Last year, I would’ve been stoked to win a final. I thought that preseason predictions of top four were a year too early, but as the season went on it started to feel like there was no reason we couldn’t.
And then we did!
And then played six consecutive bad quarters of football. Now it feels like the same people projecting 12 months ago have overcorrected, but I’m more optimistic in what is a very similar squad now than I was then. If nothing else- if literally none of these points come to pass- it’ll still be an exciting season. This is a team who spent last season bloodying noses and still flew under the radar because of a Collingwood team who bloodied slightly more relevant noses.
Nobody believes in us (again)
I haven’t got the numbers in front of me, but every post, prognostication, and discourse I’ve seen about 2023’s biggest sliders inevitably includes the Swans. The given reasons vary, but common themes are overachieving, getting there a year too early, or the idea that teams who get walloped in grand finals slide the year after.
Right oh. This is a team who’ve been running hot for two seasons; a team who want to win games and still only aging into a competitive profile. It feels like a lot of the criticism levelled at the Swans is based on nothing (teams who walloped in grand finals slide) or based on the idea that they’re unlikely to overachieve again.
What I think – and hopefully this is the most biased this gets- is that the older these players get, the better they get, and the less likely it is to be viewed as overachieving. At a certain point, this team will just be playing to their own standard, and the DNA of the club is built around being the underdog. It’s just that this underdog has more experience, been there already, and knows what it needs to do to get there again.
The last game the Sydney Swans played in 2020 was coincidentally also against Geelong. They only lost by a goal and finished the season 16th, so a bit different from last season, but what’s not different is the lineup. 13 of the named 22 were also named in the Grand Final 22. That’s two years of growing, added familiarity, player development. Familiarity isn’t easy to quantify, but the fact that these players know each other, particularly those in key roles, means that they are more likely to execute their tactics as opposed to teams who have to learn their systems and the players around them.
Players in key roles don’t even include Buddy, who was injured for the entirety of last season, or new key contributors Chad Warner and Errol Gulden. It does include players like Dylan Stephens, listed on the forward flank in 2020 and the wing in 2022; Robbie Fox (back pocket to centre half back); and the entire listed full forward line.
Justin McInerney has gone from the forward pocket to a winger-cum-forward, Nick Blakey has become one of the most explosive ball carriers off the back flank, and Tom McCartin is creating a strong partnership with his brother down back. What’s the point of pointing this out? The players have greater positional versatility. Nothing is set in stone. They can still develop and change this year, and use the knowledge they’ve gained in previous seasons (and positions) to get better.
Jesus Christ is this boy good? He’s still only 22, but entering his fifth season as a vital cog in John Longmire’s system. It feels like his work went a bit overshadowed last season by the breakouts of Warner and Gulden, but he plays like a seasoned veteran in the middle of the park almost because of that. He’s the same age as Nick Blakey and Justin McInerney, but has the consistency of four years in and around the setup to make him play up for his age.
It’s a bit crook that continuing to watch this man go about his business is one of the things I’m most excited about, but I love watching dudes in the engine room. We’ve been blessed with players in recent memory, JPK, Parker, going back to Brett Kirk and Greg Williams- and it feels like Rowbottom is next in that lineage. And only 22! There’s a chance there are ten more years of this!
The excitement is predominantly about watching what more he adds to his plate this season. He went up to five clearances last season from a career average of 3.3, recording a career-high in the grand final, but where he really grew last season was in his tackling. He’s always been a bulldog, but last season he shot up to average 6.8 tackles, good enough for second in the AFL- forming a formidable tandem with Callum Mills, who’s fourth on the same list. Long story short, James Rowbottom’s trending in the perfect direction to continue to bed into this team and become more of a leader.
In a similar vein to James Rowbottom and the continuity, this team’s in the sweet spot to keep getting better. If you look at teams across the AFL, younger teams have lower average games played, and older teams have higher. Seems pointless to point out, because it’s totally logical, but Sydney are the 14th oldest team (or 5th youngest) with an average age of 24.1, but are 8th in games played with 69.5. Do you see where I’m going with this? No team in the AFL has a greater discrepancy than this. Geelong are (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) getting old. Once more, generally, as you get older you get better at football.
In addition to this, they’ve just come off a finals campaign and a massive defeat. That’s experience in a series of cauldrons that you don’t get in the regular season, giving these youths experience that you just can’t get on the training ground. I recognise they played six straight shocking quarters of football, but they’re likely to take that experience, galvanise as a unit, and hopefully go one better next year.
At the other end of the spectrum, Buddy
What’s left on his list of achievements for Buddy to really cement himself in the pantheon of modern greats? He’s coming into his tenth season in Sydney, and the knock is the obvious one. Hasn’t won a flag. Only two premierships in his career. Hasn’t been an All-Australian since 2018. He’s (debatably) the AFL’s premier elder statesman in an era where players are elite longer than ever (see: Tom Brady, LeBron James). A first premiership in red and white is the thing that he needs to make this Sydney tenure an unqualified success, and he’s going to play hard to make sure he gets there with a team who are, as above, only getting better with age.
His spot in the team remains secure up until Logan McDonald or one of the series of ruckmen-cum-forwards can make their presence known consistently, especially with Sam Reid looking good down back in the closing throes of last season. Even going into his 19th season, he remains the key for a competent Swans attack that relies on his gravity to let the smalls buzz around him – and likely will until someone decides to step up and fill those shoes. He’s also on the first and only year of his new contract, which gives him added incentive to perform if he’s planning to continue past this season.
With the exception of Lance Franklin, I back this team to keep improving as they play together because that’s just what happens with young teams. They’ve already played together for a few years, have a great mix of youth and experience; and at a certain point (assuming development happens) it’s impossible to project exactly what this squad will look like at the end of the coming season.