Andrews had four weeks off (Cameron took five, courtesy of the AFL tribunal), with five weeks left in the 2018 season, returning in round 19 against Geelong. Tom Hawkins kicked seven goals on him, but that was no reflection on Andrews’ fitness to play, and for the sake of his own confidence he’s glad he wasn’t kept in cotton wool.
“I was right to go,” he says. “I can’t imagine if I would have had to sit out the nine weeks [in the remainder of 2018] and then had to wait all summer to play another game … I found myself in the same position, going back with the flight a little bit in that game, and there weren’t any second thoughts or hesitations.”
Now in his fifth year, Andrews is still only 22 and entering the prime of his career after 79 games. With his long reach and a game modelled on Essendon champion Dustin Fletcher, he’s probably the best spoiler in the competition, but spoiling isn’t enough if he and his team want to take the next steps up the ladder.
“Over the last few years guys like [West Coast’s] Jeremy McGovern and [Richmond’s] Alex Rance have done such a good job intercept-marking the ball,” he says. “The good teams – Collingwood, West Coast, Richmond – their ability to win the ball back in the air was huge, and that’s probably my biggest growth area.”
When you watch Andrews closely, what you most notice is his poise. He’s 201 centimetres, but like the best midfielders he has the ability to make the game slow down around him, even in the state of permanent desperation that is the defender’s lot, he never looks flustered. He just keeps his feet and carries on.
That temperament has long seen him touted as a potential future captain. Former Hawthorn champion Luke Hodge, lured out of temporary retirement to Brisbane to help fast-track the growth of the Lions’ raw defence, describes Andrews as “a 22-year-old with a 30-year-old head on his shoulders”.
“I sometimes have to remind myself he’s only 22 with what he can do, as far as setting up teammates off the ball, while also taking on the best forward and normally beating them – a 22-year-old shouldn’t be able to do that,” Hodge says. “He’s got maturity beyond his years both on and off the field.”
Andrews has watched and learnt from Hodge’s ability to make his teammates’ jobs easier. Even before Hodge’s arrival, Andrews, always observant, helped organise the defence – not easy when the ball was coming in as fast and as often as it was in 2016, when the Lions were giving up what Andrews calls a “phenomenally bad” average of 131 points a game.
When Chris Fagan arrived at the Brisbane Lions as coach in 2017, the first job was to tighten the club up across the field, and at that time Andrews’ defence-first mentality was important. But Fagan also wanted the team to play an attractive, attacking brand of football that would bring estranged fans back to the club.
In the first three rounds of 2019, with the Lions three wins from three for the first time since 2010, those fans – as well as the players – are starting to finally see some reward. In the past two weeks, against North Melbourne away and Port Adelaide at home, they’ve won close games they habitually lost last year.
Like Andrews, they’re trying to find a balance between all-out attack and defence, and while no one at the club is getting ahead of themselves, at some point goals may have to be reset.
“I don’t think we put any cap on what we could achieve this year,” he says. “If we keep playing good team, selfless football, we’ve got confidence that anything could happen.”