The Lions’ attack has looked shaky in the last month, but its defence has gone from strength to strength. Desperation and composure down back have helped the Lions to hold on for three tight victories in a row.
So the news that Harris Andrews will be missing until mid-October is a heavy blow. Can the Lions go deep without him?
There are some reasons to be optimistic – the Lions’ backline is not one-note, and doesn’t rely on Andrews as much as outside observers might think – but it does pose a fascinating selection puzzle with several possible solutions.
In this week’s post, I take a closer look at the Lions’ backline and offer a few thoughts about how Chris Fagan might adapt. I look forward to being wrong.
Not the Harris Andrews Football Club – The Lions have the mix right
After a couple of years of tinkering, the Lions have settled on a defensive squad that balances height, speed, pressure and kicking skills.
Andrews is the go-to matchup and intercept player. On both counts, he’s among the best in the business. He leads the league in spoils, and his one-on-one record is bettered only by Liam Jones. He ranks 6th for intercept marks, and 7th among key backs for pressure acts.
Harris Andrews is really quite good – click each chart for interactive
But he has some help. Darcy Gardiner and Ryan Lester – both 192cm – share the load. Their intercept numbers and contest record, while not world beating, are respectable. They’re also versatile enough to play tall or small.
Both are unheralded club stalwarts who’ve earned the devotion of the long-suffering faithful. Gardiner was forged in fire in the miserable 2016 campaign, when the Lions conceded 130 points a game. Lester is the last survivor of the Leppitsch-era cavalcade of mediocrity – Bewick, Golby, Harwood, Paparone – but steadily improved while the others fizzled, and still earns his spot.
The incumbent small defenders are Brandon Starcevich and Noah Answerth. Both have impressive composure for young players. Starcevich has held his spot all year, and Answerth seems to have reclaimed his for good after blanketing Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti in Round 9.
The rebounding is managed by two old, steady heads – Grant Birchall and Daniel Rich. Both are famous for their lethal left boots, giving the Lions penetration off half back. Alex Witherden is the next in line for this role, but he’s too slow and too weak as a defender to play when all three are fit.
That group of seven – Andrews, Gardiner, Lester, Starcevich, Answerth, Rich, Birchall – has just about everything a balanced backline needs, except maybe the ‘line-breaking speed’ some clubs enjoy.
Though each player has a clear role, nobody is a liability in any part of the game. Starcevich takes intercept marks; Andrews, Gardiner and Lester apply pressure; Birchall and Rich are rarely beaten one on one; and everyone has disposal efficiency above 75%, something only three other backlines can boast (Collingwood, Essendon, West Coast).
But now this delicate balance has been upset. What’s next?
The minimalist option: bring in another big guy
Sometimes the simplest solution is the best. The Lions don’t have many key defenders to call on – Marcus Adams will miss the rest of the season, and former Plan B Josh Walker has moved on – but they do have cult figure Matt Eagles and ‘strapping young lad’ Jack Payne.
Eagles is unlikely to feature. His commitment to the contest can’t be questioned, but he’s unpolished, and his brief stint pinch hitting in the ruck earlier this year was unconvincing.
Payne has a lot more promise. His debut against the Tigers in Round 10 was a baptism of fire, but he is highly regarded. He has been recalled to play the Suns in tonight’s Q-Clash, and has a good opportunity to settle into the job and stake his claim for finals.
If he fails to do so, there are a couple of left field options the Lions might consider.
The Port Adelaide option: bring in a biggish guy and ‘go small’
The Power have managed admirably this year without any defenders above 196cm. The three players they rely on most heavily for intercepts and one-on-one contests are Tom Clurey (193cm), Tom Jonas (188cm) and Trent McKenzie (191cm).
All are highly competent, although they can be exploited. The unassuming trio of Hipwood, McStay and McInerney took 9 marks inside 50 against them in Round 5, and Tom Hawkins took that many himself in Round 12.
But Port are still ladder leaders, and there’s no reason the Lions couldn’t go smaller too if their opposition suits it. Two candidates come to mind for a third undersized key: Mitchell Hinge and Jacob Allison. Hinge has some poise and Allison has some pace. Either one could be tapped if Payne looks out of his depth, though neither is certain to fare any better.
The circuit breaker: swing McStay back and pick another forward
Dan McStay had a fairly successful defensive stint in 2016 and 2017, and there’s no reason he couldn’t do well there again. He’s rarely outmarked and has reasonable numbers in ‘pressure’ stats for a key forward.
Rejigging the forward balance to fill gaps down back wouldn’t be a first: Callum Ah Chee has switched between the two halves all year and will probably drop back against the Suns to replace the rested Birchall.
But a key forward is slightly harder to replace. The return of Stefan Martin would allow McInerney to spend more time as a forward, but the Lions have consistently preferred three talls. Sam Skinner and Connor Ballenden were trialled as replacements during McStay’s recent suspension, but neither excelled. The uncapped Toby Wooller is another option.
IF there’s no Harris, THEN…
The last great challenge the Lions faced was replacing Stefan Martin. Oscar McInerney seized that chance to prove his worth as a primary ruckman. Do the Lions need Gardiner, Lester, Payne or someone else to do the same if they’re to go deep into October? Well… maybe not.
In 2019, Richmond lost Alex Rance in Round 1, prompting an infamous call from Damian Barrett in Sliding Doors: IF there’s Rance THEN there’s no premiership. Tigers fans, get your heads around that.
He was wrong, of course, as were many footy pundits. Did the Tigers find a new hero to fill the void left by one of the game’s great intercept defenders? Not really. Rather than leaning on any individual, they shared the load around to keep their defensive numbers at the same level. The Lions will approach this fresh challenge with the same mindset.