While Gold Coast has already got a foot in the door of the finals with its win over North Melbourne at Etihad Stadium on Sunday, Queensland rival the Brisbane Lions – just a decade ago the first triple-premiership winners since the famed Melbourne teams of the 1950s – already have one hand on this year’s wooden spoon.
For that, ironically, they can thank Melbourne for its upset win over Adelaide. The Demons, slowly but surely, are improving. The Lions only now are hitting the bottom, a descent hastened by a crushing list of injuries to key players including Daniel Rich, Pearce Hanley and Matthew Leuenberger.
Even if those three were playing, the Lions have gaping holes all over the field. Jonathan Brown may well have retired at the end of last season had there been a contender ready to fill his shoes. With Brown nearing the end and needing careful physical management, finding his replacement has been a pressing concern for years.
But the Lions mostly haven’t had the picks, and have missed the target when they have. Key forwards are almost always identified early in their development and go early. Think, in recent years, Jonathon Patton, Jeremy Cameron, Tom Boyd (all taken by Greater Western Sydney), Jesse Hogan (Melbourne) and Joe Daniher (a father-son pick for Essendon).
At the moment, the Lions are trialling the extremely raw Michael Close (pick No. 32 in 2012) and took Jackson Paine (No. 50 in 2011) in a more or less straight swap for Patrick Karnezis to Collingwood. Aaron Cornelius, who had great hands but not much else, was rejected after 25 games in five years.
The problems are not much less urgent in defence. Talls Daniel Merrett, Joel Patfull and Matt Maguire are all in their late 20s, as is captain Jed Adcock. None will play in a future Lions premiership, but such a callow team needs their experience and guidance.
So the Lions have issues at both ends. But the midfield and half-back lines need stocking, too. The Lions simply lack class and, especially, penetration by foot. This is what makes the injury to Rich so damaging. Sam Mayes is a beautiful kick, but for now his height and goal sense are needed elsewhere.
Jack Redden is a tiger in the clinches, but not always a great ball user; Tom Rockliff is a running machine but his goal sense often sees him deployed in the forward line, too. Ryan Lester and Ryan Harwood win their share of the ball but aren’t likely to give too many opposition midfielders sleepless nights.
None are quick line-breakers in the mould of Hanley, one of the few runners at the club capable of making regular 100-metre plays. That’s why Rich and Hanley, more often than not, are the subject of tags. The Lions simply don’t have enough players who can really hurt you.
Hawthorn has Luke Hodge, Grant Birchall and Matt Suckling, and that’s just off the half-back line. Of course, no other club in the competition has such an embarrassment of riches in that regard, but the lesson for the Lions is obvious: they simply can’t afford to recruit anyone who can’t hit a target.
It’s not as if the club is unaware of these issues. Mayes and James Aish help address the kicking problem, while Lewis Taylor and Nick Robertson inject some speed into a mostly leaden midfield. But the reality is they’ve played all of 43 games between them.
The Lions have tried to trade back into the competition to plug the gaps, but with little real quality of their own to offer other clubs, it’s been like putting a finger in a dyke. Maguire and Brent Staker have been moderate successes. Trent West was never meant to be first ruck; Stefan Martin has barely played a game.
Brent Moloney, though, is currently on the outer, with coach Justin Leppitsch preferring the similarly big-bodied but slow Lester. It speaks volumes that Leppitsch would leave a player of Moloney’s experience out. Former Richmond defender-turned-forward Luke McGuane has had no impact to date.
The club has looked towards the example of Port Adelaide, widely considered a basket case comparable to Melbourne until last year, now a top-four contender. Things can turn around quickly. Right now, though, the only mighty roar coming out of Brisbane is being made by fans of the city’s thrice-crowned A-League champion.