Saturday afternoon was the 18th Battle of the Bridge, footy’s newest and second most poorly named local rivalry. Luckily, it seems as though they are just calling it the “Derby” now. Much better guys… much better.
It’s been a fascinating clash over the years. Twice, the two sides have met in finals, including in an elimination final last year, in which the Giants reversed a run of three straight losses by keeping the Swans to just four goals. The same trend repeated itself earlier this season, when in Round Six, GWS put in one of their most clinical performances so far this season in beating Sydney by 41 points.
It’s been a season of ups and downs for both of these sides, though more of the former for the Giants and more of the latter for the Swans. Sydney, astonishingly, sit entrenched in the bottom four of the ladder, and with North Melbourne’s win over Hawthorn on Friday night, look unlikely to break out of there. It has been very much a year of rebuilding for the Swans. Having faced a battle earlier in the year to retain their premiership coach, they’ve consistently fielded one of the youngest teams in the league, and have been frequently plucky in their losses. Their win over West Coast just two months ago looked like it would provide an upturn in their fortunes, but having lost their last four games, there isn’t much left to play for in Sydney, except pride.
That very much isn’t the case for the Giants. Their percentage is sufficient enough that they would be able to leapfrog any of the three teams above them on the ladder if they match their win-loss record, but they face an uphill battle to do so. Richmond are a win above them, and with GWS’s final four games all firmly in the winnable column, they could sneak their way into fourth, especially considering Richmond play Brisbane and West Coast in the final fortnight of the year. The fact remains that for GWS to earn the second chance they simply must keep winning, and so their crosstown battle loomed as a critical one. In the Giants’ first game without Coleman leader Jeremy Cameron this year, here’s what happened:
A GIANT HOLE TO FILL
The obvious question heading into this game was how the GWS forward line would function without Cameron for the first time this year, and despite the copious stack of talent they have inside 50, there were a few early teething issues. In the first ten minutes, the Giants looked a little disorganised going forward, with a few early chances that were wasted and a few defensive rebounds from Sydney which exited with little to no pressure. In the first quarter, Brent Daniels had Harry Himmelberg wide open in the pocket, but instead elected to try and hit up a two on one, which was really just one example of why, in spite of leading the inside 50’s 17-9 at quarter time, they trailed 3.4 to 5.0.
Their forwards certainly lifted in the second half of the first quarter, and into the second quarter itself. It took Lachie Keeffe to capitalise on a Haynes short pass, but the big men started to work themselves into the game, with Himmelberg working hard to get goalside of his opponent and then mark in the square, and Jeremy Finlayson having a chance to nail a set shot late in the first, though the fact he missed was probably mostly due to his dislocated pinky more than any lack of skill.
Finlayson was a huge part of the difference forward of centre in the second quarter, and likely just misses out on votes despite an excellent outing. His kick into the middle for Hopper early in the second was a lovely one, though the Giants were clearly keen to go slow rather than take the game on as they had in the first, with that passage of play resulting in Toby Greene’s goal to open the second. GWS’s usual third banana had a chance to display his wares today, and he did it superbly, with a mark and burst down the wing teeing up Himmelberg for the Giants’ third goal in four minutes. He looked the most dynamic forward on the ground, taking four running bounces in the first half of the second, and setting up two goals, with Hill’s goal from 45 a pearler.
Throughout the game the Giants managed to waste golden opportunities to goal and hammer home their ascendancy, but didn’t. In the opening minute of the third, Daniels inexplicably fumbled a ball running into an open goal, wasting a perfect chance, and Brett Deledio did the same in the first minute of the last, flushing an attempted snap to send the ball out on the full. Of course, Daniels atoned later in the quarter, with a delightful finish from 50 after being set up by Finlayson to give his side some breathing room. Ultimately, the Giants won the inside 50’s 56-44, but only won the game by two points, with a combination of occasional poor goal kicking and occasional wastefulness combining to keep the Swans in the game.
SYD-NEAR, BUT NOT CLOSE ENOUGH
It would be inappropriate to have started the last subsection with talk of Jeremy Cameron’s absence and not to begin this subsection with talk of Dane Rampe’s bizarre eye injury which ruled him out for this clash. Though Tom Hawkins got a hold on him last week, the Giants don’t really have a key forward of the same mold, and Rampe being in would have made a huge difference to a Swans’ backline which nonetheless acquitted itself quite well.
Sydney, somewhat surprisingly, ranked 18th in the league for contested possessions heading into this clash. With a midfield that includes Luke Parker, Josh Kennedy and the up and coming George Hewett, you wouldn’t necessarily have expected that to be the case. They won the contested ball in the first quarter 36-29 though, which was a big factor in their quarter time lead. The Swans were absolutely smashed in the clearances though, losing that stat 50-31. Kennedy and Hewett, who ordinarily lead that stat for their side, had none between them. For the day. That’s practically unheard of. It’s the first time Kennedy has been held to zero in that statistic as a Swan, and just the second time in his career, while for Hewett it’s the first time since 2017. It’s not hard, then, to see why the Giants dominated general play.
With their usual bulls essentially out of the game, the Swans had to turn to a few younger faces, as they have had to do frequently this year. The youth did pretty well too, in a reminder that this list bats a bit deeper than you might think. Ollie Florent was good all day, but had some excellent moments in the third quarter, with eight touches. He led all comers at the final break with 508 metres gained and 6 inside 50’s, and finished the day with 28 touches in a very impressive performance. Ryan Clarke also had an excellent third term, with 10 touches, and had the second most inside 50’s on the ground at three quarter time with five. He and Florent teamed up early in the last, with the former Roo’s first Swans goal a class finish to give his side the lead. Nevertheless, he needed to go when he took that mark in the middle earlyish in the last instead of holding on to it and going slow. Still, I’m sure John Longmire would take that performance, with Jordan Dawson also superb again.
Tom Papley had just four touches last week against the Cats. It was the lowest tally of his career, and came after four consecutive weeks of just one goal. After dominating against West Coast in Round 12, the goal sneak has just struggled a little bit with the extra attention, but looked determined to atone in the first quarter of this one. Really it was the first three minutes in which he made a real stamp, with each of his two goals and six of his 17 touches coming in that timespan. His two goals were both beauties though, with a classic small forward crumb followed by a curler from just inside 50.
It was an interesting forward set up for the Swans today. Dan Menzel came in for his third game in red and white, and despite a return of just 1.2, was actually pretty handy. His goal came after a classic Menzel mark, outbidding his admittedly inexperienced, yet physically bigger, opponent. He had a couple of chances in the second to nail opportunistic goals, but just couldn’t quite get them through, and then was desperately unlucky not to be given 50 after being collected by Brent Daniels late in the last. I’d imagine he gets a game again next week though, with John Longmire almost certainly hoping Sam Reid can get back somewhere near his best.
The Swans’ key forward was largely ineffective in this intrastate clash. With Buddy Franklin absent, Phil Davis instead headed to Reid, and really managed to shut him out of the game. He had just eight touches, with none of his five marks coming inside forward 50, and with zero score involvements, it was pretty clear the Swans would need to find a new avenue to goal. His last ten minutes so very nearly dragged his side over the line though, being unlucky to have been missed as the target prior to the rushed behind, then had a mark not paid which would have been on some other days.
WEST IS BEST
With their win today, the Giants took their season ledger to 12-7. It was probably closer than they would have liked against the Swans, but they were pretty clearly the better side today. Their first quarter was pretty average, with the combination of Zac Williams and Lachie Whitfield really keeping them in the game early. In the second quarter, Hopper, Haynes, and Finlayson added their names to that mix.
Leon Cameron’s midfield really is like a hydra. The losses of Callan Ward, Stephen Coniglio and Josh Kelly, the former two likely for the season, would cripple just about every side in the competition. GWS simply find ways to recover though, and even with Tim Taranto a little quiet, their midfield was far better. Jacob Hopper was outstanding, with three goals and nine score involvements from his 26 touches, as well as four inside 50’s, while Toby Greene and Zac Williams were excellent with 66 touches, 20 clearances, 12 tackles and 1024 metres gained between them.
Lachie Whitfield has backed up his inaugural All Australian selection this season. At times he has even looked like a potential Brownlow Medalist, with his class and skills evident so often throughout the year. Of course, it has helped that opposition coaches seem reluctant to send anyone near him, and while Ryan Clarke was nominally given the job, even he gave the 2012 Number One pick a bit too much freedom. Whitfield ended the day with 26 touches, six rebounds and a goal, with that goal coming in the first as a result of underwhelming defensive work.
It was the defence which was ultimately most impressive for the Giants though. With the forwards applying minimal pressure early in the first quarter, the backline had to ensure the Swans didn’t score too easily, and they did it very well, with their hunger evident in the tackle on Ronke to prevent him from running into an open goal in the first. With the amount of experience they have down there, the rushed behind in the final minute or so was exactly the kind of good work you’d have expected, but it was their defensive pillars who stood up for the second week in a row.
I’ve already spoken of Davis’ work on Reid, with five of his eight total possessions coming from intercepts, but it was the work of Shaw, who shone after moving onto Papley in the first; Sam Reid nailing a superb tackle on Robbie Fox to prevent one final roll of the dice; and most predominantly Nick Haynes, who must have only just missed out on the Brett Kirk Medal but wins three Mongrel Votes for his troubles nevertheless. 10 of his 18 disposals were contested, he dragged in 12 intercept possessions, and he also reeled in game highs in contested marks (four) and marks (12). Forget the talk of whether Haynes might be an All Australian; at this stage he absolutely must be, as so often he looks simply impassable as a defender. His one on one win against Blakey running inside forward 50 in the second was a beauty, then he managed to just do enough to spoil another marking contest seconds later.
KEEN FOR HEEN
It would, finally, be remiss of me not to mention the class of Isaac Heeney, which so very nearly was the difference for his side in a close game. In fact, had he have converted truly in the last, with two gettable shots, this review would probably have gone fairly differently.
As it was, Heeney would have to settle for being his side’s best player in a close loss. It wasn’t just his four goals, important and classy though they were. Indeed, his third was a classy snap from 25 running toward the pocket, but his marking was just as much a feature. Only Haynes took more contested marks than his three, and Papley was the only Swan to take more than his seven marks total. 12 of his 18 touches were contested, too, as he demonstrated, and not for the first time, his unquestionable talent. Sydney’s ability to rebuild on the run is almost unparalleled throughout the league, and their academy has found another one in Heeney, who is arguably already a star of the competition.
This was at times an enthralling game. GWS started sluggishly, and the Swans capitalised on that, then the Giants managed to hit back in the second quarter, before Sydney hit back in the second half and fell just short. There was a lot of young talent on display, and a lot of quality young talent at that, with just enough experienced heads to provide an enthralling contest. Of course, both times duking it out at full strength would have been fascinating, but the game we got was an exciting enough one anyway.
I simply can’t see Sydney lingering at the bottom of the ladder again next year. With another year into the legs of their youth, who already look exciting, the likelihood is they’ll be back near a finals spot come September 2020. With a top four pick lined up for the end of this year, and with Jarrad McVeigh and probably Kieren Jack retiring, they might even have the capacity to lure a big fish to the Harbour City to complement their development. Next week, though, it’s the suddenly up-and-about Power in Adelaide, before winnable games against the Dees and Saints.
For the Giants, it’s about winning and doing it now. A loss to the Swans wouldn’t have been season ending by any means, but with a top four spot up for grabs, and momentum all important heading into September, a win was vital. They did enough to get it, and really should have won by a lot more in the end. They’ll start favourites in their next three games, with the Hawks in Canberra, Dogs in Sydney and Gold Coast at Metricon to round out the year, and at this stage look a decent chance of making at least a prelim.