But that didn’t mean they weren’t aware of it, and once the result was secure – quite late in an epic 39-minute fourth quarter, as the game opened up – it was all anyone cared about.
“It was a little difficult, because you can’t get your runner out there late in the quarter, and we’d run out of rotations, because that last quarter went for so long,” Fagan said.
“So we were just shouting from the bench, basically. The main shout was, we just need a point. I’ve been involved in AFL footy for 20-odd years, I’ve been a few of those round 23 games, and I’ve never been in a situation where not only did we have to win, but we had to win by a certain amount, which made it quite tricky.”
For the heavily undermanned Eagles, it marks the end of a long era in contention under coach Adam Simpson. But they didn’t go down without a huge fight. Nic Naitanui was best on ground in a losing side with 52 hitouts and 10 clearances, on top of 23 disposals, and Elliot Yeo and Luke Shuey, missing for so much of the year, were brilliant.
Those three made the Lions look sluggish early, with Oscar Allen and Jake Waterman on the board for the Eagles before they’d woken up. When they did, the match looked like unfolding according to the script, the Lions slamming through the next seven goals, Daniel Rich making the play from half-back, Dayne Zorko lifting the Lions around the clearances.
But the second quarter reminded the Brisbane Lions that they still had to win the match before they had the luxury of worrying about percentage. With Naitanui unstoppable, the Eagles surged back into the match, kicking five goals to three. They weren’t quite ready to give up on their season, regardless of what anyone else thought of their chances.
They closed the margin to four points before the Lions hit back with a late goal to Dan McStay – in career-best form – but the question was being asked of the home side. Their efforts were patchy and uneven, both from contest to contest and across their 22 players. And with every goal the Eagles kicked, win or lose, their task only got harder.
They needed a lift in intensity, and from a few players, and to play a bit smarter. They slowed things down, dropped a spare man back in defence wherever possible, and locked the ball into their forward half more effectively. But they couldn’t break the Eagles open, either. A 17-point lead at three-quarter time wasn’t going to cut it.
And quickly, in the final quarter, the Eagles reminded them they weren’t done. Jamie Cripps kicked the first of the quarter, then a second, to close the margin to five points. It was the signal to the Lions to go for broke, and they surged to book their third top-four-finish in three years.
Adam Simpson praised his undermanned team for their bravery. “We played with spirit but just weren’t good enough in the end,” he said.
“Obviously both teams had a lot to play for. Brisbane were playing for a larger margin, and we were playing to win as well. So we opened the game up a little bit because we wanted to win, we didn’t just want to deny the Lions an opportunity to play top four.”
Simpson said the club would look at “everything” after his team missed the finals for the first time since 2014, the year Simpson took over, when they finished ninth.
N Naitanui (WC) 9
D Zorko (BL) 8
E Yeo (WC) 8
L Shuey (WC) 8
D Rich (BL) 8