Window Closing? Is time running out for Buddy and the Swans?

After the Sydney Swans meekly capitulated to their cross-town rivals in their 2018 season finale, Lance Franklin's despair was evident. He spent the last seven minutes on the bench after being taken to the cleaners by Phil Davis, and failed again to do what he said he was moving to Sydney to achieve. Unlike 2014 and 2016, this time he didn't even get them close.

It was another lost year for Franklin, and for Sydney. After looking like a team that had lost their way, they rebounded in spectacular fashion over the last month of the home and away season.

Commentators and experts beat the public over the head for the past couple of weeks about how you can never write Sydney off. Yes, yes, the Swans seemed dead and buried after humiliating losses to Gold Coast, and Essendon. Yes, they recovered beautifully, forcing many to eat their words in the process, with only a narrow last round loss to Hawthorn denying them a top four berth. Yes, yes, they got up and got back in the ring, but there had been worrying signs all year for the Swans.

Their reliance on Lance Franklin, the rapid deterioration of both Dan Hannebery and Kieran Jack, and the lack of anything even remotely resembling speed through the midfield made the Swans look cumbersome, slow and tired at times. They made the finals yet again, but they made it more on heart and pride than anything else.

In their Elimination Final loss to the Giants, the Swans encountered a problem up forward, with the team unable to register more than two goals until three quarter time. In a side boasting the most dominant forward of the modern era (post-2000 for the purists ready to scream "Carey!"), it was like being slapped in the face with a steel gauntlet. They were nowhere near where they needed to be to contend, and in terms of the final eight, they were just making up the numbers.

It was un-Sydney-like.

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And so, with Swans capitulating so easily to the Giants, what's next for them? That something needs to change is an understatement. They were in danger of not posting a goal after quarter time until Parker and Papley threaded red time goals in the last, and the Giants' foot had well and truly left the pedal by then.

Let's have a look line by line to see where they can improve, and how they'll manage it.

THE DEFENCE

The Swans are still solid here, and with the emergence of Aliir as a genuine intercept marking defender, they have the capacity to force teams far and wide to gain a successful inside 50 entry. There are at least 11 other coaches already thinking about ways to bypass Aliir in 2019, as their teams are out of the race as well, and planning for the next season is underway. Don't be surprised to see him exploited at times. Even Alex Rance was thrown into very difficult one-on-one contests this season due to coaches trying to nullify his help-defence. Longmire and company need to to remain mindful that Aliir is no longer a secret, and opposition coaches will be putting time into him.

They’ll get Callum Mills back, and were missing Nick Smith towards the end of the year as well. Both are more than handy additions to the side that bowed out of September unceremoniously. McVeigh has recommitted for another year and will continue to provide the cool head down back. Dane Rampe will be there again, as will Heath Grundy and Nic Newman, whilst the returning Lewis Melican will be welcomed back with open arms. There are some quality names amongst that bunch, and I don't actually think the Swans defence is the issue, though they do seem to lack a bit of leg speed.

The real problem in regard to the back six lies with Jake Lloyd, who is uncontracted and from all reports, is on the move. Lloyd may have been the Swans closest to All-Australian selection this season outside Franklin. His run and carry as the preferred avenue out of defensive 50 meant he had plenty of opportunity after the likes of Aliir, Rampe and Grundy made the contests. His absence will be tough to cover, but the returning Mills eases the burden somewhat, as does the option of Ollie Florent playing a little more in the defensive half of the ground.

Florent initially looked like another standard small forward, but in the second half of the year he spent a lot of time drifting back to half back to provide some much-needed run and carry. If Lloyd walks, Florent may be the ready-made replacement, though to think he will have the same kind of numbers is a bit of a stretch. Still, if you're into Supercoach, which I am definitely NOT, he'd be one to keep an eye on if the price is right.

THE MIDS

And here is where the troubles start.

Sydney’s best midfielder, Josh Kennedy, has started to show signs of wear and tear. He is now 30 years old but has played a crash and bash game style that must cause his body to age a little quicker than he’d like to. Sadly, there’s two others in exactly the same boat.

Dan Hannebery looks like an old man in a young man’s body. He’s lost the speed and ability to break lines he once possessed, and can appear restricted in his movements. That, no doubt is the reason for the multiple strappings all over his body every game. He is like a walking hospital wing, at times. Kieran Jack is the other who has fallen away drastically. He failed to crack the 15 disposals per game mark this season, a dramatic fall from grace from just two short years ago where he was ticking over at 22.6 possessions per game. He has become somewhat of a passenger in the Sydney team, in the side as much on reputation this season as he was on performance.

Sydney midfield stars 2016-18

Luke Parker has continued his strong play, but concerningly, has also started to reduce his disposal output. He has gone from almost 27 per game in 2016, to 25.3 in 2017, and now down to 23 per game this season. It is cause for alarm for the Swans’ hierarchy to see so many quality players falling away simultaneously. Whilst I expect Parker to rebound strongly, we may have to accept the fact that the others may have seen their best days already gone.

The development of George Hewett into one of the better run-with players in the game has had the nice addendum of seeing him accumulate a larger number of clearances. He has shown the ability to not only shut a player down, but to capitalise on their inability to play both ways. He is one of the few Sydney mids trending upwards over the past few years.

Young gun clearances 2016-18

The saving grace for the Sydney midfield, and the team itself, has been the emergence of Isaac Heeney as a borderline star of the competition. Though his numbers have remained on par with 2017, his impact on games in the balance has seen a marked improvement. Longmire has given Heeney his imprimatur to do what he sees fit for the betterment of the team, whether that is a move to the defensive end to cut off any attacks, floating forward to take a hanger, or move into the middle to win an important clearance.

Heeney has become the most important player in the Swans’ line up. With Franklin turning 32 before the start of next season, Heeney’s development and burgeoning leadership will be vitally important to the Swans. He has some able back up amongst the younger brigade, with Mills, Ronke, Hayward and Florent all looking like permanent fixtures in the team, but the Swans are hitching their wagon to Isaac Heeney, and he'll have to pull them along with him as he matures into a genuine star.

Sinclair is proving to be a reliable ruck option, his numbers improving again this season. He has had a great ensemble cast to feed over the last couple of years, but there could be some change on the horizon.

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THE FORWARDS

And here we go, in a direction I never thought I'd be going in regards to a side with Lance Franklin up forward. The Swans are struggling to kick winning scores. Their score in their final game of 2018 was 4.6.30.

Yep, four goals, and two came very late. They ranked 11th in the league for goals scored, and were the lowest of any team in the top eight, but they were second overall in defence, with only the stingy Cats allowing fewer goals.

There’s been a lot of speculation around the fitness of Lance Franklin in 2018, and just as much around how much the Swans rely on him to kick a winning score. Let’s face it – he has redefined the way a power forward plays, working up the ground and running back towards goal with blistering pace.

He has weapons that possibly no other forward we’ve seen possesses; that booming left foot from outside 50, curling and straightening almost as though it is on a string, and his ability to finish on the run, under pressure, and at top speed has created memories I’ll never forget. And he possesses power. Raw, primal power.

I remember watching him up close, taking off on the wing a few years ago at the MCG. I could hear the turf being ripped up as he planted those big feet into the ground and pushed off with the sort of power usually reserved for a thoroughbred racehorse. I looked over to my friend and said one word – “wow”. It wasn’t as though he’d done anything extraordinary; he’d just taken off, but that power he exerted was enough to grab my attention.

When you have a player with those sorts of capabilities, you use him whenever you can, hence continued media hive mind about the Swans’ “reliance” on Buddy. But when you have a guy like that, do you NOT go to him? And who else can you go to?

The loss of Kurt Tippett, as maligned as he was, was a large blow to the Swans. Tippett was a marking target that could be relied upon to bring the ball to ground. When he retired (after the cut off to replace him on the list... one last twist of the knife into the side of the Swans' supporters), it left a hole that needed filling, but that was OK - the Swans had Sam Reid up and about, right?

Sadly, no, they didn’t, because, ladies and gentlemen, Sam Reid is what is known as a March champion. He plays well in the pre-season, whets the collective appetite of fans and coaches, and then either drops off in form, or gets injured. Like a droid travelling with Obi Wan Kenobi, he is not the forward you’re looking for.

The absence of the aforementioned two caused the Swans to fast-track the development of Tom McCartin – the youngest player in the league for the next couple of months. Whilst he had some really positive moments in 2018, he couldn’t stand up under the intensity of the finals pressure, and to expect him to was either foolish or naïve. He will be better next year, but it will take him a few seasons to really put his stamp on the game. It’s time Sydney don’t have.

The smalls are an area where Sydney can improve quickly up forward. Playing one tall (Franklin) and several smalls, ala the famed Richmond model (that they’ll ironically move away from next year with a Riewoldt/Lynch combination looking likely), the Swans can cause chaos with Hayward, Ronke and Papley at the feet of the leading Franklin.

The youngsters will be so much better for the run this finals series, and won’t collapse in on themselves again like they did against the Giants. Ronke has already shown he has an x-factor about him up forward, and Hayward ended the season with 28 goals to his name. They are both capable, and assuming the work ethic is there, will both improve.

Papley is the interesting one. I’ve waited all year for a game where he’d have it all click, and he’d tear the contest open, but it never eventuated. He’s looked dangerous, but he’s also gone missing for long periods. 13 touches per game and 24 goals for the season is substantially less than was required. He went backwards this year, and will need to rectify this if he plans to be a Swan for longer than his current contract. Is it fitness? Is it desire? Is it mental strength? Papley has the ability to go through the roof, but just keeps bumping his head on a beam every time he tries.

After the 2013 premiership, Lance Franklin waved goodbye to Hawthorn, packing his bags, in the eyes of most, for Greater Western Sydney. Instead, Franklin sent shockwaves through the football world with a sharp turn towards the other team in the harbour city. Franklin wanted more premierships, and thought that hitching his wagon to the Swans was the best way to capture them.

With the book now closed on the Swans 2018 season, Franklin finds himself in a very awkward position. Despite playing some good, some great, and on occasion some breathtaking football over the past five years, the move to Sydney is not panning out the way he envisioned.

The Hawthorn teammates he left behind have twice as many flags under their belts than he has. Whilst he joined the powerful Swans in 2014, the spurned GWS team have steadily improved. After two consecutive preliminary final losses, the Giants are poised to make a strong run in 2018. How good would they have been with Buddy patrolling the forward fifty as well?

Franklin may have fooled the world after the 2013 AFL season when he picked the third of two options (thank you, Dennis Cometti) and signed with Sydney, but it may turn out that he has fooled himself. He has had his own issues to deal with and, despite adding two more Coleman medals to his trophy case, and taking his all-time goalkicking numbers above 900, that third premiership medallion remains elusive, and that was the driver in joining Sydney.

Buddy will be 32 before the start of the 2018 season with four seasons remaining on his ground breaking contract. Whilst he remains an amazing athlete, capable of the incredible at times, his body let him down this season. It is unrealistic to expect him to retain the level of athleticism he’s demonstrated throughout his twenties. With almost half his contract behind him, has he proven to be value for money for the Swans long term? The financials say… yes. An emphatic yes.

Since Buddy’s signing, the Swans membership numbers have increased from 36,369 in 2013 to 60,934 this season. It’s an outstanding result, and having a star the likes of Franklin to market does make a difference. That increase, combined with additional merchandising, would have any bookkeeper smiling. However, there’s only one thing that’ll put a smile back on the faces of the Swans’ fans.

If value is measured in premierships, they’re currently being short changed. Five years down, four to go. A career in Sydney for Buddy Franklin can only be termed a failure unless a premiership is attached.

At the moment, I think they may be further away than they've been since he signed.

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