WHAT a rollercoaster 2021 was for the Lions, starting 1-3, becoming the competition's hottest team through the middle of the year, then stumbling again before a dramatic final-round win over West Coast to sneak into the top four.
Ultimately, they weren't good enough though, with injuries to key forwards Eric Hipwood (knee) and Dan McStay (concussion) proving a bridge too far in finals losses to Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs.
It was another season of knocking on the door but not quite forcing it open.
When the three-pronged tall forward line-up of Joe Daniher, Eric Hipwood and Dan McStay played together, the Lions were almost unstoppable, winning 10 of 11 games (their only loss coming after leading Melbourne at half-time). They worked beautifully together, rarely got in each other's way and proved a match-up nightmare for opponents. Runaway wins over Geelong and Port Adelaide in that stretch showed how lethal Brisbane's best team was. However, when one, or both, was missing, that win-loss record plummeted to 5-8.
It might be a stretch to put in this category, but prior to the season coach Chris Fagan said he wanted to inject speed and power into his midfield, which didn't happen. Cam Rayner was the centrepiece of that notion and unfortunately his ruptured ACL in the pre-season railroaded that. Linc McCarthy and Charlie Cameron reverted to full-time forward roles after early forays into the midfield, while Zac Bailey split time forward and mid. Invariably when Brisbane lost, it was its inability to put defensive pressure on around the contest (which to be fair, was not just a midfield issue).
It's a tough decision, but Hugh McCluggage gets the nod after another fantastic season. McCluggage made the Therabody AFL All-Australian squad of 40 for the third straight year and was arguably the competition's best true wingman with his 25 disposals a game and AFL-high 28 goal assists. When Lachie Neale was injured in the middle of the season, the 23-year-old spent more time onball and flourished.
In round 21, Chris Fagan threw Keidean Coleman into the backline and it proved to be a masterstroke. Used as a small forward in his previous 18 senior games, but thrust back when he played in the VFL, Coleman's final five matches were a revelation and solved another piece of Brisbane's long-term puzzle. Not only was he composed in tight quarters, excellent with decision-making and a terrific distributor of the ball, but Coleman proved he could legitimately defend one-on-one.
For the first time under Chris Fagan's watch, the Lions were smashed by injuries. Aside from Eric Hipwood, Cam Rayner missed an entire season, while Jarrod Berry (missing 13 matches), Lachie Neale (seven) and Darcy Gardiner (15) all missed significant chunks of the season and never quite regained their absolute best form.
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With a 0-2 record and trailing Collingwood when the final siren sounded at Marvel Stadium, Brisbane's season looked down and out before it even started. Until Zac Bailey stepped in. Just six days after he was denied the chance to be a hero against Geelong through an umpiring error, Bailey became a hero, calmly slotting his set shot from 45m to jumpstart the Lions' season.
This came in round 17 when Brisbane not only lost to St Kilda, but of more significance, lost lanky forward Eric Hipwood to a ruptured ACL. Although not solely responsible, it sent Brisbane into a three-game tailspin and left it short of a key target during finals. It continued a Metricon Stadium nightmare for the Lions, following Cam Rayner's identical injury during the pre-season and preceding another loss at the venue the following week against Richmond.
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A lot will hinge on Lachie Neale's decision – whether he wants to stay or go back to Fremantle. Regardless of that though, Brisbane has all the pieces in place to continue pushing for a premiership. They have little wiggle room in the salary cap, so could possibly chase a free agent if Neale departs, but if he stays, they still have two first-round picks to stock up on more talent or maybe trade for proven wing/half-back depth, although this is not essential.
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Early call for 2022
Brisbane should be even better, with its 24-and-unders playing prominent roles and continuing to improve. Cam Rayner will be back in the mix, as will lockdown defender Noah Answerth, while Keidean Coleman and Deven Robertson should play more prominent roles. Joe Daniher can only benefit from having a full year under his belt, while Eric Hipwood's likely return late in the season should be a timely boost.
6.5 out of 10 – Right in contention again, but fell just short of the heavyweights.