At the start of the 2022 season, I made a semi-commitment to myself (they’re always easy to get out of, you see?).

That semi-commitment was to give the marquee games, based on ladder position; not on name, the attention they deserve. Last week, we had a great build to the Carlton v Fremantle clash, which had the potential to set either team up for a serious run at success in 2022. The Dockers won, now sit 5-1 and head down to Kardinia Park to face the Cats.

So, this week, there were two games I felt that the “big game” feel about them and were worthy of an extended preview. The Cats and Dockers was the first, and the Swans and Lions was the next one. With time constraints a huge part of my life at the moment, a deep dive into both games looked unlikely, so I through it open to members of our Mongrel Punt Footy Group on Facebook – oh, you didn’t know we had a little group? Now you do – good footy discussion in there.

The response indicated that the Sydney v Brisbane game held the most interest, so in effect, you guys made the decision for me. It may be buried in the graveyard slot of late Sunday afternoon by the “floating fixture” gurus at the AFL, but this clash, pitting two top-four teams against each other, has the makings of a great one, and it gets the extended preview treatment at The Mongrel.

The nature of selection and the extended bench makes this a little more difficult, being a Sunday game, but let’s see how we do. Let’s go.

 

THE STORY SO FAR

The resurrection of the Brisbane Lions in 2019 compares quite well with that of Sydney in 2021.

Whilst there was a bit of noise about both teams at their respective points in time, no one took them too seriously… until they made them take them seriously.

We find ourselves now at a point where the Lions must be feeling as though they have to deliver. Three-straight top-four finishes for one finals win is not the legacy a team such as this would like attributed to them in future. Their time is now, and to achieve their ultimate goal, a top-four spot is paramount.

And in order to do that, they have to vanquish those who would usurp their place.

Sydney have emerged from nowhere, but the astute football watchers see what this team has done. They have used their academy wisely, drafted brilliantly, and developed their players as a foundation – not just for now, but for the next five or six seasons.

Despite the Melbourne media doing a great job of giving them lip service before moving onto Collingwood v Essendon battling it out for anywhere from eighth to 14th place this season, a game like this captures the attention f footy purists. This is a clash of the potential titans, with both teams ready to make a claim on the title of challengers to the Demons in 2022.

This is third versus fourth, with a hell of a lot on the line. Superstars aplenty, hard-working mids, and marquee matchups. This is the game of the round.

 

THE MATCHUPS THAT MATTER

 

– THE GOOJ KING MATCHUPS

HB, what the hell are you talking about, here?

I’m glad I asked. Have you not heard of the “Get out of Jail” marking Kings that reside in Brisbane? Then you don’t follow The Mongrel as closely as you should!

Dan McStay is the number one GooJ marker in the AFL right now, presenting down the line as the bailout option, and succeeding, more than any other player in the game. What this does is opens the game up and breaks down defensive zones. When McStay is able to do this, the Lions can turn the tough task of penetrating the Swans’ defensive press into an attack of their own, and other than marks inside about 40 metres of goal, it is probably the most important mark in the game.

But there is more to Brisbane than just one bloke doing it.

Joe Daniher sits in equal third – the combination of him and McStay leading up the wings to give the Lions an out provides the Lions a combination rivalled only by Max Gawn and Luke Jackson at Melbourne, except the Brisbane pair rate higher!

So, how do the Swans stop this pair from wreaking havoc and opening the game up for the Lions?

In all honesty, this is a really tough one. Inside 50, the Swans’ number one defender, Tom McCartin, is a veritable wall of force, but if he is assigned either of the two Lions mentioned above, he is a little more susceptible away from goal. As much as I like what Tom McCartin is doing this year (he is just outside the top ten in our Defensive Player of the Year Award – oh, you weren’t aware of that, either? Shame on you…), he is much better suited to man-on-man defence inside 50.

Dane Rampe still has plenty left in him, and he can handle McStay in this situation, but the reach of Daniher is a huge issue for this Sydney team, particularly with Paddy McCartin unavailable due to concussion protocols.

I mention Sam Reid elsewhere in this article, but maybe he could keep up with these blokes on the long, searching leads up the ground, with McCartin waiting behind them for whatever comes next?

This would be an area of concern for Horse Longmire, and I am interested to see how he combats two of the best GooJ players in the game.

 

– MILLS V NEALE

Did we all see what Callum Mills was able to do to Tom Mitchell last week?

I’ll give you a refresher.

Mitchell was dominant in the first quarter, amassing 12 touches and a few clearances to drive the Hawks from stoppages. At quarter time, Longmire had seen enough and sent Callum Mills to the Brownlow Medallist to stop the rot.

And the rot was stopped.

Over the ensuing three quarters, Mitchell added just 14 touches, whilst Mills added 33 in a masterful display of accountable midfield football, and was perhaps the catalyst for the Swans running over the Hawks. I certainly gave him the maximum votes in our Mongrel of the Year voting.

Another week, another Brownlow Medallist for Mills?

Could he be the one Longmire sends to Lachie Neale to restrict his work at stoppages?

Neale has been the target of some successful tagging efforts in the past, but when permitted any space at all, wins the footy like the chick who used to run the raffles at my local footy club won prizes in those raffles – with bloody apparent ease! Seriously, did she really think we didn’t know she rigged it so her and her kids won every second week? What a troll of a woman…

Sorry – angry flashback.

A Mills v Neale clash is mouth-watering stuff, but if Longmire is truly concerned about the influence of Neale, he could go another way…

 

– DO THE SWANS TAG LACHIE NEALE?

When George Hewett left Sydney for Navy Blue pastures, I had chats with several people who were concerned that the Swans had no one in the midfield who could play a purely defensive role. I found it strange that they had not looked deeply at their own list – I wasn’t worried at all.

They had James Rowbottom.

Rowbottom is a warrior – a down and dirty contested ball-winning, tackling, scrapping son of a bitch that will fight, tooth and nail for every touch of the footy. And I hope that is taken in the nicest possible way. If we’re taking class, Neale has it all over him. If we throw the footy out there and tell those two to go fight for it, then the odds even up a little.

Personally, I don’t think Longmire goes this route. He would much prefer Mills to stand opposite Neale and hurt the Lions more than Neale hurts the Swans, but as a “break glass in case of emergency” option, Rowbottom is a fantastic option to have.

 

– THE LYONS ISSUE

As the attention goes to Lachie Neale, Jarryd Lyons continues to fly under the radar, utterly destroying teams with his in close work.

Last week, he collected a mammoth ten centre clearances… wait on, what’s that? Yep, ten centre clearances as part of his 13 overall clearances. The bloke just dominated the stoppages where the Gold Coast Suns had time to set up and organise their best midfielders to go head-to-head with him.

They did.

They lost.

He had 13 inside 50s and gained a massive 873 metres for the Lions as he punished the Suns’ inability to match his ferocity. Who matches that ferocity for the Swans?

Is that Luke Parker’s music?

Parker has something that none of the Gold Coast Suns players had last week – the ability to punish the opposition. Parker is not going to sit there and ball watch. He is not going to allow Lyons to be cracking in and winning the footy without putting himself in a dangerous position to capitalise on his opponent’s preoccupation with getting first hands on the footy.

This can go either way (diplomacy… great, huh?). If Lyons is winning the footy more often than not, Parker will need to find a way to hurt the Lions to cause him to think twice about the defensive side of his game. If Parker sneaks forward and hits the scoreboard, as he has been known to do, Chris Fagan may be having a word in the ear of Lyons to tell him he should tighten up on the champion Swan.

 

ON A WING AND A PRAYER

Hugh McCluggage s no longer a wingman.

For three straight weeks, he has been deployed as an onballer, as Chris Fagan has looked to inject some run and ball-use into the middle to accompany the grunt of Neale and Lyons.

Of course, that won’t prevent your AFL commentators telling you how well he’s playing on the wing. They’re great like that.

So, how’s he travelling in this role?

Averaging 23.66 touches and 4.6 clearances, Clug is getting his hands on the pill often. He is also averaging 10.3 contested touches in that period – for context, his career-high came last season with 9.0 per game.

How are the Lions compensating for his loss on the outside, though?

Callum Ah Chee and Jarrod Berry have slotted into the roles on the wings as Mitch Robinson has sat out. This has seen Berry able to swing into the middle when required and has provided Ah Chee with some excellent moments as he runs hard forward.

Against Sydney, this tactic will be tested.

Justin McInerney has been tearing things up since his return a few weeks ago, whilst in the last couple of weeks, Errol Gulden has spent time on the wing, as well. It was Gulden standing up halfway through the first quarter against the Hawks that gave Sydney a lift – I would not be surprised to see one of these two get close attention from Berry if they find themselves on the same side of the ground.

The prime candidate would be McInerney. His run and carry has genuinely hurt teams, and someone like Berry niggling him could throw him off his game. I am not sure that he has experienced defensive attention at the highest level, and given Berry’s idea of a good time is crashing into opponents, this clash could have a marked effect on the contest.

I was also going to throw in the name of Mitch Robinson, who is listed as a “test” for this week as he returns from his calf complaint, but it seems as though the Lions are being cautious with him and making him return via the seconds. Probably a good move.

Ideally for Brisbane, you’d throw Berry onto McInerney with the intention of making life difficult for him, and Ah Chee to play a more defensive side wing role opposed to Gulden/Warner.

Personally, I’d throw McCluggage back outside. He’s just made three-straight AA squads in the role. Not sure he’ll do that as a pure onballer.

 

THE BIG TEST FOR PETER LADHAMS

This is something I had been thinking about covering in some way, shape, or form regardless of whether I got to do this preview.

The Swans would be very excited with the form of Peter Ladhams over the last two weeks. With the numbers that follow, I suppose you cannot blame them.

In the past fortnight, Ladhams is averaging 21.5 disposals, 29.5 hit outs, and 5.5 clearances per game. Yes, it is a small sample size, but those numbers are elite. And they’re elite for a very good reason – Ladhams has not played anyone even remotely like a good ruckman over the past two weeks.

Against West Coast, he was matched up on Bailey Williams, who is not anywhere near being an AFL standard first ruck. The next week, he took on Max Lynch, who is also in his AFL infancy, and has a tank like a Vespa, so in the second half, Ladhams was able to punish the Hawks, picking up 14 of his 19 touches after the break.

And this week, he actually has to do something akin to that across four quarters against a big, strong, capable ruck in Oscar McInerney.

And that could spell trouble.

The Big O is no Max Lynch or Bailey Williams. He comes into this game coming off a breakeven with Brodie Grundy (or possibly a win), and a good showing against Jarrod Witts. Seeing Peter Ladhams across from him will come as a relief.

Not that he will take Ladhams lightly – that would be a huge mistake, but rather than coming in looking to breakeven, McInerney should come into this contest looking to exert his will over the comparatively inexperienced ruckman opposite him. I expect him to body Ladhams up at stoppages and attempt to take clean possession, so Ladhams will need to be very attentive and combative at all throw-ins and bounces. He cannot allow himself to be pushed around by the Big O.

Ladhams’ move to Sydney started slowly, but his last two weeks, in the absence of Tom Hickey, have pumped up his tyres. With Oscar McInerney looming, he will need to be at his best to give his mids first use. Failure to do so will see Lachie Neale and Jarryd Lions have a party at the Swans’ expense.

As backups, Darcy Fort has been a very handy pick-up for the Lions, whilst I’d expect Hayden McLean to see plenty of time switching into the ruck, given Cal Sinclair wasn’t named.

 

THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW

The last time Buddy Franklin lined up against the Lions, it was a different time. A vastly different time.

It was Round Ten, 2018 when Franklin stood next to Darcy Gardiner and stared down a Brisbane team that were, in short, atrocious. However, despite the Lions being a pretty ordinary outfit at that point, there were some definite signs that things were turning.

Darcy Gardiner took the role on Buddy that day, and despite the Swans winning the game, restricted the big man to just one goal from 13 touches. You can take that at face value… or you can have a bit of a gander at what else was going on that day.

You see, the Lions had this young defender named Harris Andrews, and though he had not secured his first AA blazer just yet, he was leaving no doubt as to who the best contest killer in the game was.

In this game, he floated over to aid Darcy Gardiner at every opportunity, picking up a record 25 one-percenters in a gre… wait on, 25 damn one-percenters? Did he have a leather magnet in his fist? That is ridiculous! It is a mark that still stands to this day.

But that was then, right?

The Swans’ forward line now boasts more than Buddy and a very young Isaac Heeney. They are a more rounded bunch, with scoring punch coming from plenty of angles. The Brisbane defence, too, have changed their look – the combination of Gardiner and Andrews have added Marcus Adams to the mix, have seen Brandon Starcevich mature into a very solid defender, and have seen a dramatic increase in output from Daniel Rich over the last few years. Yes. These teams have a history when it comes to some players, but this is a whole new world for most.

Gardiner should get the first crack on Buddy again. He has been demonstrating a bit of mongrel in 2022, which, despite earning him the ire of many in the media, is a welcome sight. Andrews has not been near 20+ one-percenters in three seasons, but he has become more of a defensive general, intercept marking becoming more a part of his game, and Marcus Adams would be pushing for AA selection at this point of the season.

On the flip side, Buddy now has a mature Heeney by his side – a player that could be the best in the competition on any given day. He has the opportunistic Wil Hayward, the strong-marking Hayden McLean, and the emerging Logan McDonald as an offsider. It is now a formidable unit, and has powered the Swans over the first six weeks of the season, even without arguably the best small forward in the game, Tom Papley.

Papley is listed as an inclusion this week, and if he is in the side, the Brisbane defence is suddenly under a tonne of pressure. Whilst Logan McDonald sits out due to concussion protocols, perhaps this allows Sam Reid to swan on in (pardon the pun) and offer another target if he is deployed forward, but I reckon Ladhams drifting forward and switching with McLean is a better option forward. Reid is capable of helping out in defence when required. McLean and Ladhams… not so much.

So, what are we left with?

Gardiner to Franklin.

Starcevich to Heeney

Andrews/Adams to Reid/McLean with the view to zone off and kill as many contests as possible

And if Papley takes the field , would the Lions trust Dayne Zorko to be diligent enough to curtail him? Or do they go with Noah Answerth? That’s a very, very curly one. The Lions would secretly be hoping the Swans decide to be cautious with Papley and give him another week at the last moment.

 

 

THE X-FACTORS

This game is stacked with them.

Will Hayward – I’ve always thought there was a touch of Stevie Johnson about the way Hayward works, but he has lacked the consistency and tank to take his game to the next level. Capable of anything on his day, but can go missing for extended periods.

Charlie Cameron – I mentioned Papley as arguably the “best small forward in the game” in a paragraph above. I am sure some Lions fans bristled. When I said “arguably”, this is the bloke you can argue for. If given any space, he will kill a team. Harry Cunningham could have his hands full this week.

Lincoln McCarthy – And if Charlie doesn’t get ya, LMac will. Not just a small forward, McCarthy is incredibly adept at marking the footy overhead and will fly often, leaving his defender with the choice to either go with him, or risk looking like a fool when McCarthy takes a clunk and he’s standing there, watching.

Cam Rayner – Working back wonderfully well from his knee reconstruction. Not having the breakout season some predicted (dumb predictions – no one has breakout seasons coming back from ACL injuries… ask me how I know) but has shown signs that indicate he is well and truly on the way back to becoming a star.

Chad Warner – Has surprised the hell out of people this year. Playing good, consistent footy, hitting the scoreboard and looking dangerous whether he plays on the wing, half-forward, or in the middle. Too often left out of the conversation when the Swans’ young players are discussed, he is making people sit up and take notice.

Isaac Heeney – Superstar. He has made the leap this season and personally, I would like to see him used as the number one option up forward a little more. Has some of the best contested hands in the game, and can move into the middle to provide a spark. What a joy to watch.

Nick Blakey – He has found his groove at half-back and looks like he is ready to take games over. Hard run, intercept marking, creating unrest in the opposition… Nick Blakey gets the ball and runs and chaos ensues. He causes panic, and that can only be good for Swans forwards ahead of the footy.

Zac Bailey – Six goals last week in a starring role, but Bailey has been threatening a while. He has been on the brink of stardom, and possibly would already be there had the media been more attentive, but his talent is undeniable, and he is now delivering at a level we’ve been waiting for. 16 goals for the year mans he has well and truly arrived.

 

 

SO, WHO WINS?

The Lions already have a win on the board interstate, albeit against the Bombers. The Swans are coming off two weeks in a row on the road, so though they would be rapt to be home, I do worry if their legs might be a little weary.

Currently, it says there is a 40% chance of rain on Sunday in Sydney, which means, when you apply the 20% chance of the weather bureau being correct, there may be a trickle of water at some stage, or a complete downpour.

I like the Lions in the wet and the Swans in the dry, so my prediction will largely be weather-dependent. Feel free to hit me with yours, and call me a massive wuss for not sticking my neck out early. I’d argue that Thanksgiving turkeys do that – it never ends well for them.

 

If you enjoyed this preview, please consider subscribing to The Mongrel as a member. You’ll get immediate access to my review of this game on Sunday evening as well as half a dozen members’ columns next week and every week. – HB

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