Brisbane defender Darcy Gardiner has seen the steady rise of the Lions in his seven seasons at the club and told aflplayers.com.au he is confident the group has what it takes to go at least one step further in 2020.
No pain, no gain.
It’s a clichéd line, but it’s nonetheless fitting in the case of Darcy Gardiner.
Drafted to the Brisbane Lions in 2013, the club would be set for seasons of pain as it struggled to win games and retain its players.
But a young, glass-half-full Gardiner had much to gain, playing 17 games at AFL level in his debut season alongside a host of Lion cubs.
“It was a little bit tough early, but I was pretty lucky at the same time to be getting an opportunity to play and develop as a footballer at the top level like a few of us were,” Gardiner told aflplayers.com.au.
Now, seven years later, the Lions are well-positioned for their first Grand Final berth since 2004.
They take on Geelong in a home preliminary final this Saturday night.
“It’s paying off now and it’s really exciting that we’re up at the top and getting a crack at the finals, it’s what we play the game for, I can’t wait [for Saturday night],” Gardiner said.
Driven by cultural change, the defender says Brisbane’s recent success can be largely accredited to the likes of coach Chris Fagan, CEO Greg Swann, General Manager of Football David Noble, and four-time premiership legend Luke Hodge.
“I think since ‘Fages’, ‘Swanny’, ‘Nobes’ and those guys have come in, they’ve been at clubs that had this preparation and experience and they’ve brought a lot of that knowledge, even ‘Hodgey’ coming in, there’s been a big culture change,” he said.
“There’s a big family focus at the club.
“The majority of us are from interstate, so there’s a big focus on making sure when [draftees] get here they’re well looked after.
“That cultural change has been a very big thing that we’ve focused on over the last few years.”
The influence of Hodge, who came out of retirement to play two seasons at the Lions, has seen Brisbane’s backmen form a strong defensive system.
“He brought in that calm and composed head, and a different way to play as well,” Gardiner said.
“More of a system setup, so we could work with each other a lot better rather than having to rely on one-on-one sort of stuff.”
Combined with the defensive coaching of Murray Davis, the Brisbane back six has become one of the game’s most reliable.
It meant that even losing All Australian defender Harris Andrews to injury late in the season would have minimal impact on the Lions’ fortunes.
“It’s a big squad focus,” Gardiner explained.
“Jack Payne came in and he was able to play the role Harris was playing, so it’s good to see that we’ve got younger guys that can come in and play the role.
“Also having Ryan Lester down there, and even Grant Birchall as another wise head brings that composure down there when you’re missing guys like Harris.”
Known as a competitive beast, the 25-year-old relishes the weekly opportunity to take on the game’s best forwards.
“It’s always a good challenge, it’s something you look forward to each week.”
“You might not always beat them, but you’re always going to learn from it.
“It’s always good to learn things about different opposition players.”
Brisbane’s finals campaign commenced in familiar fashion, tasked with taking on Richmond in a qualifying final at the Gabba in a repeat of 2019.
In last year’s clash, poor goalkicking meant Brisbane was unable to compete with a rampaging Richmond.
But the pain of 2019 has led to gain in 2020, with a newfound composure helping the Lions beat the reigning premiers to advance to football’s penultimate weekend.
“This year, there definitely would’ve been a few nerves getting around, but it was more so excitement and more so looking forward to the challenge,” Gardiner explained.
“It felt a lot more composed around the place, pretty much just due to experience, and you can’t underestimate how much that helped us last week.
“It’s taking those big moments, and we were able to do that with a couple of good goals that we might not have kicked last year from some tough spots.”
As the preliminary final approaches, the Lions will seek to maintain that same level-headedness after keeping intensity high in training during its week off.
“We’ve got to keep it calm and composed, you don’t want to overthink it, get too excited, get too nervous, just keep it level-headed,” Gardiner said.
“We had a good hit-out Saturday morning with a bit of match play to keep the intensity up, which will be important with the two byes now.
“You don’t want to lose a little bit of fitness or sharpness, so it’s important you keep it up to a high level and high standard.”
And with the Brisbane Broncos having a forgettable NRL season, the city’s rugby league fans might just turn their attention to the Lions.
“They’re still pretty loyal to the NRL up here, no matter what the situation they do love it, but we definitely do have a lot of support,” said Gardiner.
“When we’ve been playing at the Gabba the last couple of years, it’s just getting more packed and more packed and louder and louder each week you go out there.
“It has been good to see that support from the Queensland people, that’s for sure.”
The game’s growth in the sunshine state has been propelled by most of the season’s matches being held across Queensland’s venues due to Victoria’s second wave of COVID-19, serving as a small silver lining.
“From the time I’ve been here going out to schools and what not, it’s definitely gotten bigger and bigger and a lot more popular,” said Gardiner.
“I think it’s good overall that it’s grown up here over this period, a little positive out of it.”
It’s been a big month for the Gardiner family, with Laura—Darcy’s cousin—taken by Geelong in last week’s AFLW draft.
And a first premiership for Darcy might just follow.