Johnson: Mature Lions set to take next step
IT WAS only a glorified practice game but it provided enough evidence to show the Brisbane Lions will again be a force to be reckoned with in 2020.
Down by 25 points early against a spirited Carlton during their Marsh Community Series clash earlier this month, the Lions were woken from their slumber.
Jolted into action, they produced a 70-point turnaround to win by 55, and in doing so impress Bulldogs great Brad Johnson, who covered the game as an analyst for Fox Footy.
"They were a bit sluggish, a bit out-worked early," the 364-gamer said.
"But the fact they were able to change things in-game showed a real maturity.
"They didn't have to wait until quarter time for (coach) Chris Fagan to address the issues, you could see it happening out on the ground.
"I think that's what will enable them to continue to be a really strong team this year."
The lift came from every area of the ground - Lachie Neale, Dayne Zorko, Hugh McCluggage and Jarrod Berry in the middle, Harris Andrews down back and Charlie Cameron up forward.
The Lions have a large leadership group this season - nine players named in the group - but there's probably plenty more who are unofficial generals.
The club has chosen wisely at the draft and trade tables in recent years - with both talent and character strongly considered and that is being reflected out on the field.
The Lions finished second after the home-and-away rounds last season, jumping 13 spots from 2018.
"It's definitely a strong element of why you allow a certain player to walk through your doors, to be a well-respected and have good character off the field," said Johnson, who led a Bulldogs outfit in the late 2000s full of upstanding citizens like Matthew Boyd, Daniel Cross and Dale Morris.
"The players look happy, they look like they're enjoying their football again. They love walking into the footy club and wanting to get better."
In a reduced 17-round season due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Lions will be aiming to better what was eventually a fifth-place finish after losing both finals, to Collingwood and GWS Giants, at the Gabba.
They won't have retired superstar Luke Hodge - or a home crowd for the foreseeable future - but they should avoid a Melbourne-style drop.
"I love them," Johnson said.
"They are one of my favourite teams to watch.
"Their style of play, the way Fagan has got them playing really suits the group. They attack in the right fashion. They hold their structure to be able to score effectively.
"I think they are a top-four team, no doubt.
"They have got the ability to back up what they produced last year
"I think they will learn a lot from that (finals fadeout) as well and be driven by it."
Brisbane had a dream run with injury in 2019, and had an even better summer. Lions fans should now touch wood.
No player had post-season surgery. Only two players, Marcus Adams and Allen Christenson, later had minor procedures.
The rehabilitation group was almost empty through the pre-season, with no more than three players.
"The competition for spots is huge," Johnson said.
"Watching their reserves team play as well, they have some quality running around.
"The young guys have to play consistently well, otherwise the next young one will be knocking down the door because he wants the chance to be part of what should be a pretty successful year."
The Suns are an hour down the M1, but were poles apart when it came to performance in 2019, finishing with three wins and the wooden spoon.
It's been said before, but there may be light at the end of the tunnel.
They lost their last 18 games last season but won both pre-season games against Geelong and Adelaide.
"They've looked really good," Johnson said.
"We did all the Suns games on Fox last year and (coach) Stewy Dew … the whole club in fact, they opened the doors to us, allowed us in on match day to get a really good insight into the club and what they were trying to achieve.
"It's no surprise to a few of us that they are starting the way that they are.
"It's getting numbers around the ball. (Forward) Alex Sexton said after one of the games 'we just want to be more intense than the opposition for longer'
"That's the mindset."
Touk Miller and David Swallow lead the way but the improvement will come from Darcy MacPherson, Will Brodie and Jack Bowes being more mature.
"Then you've got the top- end talent that has been brought in with (Jeremy) Sharp, (Matt) Rowell and (Noah) Anderson to complement (Jack) Lukosius and (Izak) Rankine from last year," Johnson said.
Four of that five are top- three picks from the 2018 and 2019 national drafts.
"Although they will take another couple of years, what they've shown so far is really impressive," Johnson said.