THE DOOR remains ajar for a shock Kate Lutkins return this year, as the Brisbane key defender continues to rehabilitate a torn ACL.
The 2021 Grand Final best-on-ground winner ruptured her right ACL on January 9 this year, during the Lions' round one loss to Adelaide.
As it stands, Lutkins – unlike teammates Gabby Collingwood (ACL) and Maggie Harmer (mental health) – has not yet been added to the inactive list, which has a cut-off date of August 23. Given the small squads of 30, the inactive list allows clubs to replace players who will be sidelined for the entire season due to injury, pregnancy, mental health, work or personal commitments.
The 34-year-old has an incredible pain threshold, playing through the pointy end of the 2021 season with a torn left plantar fascia in her foot, while her right foot also needed a clean-out after that season.
Clubmate Eric Hipwood ruptured his ACL in mid-July and returned in mid-May this year. A (albeit rare) 10-month rehab would take Lutkins to the start of November and round 10, ahead of a predicted finals appearance from Brisbane.
The Lions didn't lose too many players to expansion this time around, but the club's sole fit tall defender Indy Tahau made the move to new side Port Adelaide.
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A potential return by the 180cm Lutkins would be a huge boost for the backline, which as it stands, features Shannon Campbell (171cm), Nat Grider (171cm), Bre Koenen (170cm), Phoebe Monahan (174cm) and Lulu Pullar (173cm), among others.
Forward-ruck Taylor Smith (180cm) is a possible option to move to defence if the Lions wanted to change things up.
"We're playing around with a few things at training at the moment. We've got a few very versatile players, so we're lucky, but it's just about trying to find the right fit," Koenen told womens.afl.
"It also depends on match-ups, who we come up against, we're going to have to be pretty adaptable. There's no perfect answer, I'm crossing my fingers for 'Luts', she's doing really well at the moment, so hopefully we do have someone like that back at least halfway through the season.
"I don't know honestly, it's up in the air, but she's doing really well and I'm really proud of what she's done so far."
Koenen will take the captaincy reins for a second season, following the retirement of premiership skipper Emma Zielke.
"You come into your seventh season, and you know what to expect, but this pre-season has been a step up again," Koenen said.
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"Our conditioning, strength-wise, and we have a few different coaching staff around the place, so they're growing and developing the program every year, and it just keeps getting harder. We'll be fitter, faster and stronger again.
"I guess I learnt how to delegate a bit better, share the load, try and bring other people into their own leadership styles and encourage them to be the best leaders they can be. I learnt a lot in the first season, it was a really hectic year, so had to be super organised. I'm very, very stoked to have another opportunity."
In a concerning sign for the rest of the competition, Koenen nominated AFLW best and fairest winner Emily Bates as one of the side's top pre-season performers.
Bates was one of a large number of Lions – including Orla O'Dwyer, Greta Bodey, Nat Grider, Jade Ellenger and Cathy and Ruby Svarc – to re-commit with Brisbane after strong interest from expansion clubs.
"'Batesy's' come back really strong, I'm really excited to see her this year. Obviously Nat Grider being elected as vice-captain this year, I'm super proud of how far she's come and just her leadership style, how she's developed over the years," Koenen said.
"It was a bit scary there for a while, I didn’t know how many we'd end up with and how many we'd lose, but that's every expansion year.
"We had a rough trot a few years ago, so I think it was some good karma coming our way and 'Starce' (coach Craig Starcevich) is very relieved we've maintained most of our players."