LACHIE Neale blossomed into one of the AFL's best players in 2019, starring in his first season at Brisbane and becoming a damaging, high-possession midfield star.
But he wasn't done there, and after another dominant season in 2020 that has seen him clean up the awards season and be a raging favourite for the Brownlow Medal, Neale again is setting his sights on an even higher level.
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"I think I can improve again. I reckon if you asked every player that they'd say that, but I truly feel I can go again," Neale told AFL.com.au ahead of Brisbane's qualifying final clash with Richmond on Friday night at the Gabba.
"There's been patches throughout this season where I haven't probably played at my best, so I can become even more consistent and try to deliver more week in and week out. I've tried to add a little bit in terms of when I get attention and release our players and free up a few of our players, which I haven't done so well in the past.
"It might not show in disposals and clearances and key stats, but trying to influence the game in other ways as well going forward."
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Going inside the mind of the AFL's best player in 2020 reveals an inner-drive, fanaticism and attention to detail that has underpinned the 27-year-old's rise into the game's elite since crossing from Fremantle at the end of 2018.
He won Brisbane's best and fairest, was named an All-Australian and finished third in the 2019 Brownlow after collecting more disposals (742) in a season than any Lion in history, but Neale still had areas he felt needed to lift. He spent summer, and then the COVID-19 enforced shutdown period tightening up parts of his game that few could have questioned, to make him an even more complete operator this year.
It has worked, with Neale last week voted the AFLPA MVP and the AFL Coaches' Association's best player, as well as winning his second All-Australian jacket. This week, he'll be at it again against the Tigers as the Lions shoot to lock in a preliminary final at the Gabba.
"I've worked really hard on a number of aspects of my game the past couple of years, but the off-season and pre-season that's just been we got two cracks at it with the COVID break as well," he said.
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"I worked really hard on driving with my legs, kicking the ball a lot more and trying to get centre forward to set up a few more attacking plays for us, rather than just trying to accumulate the footy. I've worked really hard to change that and add little bits and pieces this year and it's come to fruition a bit this year and, if I kicked straighter this year, I'd have a few more goals (he's kicked 11.13). I feel like I can go again hopefully in the finals and into next season."
Neale's preparation is renowned inside Brisbane. He spends one to two hours every week of his own time researching his upcoming opposition midfield, aside from team and line meetings, developing strategies to get on top.
Some clubs have used taggers and others, like Richmond, prefer to go their own way against Neale, who has averaged 38 disposals against the Tigers since crossing from the Dockers.
"I don't focus too much on individual players," he said.
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"Maybe if we're coming up against a tagger I might see what other midfielders have done to exploit them, but a lot of it is patterns around stoppages and what opposition ruckmen do and where they like to hit it, and how teams like to move the ball from stoppage, and how I feel we can best counteract that as a group.
"It's not always looking at my stuff, but just seeing trends in the opposition team's game."
Neale would follow former teammate and close friend, and last year's winner, Nat Fyfe if he claims this season's Brownlow Medal. But he tipped Port Adelaide's Travis Boak, Jack Steele at St Kilda and Melbourne gun Christian Petracca as other contenders.
"It would be awesome, it would be amazing. But I don't have much control over that one and the umpires have put their votes in now and I just have to wait for the night," he said.
"I'll be pretty excited and nervous on that night, but we've got a couple of big games before then. I'm not going to lie, it would be an awesome result if I could win that, but there's been guys who have had great years."
For now Neale's focus is on the Lions' flag pursuit. He admits the club's improvement last year surprised him after he arrived, but that he always viewed the group as being a contender in a short period of time. After last year's finals failures, Neale sees the Lions as better prepared.
"I felt that it was going to be a really successful group, otherwise I wouldn't have come," he said.
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"I felt we were going to rise in the next two to three years rather than straight away in that first 12 months. But being around this group it's easy to see why the rise has been quick.
"The year before in 2018 they only won five games but their percentage was really strong and they learnt a lot from those close losses and were able to translate them into wins in 2019. We've taken that forward in 2020 and become an even better team, and hopefully we continue to grow and over the next three or four years really set up something special."