AFL pre-season: ‘Hardest pre-season game of my career’

If Chris Fagan found himself on an astral plane with a child Gamora a la the end of Avengers: Infinity War, I imagine the conversation would have gone similarly.

Gamora: “Did you do it?”

Fagan: “Yes.”

Gamora: “What did it cost?”

Fagan: “Well, Keidean Coleman tweaked a hamstring, James Madden has something wrong with his shin and Darcy Gardiner has something wrong with his groin.”

That’s about where the analogy ends, but if he’d known the price of a pre-season victory would the injury toll Brisbane copped in their six-point win over the Western Bulldogs, you can bet Fagan would have loved to have the time stone on hand to head back to before the match had begun, and then wield the reality stone to ensure no ills befell his charges this close to round one.

Okay, I’m done now. Here’s what we learned from game two of the AAMI Community Series.

Brisbane Lions 12.14 (86) defeated Western Bulldogs 11.14 (80) by 6 points at Marvel Stadium.

Pre-season can be fun

Both the Lions and Bulldogs have difficult Round 1 assignments – the Lions take on preliminary finalists Port Adelaide at home, while the Dogs battle Melbourne in a grand final rematch to kick off the season on Wednesday night.

As such, dusting off the cobwebs and ensuring everyone is match-fit and ready to rock and roll when the real stuff starts in under two weeks was crucial for both teams. They didn’t disappoint.

While the intensity of the clash would peter out as fatigue and self-preservation kicked in in the second-half, the first term in particular was well worth the price of admission a swathe of hardcore Dogs and Lions fans shelled out to be there.

Dashing runs from half-back, speedy centre clearances from Marcus Bontempelli, Lachie Neale and co., and desperate defence to hold back a multitude of forward forays, it was everything footy fans dream of seeing when the season proper begins.

From the moment Marcus Bontempelli burst away to find Aaron Naughton (more on him later) rising up the pack near goal in the opening seconds, the standard was set, and it would barely shift from there.

Just as impressive as the pace of the game was the intensity, with both sides tackling like their lives – or at least, the outcome of four premiership points – depended on it.

So hard-fought was the game that Mitch Robinson quickly took to Twitter in the aftermath to deem it the most gruelling of its kind he’d ever played in.

Injuries bite hard as both sides count the cost

Fagan and Luke Beveridge are both set for a nervous next week and a half, to find out which soldiers they’ll have unavailable for Round 1.

In terms of quantity, the Lions clearly took the points on the walking wounded front. First, Cam Rayner (personal reasons) and Darcy Gardiner (groin) both withdrew before the match had begun; if it had ended there, Fagan would surely had taken it.

But by midway through the first quarter, young defender Keidean Coleman – hailed by David King on Fox Footy as crucial to the Lions’ structure – had been iced up with a hamstring concern that will surely leave him in doubt to start the season on time.

“That’s unfortunate – we’d just spoken about how important he was to this bad six,” King said.

More was to come, with dashing Irishman James Madden finishing the match on the sidelines with a shin complaint, while Deven Robertson also failed to run things out with an unknown ailment.

However, the Dogs might have suffered the most crucial injury blow of the night, with key defender Alex Keath put on ice after half time after a knee knock.

The Dogs’ backline looked vulnerable without the former cricketer’s strong presence and calm head – Ryan Gardner, Zaine Cordy and Josh Schache all looked nervous under the high ball, and but for inaccuracy Lions tall Dan McStay could have finished with more than his two goals for the night.

Beveridge will be hoping Keath is right to go for Round 1, but having looked less than match-fit against the Dees last time they met, will the Dogs coach risk him if he’s not quite cherry-ripe?

Sky’s the limit for ‘Carey-like’ Naughton

There are few players more dangerous in the air across the competition than Bulldogs spearhead Aaron Naughton.

Fresh off a breakout 2021 that saw him bag 47 goals, along with an AFL-high 65 contested marks, the 22-year old’s incredible hands and leap were on full display against the Lions, with not even All Australian defender Harris Andrews capable of stopping him in full flight.

Though far less influential after half time, Naughton was irresistible in the first half, with three goals and a swathe of marks that led King to make a lofty, but predictable, comparison.

“A lot of people have compared this guy to Wayne Carey and I see little things in his game,” the former North Melbourne great claimed.

“The hardest thing as a forward is to get separation from his opponent. He gets that in the first two to three steps, such is his power.”

With Josh Bruce out for at least half the season with a knee injury and number one draft pick Jamarra Ugle-Hagan unable to even break into the Dogs’ 26 in this match, Naughton looks set to go it alone for much of the season.

King believes the key forward might be even more crucial to the Dogs’ chances of a second premiership under Beveridge than captain and superstar Marcus Bontempelli.

“This is the man who’s the most important Dog in my eyes,” King said.

“Without Josh Bruce the first half of the year, Jamarra Ugle-Hagan still finding his way, this man needs to kick 50 plus goals, it’s the bare minimum.”

One aspect of Naughton’s game that needs urgent improvement is his kicking for goal. After another outstanding mark on the half time siren, a straightforward set shot was sprayed to the left. Having kicked 40 behinds last season, many from close range, it’s not a new problem either.

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