Onwards and upwards for Lions, Suns in season 2016

Lewis Taylor was one of just three Lions to play every game last season. Photo: AAP Image.
Lewis Taylor was one of just three Lions to play every game last season. Photo: AAP Image.

IT'S the final round of the 2004 season, and the Brisbane Lions tune up for their shot at history - to become just the second team in VFL-AFL history to win four successive flags - with a 113-point demolition of the Kangaroos.

The line-up has more games of experience than any other ever put out on the park (3740), and includes eight 200-gamers (Jason Akermanis, Shaun Hart, Chris Johnson, Nigel Lappin, Justin Leppitsch, Martin Pike, Michael Voss and Darryl White) and one who has gone beyond 300 (Alastair Lynch). In fact, only four of the 22 have played less than 100, among them future captain Jonathan Brown (90).

Eleven and a half years on the Lions don't have one single player who has reached the significant 200-game milestone.

Having tried, and failed, to rebuild on the run under an ambitious Voss, Brisbane has stripped back its playing list under a more clinical Leppitsch, resulting in the club possessing both the youngest and least experienced in terms of games played in the league.

Thirty-somethings Jed Adcock (206 games), Matt Maguire (170) and Brent Staker (160), along with Jack Redden (to West Coast) and Matthew Leuenberger (Essendon) are the latest departures, following club legends Brown and Simon Black in recent seasons.

With a competition-high 11 teenagers, the Lions' average age in 2016 is a tick over 22 years, knocking off GWS in the 'youngest list' category for the first time since the Giants' entry in 2012.

A case of out with the old, in with the new, Leppitsch has now overseen an incredible 34 list changes since replacing Voss at the end of 2013.

"When I got here we didn't have a replacement for Jonathan Brown, now we have three," Leppitsch said recently.

"The last couple of years has been about getting the personnel on board that can take us forward. We feel we've got that.

"There'll be bumps in the road, but we have to ride those out together."

After experiencing more than their fair share of pot holes last season, which ended with them finishing second-last, there will certainly be more bumps to come.

And while riding them with a grin, like a certain champion team does, might be a stretch, Lions players and fans alike should have reason to smile, witnessing the final pillars of the rebuild go up.

Josh Schache in action for the Lions during the NAB Challenge. Photo: Getty Images.
Josh Schache in action for the Lions during the NAB Challenge. Photo: Getty Images.

Up forward, prized draft pick Josh Schache, 18, is one of those Brown replacements, along with Michael Close and Jono Freeman, who are both just 21 and hoping for injury-free campaigns.

Schache, whose late father Laurence was a Bear of old, has the makings of a superstar forward - strong mark, great kick.

Down back, there's Harris Andrews, 18, who, in his debut season hauled in more contested marks than Nick Riewoldt, Jeremy Cameron and Jarryd Roughead. He will again link with Darcy Gardiner, 20, and veteran Daniel Merrett, though Justin Clarke remains under a cloud due to concussion-related issues.

Andrews is one of 13 Queenslanders now on the Lions' list, alongside the latest academy products, ruck-forward Eric Hipwood and midfielder Ben Keays, and star recruit Tom Bell.

The return of late-blooming Brisbane boy Bell from Carlton will only add to what is already a well-developed onball brigade with skipper Tom Rockliff, Daniel Rich, Pearce Hanley, Mitch Robinson and superstar Dayne Beams, when he recovers from a shoulder complaint.

Bell will also provide an extra goalscoring option pushing forward, in the same vein as vice-captain Dayne Zorko, ex-Cat Allen Christensen and brilliant youngster Lewis Taylor.

Of course, Brisbane need look no further than a few kilometres down the road to know that even the best-laid plans can go awry.

With a list built around the best player in the game and their pick of the best youngsters available throughout 2009-11, some high-ranking Gold Coast Suns' officials thought the club might be entering this season as the reigning premier.

But instead of claiming their first flag last year as former chairman John Witheriff suggested they might back in 2012, the Suns finished a lowly 16th, with four wins, one draw.

 

Gary Ablett at the season launch this week. Photo: AAP Image.
Gary Ablett at the season launch this week. Photo: AAP Image.

Just 20 games between prime movers Jaeger O'Meara (0), Gary Ablett (6), Dion Prestia (8), and David Swallow (6) due to injury didn't help, nor did off-field drama that resulted in club-imposed bans to stars Harley Bennell and Charlie Dixon.

A positive spin, however, can be put on both issues - fringe players got all-important game-time to strengthen depth, and a worrying culture was cleaned up once and for all, certain elements removed rather than being swept under the carpet.

"It's probably good that we had the injuries at the same time we've had some other issues we needed to get right, " optimistic Suns coach Rodney Eade said.

"I don't think it was the year we had to have, but if you're going to have things go wrong it's probably better to get them out of the way at the same time."

Dixon, the first player signed by the Suns, and Bennell, the 2010 No.2 draft pick, have departed, and Swallow (knee) and O'Meara (knee) remain sidelined indefinitely, but Ablett (foot) and Prestia (knee) should be back to lead the midfield.

And while the Suns' next wave - led by 20-year-olds Kade Kolodjashnij and Touk Miller, and the only ones to play every game last season - may have at times been in over their heads, they should help ensure the club starts entering far calmer waters.

THE 2016 flag ODDS: Hawthorn $4, West Coast $5.50, Fremantle $9, Geelong $9, Port Adelaide $11, Sydney $12, Richmond $14, Collingwood $18, Nth Melb $18, Bulldogs $18, Adelaide $31, GWS Giants $34, Gold Coast $51, St Kilda $101, Melbourne $101, Brisbane $151, Essendon $151, Carlton $251



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