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Brisbane growing into one of the best stories of the season

Sing it loud! Brisbane’s Jarrod Berry (left), coach Chris Fagan and Rhys Mathieson belt out the theme song after beating Hawthorn. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Brisbane growing into one of the best stories of the season

Rohan Connolly    

With six rounds of the AFL home and away season left, the top eight is as fluid as we’ve come to expect.

Round 17 saw West Coast usurp Collingwood for second spot on the ladder and, as it stands now, an all-important home final. Sydney stole Port Adelaide’s fourth spot and the accompanying double chance position with a last-gasp win over North Melbourne and the Power’s loss to Fremantle.

Greater Western Sydney scrambled into the eight with a critical win over Richmond and Hawthorn did its cause no good and tumbled out with a shock loss against Brisbane in Launceston.

There’s going to be a lot of ladder-watching going on from now. But it’s the other half of that Hawthorn horror show on Saturday afternoon which, though it won’t be part of the finals drama, is shaping as one of the better stories of the season.

Five wins outside the eight and still in 16th spot on the ladder, Brisbane won’t be having much to do with that thrilling run to the finish line. But the Lions are quietly and unmistakably building towards being a player at the top end sooner than later.

Superficially, it’s improvement which appears to have come in a rush, Brisbane having strung together three of its four wins for the season over the last three weeks. But the rebuilding process under coach Chris Fagan is approaching the end of its second year. It’s the solid foundations already laid which have paved the path for the more tangible gains of late.

And what’s loomed large in three big wins in a row over Carlton, Fremantle and Hawthorn has been the confidence with which they’ve been executed.

These weren’t cases of the Lions catching an opponent on the hop in unseasonal Gabba heat. The latter two victories have come in arguably the two toughest road trips in football. The win in Tasmania was only their second in nine attempts and a first since 2009. The Lions hadn’t won in Perth since 2010.

And far from fall over the line, Brisbane has dispatched its opponents by 55, 65 and 33 points.

It’s been a classic case of the ladder telling only a fraction of the story. In Fagan’s first year, Brisbane lost nine games straight in the first half of the season but won four in the back end. They still finished wooden spooners, but with five wins, the best-credentialed bottom team for 20 years.

They’re not going to finish last this time, and even in defeat have been consistently competitive. There’s been two bona fide shockers, against Richmond and North Melbourne, but nine of Brisbane’s 12 defeats have been by less than five goals.

And the consistent development of the clutch of young stars in Fagan’s team is obvious. Ten more players have made their AFL debuts under his watch and there’s some emerging stars among them and a handful more who began shortly before Fagan’s arrival.

Eric Hipwood has had star written all over him since his 2016 debut and approaching the 50-game mark, is really beginning to hit his straps. The super-athletic key forward has kicked 16 goals in his past five games, including a career-best six in the thrashing of Carlton.

Much was expected of last national draft’s No.1 pick Cam Rayner. He hasn’t disappointed, either, the Dustin Martin comparisons becoming more apt by the game, his three-goal haul against the Hawks on Saturday another tantalising glimpse of how good he might become.

Hugh McCluggage, Jarrod Berry and Alex Witherden continue to build on their impressive debuts of last year. And Cedric Cox is showing more examples of the excitement he is capable of generating.

It’s excitement which also appears to be rubbing off on the Lions’ senior army, too. Dayne Beams has had a difficult time dealing with personal issues, but has remained a consistent example-setter despite handing in the captaincy.

Stefan Martin has been huge in the ruck for Brisbane, and against Hawthorn, two men who have both been written off at various stages had big games indeed, Daniel Rich and the often-maligned big man Josh Walker.

All this, mind you, without the services of critical key defender Harris Andrews or highly-rated import Charlie Cameron.

Brisbane went into this season with the second-youngest list in the AFL, older only than Gold Coast, and the fifth-least experienced. Last Saturday, Hawthorn’s side had an average games played tally of nearly 110. The Lions fielded nearly half a team of players yet to reach even 50 games.

But there was a surety about the way they took on the Hawks on unfriendly turf , turned up the pressure after half-time then closed the game out in style, holding Hawthorn to just one behind in the final term.

It spoke of a side which, far from the uncertain steps you might still expect, is beginning to play like it, too, knows it’s going somewhere, and in a hurry.

As a result, while Brisbane’s final half-dozen games may not mean much in terms of 2018, as a de facto pre-season for 2019 they could be valuable indeed. And if their current level of belief is maintained, who knows just how far that could end up taking them?

*This article first appeared at SPORTING NEWS.

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