On a weekend of chaos and confusion (and that’s just in my home life), the main event of the AFL fixture centred on the clash between the Swans and the Bombers.
With other teams competing in what seemed to be a bunch of mismatches, on paper at least, this game was the standout for Round 20. The Bombers were looking for a place in the top eight and a chance to give their supporters a real indication that this team is on the rise. The Swans were looking hungrily at the top four and a win here would launch them into true contention for a tilt at the flag.
In front of an empty grandstands, the Bombers and Swans engaged in a classic. You wouldn’t know there was turmoil surrounding this rescheduled game by the way they played. It was a classic game, not just by modern standards, but by those who enjoyed any era of football. Whether it was the crash and bash of Jake Stringer, the mammoth third quarter effort from Tom Papley, the huge battle between Lance Franklin and Jayden Laverde, or the see-sawing nature of the contest, it would be hard to walk away from this game, irrespective of the result, thinking you’d been hard done by.
Who were the standouts? What were the decisive factors, and where to next for these two teams? The undercard is done and the main event of the weekend is upon us. Let’s just into the good, bad and ugly of the Swans and the Bombers… no, let’s get into the good, the better and the best a=of a belting game of footy. It might be a long one – this game deserves it.
THE PREMIERSHIP QUARTER
There is so much to get through in this one quarter that we could really do a full-length review on just the things that occurred in this 30 minutes of footy. They call it the Premiership Quarter for a reason, and in this period, we saw both sides throw down, and answer challenges repeatedly.
Sitting back now, this was the kind of footy you would happily pay to watch each and every week. In a season that has seen the coaches find ways to once again slow down and lock down the game, these two sides looked each other in the eye, nodded and said “show me what you got”.
And yes, you can attribute that to a giant head if you like, but it rings true if you watch this contest. Both teams were ready to get shwifty.
Champions raise their games in these quarters. You’ve all heard the saying “ cometh the moment…” right? Well, in this game there was not just one moment. There were dozens of little moments that made up a ripping quarter of football. When the siren sounded, I looked over to Mrs Mongrel, who, let’s be honest, couldn’t give a rat’s arse about the game, and said “that was close to the best quarter of footy all year”.
Her reply – “Who’s playing?”
Okay… I only had my four-year-old as the other option to talk to, and unless there were ponies playing the game, she would not have cared, either.
We saw Luke Parker step up, Zach Merrett hitting targets like he was an Olympic clay pigeon shooter, Jake Stringer smashing his way to clearances, Tom Papley crushing it inside fifty, and Isaac Heeney continue to rise up the ladder of AFL superstardom.
In an age where everything is at your fingertips and the next game starts taking precedence over what you just witnessed, take a deep breath, relax and appreciate the level of footy we got to witness over the third quarter and into the last. Yes, the Swans may have run out winners, and yes, they are firming as legitimate challengers in 2021, but the Bombers showed that they can hang with the best of them, and their best footy is not far away from being able to knock over anyone.
There have been a few games that have been excellent in 2021, but if you were going to show someone who is new to the game how the game should, and can be played, the third quarter, and the entire second half of this game would be my choice. What a shame there were no fans in attendance – the place would have been going off!
Let’s move on before I get even more aroused…
ISAAC HEENEY BEATS TWO
An errant handball from James Stewart opened the door and Isaac Heeney barged on in to upset proceedings in the Bombers back half during this quarter. Repeated defensive efforts in a one-on-two situation saw Heeney drag Stewart down to win a free kick, leading directly to a free kick for holding the ball on Stewart, a pinpoint pass inside 50, and a goal to Luke Parker.
Whilst I am on Heeney, I should continue to expand on his overall game.
Many lamented the Swans’ style last season, calling it too defensive and criticising John Longmire for shutting down games – how much did the absence of Isaac Heeney contribute to that? There is nothing this bloke cannot do. He keeps his feet, clunks marks overhead, hits the scoreboard and seems quite content working up to half back to impact the contest. However, it is is his skill by foot that sets him apart from players with similar abilities… of which there are very few, anyway.
Heeney hits targets, and he trusts his skill to get the job done. A couple of his short passes were darts, travelling forty metres to make it harder to miss the mark than take it. When he is “on”, the Swans look close to unstoppable, as he provides a wonderful “get out of jail” target up the line, and works hard back to remain involved in the play.
Yes, the Swans did play a horrid brand of footy in 2020, and they did it because they had their two main focal points up forward put for most, or in another case, all of the season. They were forced to adapt. Now, with Heeney patrolling half forward and doing what he does so well, the Swans feel as though they have someone they can rely on, and with three direct goal assists to his name in this one, Isaac Heeney continues to prove that he is becoming the player he seemed destined to be when he burst onto the scene.
With two goals of his own in the third quarter, Luke Parker – our reigning Mongrel Punt Midfield Championship Titleholder – stepped up and made a huge difference to the game. He was combative and really lifted after half time, the Swans needed some of their senior players to elevate their games, and their unsung champion responded.
I read an interesting comment on Twitter during the game, as I like to flitter around a bit. “A crime he’ll most likely be overlooked in Swans history” was the comment, and it got me to thinking – how underrated is Luke Parker? A midfielder who hits the scoreboard, wins his footy on the outside and inside, is a great kick for goal, rarely has a stinker… he screams “Sydney Swans” in the way he goes about his football, yet you just don’t hear his name bandied about when the discussion about the best mids in the game bubbles to the surface.
And the person who made that comment has a point – that part is a crime, however, internally, I cannot see a scenario where the career of Parker is not lauded for what he adds, and has added to the Sydney unit over the years. And the great thing is… he ain’t done yet!
He had six of his nine clearances for the game after half time, as he played like a true leader of this club, and I am putting this out there (and I know it may apply to several Swans) – if Parker does not play in this one, I am not sure the Swans get over the line.
That’s the type of impact he had, and his efforts compelled those around him to lift.
If Parker was huge in the third quarter, slotting his two goals, what can you say about the third-string forward who would be first string anywhere else?
That is not a knock on Papley – he was thrust into the spotlight in 2020, having to play the role of the number one forward on a Sydney team that was struggling, but this season, with a healthy Heeney and Buddy, he has been able to slip under the guard of the opposition and punish them when they allow him to get away.
He got away in the third quarter, and three goals later, he reminded everyone of just how potent he can be.
People tend to forget that Papley is 25 years old. It feels as though he has been around forever, but he is just now in his prime years. He is as strong as a stocky little bull, pumps those legs to put distance between himself and his opponent in a matter of steps, and his finishing is amongst the best in the league (and yes, we’ll conveniently forget about last week just for the sake of this point, okay?)
His nine touches in the third quarter, resulting in three goals, gave the Swans the answers to the questions the Bombers threw at him, and with players around him that can capitalise on their own opportunities, it makes Papley that much more dangerous. He finished with four goals for the game and, believe it or not, is almost doing the reverse of last season – could be make the AA team?
I ask that, because there is a real lack of high quality small forwards this season. Anthony McDonald-Tiungwuti was the pick of the bunch in the first half of the season, but he has fallen in a hole and can’t be arsed digging himself out of it. Papley’s last six games have seen him average over two goals per game, and if he was knocking on the door in recent weeks, he might kick the damn thing down if this form continues for just three more weeks.
Personally, I’d like to see it continue for about seven or eight weeks – the Swans are the most enjoyable team in the game to watch right now… I want to see THIS footy become the style others copy. Not the shit Geelong trot out.
THE BLAKEY RUN
This moment from Nick Blakey – this one shining moment showed what he is capable of as a footballer. Not just as a half back, or a wingman, but as a player.
Taking off from half back, he dropped the hammer through the middle of the ground, testing the wheels of Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti in the process. It was a blistering burst of speed that left the Bombers’ star for dead, and yet another sign that Blakey is waking up to what type of rare talent he possesses.
Swans fans, tell me the hair didn’t stand up on the back of your neck when The Lizard arched his back and took off through the middle of the ground. Excuse the language, but that was fucking brilliant!
STRINGER THE DIFFERENCE
As good as Zach Merrett was in this game.. as good as Darcy Parish was… nobody on the Essendon team was able to take the game on like Jake Stringer did in the second half of this game. I was going to write that he was like a bull, but that is so played out – he was like a horny rhinoceros, and standing in his way, preventing him from getting that which he desired, were the Essendon midfielders – they did not stand a chance!
A few weeks ago, a Bombers fan called me out for not giving Stringer, and his power, the respect it deserved. They may have had a point – at this stage, he seems completely un-tackle-able. Someone wraps him up with both arms pinned, and like probably only Nic Naitanui at the moment, Stringer continues to barrel forward, dragging them along for the ride. His ability to extract the footy, or at least put the fear of God into his opponents that he might extract the footy created chaos in the middle, and when he didn’t win the footy, he was chasing, running down opponents and launching goals from 55 metres out.
The man is a freak, and whilst many look to his 2016 run as the best form of his career, he is redefining his role with this season at Essendon. In short, if you want to win the clearance, or feel the other team is starting to get on top in the clinches, you send Stringer into the action. He has become the difference-maker people thought he was going to be after that wonderful premiership season.
He had nine clearances in the second half alone as the Bombers looked to him to add muscle to their hustle, and once again this season, the package delivered.
BUDDY V LAVERDE
What a huge effort from Jayden Laverde in this game – I respect the hell out of what he has done as a defender in a back six that was undermanned all season after the injury to Michael Hurley, and the departure of Aaron Francis. Ben Rutten threw a challenge at Laverde and he has taken it on without hesitation.
Thrown one of the toughest assignments in footy – stopping Lance Franklin – Laverde knuckled down and engaged in a fantastic duel with the soon-to-be 1000-goalkicker.
There is a way to play Buddy that some players can pull off. Other opponents get monstered in this situation, but if you back your core strength and think you can stand shoulder to shoulder with him and not be pushed aside, you’re in with a bit of a chance.
Laverde backed himself in this contest and he more than stood up. Just one of Franklin’s goals came when opposed to Laverde, who used body spoils and great positioning to foil Buddy’s efforts. He was ably supported by the small defenders, who swarmed in number when Franklin collected the footy on the deck, but it was Laverde’s diligence and determination to give Buddy no room whatsoever that prevented him from edging even closer to the looming milestone.
Franklin finished with two goals for the game, and received possibly the softest 50 metre penalty of the season as part of his stats as well, but Laverde, battling on through an injured shoulder that would eventually see him subbed out of the game, went head-to-head with one of the greats and came out with a points victory.
There are some players that just look like complete naturals with the footy in their hands, and Zach Merrett is one of them. The way he drops the ball onto his boot… no – the way he CARESSES the ball onto his boot, as though every kick is a work of art, makes me smile.
His work with the ball in hand in this game, being able to identify a player in the right spot and kick it to them juuuuuust right so that the defender could not make the spoil, was brilliant. He is truly a maestro with the footy and is one of the better-skilled players in the league.
Sometimes you have these players that look like a million bucks when they get the footy, but they just don’t get it enough – Merrett is not one of those players. He finds the footy like it belongs to him, and his running power, whilst not the best in the game, is probably the most economical in the game. What I mean by that is, he runs all day, but he runs particularly hard at certain parts of the game when he can make a huge difference.
He finished with four direct goal assists, two goals of his own and 13 score involvements as he gave the Bombers every chance to snatch the win. I would not be surprised if he picks up another couple of votes in this game – he is a star.
Quick shout out to Darcy Parish, who also returned to form after being down last week. The Bombers’ midfield looked great early in the game – the quartet of Merrett, Parish, Shiel, and Langford combined for 25 touches at the first break, with Langford looking like a real livewire off half forward. I was wondering why he didn’t spend time on the wing in this one, but coming back off a hamstring, I expect they didn’t want him overdoing it first up.
I’ve written about this a couple of times, but the transition of Callum Mills into one of the league’s best young mids has been executed to perfection by Sydney, and both the player and coach deserve a huge pat on the back for the way they have been able to nurture him through those first few years in the competition, refusing to pull the trigger too early on the move.
There was a point last year, and possibly the year before, where I was wondering where the next generation of hard-nosed, all-business Sydney mids were going to come from. I mean, they had George Hewett but he struck me more as a defensive mid than someone that could break a game open, and at that stage, Mills was running around as a flanker. Heeney was being inserted into the middle as a stop-gap at points, but he always struck me as a forward who could pinch hit, but not a full-time mid.
And so I wondered…
It continued until this season, really, if I am being honest. And just like that, any worries I had about the Swans midfield were eradicated as Horse pulled the trigger and moved Callum Mills into the guts when he was good and ready – not when the supporters started yelping about it. Not when the AFL media started demanding it. And certainly not when some bozo who runs The Mongrel Punt started speculating as to the future of the club.
Longmire did this on his own timeline, and damn it, it appears as though he is well aware of what he is doing. Imagine that? A professional coach knowing his team and players better than me, you and whoever else has a platform in the media to talk about things? You wouldn’t read about it.
Mills finished with 33 touches, 12 marks and six tackles as he once again rewarded the patience of his coach. What an asset they both are to this team.
Bomber fans, you need to stop giving Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti a free pass. Seriously, he has been a complete passenger for the last three weeks, averaging five touches and 0.3 goals over those games. It is simply not good enough for a player of his ability to be turning in these performances.
He was in AA contention about six weeks ago – he looked like the front runner for the forward pocket role, as a matter of fact. Now… he looks like he does not even belong on the field. Harry Cunningham had his way on him as he ensured AMT got no space, and it is not as though the small forward was going to take off in an effort to blow Cunningham up, was it? The opposite may have been in play if he did attempt it.
Is he hurt? You’d wanna hope so, because opponents are now looking to run off him at every opportunity, and in short, he is letting the team down with his lack of… anything!
He is definitely not there for his defensive pressure, is he? He has had three tackles in his last three games, as well.
Something is up with him, and either he or Ben Rutten need to get to the bottom of it before his form costs the Bombers a finals spot. And yes, I say that knowing he is just as likely to come out and kick five next week to make me look like a dumb jerk.
Not that I need help with that…
THE DRAPER V HICKEY BATTLE
I loved the tactical battle between Sam Draper and Tom Hickey, and have to admit, I was pretty eager to see how Draper responded after I felt he had a bit of a fail last week against Shane Mumford.
He started really well, working Hickey over to run hard to both ends of the ground. He was an option up forward and then travelled to the other end of the ground to stand in the way of a couple of passes inside 50. Early in the game, Draper looked up for the fight, winning a few clearances to illustrate how good he can be.
But Tom Hickey has a way of making things go his way. He has great body positioning in the ruck, an was able to start winning clean clearances to push the Swans forward. He, too, worked both ends of the ground and has some great touch for a big man.
If I was forced to choose between them in this game, it would be incredibly close, but the goal from Hickey gets his nose just in front. If it were boxing, it’d be a split decision, and really, but for a couple of plays, it could have gone either way.
But I am too gutless to call it a draw and incur the wrath of both sets of supporters. Go for your life, Bomber fans.
TRADING PLACES… AGAIN
The cool little dynamic between Justin McInerney and Jordan Dawson was on display again in this one, with Dawson working up the ground at times as a wingman, and then dropping back to play the more familiar role of half back.
Dawson has many strengths to his game, but most will gravitate to his kicking as his best weapon. However his overhead marking cannot be too far behind. Dawson is deceptively good in the air – very much like Kyle Langford in that regard – he takes marks that you don’t expect him to and his hands are wonderful once he gets both of them to the footy.
He has become a bit of a “get out of jail” target for the Swans as they exit defensive fifty under duress, and his ability to swing around and put the ball right where a forward wants it is a weapon any team would love to possess.
And then there is McInerney – he continues to develop right before our eyes. The Swans kids, so loudly proclaimed as the best in the game by many earlier this season, may have dropped off the pace (McDonald not playing, Campbell and Warner injured) but through McInerney, the Swans continue to see strong growth. With him off half back and Errol Gulden off half forward, this mob have a couple of absolute go-ers ready to be the next generation to carry the load for Sydney.
I won’t touch on what is supposed to happen next week – really, at this point in the game, it is a crapshoot and we don’t know what is going on half the time. This game deserved a crowd… hopefully we are soon back to the point where we get them. If you’re locked down in Sydney, my thoughts are with you – this has been a mess… I’m so sorry the system has failed you.
Guys, at 4K words, that might just about do me. This was a wonderful game to watch, and I reckon a few of you, particularly Swans fans, will be perusing that second half once more. If you see anything you’d like to point out or discuss, by all means, jump on our socials or hit me up in the comments – always happy to have a chat about footy.
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Cheers – HB