BRISBANE great Jonathan Brown believes a player from his former Hampden league club can help mould the Lions' next finals side.
The three-time Lions premiership forward has high hopes for 2016 number three draft pick Hugh McCluggage, a silky midfielder plucked from South Warrnambool, as he enters his third AFL season.
McCluggage, 21, is one of three south-west Victorians on the Brisbane list.
He, along with Terang Mortlake's Lewis Taylor and Camperdown's Cedric Cox, are part of the Lions' strong Vic Country contingent.
"It is pretty exciting times - we've finally got the country Victorian boys back in there," Brown told The Standard.
"The Lions have fallen back onto their tried-and-true philosophy which worked in the premiership years - get the country boys so they don't miss mum too much.
"They look like they've been able to keep improving year in, year out which you expect from high draft picks.
"I think the biggest thing that has been so comforting for everyone involved with the Lions is the fact all these good kids have re-signed ahead of schedule."
Brown expects 40-gamer McCluggage to elevate his game in 2019.
"He has bulked up, no doubt about it. He's got a lot of strings to his bow," he said.
"He can play inside, outside, can play on the flanks, play on the wing.
"He hasn't put a foot wrong along with (another Vic Country export) Jarrod Berry who is your big-bodied inside midfielder.
"I speak to (coach) Chris Fagan regularly and everyone at the Lions speaks of their high character, those two boys, which is great."
Brown said McCluggage, a player in the Scott Pendlebury mould, should keep his goals simple and aim for natural improvement over the 22-game season.
"Hugh is a player who should be finding the ball 20-plus times every week and making sure they are valuable possessions," he said.
"He handles the pace of the game no problems at all. If he plays every game, he's going to go to the next level again and all of a sudden he'll have three years under his belt.
"Once they get to that 50, 60-game mark that's a bloody good launching pad to go from finding your feet in the AFL to being a very good top-line player."
Brown said players such as Taylor, heading into his sixth season with 107 games to his name, were also crucial to the Lions' chances of ending a 10-year finals drought.
The 2007 Coleman Medallist expects the small forward-wingman to "embrace his role as a young leader within the team".
"He had a really good year last year and he played some terrific footy. He's really embedded his role within the team," Brown said.
"His possessions were more valuable last year, especially his kicking. He's really flourished under Fages' leadership.
"He was the rising star (in 2014) and he maybe didn't go to the next level like people thought he was going to but he was thrown around in a number of different roles and Fages has been able to settle him down and give him the confidence.
"And let's not forget Lewy's still a young fella as well."
Cox, who moved from Halls Creek in remote Western Australia to Camperdown in his draft year, was on the cusp of selection for the Lions' two pre-season matches.
Brown said the smooth-moving athlete had shown an ability to play at either end in his 12 AFL appearances.
"There could be opportunities there as a small defender at times," he said.
"They seem pretty stacked with their small forwards with (Dayne) Zorko, (Charlie) Cameron and (Aaron) Christensen rolling through there.
"He's got the speed to play on someone but also his ball use, (he's got to) make sure he's got elite ball use to bring it out and break the lines."
Brown can see the Lions' natural progession resulting in more wins in 2019.
But the former captain said a top-eight finish would be a bonus given their young list.
"At the absolute best I think they could maybe sneak into a final but that's not my expectation," he said.
"I think the likelihood is they win eight to 10 games and I think that would be a good year.
"There's been a lot of good commentary about the Lions but I think the challenge will be how they handle that expectation."
But the Brown, now working as a Fox Footy expert commentator, said Brisbane had shown enough last season to give their long-suffering fans hope.
"We are trying to restore the GABBA to the fortress it used to be and you have to start with winning at home and there's no greater challenge than the reigning premiers (West Coast in round one)," he said.
"The crowds are improving because there's two features of the team - one is they're very competitive, they never give up and out of all sides in the comp Brisbane plays an exciting brand of football as there is.
"Chris Fagan acknowledges that. It's a tough market up north so you have to play and entertaining brand of footy.
"I think they see a good, young side building together. Hopefully they can get back to the halcyon days of the early 2000s."
Taking the reigns again…
Hampden league will have Brown at the helm for a third year when it tackles Ballarat at Mars Stadium in an interleague showdown on Saturday, May 18.
Brown has led the Bottle Greens to back-to-back AFL Victoria community championship wins and is eager to maintain the momentum.
"It's a big one for the league - if we win this we go into the top-six in the state," he said.
"We have some bloody good players at our disposal and the way the players have embraced it all across the league has been really encouraging."
Brown expects to shorten the preparation time into a week, as per past years, and is organising a trip for the extended squad in the lead-up.
"We'll put on a bit of a bonding trip to a game in Melbourne," he said.
"That was good last year and they were able to have a few beers and get to know each other."
Have you signed up to The Standard's daily newsletter and breaking news emails? You can register below and make sure you are up to date with everything that's happening in the south-west.