2023 Finals Dossier: Brisbane Lions

Welcome to the fourth annual (with a year missing in the middle) Shinboner Finals Dossiers. For new readers, the aim is to comprehensively profile each of the top four teams. All the positives, along with potential negatives, and where it leaves them heading into this year’s finals series. Today we move to a Brisbane side once again around the mark for a fifth straight season.

Over the last five years, no side has been better than Brisbane in the home and away season. 77 wins across that time is well ahead of the chasing pack:

Most H&A wins, 2019-2023
Brisbane: 77
Geelong: 72
Port Adelaide: 69
Collingwood: 64
Melbourne: 63

As we all know though, it’s led to an underwhelming finals record. Three wins from nine matches have featured the whole range of finishes, from complete beltings to heartbreaking nailbiters.

This year though, it can be argued Brisbane arrive at September in better shape than all their top four competitors. They have two home finals at a venue they’re undefeated in 2023 – with an average winning margin of 35 points – and a relatively injury free list among their best 22.

And perhaps most importantly, there isn’t a big bad wolf – think the Geelong and Richmond of previous years – with a formidable record looming ominously.


Given the length of time it takes to put these together, Patreon subscribers enjoy exclusive access for longer than normal. The release dates:

Collingwood’s Dossier: 31stth August for all Patrons, 4th September for the public
Melbourne’s Dossier: 1st September for all Patrons, 5th September for the public
Brisbane’s Dossier: 4th September for all Patrons, 7th September for the public
Port Adelaide’s Dossier: 5th September for all Patrons, 8th September for the public

Here’s the link to the Patreon page.


A snapshot of Brisbane’s home and away season

A standard six-week split, as shown in Collingwood’s and Melbourne’s Dossiers, doesn’t capture everything that needs to be said about Brisbane’s season. There are two areas to delve further into:

1) The home v away splits. By separating Brisbane’s games at the Gabba compared to everywhere else, we gain a clear picture of their strengths as a contested ball team, how it translates to a forward half game, and their forward potency.

Conversely, away from home we see how they’ve struggled to have the same dominance at contests, which has translated to struggling to contain an opponent’s uncontested game. The Lions will never be a high uncontested possession team themselves, but their key to defending is preventing a large disparity in this area.

2) An area which isn’t covered in those graphics – but was a key improvement after the bye for Brisbane – is how they moved the ball, particularly from their back 50 and defensive half.

Up until the bye, the Lions ranked 17th in moving the ball from defensive 50 to forward 50, ahead of only West Coast. After the bye, they were first – by a distance. And not only were they transitioning from one end to the other successfully, they were also scoring from those entries more than any team.

After a slow start, it turned into one of their two big strengths in 2023.

Brisbane’s strengths: How they beat you

It feels a little odd to use a game where Brisbane coughed up a 24-point lead with seven minutes to go as proof of how their ball movement improved, but what’s forgotten is up until that point, the Lions had sliced through Melbourne’s vaunted defence time and time again.

Over the first half of the season, their style of movement meant they would have been less likely to. Think back to Round 3 against the Western Bulldogs where they were content to take the percentage play time and time again, gifting the opposition exactly what they wanted.

Although Brisbane has always been a kick-heavy team – in the top two for kick to handball ratio in each of the last five years – as 2023 wore on they found the right balance in using it to attack, and it was on show against the Demons.

The key is how Brisbane looked for – and found – the soft spots in Melbourne’s defence. Here’s one elongated example…

…and a snappier example…

To oversimplify a touch, it’s all about movement, risk, and how willing Brisbane are to embrace the latter.

Because if they embrace risk and succeed, combined with their contest work it makes for a formidable pairing – especially at home.

Josh Dunkley’s arrival – along with Ashcroft until his season ending injury – simplified Brisbane’s midfield rotation considerably.

In 2022 it was Lachie Neale as an ever present, followed by Jarryd Lyons and Hugh McCluggage as distant second and third bananas, then a rotating, changing cast elsewhere from week to week.

This year it’s been Neale and Dunkley as full-time, reliable on-ballers. Having Dunkley as the two-way player in tight has allowed the Lions to be the best side in the competition in clearance differential. Their +153 this year is a far cry from their 2022 numbers: +13 and 10th in the league.

Although the Lions don’t light games on fire with their scoring from stoppages – 11th for points per clearance win – it’s the sheer weight of numbers which overwhelms opponents.

11th for points per clearance win translates to fifth for total points from clearances and fuels their forward half game. If a team is constantly winning stoppages, simple logic reasons they’ll have the ball closer to goal more often than not.

Having those two midfield linchpins has allowed Brisbane to mix and match their partners depending on game situation and player availability.

Up until Ashcroft’s injury he was third choice, and McCluggage the fourth, with spot minutes elsewhere. But over the last five weeks, McCluggage has stepped up to assume a greater load in Ashcroft’s absence.

Although it took a while to figure out how to replace Ashcroft – a sign of his immediate importance to a premiership contender – it appears things are all but settled now.

With Jarrod Berry and Jaspa Fletcher as first-choice wings and Callum Ah Chee as their cover, the only question appears to be whether Lyons maintains his place as the sub/spare parts midfielder or who he’s replaced by. Thanks to DFS Australia, we can see the splits are fairly straight forward:

Between the full ground ball movement and the contest work, it’s propelled Brisbane to another successful home and away season. But to find that elusive ultimate prize, it’ll fall on the midfield group to rectify a common failing in previous Septembers.

Brisbane’s weaknesses: How you beat them

It’s a simple picture to paint in this section and by looking at Brisbane’s Gabba v away splits, we can see exactly how and where they’re vulnerable.

Because the Lions invest so many resources in and around contests, if they only break even – or lose – that area, it puts plenty of stress on their full ground defence.

With the way Brisbane set up, they’re not a side who creates plenty of turnovers. In fact, it’s the lowest total of any finals side this year and also the second lowest of any finals side last year just in case there was a thought it was a new development.

Combine the two and sometimes you’re left with Brisbane struggling to contain opposition uncontested possession. The worst Lions performances this year have come when they’re outpointed at the contest, leading into an inability to get the ball back. For example:

Round 1 v Port Adelaide: -34 contested possession = -127 uncontested possession = 54-point loss
Round 3 v Western Bulldogs: -18 contested possession = -34 uncontested possession = 14-point loss
Round 13 v Hawthorn: -13 contested possession = -103 uncontested possession = 25-point loss
Round 20 v Gold Coast: -12 contested possession = -15 uncontested possession* = 41-point loss

*Losing uncontested possession to Gold Coast is like a North Melbourne or West Coast win: it doesn’t happen very often

This far into Brisbane’s journey, it’s unrealistic to expect a click of the fingers and change into a side which defends manically after losing the ball.

It’s going to sit on the midfielders to win their battles and allow the defenders to fall in behind that advantage, able to start from a position of strength.

The ‘how you beat them’ section here is the shortest part of any team’s Dossier, but that’s because it’s a straightforward equation. Easier said than done to be sure, but a short opposition analysis meeting nevertheless.

The question: Are Brisbane a much better side than previous years?

No doubt there have been improvements in certain areas this year. Dunkley has been vital, Ashcroft important until his injury, and Jack Payne has blossomed into a reliable key defender, allowing Harris Andrews to run his own race behind the ball.

For all that, there are still plenty of lingering questions on how Brisbane’s team defence will hold up without a contest advantage in high pressure games, and whether they can maintain the execution needed for their ball movement to translate into scoreboard pressure.

They’re the ultimate ‘prove it in finals’ test case. But of their five finals campaigns under Chris Fagan, this looms as the year where they don’t necessarily have to be much better than previous years to reach a Grand Final. Those incremental improvements, two home finals, and the overall evenness of the competition could all fall in Brisbane’s favour.

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