THE GOOD, BAD AND UGLY – SYDNEY 2020 SEASON PREVIEW

 

So, we’re making this an annual tradition now – extensive season previews for all 18 teams in this format because… well, people seem to like the Good, Bad, Ugly format for game reviews and I thought why not? Also, I really like Clint Eastwood.

The Swans appear to be a middle of the road team at best in 2020. Their most potent weapon, after looking like he was taking this season very seriously, is sidelined with a knee injury. But does that early injury modify the expectations for an entire season for the Swans, or is it a genuine opportunity for others to establish themselves as the next big thing?

With players on the cusp of stardom, and some of the best young talls in the caper, Sydney is highly capable of upsets, and it’s not like they’re not used to overcoming odds to defy the doomsayers. Blakey, Heeney, Mills, Florent – the Swans are now the second youngest list in the game, but their best two players on their day are north of 30.

Can Sydney defy the critics and begin the climb back into finals contention in 2020? Let’s explore with a little bit of the old good, bad and ugly, Mongrel-style.

 

THE GOOD

 

THE MOST UNDERRATED FULL BACK IN THE GAME

I got a little tired of the type of coverage Dane Rampe received in 2019. It all seemed to centre around goal post climbing and late 50 metre penalties, but in reality, the Swans’ full back compiled an excellent season as the main defensive pillar.

Rampe’s efforts held together a Sydney defence as he ranked in the top ten in the league in total intercepts, Rebound 50s and, surprisingly, running bounces. His combination of being able to hold his own against the monster forwards of the competition, and then run off them with the ball tucked under his wing was unique in a competition where players seem increasingly to be able to do one or the other – but rarely both.

Of course, despite an excellent season, he missed the All-Australian team, though he did make the initial squad of 40; the only Swan to do so last season.

Rampe turns 30 in 2020. It is one of those numbers where people start to view you differently at AFL level – it’s like hitting middle age for the rest of us, but Rampe’s athleticism and speed have not seemed to falter over the last couple of seasons. If anything, he has gotten better.

A combination with Aliir Aliir has the potential to be the best one-two defensive punch in the game, but that is probably more to do with how Aliir develops than Rampe; he is at the top of his game right now.

Statistically, Rampe notched career-high numbers in disposals (20.1), Rebound 50s (6.7) and had his best season in terms of disposal efficiency (an outstanding 86.5%). If he manufactures another season like this, surely he gets the long-awaited second All-Australian nod?

 

MORE THAN A TAGGER

It’s time for George Hewett to make the next step in his evolution as an AFL midfielder. He is a rare breed that is able to stifle the opposition whilst compiling numbers of his own. In that regard, he is very similar to the St Kilda player, Jack Steele. Both have demonstrated that they can work both ways very effectively, but as they develop, both need to move away from being seen as taggers, and into the role of accountable mid, more like West Coast’s Elliot Yeo.

Hewett has been good at stoppages, but his ascension to being Josh Kennedy’s heir took a bit of a hit in that department in 2019. His clearance numbers dropped from 4.7 per game to 4.0 as Hewett found the going a little tougher in the middle. His start to the season saw him average just 1.25 clearances over the first five games. The Swans were 1-4 in those contests as the bulk of the load was left to the Kennedy/Parker duo. The Swans needed a third clearance player to step up, but Hewett struggled to make an impact.

So, where does Hewett go from here?

I had Hewett earmarked as one of the big improvers of 2019, and I think he still has plenty left in him, but he cannot start the season the way he did last year in the middle. His overall disposal numbers did hit a career-high 21.86 per game, but it was the inside work that fell away.

Hewett should be reversing the clearance trend that started last year, and around five per game seems a reasonable number to aim for. The same goes for his tackling. I spoke of Jack Steele and Elliot Yeo earlier. Those guys average 8.2 and 7.3 tackles per game respectively. That’s the level Hewett needs to aspire to. At 4.5 tackles per contest, he is no slouch, but 68th in the league is way too far down the list for someone playing a close-checking role.

Sydney are now at the point where they need to enlist some serious aid for Josh Kennedy in the middle. George Hewett was on the right track until 2019, and though he didn’t careen off the road, he is starting to veer away from the direction he should be going. In his contract year, he needs to straighten up a little in 2020 and get in and under to help the old fella.

 

THE DEVELOPMENT OF JORDAN DAWSON

This bloke kind of came out of the blue, didn’t he? One of those overnight sensations that takes years to develop, I suppose.

Dawson’s aerial prowess was the facet of his game that jumped out at me in 2019, as he provided the Swans with a legitimate swingman as they deployed his talents at both half forward and half back.

It was his work across half back that made the biggest statement late in the season as he seemed to embrace the role of rebounding defender. Over the last eight games of the season, Dawson averaged 4.75 Rebounds, and added 5.25 intercept possessions as well.

The Swans seem to have found a diamond in the rough in Dawson – an intercept marking defender with the ability to swing forward when necessary. Whilst 2019 was his break out season, playing 20 of his career total of 25 games, I’m excited to see what the 22-year old can do in 2020. From the outside looking in, Dawson appears to be someone who started taking his footy seriously last season, and it paid dividends. How will he go with a year’s experience under his belt and the confidence of knowing that he has found his niche in this Swans team?

With Dawson deployed across half back, the Swans defence looks strong. Dawson, Rampe, Aliir and the running Jake Lloyd provide four quality options in the back half that is highly capable of repelling any opposition in the game. It’s how they fill those last two spots that will be interesting. Does Callum Mills resume his role across half back or move into the middle. Does Colin O’Riordan continue his development down back? Or is one of Lewis Melican or Robbie Fox the unassuming solid defender they need back there.

At one point or another, we will see a combination of all listed above, but Jordan Dawson has the potential to become a standout performer amid a very talented bunch. Will he build on his impressive 2019 to make this season his year?

 

YOUNG TALENT TIME

While it is easy to be caught up in the development of Nick Blakey and Isaac Heeney, one of the keys to the development of the Sydney team may lie with one of the more unsung talents on the team.

Will Hayward enters year four as a Swan in 2020 after a disappointing season in 2019. He made huge strides in 2018, averaging 11.91 touches and 1.22 goals per game but his form, along with fellow small-forward, Ben Ronke stagnated last season. It is a trend Hayward needs to reverse in 2020.

Will Hayward’s first half of the 2018 season was almost perfect for a young man of just 18 years of age. He kicked 22 goals before the bye as the Swans established another winning record (10-3) and demonstrated that he had the kind of football nous that all good career-forwards possess. With the ability to bob up when needed, Hayward bolstered a Sydney forward line that continued to surprise in 2018, and his form mimicked their overall fall from grace in 2019.

Hayward suffered a broken jaw and some hip complaints in 2019, which slowed him considerably, but with another pre-season under his belt, and a clean bill of health, things could be very different in 2020.

The Swans are blessed with young talls (Blakey and McCartin) but had to rely on Tom Papley to carry the load in the absence of Franklin in 2019. Some cameo performances from Hayward and Ronke would have been very welcome.

In 2020, Hayward and Ronke will be expected to turn their form around, drastically in Ronke’s case. He was a classic case of second year blues in 2019. His goals per game average fell from 1.33 to 0.69 as he struggled to keep a place in the team. He needs to find his way and tap into that exuberance that aided him in snagging a career-high seven goals against the Hawks on a Friday night in 2018.

Whilst I do not believe the Swans will be contending in 2020, the opportunity to build a solid foundation for future years is ripe. The form of Hayward and Ronke could go a long way to shoring up the small/mid-sized Sydney forward positions for years to come.

 

THE NEXT BIG DEFENSIVE THING?

The eyes of the football world were opened in 2018 when Aliir Aliir and Majak Daw engaged in a one-on-one duel for the ages. Whilst some chose to focus on the background of the players, the contest between them was great, irrespective of their culture. It was two young bulls going at it, head-to-head.

Whilst Daw would snag four goals, it was Aliir sneaking forward late in the game to seal the deal for the Swans that stole the show. Along with his 20 touches and ten marks, it was his late goal that put the Swans over the top in a cracking game. And it was in that game that people started recognising the talent of Aliir, and as time had ticked by, he has got consistently better.

Aliir has become a genuine contest killer across half back for the Swans. His ability to read the play has improved out of site. When he hits a pack, the pack stays hit. It was as though what was necessary to play at the top level clicked in the mind of Aliir in 2018, and in 2019 he played every game for the first time in his career. It sets him up well heading into 2020.

I’ve focused a bit on the defence of the Swans in this article, and for good reason. The Swans are stacked for options, and if the midfield was a little more… exceptional, I think they’d have the potential to shut down a large number of offences in the league.

But the midfield is not exceptional, and that places stress of the back six to make up for their lack of… exceptionality.

When you throw in a player like Robbie Fox down back, who could really fill the role as a smaller lockdown defender, the Swans actually could make up for plenty of the struggles the midfield may have containing teams.

 

SMALL FORWARDS APLENTY

I covered Hayward and Ronke above, but with Sam Gray, Lewis Taylor and Tom Papley all now in the Sydney mix, things will get a little competitive in the Swans forward half.

You have to wonder whether Taylor in particular knew what he was getting into when he joined the Swans? My guess is that he was under the impression that Papley was heading out of town. Once Papley wasn’t dealt to Carlton, things got a little tighter. Then Sam Gray joined the fray and all of a sudden we have a real forward line free-for-all in Sydney.

So, who gets squeezed out?

Papley is able to drift into the midfield and make an impact there. At 23, his tank will be improving, and he will be better equipped to run through the guts whilst drifting forward to continue his assault on the big sticks. His spot is secure.

Taylor is coming off a disappointing year at Brisbane that saw him edged out of the side. With just five games to his name, the ascension of Charlie Cameron, and the addition of Lincoln McCarthy saw him lose his place in the team.

Sam Gray’s departure from Port was weird. He kicked 20 goals for the Power – third on the team, yet was deemed dispensable? I’m struggling to work Port out at the moment…

Ronke will need a complete reversal of form, as will Hayward, who is described in detail above.

When you throw in the fact that Heeney will drift forward, and the talls of Blakey, Franklin, McCartin, and Reid have positions to fill, the squeeze is very, very real at Sydney.

It’s a nice problem to have, I suppose.

If I was a betting man, and three positions are available for the small/mid-sized forwards, Papley is a walk-up start, Hayward gets the chance to redeem himself early, and Sam Gray provides a bit of the unknown. The others can pressure for their spots, but that is a solid starting point.

 

THE OLD FELLA IN THE MIDDLE

There has been a bit in this article about the replacement for Josh Kennedy, as though he is past his use-by date, and whilst he may be nearing it, there is no doubt that he is still a genuine force in the middle of the ground. It really cannot be disputed.

In 2019, Josh Kennedy did what Josh Kennedy does. Relentless, he averaged 26.53 touches, 6.63 tackles and 6.21 clearances per game. Whilst not near his own best numbers, these are still good enough to place him in the elite category of inside-mids quite easily.

I loved his game against Patrick Cripps early in the season. Whilst many lauded the efforts of Cripps, scant attention was paid to the defensive efforts of Kennedy early in the contest. Going head to head with Cripps, Kennedy’s ability to limit the young Carlton star when the game was there to be won went a long way in setting up the Sydney win.

Kennedy finished that game with 31 touches, eight tackles and seven clearances, and though Cripps ended with the impressive stat-line of 28 touches and 13 clearances himself, many of those numbers came after the Swans had put the work in to establish a four goal lead. The work of Kennedy early in the piece gave the Swans the edge, and they never lost it.

Kennedy picked up one Brownlow vote for his performance. Cripps got two. I gave Kennedy best on ground, factoring in what he did defensively to set his team up.

Can Josh Kennedy have another season where he maintains his high levels of excellence? Or is this the seasons the cracks in the armour widen a little?

The Swans have needed someone to step up and help him for a while now, but I don’t think you’ll find Kennedy complaining. It is not in the nature of a warrior to complain about the battle. He will be giving 100%, and the results of his efforts are better than most other mids in the game.

 

WELCOME BACK MR NAISMITH

The Swans get Sam Naismith back in action in 2020 and it could not be more welcome.

In 2019, with just Callum Sinclair to man the middle, the Swans fell down in the ruck. They were ranked 17th in the league in hit outs, beating only the Western Bulldogs, who had huge struggles of their own at the position.

In the return of Naismith, the Swans can start looking to get their mids first possession once again at  stoppages (they were 16th in clearances), which could see a spike in numbers from Kennedy, Parker and Hewett this season. That’s not to say that the Swans will become a dominant ruck team, however having Naismith teaming with Sinclair should see a vastly improved performance.

Naismith’s return also allows Sinclair to drift forward and become yet another tall target, which could be vital should Franklin spend more time out than is desired. Sinclair is quick off the mark for a ruck, and has a good sense of how to find space up forward. Double figure goals should be the expectation on him this season.

 

A NICE PROBLEM TO HAVE

Jake Lloyd was the best and fairest player in Sydney in 2018, and actually raised his performance in 2019 to top 30 touches per game for the first time in his career..

Strangely, I have read the comments of many Swans fans over the journey, and they seem to discount his role quite readily, citing the fact he is not a pure defender back there, and picks up a lot of easy ball.

Of course, that is EXACTLY what he is instructed to do as he runs at 82% efficiency and sat at fourth in the whole league in metres gained. Now, I am no AFL genius (evidently) but when you get a bloke gaining you that much ground, and running at a high percentage in the process, I’d be pretty pleased with the asset you possess.

With a plethora of defenders that are highly capable, I suppose the option is there to tinker with the line-up, and the possibility of Lloyd using that disposal accuracy heading inside 50 might be tempting for John Longmire.

If the back six starts to look like a combination of Rampe, Aliir, Mills, O’Riordan, Melican and Dawson, is it a possibility that Lloyd moves to the wing and starts to use that run and carry to even greater effect forward of centre? Or have we seen the best of what he is capable of already?

Lloyd is 26 years old. These are his peak years. Capitalising on them is what a good team would do, and if that means he remains in defence, that’s good enough for me.

But the possibilities are enticing.

 

BLAKEY TO THE MIDDLE?

This one kind of hit me a little from left field, but I’d like to explore the option a little.

I had a reader email me, stating that it is a popular belief in the Swans’ fan circles that Nick Blakey will eventually move into the midfield. I have to say, I’ve never actually considered it, and there is a chance he’s pulling my leg.

As written elsewhere in this (extended) piece, there is some characteristics of Blakey’s game that remind me of a young Wayne Carey, and I saw him primarily as the future of the Sydney forward line – at centre half forward if coming out of the goal square wasn’t his thing. Whilst the appeal of having a 195 centimetre Blakey galloping around the midfield is a nice thought, midfielders are relatively easily obtained.

A forward with the talent of Blakey is not so easily acquired.

Part of me thinks the Swans’ midfield worries have prompted this discussion, and I’d like to think that Blakey would be given the time and space to develop into a genuine forward before any experimentation starts with his position.

Players like him don’t happen by very often. I’d hate to see him get throw into a position he’s not built to play.

 

THE BAD

 

THE JOURNEY TO SUPERSTARDOM HAS PAUSED FOR A WHILE

Can we take a little time to ponder what is going on with Isaac Heeney? It may surprise people to hear, but Heeney will turn 24 this season, and whilst that is by no means reason to go walking stick shopping, his stagnation in the Sydney team should be more than a little concerning.

Over the past three seasons, Heeney has basically been exactly the same player, averaging between 20.05 and 20.55 disposals per game. And whilst disposals are not the be-all and end-all of AFL footy, it’s a fact you cannot dispute that players do the most damage when they have the ball… in their hands!

Heeney has threatened to be the next genuine star in Sydney, but for one reason or another (which we’ll get to), he has been unable to take the next step on a consistent basis. His best appears on highlight reels on an almost weekly basis, but at the moment he is like a wonderful dessert, covered in chocolate and strawberries and served to you in the comfort of your own lounge room.

What he needs is a little more meat and three veg about him.

While I am not going to go as far as to say he is all sizzle and no steak at this point of his career, he is definitely plenty of sizzle, and it may be disproportionate to the size of the steak. Is that a little fairer?

Now, as promised – the reasons he hasn’t made the leap into superstardom…

No consistency – Heeney is jack of all trades in red and white. He goes where he is needed most and as a result, he has never actually been able to settle into a role. Need a goal? Throw Heeney forward. Need a clearance? Move him into the middle. Need an intercept mark? Throw him behind the ball. Need your toilet unblocked? Hand him a plunger!

He’ll do it, and he’ll do it pretty well, but he has not had the opportunity to do something exceptionally, and in a way it’s unfair on him. He is a superstar in-waiting, but the waiting is killing me!

The other thing to consider is whether his body is capable of handling midfield minutes. Whilst many believe the game is softer, physically, the demands on the body due to the aerobic requirements are brutal. Perhaps Heeney is unable to stand up to the rigours of a full-time midfield role and both he, and John Longmire are aware. A pinch-hitting Heeney is better than a sidelined version.

So, what’s the upside of Heeney?

His contested marks increased in 2019 as he moved to over one per game for the first time in his career, and his marks inside 50 jumped as well, but both of them moved only marginally. He has been expected to make a huge leap for years now, and if it doesn’t happen in 2020, is it time for Swans supporters to start coming to terms with the fact that this may be as good as it gets for him? I mean, it’s not as though they’re going to be short-changed or anything – he will still be flashing in and out of games.

If you’re happy with the sizzle, Heeney is tracking along nicely. If you’d prefer a little more steak, you might want a little more from him this season.

 

AN UNHAPPY CAMPER?

I suppose Tim Kelly is the example to the Swans are looking at in terms of how Tom Papley will perform in 2020. After politely asking to be traded after the 2018 season, the Geelong Football Club couldn’t work out a deal with the West Coast Eagles, and Kelly headed back to Kardinia Park. He didn’t drop his head. He didn’t mope about. He got on with the business of playing good, and sometimes spectacular football and one year later, the trade was made. All parties were pleased, and the clubs have moved on.

It was a good outcome in the end.

This past off-season, Tom Papley expressed a desire to leave the Swans and head back to Victoria. In particular, he would have liked to join Carlton, but with the Joe Daniher non-deal creating a bit of a stalemate for the Swans, they found themselves unable, or unwilling to deal Papley to the Blues. Papley wanted to go home, but his request was denied.

How will he respond?

Papley had a career-best season in 2019. You could see his improvement coming on the horizon. In 2018, there were times when he looked as though he could tear a game apart in a five minute stretch, and in 2019 he not only looked more threatening – he actually started delivering. His five goals against the Eagles punctuated a six game stretch where he also picked up two bags of four, and with Buddy Franklin struggling to stay on the park, the Swans relied more on Papley to hit the scoreboard.

He obliged with 37 majors for the season.

But does he drop his bundle having not got his way this off-season? He is contracted to the Swans until the end of 2023… they will not be in a hurry to let him go, particularly if the price is in any way short of what they believe Papley is worth. Compassionate grounds or not, he signed a contract and wants out of it way too early. I’m not demanding the Swans make him stay if there is a good offer on the table, but I think they are entirely justified in getting bang for their buck.

The Swans have some insurance in the form of Sam Gray and Lewis Taylor joining the team, both of whom are more than capable of holding down the small forward slot should things go awry.

I don’t think that will happen, however. Papley will play and get better again on his 2019 season,. His trade value will increase and with Carlton picking up a stop gap via the Eddie Betts retirement tour, they’ll be ready to deal again in October.

And until then, it’s up to Papley to make sure he is not looking too far forward to the opportunity to play elsewhere when there is a team that committed to him, and expect the same in return this season.

 

THE NEXT MIDFIELD STAR?

By this point in time, I thought Isaac Heeney would have taken the torch from Josh Kennedy – either had it willingly handed to him, or ripped it out of his hands. As it stands, and as we’ve covered above, that hasn’t been the case.

Then last season, we had the rumours of Callum Mills moving into the midfield to strengthen the Swans. It didn’t happen either.

So what did that leave the Swans in the way of midfield development? As much as I like what George Hewett is doing in the Harbour City, he was not the answer to the Swans’ midfield dilemma. Luke Parker was one I thought might surpass JK as well. It hasn’t happened.

Look, a lot of this comes down to just how wonderful Josh Kennedy has been over the journey. He is one of three players to ever have 400 contested possessions in a season. And he did it three damn times! (The others are Patrick Dangerfield x 2 and Clayton Oliver x 1).

In 2019, Kennedy had the most contested touches per game for the Swans. He had the most clearances per game. He had the most tackles per game on the team, AND…

… he is easily the oldest midfielder on the team.

I do not think Josh Kennedy is past it at all, but what we have seen in the last couple of seasons is signs that he cannot do what he was once capable of. He is not going to average 28-30 touches per game as he did from 2012-17. He is not going to give you a minimum of 25 touches per game  (he had under that mark on 10 occasions in 2019) and he is not going to be able to drag the Swans midfield, kicking and screaming, to respectable efforts week in and week out.

He needs some help, and without someone jumping out the box, I am not sure where he is going to get it from.

 

THE UGLY

 

HERE WE GO AGAIN?

I have to admit – I like seeing a big forward up and about, and after the 2019 Lance Franklin endured, hearing that he was hitting the track early, and making a concerted effort to hit 2020 in the best shape possible buoyed me a little.

As some of you know, I am a Hawthorn supporter, and I have a soft spot for Buddy. I want him to do well. I want him to be a success for Sydney, and in want him to hit that 1000-goal milestone.

However, as news trickled through that he had undergone knee surgery and would not be back in full training for ten weeks, a dose of reality slapped me in the face like a procession of women slapping Joe Ganino at an over 40s night in Port Macquarie. Buddy is no spring chicken, and over the last couple of seasons, the years of wear and tear on his body have really started taking a toll. I’m starting to doubt whether we will see that magical 1000th goal at all, and I am pretty certain it will not be this season.

Let’s assume the best, shall we?

Buddy takes his ten weeks, gets himself right and then enters the fray in the first couple of rounds. What are the chances he plays every game from that point on? Buddy is turning 33 in a matter of days – playing every game from the point he returns in 2020 is very unlikely given the way he plays and what he still believes he can do.

Let’s rewind to the Swans’ win over Hawthorn in 2019. Franklin stood on the boundary, awaiting a return to the field in the third term. Upon re-entering the fray, he took off at top speed, hoping to create a mismatch up forward by sneaking in on the fat side of the ground.

However, as the ball finally came inside 50, Franklin wound up lame. He was unable to make the contest due to a hamstring strain after a little too long on the bench. This is life for a 30+ year old athlete who hasn’t been able to train consistently for a few years. This is where Buddy is at. I’m not sure that he gets back to the point where he can play at the level we’re used to seeing for any more than a couple of games at a time.

And I say that with a heavy heart.

There will be games where Buddy is effective in 2020. There will be games where there are flashes of the player who dominated the forward 50, and the headlines for the past ten years, but the days of Franklin’s body allowing him to do what he’s used to doing appear to be over.

I hope he gets to 1000. I hope we get to see him turn on the jets a few more times and prove he still has it. But every time he gets another injury it’s one step closer to falling over entirely, and for a man so accustomed to playing at the highest level, you have to wonder… when will he have had enough?

 

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