The Brisbane Lions have not only been the most improved side in the AFL over the past few weeks, they may also have been its best.
It has been a good few weeks for the Brisbane Lions. The Lions have been a below average to relatively poor side for almost a decade. On the weekend however they beat finals aspirant Hawthorn by over five goals in Tasmania, where the Hawks have been highly successful. The week before they thrashed Carlton by 65 points, this in turn followed a 55 point beating of Fremantle in Perth.
Even after adjusting for the relative weakness of their opponents the Lions have the highest total adjusted net margins over the past few weeks (see chart above). If this was the start of the season people may well have been falling over themselves to declare Brisbane the big improvers of 2018.
Brisbane has still been below average across 2018 as a whole. Their three weeks directly preceding this ‘hot’ streak were poor, as they were comfortably beaten by Essendon and GWS at home, and well beaten by North Melbourne. The Lions also got destroyed by Richmond earlier in the season (a match in which they kicked only two goals), were easily beaten by St. Kilda, and lost to the bottom-ranked Gold Coast Suns. On the bright side, they did have another strong win against Hawthorn earlier in the year.
The Lions’ improvement has been largely driven by their forward and defensive efficiency. They have amassed 51 goals over the past few weeks and conceded only 25 goals, despite getting the ball inside 50 about as much as their opponents (see table below). AFL teams in 2018 have averaged about 1.5 points per inside 50. Over Round 15 to 17 Brisbane has scored an astonishing 2.25 points per inside 50, and conceded only 1.20 points per inside 50 against.
The Lions’ defensive performances these past few weeks is even more amazing when you consider that their best defender, Harris Andrews, has been missing through injury. Andrews’ absence has been ably and surprisingly covered by Josh Walker. Despite missing the past three matches Andrews still has the league’s second-highest number of ‘one-percenters’ (spoils and other useful things) in 2018, averaging almost 12 per game. Walker has done a pretty good Andrews impression, recording 37 one-percenters over his past four matches. He had only four one-percenters in his four matches before that, and has never averaged more than three per game in his previous six seasons, having played the majority of his career as a forward.
Up forward for the Lions Eric Hipwood has been the star, with 11 goals and 14 marks inside 50 over the past three weeks. But a fair bit of the help has still come from the midfield, including Dayne Zorko’s five goal assists against Carlton – a career and league-wide season high – from just seven inside 50 entries. While the midfield hasn’t been outstanding in terms of the amount of times they have got the ball into attack, they have been pretty good at setting up scoring opportunities when they do.
Is this a turning point for the Lions? At the least – as long as it’s not just that they play well against the Hawks – they might become average again. Given how the 2010s have generally gone for Brisbane that would be something in itself.