Lions no longer a circus act with Leppa in charge
THEIR opponents today may be known as a "happy team", but the Brisbane Lions are more than a little chuffed heading into their season-opener in Launceston.
The Lions will begin their campaign against premier Hawthorn - a side which beat them by 131 points in a NAB Challenge match in Melbourne last month.
But, almost at full strength this time around, and buoyed by positive leadership from new coach Justin Leppitsch and long-term commitment from several key players, veteran full-back Daniel Merrett said "everyone's pretty optimistic".
"I guess with a new coach it gives you a bit of a spark," he said. "(But) with his character he's kept things pretty fun around the club."
Leppitsch, a three-time premiership player with the Lions, has taken over from former teammate Michael Voss after a tumultuous time on and off the field, which not only saw the coach sacked, but several young players walk out and the board replaced.
But, Leppitsch has brought renewed energy the players are feeding off, and a new game plan they have confidence in - one designed to allow more systematic ball-movement, as well as setting players up to defend if the ball is turned over.
"I think he was the right choice, for sure," Merrett said of his former mentor in defence.
"He's obviously been away and learnt his craft (as an assistant at Richmond), and he's got a very modern game plan.
"Last year ... there was stuff around the stoppages, but outside that it was kind of just play footy. Leppa's brought a simple structure that everyone can stick to."
As a sign the players believe the club is heading in the right direction, star midfielders Tom Rockliff and Jack Redden and small forward Josh Green all inked new deals this week - taking the number of the players to have re-signed in the past 12 months to 17.
"Yeah, we lost some kids (to their home states at the end of last year), but only one of them (Elliot Yeo) was really playing good senior footy," he said.
"With Rockliff, Redden and Green signing long-term deals, I think the core group and the guys that really run our footy team, we're all signed up for a few years.
"There's a really good camaraderie between us, there's really good mateship. We want to start enjoying our footy, and start winning a few games."
That may not happen today, with the Lions having lost their past three matches for premiership points to the Hawks in Tassie by an average of 11 goals.
But, Merrett said it was important to "make sure we're competitive". "They (the Hawks) are playing really attacking footy at the moment … we've just got to keep our defensive pressure up," he said.
Merrett, who is expected to line-up on Coleman medallist Jarryd Roughead, said it had been different preparing to meet the Hawks without superstar forward Lance Franklin, but trying to beat them would be no less easier as "they almost function better without him".
As for the Lions' own attack, Jonathan Brown has recovered from a foot injury, and will have back-up ruckman Trent West, recruited from Geelong, and promising young talls Marco Paparone (five games) and Michael Close (first game) alongside him.
"There's no point putting myself up there and filling a hole," said Merrett, who sometimes pinch-hits forward.
"We've just got to get time into the kids … get them on the park and give them the best opportunity to develop."
LIONS V HAWKS
Aurora Stadium, Launceston, Tasmania, 3.40pm (AEST)
Also: Saints v Demons, 6.40pm (AEST)