The reasons the Brisbane Lions are struggling, and has the penny dropped at Essendon Bombers?


Keidean Coleman’s loss is a huge setback. He was the fire-starter in the preliminary final comeback against Carlton and his ball use off half-back set so many attacking moves in motion. It’s odds on they would have beaten the Blues in the opening round if he’d not been injured.

Combine his loss with the absence of Conor McKenna with a hamstring injury and their speed off half-back has disappeared. Dayne Zorko is trying to inject that element into the game and doing well, but it is a big ask for the veteran to provide that spark all season.

Against the Magpies, the Lions dropped several contested marks inside 50m after getting their hands to the ball first, but the fact they took only six marks inside 50m, despite having Eric Hipwood, Joe Daniher and Darcy Fort forward also indicates their ball movement was off. And with those three giraffes inside 50, locking the ball in the forward half is harder.

The lack of pace through the arcs and behind the ball to create overlap is also a concern that needs addressing.

Being without Will Ashcroft hurts too, as there is an over-reliance on dual Brownlow medallist Lachie Neale at stoppages. The champion midfielder was brilliant against Collingwood but given he is battling a sore ankle, he needs support.

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Working out how to do that is Chris Fagan’s job.

He, too, had an emotionally distracting week after his appearance at the Australian Human Rights Commission as a result of the investigation into racism during his time at Hawthorn (he has always denied any wrongdoing), which would not have helped. But now is the time to listen to the suggestions of his senior players.

He needs to accept suggestions of how best to stop the run-ons that have bedevilled the Lions so far, with eight unanswered goals ruining opening round and round one, while the Magpies kicked four straight at the end of the first quarter to open up the eventual margin.

If the leaders’ advice also means making hard calls on players, that’s what needs to be done as Fagan’s loyalty to players – ordinarily a great strength of his – is not an asset right now.

He must consider some hard calls on players who are out of form and replaceable, such as Jarrod Berry, Callum Ah Chee, Hipwood and Jack Payne.

Too much is being left to too few at the Lions in the first three rounds

Too much is being left to too few at the Lions in the first three roundsCredit: Getty

Kai Lohmann could start after being the sub on Thursday night, Darcy Gardiner can return as a forward or defender, and youngsters Logan Morris and Jeremy Sharp could regenerate the team if selected. Although that represents a risk, it’s better than taking no risk.

Players who get the team going in the front half need to find form quickly too. Charlie Cameron, Cameron Rayner, Hipwood, Zac Bailey (although he was better against Collingwood) and Daniher have all been disappointing so far this season.

Whatever is ailing this team, the time has arrived to employ a tactic former Bulldogs’ skipper Bob Murphy used to humorously describe as the best response to a crisis: circle up and put everything on the table so everyone inside the club knows exactly what is relevant to their current performance and what is not.

Ooh, aah Andy McGrath

The penny never had to drop for Essendon’s Andrew McGrath.

Essendon are not there yet, but they are putting some pillars in place as they aim to succeed.

Essendon are not there yet, but they are putting some pillars in place as they aim to succeed.Credit: Getty

Diligent, disciplined and team-oriented, he has not given the Bombers a moment’s trouble.

Andrew McGrath gets a handball away for the Bombers under pressure from St Kilda’s tacklers.

Andrew McGrath gets a handball away for the Bombers under pressure from St Kilda’s tacklers.Credit: Getty Images

But it has been his misfortune to trouble Essendon and their supporters for most of the time he has been on the list.

When would he become the superstar every club hopes to land when they use the No.1 pick on a player? Could McGrath be the breakaway midfielder the Bombers so desperately need?

On the evidence of the first three rounds, it looks like the penny has finally dropped for Essendon when it comes to McGrath.

He won’t be the game-breaking midfielder they covet.

But finally, they appear to have accepted that the pick they used on McGrath in 2016 secured them a running half-back with excellent foot skills, who is also an outstanding leader, and might well become a star.

He is recording career-best numbers for disposals, rebound from defensive 50m and, most importantly, intercepts.

It wasn’t his performance that proved the difference against the Saints. That match was won when the Bombers’ midfield reminded the Saints their midfield is mediocre and Jake Stringer provided Essendon with their only real edge over the opposition: a match-winning moment.

But McGrath’s performance stood out because he showed that he can join Zach Merrett, Mason Redman and Darcy Parish as the generation that can lead Essendon up the ladder.

McGrath is coming out of contract as a restricted free agent, so the Bombers should add him to that group on long-term deals. But he may well take his time negotiating a new deal as the game seems to be trending in his direction, and there are plenty of clubs searching for speed and penetration off half-back.

Now he has an ally on that line in Nic Martin, who racked up 44 disposals without having an enormous impact, and some height surrounding him with tall back Ben McKay providing an aerial presence to support the club’s high defensive press.

He could become what Lachie Whitfield – another No.1 pick – has been for the Giants across half-back or, at the very least, a distributor who can be relied on to defend as well as create.

It was McGrath’s dart that brought the match-winning Jake Stringer into the game in the first quarter and his goal off two steps in the third quarter symbolised the Bombers’ persistence.

Nothing was perfect. Tackles were missed, marks dropped and fell short of targets as though they were greenhouse gas emission targets. But there was a will and grit that hasn’t been an Essendon feature in the recent past, and McGrath was one of the leaders who symbolised that.

Under Brad Scott, the Bombers are looking to bring out the strengths of their players rather than dwelling on their weaknesses. McGrath is exhibit A that this approach is starting to work.

The tough hyphen

Firstly, Alex Neal-Bullen had to accept his path to being a permanent in the Melbourne line-up was as a role player.

Alex Neal-Bullen inspired the Demons to victory in Jack Viney’s 200th.

Alex Neal-Bullen inspired the Demons to victory in Jack Viney’s 200th.Credit: Getty Images

Then, when he mastered that, he realised he needed to be more damaging with the ball in his hands.

Now, at 28, he has moved into the most underrated category, which ironically means he will be talked about non-stop for the next month.

He deserves to be as his performance against Port Adelaide was exceptional.

Two goals, six tackles, clean hands, tough ground-ball wins; he has become the best hyphenated Demon since Ivor Warne-Smith, passing Dick Fenton-Smith, the Cockatoo-Collins pair – Don and David – Trent Ormond-Allen, Jay Kennedy-Harris and the memorable two-gamer Audley Gillespie-Jones.

The Eagles are flying low

Knowing a deep a hole they were in, the Eagles only request pre-season was to be measured on their competitiveness.

On the scoreboard, they are far from it.

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But there are some aspects to hang their Eagles’ beanies on. They recorded the same number of inside 50s as the Western Bulldogs and the midfield was serviceable, with Tim Kelly and Elliot Yeo hanging in, while Jeremy McGovern was outstanding. Kicking 2.6 from set shots did not help. Jamie Cripps was off target, while the long-term absence of Oscar Allen because of injury is devastating.

As someone to take the shine off the new ball for the next era, Adam Simpson’s willingness to do the hard yards is to be admired. But the clock is ticking on more competitive outings to satisfy their supporters, the AFL and broadcasters. A percentage of 42.8 is not competitive.

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