, inside 50s and marks, second for marks inside 50, fifth for tackles and 17th for clangers, highlighting the multifaceted nature of the club’s effective gameplan.
Built on hunting the opposition, winning the contest and then moving the ball quickly through efficient and direct ball use, Brisbane’s style has been able to tear apart teams on the inside and the outside.
After the first three games of 2021 the Lions are ranked 12th in clearances, sixth in inside 50s, 14th in marks, 16th for marks inside 50, seventh for tackles and 12th for clangers, all significant steps backwards in the key indicators of the club’s style of play.
Brisbane are also a clear last for disposals, averaging 16 less than Adelaide, who sit second last.
A lot of the efficient transition play is built out of the back half, particularly through Daniel Rich and the running power of Hugh McCluggage, Jarrod Berry, Mitch Robinson and Dayne Zorko, who all rotate as outlet options.
The pressure applied around the ground has previously allowed Rich in particular to roam freely without any oncoming traffic affecting his ball use.
What the aforementioned statistics are telling us – and it certainly passes the eye test – is that the Lions aren’t working hard enough around the ball, which is resulting in huge pressure being placed on the rebounding unit.
Even though he played a key part in the Collingwood victory, Rich fumbled on many occasions without the protection of his midfield, and these little errors from him and other experienced players nearly cost them.
As it stands, we ultimately haven’t even seen a half’s worth of good footy from Brisbane.
Therefore this Ballarat trip, closing out an unexpected extended stay in Victoria, will be the absolute indicator as to what we can expect from this team going forward.
Injury issues with key players are having an influence, particularly in the case of Darcy Gardiner and Jarrod Berry as well as whatever is inhibiting Lachie Neale.
However, just as Richmond have had to deal with injuries in the past, as are West Coast, Geelong and the Western Bulldogs now, the best teams simply must find a way to prove themselves through inconveniences.
It’s a pity that this game is tucked away early on a Saturday afternoon, because it looms as the match of the round.
While the Bulldogs are flying, the Lions are teetering, stuck between relevance and wilderness.
The best teams are able to fight back with their backs against the wall. This is certainly the case with Brisbane, but they need to overcome their own mental obstacles in order to be successful.
Truthfully, the Lions are going to be this season’s case study for the concept of belief versus relief.
Games have been physically draining as players refamiliarise themselves with full-length games and interchange restrictions.
However, Brisbane haven’t put in quite enough effort to warrant use of the fatigue card outside of being outside their home state for a third straight week.
This is why the response after last week’s narrow victory is so vitally important.
If Brisbane are legitimate, there will be a sense of belief that wins can be accomplished from any position after last week, including this round’s tough matchup.
McCluggage should take his final-quarter form forward with him, Harris Andrews looks to be the best match in the competition for the aerial prowess of Aaron Naughton, and Joe Daniher would take full advantage of an undersized Bulldogs defence.
Dayne Zorko’s last six full games against the Bulldogs have seen him average 25 disposals, seven tackles and six clearances while kicking 12.7.
Belief has been the fuel to the Brisbane resurgence over the past two seasons and is the definitive method for them to find their killer instinct.
Crucially, key players are scheduled to be returning, which means finding that gear, the one we have seen from the team for 24 months, will simply add speed to the ball that can roll forward and quickly have the Lions sitting on four wins after six games.
The flip side, the more concerning alternative, is whether Brisbane’s mindset is driven by the relief of simply winning a game. It’s a genuine concern given the response after Zac Bailey’s matchwinner.
Beyond the natural excitement, which is justified given the circumstances, it was almost as if the players collectively breathed a sigh of relief.
Perhaps the lingering feeling of aggrievement at the previous week’s controversies exacerbated the overwhelming sensation of relief on game day. However, that emotion in the AFL can only last for a fleeting moment.
The players simply cannot afford to rest on their laurels and allow the Bulldogs to take control early.
Luckily, the club have one of the best coaches and indeed educators in charge to steady the ship.
A viewing of Chris Fagan’s press conference would give anyone confidence that Brisbane can respond again this week. He clearly places importance on persistence and trusts the players to work through issues onfield.
As the coach stated, a large part of the current core was a part of the Brisbane team that were woeful four seasons ago and have shown “grit” and determination to get the club to where they’re at now.
Therefore, in the question of relief versus belief being the driving factor for the road ahead with backs against the wall, you would back in the Lions to overcome the obstacles.
This is what we need to see in Round 4.
The Bulldogs are averaging 117 more disposals, 18 more marks, seven more clearances per game and are going at 78.5 per cent disposal efficiency compared to Brisbane’s 70.9 per cent.
Brisbane have prided themselves – no pun intended – on a high-kicking, low-disposal game to carve up the opposition, but even these discrepancies are incredibly extreme.
This game will be won in the contest, where the Bulldogs have won just 34.2 per cent of their possessions compared to Brisbane’s 42.7 per cent.
Unlike the first three games of the season, the Lions need to turn up switched on and ready to fight against the deepest midfield group in the competition, as conceding the first possession in stoppages immediately gives the Bulldogs the opportunity to control the outside.
Ballarat tends to provide windy and somewhat wild conditions, particularly if rain hits.
While the Bulldogs are coming off a soft kill, Brisbane had to fight hard and were able to show a glimpse of their efficient ball movement in order to scrape over the line against Collingwood.
Taking that kicking game and focusing on metres gained will be crucial to getting the ball through a dense midfield area, especially with the swirly wind around.
If Brisbane approach this game with strong belief, they can carry the momentum of a few positives and take the fight to the Bulldogs.
If this week has been all about enjoying the relief of a win, I have grave concerns for the Lions.
Saturday’s game isn’t season-defining from a result perspective.
Brisbane won’t leave the Gabba for the final month of the home-and-away season and have a friendly fixture over their last eight games, meaning they can afford to own an even record after six weeks.
No, what is season-defining is how the club plays.
Having credits in the bank can last for only so long.
The Brisbane Lions have been lazy to start the season, and it’s time to make the conscious decision to prove that they are a legitimate contender in 2021.
A slow start once again and hopes of a premiership are unsalvageable.
All it takes is belief.
And Brisbane have plenty of it.