Lions down Sharks in NEAFL Qualifying

Brisbane Lions 14.18.102 def. Southport Sharks 9.13.67

The Brisbane Lions Reserves sent out an ominous warning that they are anything but a spent force in the NEAFL Northern Conference premiership with a barnstorming win over Southport in the qualifying final at Coorparoo on Saturday.

The Lions, led by a 43-possession and two-goal masterpiece from Amon Buchanan and a superb midfield brigade, kicked the last nine goals of the game to come from 27 points down late in the third quarter and win 14-18 (102) to 9-13 (67).

Sparked by two critical goals from Sam Docherty and Callum Bartlett just prior to three-quarter time, they doubled their score when they kicked 7-9 to 0-1 and had an astonishing 130 possessions in a one-way traffic final stanza.

And the solitary Southport score was a behind punched through by Lions defender Niall McKeever when he could have taken an uncontested mark deep into time-on.

It was the AFL club’s first finals win at AFLQ/NEAFL level since 2004 and books the 2011 wooden-spooners into a major semi-final clash with the NT Thunder in Darwin next Saturday night for a direct path to the grand final.

Southport will now face a knockout semi-final against Redland at Fankhauser Reserve next Sunday afternoon after Redland obliterated the Gold Coast Suns Reserves by 99 points in the elimination final at Victoria Point yesterday.

More importantly in the big picture, the Lions win on Saturday guarantees they will be alive in week three of the NEAFL finals, when the AFL season will be over and they stand to be bolstered significantly for the preliminary final and/or the grand final.

Coach Nathan Clarke has indicated that players who have played the majority of the season at NEAFL level will be welcome to return from the AFL side.

This could include Jordan Lisle, who played 16 of 18 home-and-away games with the Reserves, plus James Hawksley (14), Claye Beams (11) and even Josh Green (9) and Jack Crisp (9) from the AFL side that beat Port Adelaide in Adelaide on Saturday.

Also likely to be considered will be Elliott Yeo, a 10-game NEAFL player this year who was named in the qualifying final side but did not take his place because he’s flown to Adelaide with the AFL side to act as the standby player.

More immediate for NT Thunder coach Daniel Archer, who will host the Lions at Palmerston Oval next Saturday night, is the possible inclusion of a preliminary batch of reinforcements to a side that on Saturday included 15 listed players.

Sam Sheldon, sidelined since Round 19 of the NEAFL season, and Jared Polec, out of action for a week longer, are both considered a chance to be fit and available next week.

It all added up to one very happy Lions Reserves coach who reflected on his side’s excellent performance.

“It was a fantastic win,” said Clarke, whose side was written off in a lot of quarters when they were beaten by the Sydney Swans in the final round of the home-and-away season to concede the minor premiership to the Thunder.

“I couldn’t be more proud of them or more pleased for them because they had a red hot crack against a very good and experienced opposition. And they had to do it the hard way.”

It was just the fifth time in the Northern Conference this season that a side had won after trailing at each change, following Aspley’s win over Labrador in Round 4, NT Thunder’s win over the Sydney Swans in Round 6, Broadbeach’s win over Aspley in Round 14, and Labrador’s win over Aspley in Round 19.

Clarke proved beyond any shadow of a doubt how much it meant to the AFL club to win by the agitation he showed at times in the coach’s box. And by his positive reaction when the game was won.

“The good thing is that’s still plenty of improvement in us,” he said in an ominous warning for other sides still in the premiership race.

“Not everyone was on top of their game so we can definitely get better and we’re looking forward to having another crack at the Thunder.

“There’s certainly a pretty good feeling around the place … Vossy (Lions senior coach Michael Voss) told his boys we’d won after their game had finished and there was a big cheer so it was a good day for the club.”

Each team made one late change to their selected sides, with Aspley teenager Josh Wagner included to take the place of Yeo for the Lions, and Southport giving Dalton Tucker his first senior game of the game in place of Jake Crawford, who was a late withdrawal due to the flu.

Southport coach Norm Dare explained that Crawford, desperate to salvage something from a season cruelled by severe tears to both hamstrings, had asked to be given until 11am before he had to make a final decision, but the former Gold Coast Suns rookie had to admit he wasn’t up to playing.

The height of the Sharks was always going to be an issue for the Lions, and it looked ominous early when they led 5-6 to 1-1 at quarter-time.

Even Clarke admitted if the visitors had kicked more accurately when they had control of the game kicking to the scoring end it may have been all over.

In reflecting on the early stages from a tactical viewpoint, Clarke said there was a significant structural issue early which had to be addressed. And was.

“They were pretty smart and while we were getting the extra player up to the stoppages Darey was dropping one defender back. It worked really well for them early.”

Tom Daniel effectively became the loose man and flying third up he took a string on virtually uncontested marks to turn the Lions around and send the ball forward.

“We weren’t too smart ourselves either. We knew they had a lot of marking power but we kept kicking in down their throat. They’d take a mark and go ‘whack’ and turned it back the other way,” Clarke admitted.

But at quarter-time the Lions coach changed things around completely. He opted to do away with the extra player around the stoppages and went with six permanent forwards.

It was a strategy that worked as the Lions forwards engaged their opponents, denying Southport the easy third man up option, and the Lions midfield carried the extra load magnificently.

The home side, with plenty of the ball, kicked 2-7 to 1-2 in the second quarter to cut the deficit to three goals at halftime.

The momentum was starting to swing even then, and shortly before the break Southport had suffered an important set-back when Josh Milani was forced out of the game with an ankle injury.

“In some ways that changed the whole context of the game,” Clarke conceded. “Because all of a sudden we didn’t need Sam Michael to play down back on Milani we were able to throw him forward.

“Sammy (Michael) had been terrific in defence – he had nine spoils to halftime – but Ace (Aaron Cornelius) and Patty (Karnezis) were being pretty well held and he (Michael) was able to give us another big, strong target up there.”

There was a further flow-on effect. Clarke pushed Karnezis into the midfield after halftime and he helped spark the home team surge with 13 critical possessions in the third quarter.

“A lot of things went right for us – no doubt about that,” said Clarke.

“We certainly sharpened up our ball movement after quarter-time and forced them to run on defence.

“To their credit, the boys really took on the challenge and scrapped really hard.

“I knew Southport were kicking to the scoring end in the third quarter and I said to them ‘we’ve just got to hang on’. We did that pretty well and the two (Docherty and Bartlett) goals just prior to three-quarter time were crucial.

“I thought those two late goals killed off their spirit a fair bit … they were cooked at three-quarter time, and our boys went on with the job.”

It could have been an even more comprehensive Lions win, with their first five scoring shots of the fourth quarter all behinds

Docherty kicked his third goal to post a season-high and cut the margin to three points, before Bartlett split the big sticks with a clever snap on his left to put the home side in front at the 13-minute mark.

Even then the Southport body language said it was over. They’d stopped running in the unusually warm conditions and it was a free-for-all heading away from the old QAFL offices.

The brilliant Buchanan landed a long left-foot snap from 45m to stretch the Lions lead to 11 points at the 18-minute mark, before Michael, relishing the chance to play up forward, banged one home from 45m after a mark at centre half forward.

Cheynee Stiller, assuming the captaincy in the absence of Hawksley, drilled one on his favoured left side before Karnezis and Josh Dyson followed as the Lions out-scored the Sharks for the third quarter in a row.

All that was left was for McKeever to ensure Southport didn’t join Aspley as the only sides to post a scoreless quarter in the competition this season.

Buchanan, the former Sydney Swans premiership player in the last few weeks of his AFL career before returning to Sydney, was nothing short of magnificent.

“He (Buchanan) was unbelievable all day,” Clarke said. “He (Buchanan) had 35 possessions to three-quarter time. It was as good a game as you’ll see.”

But he had plenty of mates.

According to Clarke, Stiller and Docherty were also outstanding in the midfield, and Michael played his best game for the club “by an absolute mile”.

“I’m really happy for Sammy (Michael) because he’s worked so hard. He’s really popular with the boys and everyone was rapt for him to play so well,” the coach said.

Patrick Wearden was excellent in defence, winning a lot of crucial 50/50 contests, while top-up player Dave Cummins was included in the official ‘best player’ list in recognition of his outstanding job on veteran Southport wingman David James.

McKeever did a good job locking down on Southport trump Josh Baxter (two goals) after he’d looked dangerous early, while fellow key defender Justin Clarke held the equally dangerous Cleve Hughes to two goals, including one from a downfield kick for which he was not responsible.

Scott Clarke did a power of work under duress, the fleet-footed Josh Dyson provided a lot of run, and Bartlett, another energetic member of the midfield, won a stack of ball in a performance spoiled only by inaccuracy.

“He (Bartlett) kicked 2-7,” said Clarke. “A few of them were running shots from really wide angles but he definitely should have had five goals.”

Clarke also had some special praise for Morningside youngster Rhys Power, who joined State U18 teammates Wagner and Josh Smith (Morningside) in playing their first game in Lions colors.

“They all did their job but Power was terrific. He was part of the midfield rotation and he did an important job just by keeping the pressure up.

“It’s a tough gig for those young guys because it’s not exactly ideal to be introducing yourself to the coach two hours before the game.”

Dare blamed missed chances for his side’s defeat, which came on top of a 79-point loss to the Lions in their only previous meeting this season at Fankhauser Reserve in Round 13.

“We blew four or five goals,” he lamented. “Maybe it was the pressure of the finals and blokes trying to do too much … I’m not sure.

“But if we’d made the most of our opportunities it might have been a different story. If you kick a goal the game stops and you get a breather and a chance to regroup.

“Maybe it wouldn’t have taken such a toll on our fitness levels (if we’d made the most of our early chances), but we ran out of legs.

“I thought our backline was fantastic but we couldn’t go with them in the midfield. We turned the ball over too often and they hurt us going back the other way. It was as simple as that.”

Grogan Medallist Danny Wise, a proven big-time player, was his side’s best, marshalling the back six superbly and doing all that could be reasonably expected of a captain.

Ben Headland shut down Todd Banfield completely, Kurt Niklaus had the better of Cornelius, and Wayde Mills, troubled by Michael early, later kept Karnezis quiet until he was pushed to half back.

Daniels, so dominant early, and Regan Salter also did their bit in the back half.

Midfielder Tucker, who made his senior debut for the Sharks as a 17-year-old in the 2010 finals, also was a solid contributor in his first senior game for the club this year after his late call-up.

With the NT Thunder hosting the major semi-final for the second year in a row there was perverse talk in football circles that Southport may have been better served by losing to the Lions.

This was driven by the 2011 finals experience of Mt.Gravatt, who finished the home-and-away season second on the ladder but missed the grand final after having to make the long trek to Darwin in week two of the finals.

Having smashed the Gold Coast Suns Reserves in the qualifying final they lost to the Thunder by 33 points and, by their own admissions, were ‘cooked’ when they went down to Morningside by 53 points in the preliminary final.

But Dare was having none of it. “I know how strong they (the Lions) are going to be in two weeks so we if we couldn’t beat them this week we’re going to struggle to beat them any time.

“Our plan was to beat them this week and force them into a preliminary final and hopefully avoid having to play them again.”

Dare was uncertain on the semi-final availability of Milani, who left Giffin Park on Saturday on crutches.

Likewise, he wasn’t counting on the return of midfield ace Simon Seddon, who hasn’t played since the Sharks’ Round 19 trip to Darwin due to a hamstring, or back pocket Brett Davis, who has missed five weeks due to an ankle injury suffered in Round 17.

“Seddon is a chance but I thought Davis would have played two or three weeks ago so who knows,” Dare said, confirming at least that Sam Whish-Wilson will return after he missed the opening final through concussion.

Young defender Tyson Kruse, who played his first two senior games in the last two games of the home-and-away season, has been ruled for the rest of the year after a bad hamstring injury in Round 21.

Even Crawford is no certainty to play next week because he’s had such a disrupted preparation. “He’s had one part game in the Reserves and one part game in the seniors in seven or eight weeks so we’ll have to weigh that up too,” Dare said.

Our Supporters