Is it time for Lance Franklin to become a true Stay-At-Home Forward?

You’ll have to forgive me from the outset – I am an unabashed Lance Franklin fan. I don’t know how you can be a football lover and not admire the way he plays the game. You may hate him when he plays your team, but over the last 13 years, there has been no more spectacular player in the game than ‘Buddy’.

How can anyone forget those runs down the wing, leaving defenders in his wake as he turned on the jets? And how can we forget his long bombing goals at the end of those runs? Those two against Essendon when he was part of Hawthorn, and the repeat performance when he ventured to Sydney, years after many thought those kinds of runs and goals were beyond him, were almost otherworldly. He is a game-breaker, a genuine superstar in a league full of stars, and he was rewarded with the All-Australian captaincy at the conclusion of the 2018 season. Some have questioned the legitimacy of the appointment, but you can’t change what’s done. He is the current AA captain, like it or not.

But I am worried about Buddy going forward. I am worried about his body. I am worried about his ability to recover from injury. I am worried about his pre-season. And I am worried about how the Swans will go in 2019 with an underdone Buddy in the line-up.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. These worries combine to produce another worry – I have a genuine worry for those on opposition teams who play the full back position. We’ll get to that in a minute. First of all, let’s address the injury worries.

With five years of his nine-year deal now in the bank, you’d be a fool to think Buddy will get better from this point in time. You’d be crazy to think that he will get healthier, more agile, and improve his aerobic capacity. At 32 years old before season 2019 commences, the expectation is that Franklin will start to decline, and with news filtering through that Franklin will head in for surgery on his groin after returning from his end of season break, this looks to be a pre-season lost for Buddy.

He was an iron man early in his career. Cast your mind back to the 2011 quarter-final pitting Hawthorn against Geelong. He landed very awkwardly, jarring his knee in a marking contest. He looked shot – it was the kind of injury that would end the season of the regular player. He was helped off the ground as Hawthorn fans had their hearts leap into their mouths.

 I was there. I turned to my old pal, Mip Grant and said “Buddy’s done a knee. He’s done.”

The replay confirmed it, and elicited a groan from the crowd when it was replayed on the big screen. To me, it appeared as though his season was over, and with it, the Hawthorn challenge of 2011.

But there was Franklin the very next week, knee strapped and kicking four goals against the Swans to push Hawthorn into the Preliminary Final. And it was in that prelim that we saw the brilliant Franklin as his best. Chris Tarrant is no slouch, but Buddy, on one leg, led him to the ball, gathered and ran along the boundary line, dribbling through a miraculous goal to give the Hawks a lead with minutes remaining. Yes, Luke Ball would thwart the Buddy brilliance with a goal of his own at the other end to send Collingwood into the Grand Final against Geelong, but it did not diminish the efforts of the iron-like Franklin. His recovery was amazing; his ability to rebound from what looked to be a serious injury was remarkable.

But that kind of recovery is the recovery of a young man, and Buddy is no longer a young man. Of those in his draft class, the numbers still in the league are dwindling. Deledio, Roughead, Lewis, Lynden Dunn… they’re all definitely in the twilight of their careers. You’d wager that those three would be playing their final years in 2019. Ryan Griffen and Mark LeCras just hung the boots up. That would just leave Buddy.

We saw him start 2018 looking like the Buddy of old, slamming home eight goals to power the Swans over the eventual premiers on the road. However, in the process Franklin injured his heel. We then saw how that power of recovery had diminished, with Buddy struggling for the next four weeks before sitting out for an additional four weeks to recover. He was still good – still Buddy-like at points, but he was also labouring at others.

The foot injury, as well as several other niggles showed us an incarnation of Franklin we were unaccustomed to in 2018. He looked mortal. And even if he retained a degree of “superman” about him, he ran right into a block of kryptonite in the form of Phil Davis is the 2018 Elimination final.

I have to say, I have not seen Franklin look as ordinary as he did in the final outing of 2018. He looked heavy, old and immobile. It was probably his worst statistical game of the year – he did have one game where he had seven disposals against Essendon in Round 19, however he registered a goal – against Davis, he had eight touches and was held goalless. He was dominated.

Buddy and his Swans limped away from 2018, beaten down by their cross-town rivals after showing so much heart to rally and push for a top four spot, and as we head into 2019, Buddy is still limping.

The Swans expect Franklin to resume “skills” training in January, meaning that he won’t be doing the hard yards early. Given how mortal Buddy looked when not fit in 2018, it is a worry for the Swans. Without their focal point playing the way that only he, in the current game, can, the Swans look a little vulnerable.

But perhaps a Franklin forced to adapt his game to preserve his tank isn’t as bad as it sounds. Could the slower start to 2019 be of benefit to him and the Swans?

With the development of Tom McCartin, return of Sam Reid, and the addition of Daniel Menzel, there is the chance that the Swans can play Franklin closer to goal, protecting him from himself in a way.

At 32 years old, it may be time that Franklin completely embraces the all-but-defunct “stay at home” forward role. It may be a move that turns the game on its head.

For years, the AFL gurus have dictated that forwards need to be more than just forwards. They need to run, tackle, pressure and lead up as part of defensive zones. If Buddy doesn’t have the tank to do this all day, every game, it’s time to start playing to his strengths. One of them was once a weakness.

Buddy is now bigger and stronger than he’s ever been. Whilst many will look at his body shape throughout 2018 and think it looked a little heavy, and therefore a little slower, Franklin has now developed a true power forward’s physique. In a league of endurance athletes, and at a time where others have closed the gap on him significantly in terms of best forward in the game, it’s time Buddy morphed into the most dominant forward on the park, yet again. This time, it is due to circumstances and less by design. With four years remaining on his contract with Sydney, Buddy needs to adapt to continue to thrive.

One of the big knocks on Franklin earlier in his career was his contested marking. His stellar 2008 season saw Buddy grab a career-high 2.56 contested marks per game. Whilst he hasn’t topped that number, his first year in Sydney saw him go close, at 2.32 per game. Last season, he was right at two per game as well. When you think of players like Jack Riewoldt, Cale Hooker and Tom McDonald, you picture players who can take those strong one-on-one marks. Franklin was right around the mark with them. Whilst I cannot, for the life of me, remember him ever taking a pack mark, his contested work against a direct opponent has been much better, and could very well be the key to the Swans in 2019.

News of Buddy’s groin surgery upon his recent return to the club may have been met with a collective groan from Swans supporters, however this may be just what the team needs. Maybe this is where Buddy morphs into the more traditional power forward insteadof the hybrid freak we’ve witnessed to date.

A less mobile, less fit Lance Franklin may rail against not only what experts tell you is necessary to succeed, but flies in the face of the way the game is currently played. We’ve seen young power forwards come into the league forced to change their game to fit in. Paddy McCartin is the obvious one – taken at number one in the 2014, he has been forced to trim down to be more mobile, taking away that which made him special as a prospect.

It takes special players to change the game, and there are none more special than Lance Franklin.

Picture Buddy as less agile if you like. Picture him as a heavier version of what we’ve seen to date. But while you’re at it, picture him isolated against some of the league’s smaller key defenders inside 50. With the right type of delivery, there could be games where Franklin once again tears the contest to shreds, and doesn’t have to run a half-marathon to do so.

In an age where the endurance athlete is king in the AFL, we may be about to see someone change the game again. And why not Franklin? He is one of the most unique players the game has seen – if anyone is going to change the game, it would be him.

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