At the beginning of season 2022, the Brisbane Lions promised a new look to their midfield. Cam Rayner, the former No.1 draft pick now in his fifth year, would play more minutes in there; so too half-forward Zac Bailey. Former Geelong player Nakia Cockatoo, whose career had been crippled by injury, was finally fit and ready to explode.
It hasn’t quite worked out as planned. Cockatoo has played just the eight games, mostly off half-forward and half-back, failing to make an impact. He was omitted again for Sunday’s match against Carlton. Bailey still plays mostly at half-forward, so to the dynamic Rayner, who has looked good in patches but has not developed as quickly as hoped.
To be fair to Rayner, he missed all of last year due to a knee injury. But the Lions are still searching for the right balance. After being beaten up around the ball for several weeks leading to a 10-point loss to Essendon at the Gabba in round 17, the Lions finally introduced their own self-proclaimed “beast”, Rhys Mathieson.
Until then, Mathieson had spent the entire season in the VFL, where he was racking up enormous numbers. “The mix we had in there was probably around JL [Jarryd Lyons] and Lachie [Neale] being our grunt players,” says Lions football manager Danny Daly. “We didn’t want to have too many bulls and not enough spreaders.”
The Lions midfield is small. Neale stands at 178 centimetres, captain Dayne Zorko – moved to half-back for much of the year, where his kicking and quick decision-making is an asset – is 175cm. “Rhys isn’t tall in stature but he’s a big body, and sometimes big bodies are just as important as taller bodies,” Daly says.
Size does matter, at least when you come up against the likes of Christian Petracca and Clayton Oliver: in the round-15 game against Melbourne, Daly admits the Lions were “semi-bullied” around the contest. “We felt like we needed that extra bull and we could make up for the run on the outside. So our philosophy changed.”
Simon Black, the Lions’ triple-premiership-winning midfielder, Brownlow and Norm Smith medalist, says the Lions need a harder edge. “Brisbane’s not big physically, they’re not imposing. It’s not to say they can’t beat Melbourne’s midfield, but they’ve got to be aggressive. They’ve got to be physical.”
For this reason, he loves Mitch Robinson’s aggressive approach: “I almost feel that for the Lions to win it, they need him in the side, playing his best footy. He adds a different dynamic to that midfield group.” But Robinson, who played his best football on a wing in 2019, was dropped again for Sunday’s clash; at 33, his career is probably in its final stage.