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Justin Leppitsch and the Lions: A year of living dangerously?

Michael Whiting  January 29, 2016 7:00 AM

AFL 2015 Rd 08 - Essendon v Brisbane

Justin Leppitsch has full confidence in the direction the Brisbane Lions are headed

I see this as a 10-year job ... for me it's about building the club back to a superpower

WITH just 11 wins in two full seasons of coaching, you'd think Justin Leppitsch would be edgy entering a contract year.

Perhaps he should be.

But whether he's being straight up or just putting on a brave face, the Brisbane Lions mentor seems totally unfussed by the situation.

Perhaps he fits the duck metaphor – calm on the surface but working furiously underneath to make progress.

Whatever the case, Leppitsch faces a huge year both personally and for the development of the Lions.

When he took over from Michael Voss (Mark Harvey to be totally precise) late in 2013, his vision was to redraft, rebuild and essentially start from scratch.

On the back of two 10-win seasons, he felt the Lions had to go backwards to go forwards.

That part of the puzzle is complete, with 10 or more list changes in each of the past three off-seasons.

The Lions now have the youngest list in the AFL, and only 15 players have survived from 2013.

They won seven games in 2014 and just four last season.

One of Leppitsch's – and the club's – favourite catchcries is to "stay the course".

In his playing days, the running defender never lacked confidence, and despite the miserly win tally to date, that trait has flowed on to the early stages of his coaching career.

"My personal situation (contract) is something I'm not that worried about to be perfectly honest," Leppitsch told AFL.com.au.

"I see this as a 10-year job, so whatever happens with the (fine print) right now will happen. For me it's about building the club back to a superpower."

Club CEO Greg Swann has indicated he'd be happy to extend the coach's deal prior to the season, while it's well known Leppitsch has the support of perhaps the AFL's most influential personality - Lions deputy chairman Leigh Matthews.

With talks already happening at board level, in all likelihood Leppitsch's contract could be extended before the season starts, as the club strives for stability.

"There's a fair bit of communication with the club and board on our direction and why, and they're really cool with that," Leppitsch said.

"Our planning is based off years of history of clubs building teams to success and we're going to attempt to do the same thing and that's all you can do.

"Along the way we're going to get our challenges.

"Ultimately, to get to where we want to get to, we have to ride the course of what we're doing.

"We think that comes when we play young players in their first 50 games, you get inconsistencies, I know that.

"I can get frustrated by it, I can lose faith by it, or I can just know it's part of the growth cycle, which it is."

This is where Leppitsch draws back on his four years as an assistant coach at Richmond – a time that not only enhanced his coaching ambition, but fostered that unshakable belief.

"(There could be) a young player that falls over (during a game) - I know in two years he won't fall over," he said.

"That's where the confidence comes in. That's come from training Alex Rance as a kid - he was falling over every two minutes, now he's an All Australian.

"I've seen the cycle three or four times now. The confidence comes in the cycle and I feel we've got the people that want to push the cycle to the end, which gives you more confidence to go forward."

The Lions were cruelled by injuries last season, but the turbulence went beyond that.

James Aish almost predictably left at season's end, but the real shock came when midfielder Jack Redden, after seven seasons of service, also wanted out.

While Leppitsch repeatedly said at the time they split on good terms, and Redden said nothing to the contrary, something broke down in the coach-player relationship.

Another mainstay, Matthew Leuenberger, was eased out, as was former captain Jed Adcock.

At a time when the club was crying out for players to remain loyal, three of its longest-serving and most loyal were on the way out.

Sam Mayes and Stefan Martin also considered their options – both for personal reasons – while it was just 12 months earlier Daniel Merrett had asked to look elsewhere.

Stefan Martin considered leaving the Lions, before re-signing. Picture: AFL Media

 

Whichever way it's cut, Leppitsch has had to massage his player relationships and is still doing so.

While the return of Craig and Melissa Lambert to head the welfare team has been a huge boost, Leppitsch's relationships will be central to any revival.

The playing group certainly seems united.

Leppitsch says learning to manage his staff, and trusting them to implement what he wants, has been a steep learning curve, but one he's now comfortable with.

And it hasn't been easy losing 75 per cent of matches over two years.

"It's not enjoyable going through this," he said.

"You have your good times and bad and you know you have to have them sometimes to get to where you want to get to.

"No-one likes living it, that's the hardest part. We had to live it a little bit last year and that's never easy. The strong survive and when you get through it, you don't look back."

What makes things even more fascinating is the Lions' early-season draw.

When you finish 17th, nothing is going to look easy, but the first eight weeks is particularly brutal.

While wins and losses might not dictate the ultimate success of the season, the Lions' players, board and supporters, as well as the AFL - which is heavily funding the club - will want to see improvement.

They won't start favourite in many – if any – of the first eight rounds: West Coast (away), North Melbourne (home), Geelong (away), Gold Coast (home), Western Bulldogs (away), Sydney Swans (home), Port Adelaide (away) and Collingwood (home).

Re-signing your coach prior to the season with the prospect of such a difficult start would be the ultimate show of faith.

However, it could look problematic if the Lions endured a rough start with a feeling of 'here we go again' for a club that has made the finals just once in 11 seasons.

"I think every year is a learning year, but the big-picture stuff hasn't changed since the second I walked in the door," Leppitsch said.

"We're getting the list we want, we're happy with where we're at with the players we've got.

"As far as game-styling, it always gets tinkered.

"We want to be more attacking. We think we play our best footy when we play an attacking brand of football and play our worse when we're more conservative.

"Are we going to be at our best this year, in making finals and winning premierships? Who knows.

"The answer is probably no, given our age, but I know we've got the list that will get better and better every year."

But do they have the coach? That question should be answered shortly.