Prior to last weekend, this match-up may have seemed like the most dreary, boring match-up possible – potentially the only thing it would have been recommended for was a cure for insomnia. How quickly things can change.
Sydney and Adelaide now seem to possess some of the most exciting youth in the competition, and with the return of Buddy Franklin, this match immediately became a must-watch for all footy heads.
While the scoreboard battle was effectively over by half-time, there was more than enough positive signs for both sides to feel like the match offered great hope and promise for the future. The Swans, after dominant second and third quarters, were the victors by 33 points, but there is far more to the game than the scoreline. Let’s dig a little deeper.
THE MASTER AND THE APPRENTICE
Last season, I had the pleasure of watching Logan McDonald play live several times (I’m a fan of the WAFL team he represented – the Perth Demons), and one of the things that really stood out to me was the way he could read the ball in flight and position his body to protect the drop of the ball. It’s a trait that takes some tall forwards a few years to perfect, but he had it immediately. I saw it again today when he was running back with the flight of the ball into the path of a leading Buddy Franklin. Where some forwards would have deferred to the superstar, only to see the ball bounce at his feet, McDonald realised the ball was going to bounce short and launched himself at it, taking a great mark and finishing off his work with a magnificent goal.
I don’t reckon enough was made of his form last season – he finished second the WAFL goal-kicking with 26 across nine games, a pace that would have seen him on track for 58 goals in a normal 20 game season. The WAFL is no hack league either – it’s arguably got the best spread of second-tier talent of any competition in Australia. Playing against men last season, he averaged nigh on three goals a game, and he seems to have carried this forward to the highest level, kicking five goals across his first two games.
In just about any other forward line, McDonald would be the star. But this forward line has Buddy. And there is arguably no bigger star in football than Buddy. Swans fans must be salivating at the prospect of seeing a burgeoning star in McDonald learn off one of the greatest the game has seen in Franklin, and if their pairing today is anything to go by, there could be something very special to come.
Buddy was a touch rusty today (this will happen when you haven’t played a game at the level for 581 days), but will be better for the run, and looks odds-on to bring up his much-hyped 1000th goal this year. The longer and McDonald remain on the park together, the more people will tune into watch the Swans, and the more defenders will have sleepless nights wondering how the hell they are going to stop them.
SYDNEY’S FORWARD LINE
I know, I just spoke about McDonald and Buddy, but there are other players in the Swans forward line who deserve a mention too. Going into this game, I was worried about whether the Crows defence looked a little small. They lost Kyle Hartigan in the off-season to the Hawks, and with Daniel Talia out injured, it left just Jordan Butts and Nick Murray (a cumulative three AFL games to their name after today) as the only defenders over six-foot four. This is especially important when we consider that the Swans have Franklin, McDonald and Sam Reid as their tall options.
I’m not sure that size ultimately was the be-all and end-all. Franklin, McDonald and Reid were all good, and looked very dangerous at times, but I felt it was the Swans medium and small-forwards who did the most damage.
Errol Gulden started the game like a bullet out of a gun, finishing the first half with 17 disposals and a goal. Outside of the likes of Matt Rowell, Joel Selwood and Chris Judd, I’m not sure that I’ve seen an eighteen year-old come into the competition and look as at-home as Gulden has. His attack on the ball shows no signs of fear, and his disposal is extremely good. His work across half-forward, particularly in the second quarter, helped the Swans to gain the ascendancy, and I thought his poise and vision with ball in hands had him head-and-shoulders above any other player on the ground coming into half-time. His second half was a bit quieter (he collected only five more touches), but I love guys who do the hard work when it matters most.
In the coverage today, the commentators made mention of the fact that Isaac Heeney seems to just hover in mid-air sometimes, and doesn’t so much play like a half-forward flanker, but rather another tall forward. I thought his game today was really good, consistently providing an option across half-forward – an area where attacking chains of possession so often fall down.
And then there’s Tom Papley. For the last 580 days, I reckon Papley has been the number one guy of the Swans forward line. With Buddy back in the mix, it seems Papley has ceded his throne, with a pass to Franklin in the third quarter evidence of this. This isn’t to say that Papley has gone into his shell – he’s still a fleet-footed, high-pressure forward capable of producing brilliance, but where his emphasis may have once been on finding himself at the end of an attacking series of possessions, he seemed happier to be involved in it. I reckon that’s a great sign for the Swans.
With these five, and others who float through it (Oliver Florent, Chad Warner et. al.), in the sort of form they are in at the moment, it’s no wonder the Swans are kicking such high scores.
THE AUTUMN OF TEX
Last week, I wrote about Tex and his apparent re-birth as a superstar forward at the Adelaide Oval. Well, it’s continued today at the SCG – Tex kicked six, and consistently looked the most dangerous of the Adelaide forward group.
While watching the Geelong v. Brisbane match last night, I remember thinking that Joel Selwood looked lighter on his feet than I have seen him for the last couple of years. I see that same lightness in Tex. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he has lost weight (though he may have, live your best life Tex) just that he looks to be running more freely than in seasons past. Interestingly, four of his goals today came as a result of holding the ball decisions, with his pressure and chasing around goal acting as evidence of his renewed speed, power and agility.
If the last two weeks are anything to go by, it seems we are in the midst of the Autumn of Tex. Here’s hoping it continues!
ADELAIDE’S DELIVERY INSIDE 50
I just made mention of the fact that four of Tex’s six goals came as a result of holding the ball decisions. While a great sign for him, it is a bit of an indictment of the Adelaide midfield group. If you told me before today that Tex would kick six, and asked me to guess how many were the result of a mark leading out of full-forward, I would have guessed at least four.
Plenty of times today, the Crows seemed to either bomb away aimlessly inside 50, or try to spot up a leading target and over- or under-kick the ball. This is ok to do when your forward pressure is at the level it was at for the Crows in the first twenty minutes, but if it drops (as it did for almost the rest of the game), it means that you either are taking pressured shots at goal, or the ball is rebounding out of your attacking-50 – often with interest.
In the aftermath of the game, much will be made of Adelaide’s wayward kicking at goal, but if they really want to fix the problem, they will need to look a little further up the field.
In my Butch and Sundance-themed season preview, I made mention of the fact that the Swans always seemed to play a rather conservative game style. Well, John Longmire must have been listening (yes Swans fans, I am taking all of the credit). The Swans used the corridor quite a few times today, while in contrast the Crows seemed to always choose to go through the wings and flanks. Using the corridor requires an almost absolute confidence in your ability to hit targets, and the Swans showed exactly that.
In particular, I thought the kicking skills of Jordan Dawson were phenomenal. At least two or three times, when kicking out from a behind, Dawson went long down the middle, getting the ball in behind the Crows defence and leading directly to Swans goals. When you have a guy like with a left peg like Dawson, and add the elite kicking skills of a kid like Braeden Campbell, a neutral viewer like me is left with the impression that the Swans possess one of the most damaging kicking duos in the comp.
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The Swans look to have figured this out – with the kicking strength they have behind the ball, and the tall forward options they have in front, they can certainly make the most of it.
THE BATTLE OF THE YOUTH
I have already made mention of McDonald and Gulden for the Swans (and briefly mentioned the exquisite kicking of Campbell), so I guess I should also talk about the other young players on display. To continue with the Swans, Chad Warner looked great. He’s a hard-nosed, blue-collar midfielder – the type who seems born to wear the red-and-white. However, I was particularly taken with his kicking – especially at goal. For a kid whose disposal seemed to have question marks around it pre-draft, he surprised me with the accuracy and penetration he had by foot.
For the Crows – a team firmly in the middle of a rebuild – their youth was outclassed today. This happens, young teams can find it very hard to back up after what was an emotional win last week. Had he kicked straight, Sam Berry could have easily been the stand-out (he finished with 0.4 on the day), Ned McHenry and Harry Schoenberg drifted in and out of the game, while last week’s hero, James Rowe, was barely sighted, picking up just one kick in the first three quarters.
I recognise that this may not be the weekend to bring it up, what with the COVID-19 cases in Queensland, but can we please have commentators back at the grounds soon. Hearing Mark Howard wax lyrical about a terrific Tex goal, only to realise that it was, in fact, a behind, only seeks to highlight what we miss not having the commentators at the ground.
While I’m on the subject of commentators, one of the other disadvantages about not being at the ground is that they can fall into treating the game like a cricket match – just have conversations while the action plays out in front of us. To this point, Howard asked his fellow commentators, Jordan Lewis and Jonathon Brown, “Get me excited, if I’m a Swans fan, what am I looking forward to?” Well, I’m not sure what he was watching, but if any Swans fan watched that game today and wasn’t excited by their patently obvious array of talent, then they are dead inside.
You have to feel a little sorry for Jordan Butts – his first two games, he’s come up against Tom Hawkins and Buddy Franklin. Don’t worry Jordan, it’ll get easier next week when you have *checks notes*… Ben King.
Above, I was complimentary about Chad Warner’s kicking, but it would be remiss of me not to mention a nearly enormous mistake he made by foot in the last quarter. Pressured in his defensive fifty, hemmed onto his non-preferred foot, Warner elected to check side a ball back into the corridor, still inside defensive fifty. On a day like today, that didn’t matter all that much, but he won’t want to make that mistake too often.
I enjoyed the ruck contest between two ‘old-school’ types in Tom Hickey and Reilly O’Brien. I really liked some of O’Brien’s tap work, but when your man kicks two goals, I think you’ve lowered your colours. Points to Hickey.
On the subject of ruckman, I thought Billy Frampton had another nearly day today. A couple of spilled marks, a dropped ball running into an open goal, he could have had a big one. Here’s hoping his luck turns next week.
Speaking of next week, the first week of April finds the Crows back at home against the Gold Coast Suns, while the Swans will take a trip to the MCG for an early-season litmus test opposed to Richmond.