The young Swans, and a fair few of the old ones for that matter, were challenged by a rejuvenated Essendon at the SCG and managed to sneak away with a three-point win despite being unable to land the killing blow several times in the frantic last quarter.

There was a period of five minutes late in the game where you kind of got the feeling that the Swans were going to blow one too many chances. Papley and Gulden threw the ball onto their boot, trying to ice the game, and you just sensed it could be one of those games where the ball was rushed down the other end and the Bombers pinched it.

In the end, it was Buddy, as it always seems to be against the Bombers. It was Franklin marking, going back and slotting his third goal for the evening to put the Swans out to an eight-point lead. Cale Hooker would drag the Bombers back again, but the Swans would hold on to move to 4-0, solidifying their status as one of the teams to beat in 2021.

For the Bombers, falling to 1-3 places them in the position many thought they’d be – toward the tail-end of the competition, but there were some positive takeaways as well.

Let’s jump into The Mongrel’s good, bad and ugly.

 

 

THE GOOD

 

RULING THE SKIES

Over the years, it has been a national pass-time to poke fun at Sam Reid. At times, he has made it easy for people, and even when he has a great game, he’ll undoubtedly give you one moment where you look at the person next to you and ask – What the hell was he doing, there?

Yes, Sam Reid is divisive, but in this game, he brought Swans fans young and old together to revel in his overhead marking prowess.

It all clicked in this game for Reid as he dragged in six contested grabs. He had 15 disposals, a couple of goals and one direct goal assist as his presentation at the footy was excellent and his willingness to drop into the hole in defensive fifty was vital to the Swans repelling the Bombers late in the game – how he did not get a free kick for being clobbered from behind boggled the mind.

Reid is never going to be a number one forward – not at Sydney and not anywhere for that matter, but what he will do is continue to present as a marking target and if used properly, he can alleviate the heat on Lance Franklin by a) keeping his defender honest, and b) having a game here and there where just about everything sticks.

 

THE AA SMOKEY

I floated this to my fellow Mongrels this evening and got a whack for it, but in a league where Nic Naitanui, Brodie Grundy and Max Gawn get all the love, Tom Hickey is starting to compile the kind of numbers that are difficult to ignore.

Old ‘Crazy Eyes’ Hickey was at it again in this game, not only leading the game in clearances, with eight, but also leading the Swans in one-percenters. Guys, this kind of stuff never happens. Allow me to explain.

One-percenters are the domain of defenders. It’s things like knock ons, spoils, shepherds and so on that make up the one-percenter totals. It’s the kind of stat that Jacob Weitering or Harris Andrews dominate. Ruckmen do not lead their teams in this stat.

But Tom Hickey did in this one.

Now averaging 5.5 clearances per game in 2021 (good for equal sixth in the league at the time of writing), Hickey is doing the kind of things the most celebrated rucks are lauded for. He is standing out from the pack by doing things that nobody else does. Ten one-percenters? The guy is playing out of his skin, and as people start putting together their mock AA teams over the coming weeks, pay attention to the ones who, at the very least, mention Hickey as someone who came in for string consideration – they’re the ones actually watching closely and noticing what he is bringing to this Swans team.

 

THE OLD FIRM

Watching Josh Kennedy and Luke Parker get down and dirty at stoppages was like greeting an old friend. It gave you the warm, fuzzy feeling that after a year of turmoil where we lost our game as we know it, things were back to normal again.

The pair combined for 12 clearances in this one as Parker made a strong claim for the best on ground honours.

Despite such a glowing CV, Parker remains one of the most underrated midfielders in the caper, able to go forward and cause headaches, or sit a kick behind the footy and chop off any errant kicks out of congestion.

He did both this evening.

Josh Kennedy is no longer able to rack up the kind of numbers that made him one of three players in league history to pick up 400 contested touches in a season (he has done it three times!!!) but his ability to stand in tackles and release the footy to his teammates in a better position make him and extremely valuable component of this Sydney team.

Players such as Chad Warner, Callum Mills and Ollie Florent all benefit greatly from the presence of JPK in the middle, and as the young Swans continue to develop, the old stager gives them time and space to operate.

If you buy into the media hype and think these Swans are all about the young guns and little more, you obviously don’t have a history degree. Parker and Kennedy remain vital cogs of the Swans’ midfield machine, and will be increasingly important as the grind of the AFL marathon starts to have an impact.

 

MOMENTUM STOPPER

When the Swans were four-or-so goals down and staring down the barrel of their first defeat, maybe you were wondering if the bubble was going to burst?

Then Isaac Heeney broke his hand (get better quick, Isaac… you might miss something special!), you could have been forgiven for thinking it might have been time for the wheels to start falling off this Sydney Express. In fairness, Essendon had them on toast at this stage. They matched the Sydney pressure and in many cases, topped it. They looked the better team.

I started to see Swans players making mistakes as they were tested.

I mean, the young players can’t be up every week, right? The old players can’t prop them up when they do have a poor one. The middle-tier players of Florent, Dawson, Cunningham… they’re going to have bad days here and there. Maybe you thought they’d put the cue in the rack and be content with 3-1?

Nup… not this mob.

The Swans fought back hard, and as I was taking notes during the game, I circled one moment that I thought changed the momentum, and it was due to the actions of the bloke who couldn’t kick straight – Errol Gulden.

His contested footy win in the centre of the ground to set up the long Ollie Florent goal was the sort of little action that gets glossed over at times, but I reckon it was the most important moment of the game. The Bombers had just kicked two in a row to Dev Smith and Darcy Parish and had the ascendancy. In truth, they looked the better team at that point – more settled and ready to take the game by the scruff of the neck.

But the swashbuckling Errol had other ideas. He threw himself at the loose footy, won it against the tide and fed the running Florent for goal.

The Swans rallied from that point, with goals to McInerney and Reid closing the gap, but if you’re looking for a moment that things started to shift, look no further than the moment that led to the Florent goal – oh, Errol…

 

THE BRIGHT FUTURE

Whilst all the attention seemed to be on the Sydney kids, we saw a bit of a coming-out party for Nik Cox in this game, with the young wing/ruck playing his best footy to date.

He ran hard, was clean both in the air and at ground level and showed a couple of his smaller opponents a clean paid of heels as he dashed away with the footy tucked under his arm.

Cox worked both ends of the ground as he got back to take intercept marks inside defensive fifty, and ran hard forward to provide an option. In the ruck, he competed well against both Tom Hickey and Sam Reid and may have opened a few eyes at Tullamarine in terms of their ruck options going forward… particularly with their other option clearly not benefitting the team.

The question will soon come – what position is best for Cox? Right now, he appears to be comfortable on the wing, and his instincts are well-balanced between offence and defence. As long as he can maintain that, his good ball use (just one turnover to his name) could see him emerge as the best of the 2020 Bomber draft crop.

He should get a good start with the R4 Rising Star nomination, assuming we don’t get another player jumping out of the box.

 

MAKING UP FOR MISTAKES

There was a moment that Chad Warner would have liked back early in the second.

With the Swans on the back foot, and the Essendon pressure looking as though it had shaken Sydney a little, an inboard kick saw Warner uncharacteristically drop an uncontested mark. The resultant Essendon inside fifty delivery saw Cale Hooker mark in the goal square and kick one for the Bombers.

Believe it or not, this actually turned out to be a great moment for the Swans – it gave one of their young stars a moment of doubt, and John Longmire would have been very interested in the way he handled it.

Warner responded brilliantly. For the second week in a row, he was the standout amongst the young brigade, picking up 23 touches and standing under a high ball later in the game to take a gutsy mark. It was this action that impressed me the most – after wilting under some implied pressure earlier in the game, Warner standing up and marking with players bearing down on him spoke volumes about his character. Cale Hooker had him in his sights, but Warner never once took his eyes off the footy.

Throw in his fantastic half-volley pick up at half back to get the Swans rolling toward a Buddy Franklin goal in the second quarter, and you have quite the complete game again for the Round Three Rising Star Nominee.

Sometimes players go into their shells after failing a test. Sometimes they become timid and reluctant to put themselves on the line again. But not Chard Warner – he sucked it up, stuck out his chin again and dared the Bombers to put one on the button – they couldn’t, and after making one mistake, the response from the youngster was excellent.

 

THE BAD

 

IN-CON-SIS-TEN-CY

I get criticised at times for whacking Andrew McGrath, but Bomber fans, it is really because I have high expectations of him. I’m sure you do, as well.

He is a former number one pick and over the last couple of seasons he has demonstrated the kind of ability where he looks like a star in the making… yet I consistently find myself wondering what kind of player he is – I simply cannot find a place on the field where I feel he truly belongs.

The Bombers have played him in the guts, off half back, off the half forward flank and today, they threw him onto the wing at points. Our resident Essendon Mongrel, Jimmy Ayres, informs me that he was played behind the footy as he developed over his first couple of years in the system to allow him to see the game unfold in front of him. It’s good, in theory I suppose, but five years after debuting, is he doing anything different? What has he learnt?

Look, I want this bloke to succeed. I want him to become one of the players that lead Essendon back to the finals, but until this team, this coach and this player decide exactly what Andrew McGrath is to this footy team, he will be one of those players that bobs up, has 20 touches in a half, makes everyone nod and exchange knowing smiles, and then trots out games like tonight where he has no influence.

Ben Rutten has some big challenges in 2021 and beyond, but working to allow McGrath to be the best player he can be could be the one that is the most difficult. If you’re Rutten, what would you do? Maybe McGrath could introduce himself to the opposition’s best midfielder every week and allow them to lead him to the footy? He is good one-on-one – a McGrath v Neale, or Mitchell, or Macrae clash would be fantastic to watch.

Or are my expectations of him just too high?

 

IN-CONSIS-TENC-Y PART TWO

Will the real Devon Smith please stand up?

Is he the tackling machine that won the hearts of the Bomber faithful when he burst onto the scene in 2018, winning the Crichton Medal? Is that player still in there, somewhere?

Since that sterling season, Smith has looked pretty ordinary. He had his 2019 ravaged by injury, returned in 2020 to play at an acceptable level, yet a far cry from his B&F form, and has started 2021 with form ranging from terrible (R2) to good (R1) to horrid (R3).

Add another one to the “horrid” files after this one.

I got tricked by Smith’s Round One performance. He bamboozled me – he looked fantastic as part of an Essendon unit that ran all over the Hawks in the second quarter (then stopped to a walk in the third). Prior to this game, he was averaging four tackles per game – the barometer for how hard he is working (he averaged eight in 2018), but he had just two against the Swans, back to the meandering kind of effort he threw out there in the back half of 2020.

So, is this the real Dev Smith? Is this what he is now? Have the Bombers been tricked as well? Not as I was by his Round One form, but by his entire 2018 season? He came into that year with a point to prove, and by god, he did just that. He now looks like a bloke with his cue in the rack and whilst he was an antagonistic beast at his peak, he more comes across as an annoying insect these days.

And you know what people do to those…

 

ROBBED

Just a quick one – the hand injury to Isaac Heeney robbed us, as footy fans, of a contest that was worth the price of admission, or your Foxtel subscription if you’re at home.

Heeney v Ridley was shaping to be a ripper, with the Swan in excellent form in the first half, notching nine touches and six marks (two contested) as the two young stars went head-to-head. I felt that this could have been the contest that shaped the game at one point, with Ridley less inclined to zone off someone as dangerous as Heeney around goal.

Alas, we will have to wait until the next Swans v Bombers clash to get a second helping of this matchup.

Ridley ended up playing his natural game after Heeney’s departure, collecting nine intercepts, 12 rebound 50s and over 600 metres gained, all of which will hold him in amazing stead in our Defensive Player of the Year column this week.

Last week, I got a couple of messages stating that the only reason Ridley gets so much of the footy was because he takes kick ins and plays on. I took it onboard – he took eight kick-ins in this game, playing on for seven of them, so if you want to be pedantic about it, you take them off his total and he still gets 21 touches and his intercepts numbers remain the same.

Any way you slice it, Ridley is a star.

 

THE UGLY

 

FAILED EXPERIMENT

I have a bit of a rule on this site about hatchet jobs. I don’t like them and I prefer that our writers don’t go to town on a particular player after a poor game, so I’ll be as nice as possible here – you know, set a good example.

Peter Wright is not the answer for Essendon. If he is even AN answer of any sort, they need to start asking different questions. I watched him play in this game and his distinct lack of desperation jumped out at me. It was palpable. The ball was there, Wright was in the vicinity and… nothing. He just did a whole lot of nothing.

Sure, he bobbed in and out of the game – it is difficult not to have some involvement when you’re in the middle of the ground for 80% of the centre bounces, but in terms of impact, Peter Wright gave the Bombers very little.

That was the knock on him at Gold Coast, was it not? He had all the tools to be an excellent target up forward, but attacked the contest like a scared puppy. At two metres tall, he took no marks for the game. I mean, neither did his direct opponent, but Tom Hickey, as detailed above, contributed in many other ways. Wright didn’t offer the Bombers anything other than a big body to, possibly, get in the way at times.

With Sam Draper on the sidelines, there must have been a little bit of hope around Wright being given an opportunity to work as the number one ruck. I am sure a few people thought all he needed was an opportunity.

He got it, and he is wasting it.

And he is making the Suns look like the winners in that trade, somehow.

Please get better soon, Sam Draper.

 

SOME QUESTIONS

 

COULD ERROL GULDEN HAVE BEEN BEST ON GROUND?

But for inaccuracy, yes!

I mentioned to fellow writer, and Zak Butters-enthusiast, Matt Oman, that there is a bit of Butters about Gulden at the moment. Not as much of the mongrel that Butter possesses, but there is a definite element of it.

He was a dynamo inside attacking fifty, picking up two direct goal assists as part of his nine score involvements and had he kicked straight (he finished with 0.3 and a couple on the full) we may have been talking about him for another week.

Though he got the blinkers on in the last quarter and wanted to be the hero, he lowered his eyes at points where it greatly benefited his team, finding Buddy on the lead to keep in the big fella’s good books.

One thing I noticed about Gulden is how animated he was when talking to teammates. You don’t have to sell a message to him if you’re John Longmire – he is your number one salesman. If you need a job done, tell him… he’ll have half the team lined up to volunteer for it before you can blink.

So, yes – he definitely could have been BOG in this one, but he has no one to blame but himself for being bumped down the list a bit.

 

HALF BACK HEPPELL – IS IT WORKING?

Did his best work in the first half, with seven of his 11 intercepts coming before the main break. Was still serviceable thereafter, but I have long thought that Heppell’s delivery by foot was his weakest attribute.

As a “quarterback” kind of half back, you’ve got to be able to bite off the 45 kick into the middle, but Heppell was either unable to, or too reluctant to do so in this game. I look forward to seeing him try that a few times as the season progresses – it may prove to be a key to opening up the game for the Bombers.

 

DO PEOPLE STILL UNDERRATE JAKE LLOYD?

Yep, dumb people do.

Guys, you don’t win two best and fairest awards at a club like Sydney and NOT get respect. It’s bloody impossible. This is a team that has prided itself on a culture of hard work and guts. Whilst Lloyd may be more of a zone-off and rebound kind of player, he does it as well as anyone in the league for a bloke his size.

He had the lazy 11 intercepts in this one as he read the play brilliantly all game. Teams will learn the hard way this season now that the Swans are up and about – if you want to ruin the plans of Sydney, you need to take out the half back architect. If you don’t, he will help this team build something great.

 

WHERE THE BOMBERS ROBBED BY THE UMPS?

I haven’t released the article yet and already I have had two Essendon fans telling me it should be talking point number one.

I’m not sold.

It may be A talking point, depending on where your allegiances are, but there were plenty of other factors more important than umpiring in this one. The Hickey taking the footy out of the ruck thing – it’s no longer considered prior opportunity. It was the correct call… unless you’re a little behind like Cale Hooker seemed to be in an earlier incident.

Hickey did hold it for a second after taking it from the ruck and took a few steps, but to the letter of the law that hardly constitutes prior opportunity.

The Buddy hold on Francis, however, I will give you – clear jumper pull to get rid of him and mark. Should have been picked up, and wasn’t. Mistake by the ump.

They’re really the only two I can think of – seriously. The count was 29-16 in favour of the Swans, but when it comes to stupid ruck blocking free kicks (three to Hickey), you can’t blame the umpires for them. It’s just dumb play.

 

OTHER BITS

 

I liked the role of Matt Guelfi on Tom Papley and Sam Wicks – he really stuck to his guns, and though Papley remained dangerous in the last, Guelfi really was able to stifle him through three quarters. When he moved onto Wicks at points, Guelfi’s attention to detail.

The run of Nick Hind was great to watch and as long as he provides that kind of effort, and follows up when he makes an error, you cannot fault the bloke for taking the game on.

Ten tackles for Zach Merrett come as a surprise. He was pretty rushed with the footy in this game, as his nine turnovers indicate, but his work without the footy was excellent.

Aaron Francis rallied well to keep Lance Franklin in check for the most part. He got good help from Brandon Zerk-Thatcher at points, but Buddy looked ominous early and, quite simply, wasn’t for most of the game. Buddy even got away with a clear jumper pull for one of his contested grabs… I know there’ll be Bomber fans howling about that one – rightly so, as well.

Justin McInerney is one who is flying well and truly under the radar for the Swans in the wake of their young brigade emerging. He had a Rising Star nomination last season and his run and carry do not slow down as the game wears on. It was his inside 50 that led to Franklin marking and goaling late in the final quarter, and his two personal goals turned out to be huge in the scheme of things.

Callum Mills in the middle – he is loving life. With another 25 touches and the perfect inside/outside game, Mills is one of the players whose stocks continue to rise. Geez, the Swans have some talent…

 

And that’ll do. The Swans are now 4-0 and the Bombers 1-3. They really could have been 3-1 given how competitive they’ve been, but that is just a little patronising, I suppose. Essendon doesn’t need kind words – they need wins. Next week, they have the Lions at the Gabba… ouch. Meanwhile, the Swans get the chance to stick the knife into the gut of the struggling Giants. Surely they won’t twist it, right?

Right?!?!

 

 

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