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The "Ifs", "Buts" and Other Stuff - Sydney Swans

The Sydney Swans are like one of those trees that perpetually blooms. Finalists for 16 of the past 18 years, seeing the “red and the white” performing at a high level has become synonymous with the pointy end of the AFL season.

How have they done it? What stage are they now at? And how will they continue to implement one of the most successful list replenishment strategies the game has seen?

This year sees the club say goodbye to warhorse, Dan Hannebery. When asked about his move, he was pragmatic about it, stating the Swans were doing what all good clubs do – replenishing the list. It makes you wonder what the other clubs are doing, huh? Particularly the one offering him a multi-year deal…

The Swans have seen a distinct shift in their midfield, with Jack, Hanners and even Josh Kennedy to a lesser degree start to make room for fresh blood. They’ve drafted well – how Nick Blakey fell to pick ten before being bid on is one of footy’s great mysteries - and they have identified players at other clubs who can have an impact on their team immediately.

Sydney have become the flagship for consistency in the AFL, and from the outside looking in, they are one of the more intriguing cases of 2019. They were certainly interesting to write about and research, as they have so many variables. They suffered their share of injuries in 2018, with Callum Mills, Sam Reid and Lewis Melican all missing significant time, and all slotting into the best-22 when fully fit. With those three players back, as well as the expected development of some young guns, what can we expect from Sydney this season?

As we edge closer to the 2019 season, The Mongrel explores some of the “ifs”, “buts” and other stuff of the Swans.

 

IF…

 

… we are entering the Heeney/Mills era, the Swans have done it again!

I watched with a little concern last season as the old guard started to slow a little. Kieren Jack was a shell of his former self. His numbers were down across the board as the battering ram started to pay the price for a bash and crash style that had served him so well over the years. He was -2.89 in disposals when comparing his 2018 to 2017, and that came on the heels of a significant drop from 2016-17.

Dan Hannebery was very similar, and is now a Saint, after a year that saw an abrupt drop off in numbers. He was -6.07 in 2018, and when comparing last year to his 2016, he was -12.18. Allowing him to seek opportunities elsewhere was a masterstroke by the Swans. They managed to respectfully move on a favourite son whilst freeing up midfield time for someone probably better equipped to have a long term impact.

Then there was Luke Parker – still a great performer, yet down in numbers as well. He was -2.33 in 2018, but some of that was due to spending more time in the forward half.

Even Josh Kennedy, such a brilliant contributor over so many years, and the only man to ever have 400+ contested possessions three times, saw his numbers drop away. He was -2.8 from his 2017 numbers, and a whopping -5.58 on his career-best 2016 effort.

The old guard declines

Average disposals

In a nutshell, the Sydney midfield was starting to collapse and it was evident that something had to be done.

Not rushing things, the Swans have allowed Isaac Heeney to develop at his own pace. His talent is painfully apparent, and his versatility has allowed the Swans to throw him at either end of the ground depending on need. Looking at those midfield numbers, however, it appears as though the time is nigh for Heeney to make the move into the midfield on a permanent basis.

It’s now not so much when Heeney is ready, but when the Swans need him to be ready.

Though his numbers stagnated in 2018 (he was -0.19 touches per game), Heeney’s influence around the ground was undeniable. Need a defensive stop? Throw Heeney down back. Need a big mark late in the game? Throw Heeney up forward. Need a clearance? Throw him in the middle. He was Sydney’s Mr. Fix-It last season, but with Kennedy and Parker needing extra help in the guts, Heeney will now start applying fixes to that area of the ground on a more regular basis. He needs to become the star of the team this season, and he has the ability to do so. His apprenticeship is just about over.

Word out of the Swans is that Callum Mills will join him in the middle. He’s been slotting into a midfield role all pre-season after missing most of 2018. Mills, who plied his trade across half back in his formative years at Sydney, will add another dimension to a Sydney on-ball division in dire need of replenishment.

Add to those two the leg speed of Ollie Florent, the accountability and clearance work of George Hewett and the hardness of Zak Jones when he runs through the middle, and you have an midfield that can once again match it with any in the comp.

The Sydney Swans have done a wonderful job of replenishing a deteriorating midfield on the fly. Kennedy’s numbers may have been down, and there may have been some quieter days for him in 2018, but he is still the heart and soul of that Swans on-ball unit. With young blood now injected into the mix, all it will take is for one of Heeney or Mills to elevate their game, and the Swans may continue as one of the best midfields in the game for quite some time yet.

 

… Lance Franklin plonks himself in the goal square, what happens with other tall options?

He’s bigger, heavier and stronger than he’s ever been, but with those attributes come an inevitable trade-off. Perhaps the running, sprinting, aerobic beast that we’ve come to know is morphing into a pure power athlete? Perhaps Buddy is becoming more of a stay-at-home forward as he ticks over into his 33rd year?

And perhaps that could be a great thing for the Swans. Franklin has long been considered a poor contested mark, yet there he sits in 2018, one of just ten men in the game to average 2+ contested grabs per game. With new rules making it more difficult to zone back and clog his space, could a deep-forward Franklin start providing many more headaches for opponents when he starts muscling them out of the way? He can now use his hands from behind to hold his ground – a move that is perfect for a player with the power and ability to run back towards goal like Buddy. If he plays as a stay-at-home forward, 2019 seems tailor-made for Franklin. I could easily see him pushing 80 goals for the year, providing he can successfully navigate the injury minefield that becomes more difficult to traverse on the wrong side of 30.

But what does that mean for the other Swans up forward?

Sam Reid is the ultimate tease. He managed just one game in 2018, but is the perfect lead up forward to complement Franklin when available. He has a beautiful pair of hands, but after missing the entire 2016 season, playing 22 games in 2017, and then having a disastrous 2018, you just don’t know what you’re going to get from him. As it stands, Reid being out there is a complete luxury.

Tom McCartin is one who jumped out of the box in 2018. Younger brother of the walking concussion at St Kilda, McCartin was able to have a few significant moments last season, including a stunning goal as he was parallel with the turf against Collingwood.

He is yet to turn 20 and shows enormous potential, but will need time to develop. If Reid is fit, does he still get that time? Or will he be wasted in the NEAFL?

Then there’s recruit, Daniel Menzel. He was acquired as insurance for the injury-prone Reid, and to take some heat/reliance from Buddy.He is as dangerous as they come when left one-out inside 50, but can he get himself right for long enough to have a significant impact? If he gets a clean run at it, maybe his form makes other marking forwards mentioned here redundant – his best is very, very good, but he is no long term bet.

The other factor is whether Longmire will play two rucks in 2019 to ensure the Swans are not exploited by other ruck duos. If he does, one of Cal Sinclair and Sam Naismith will likely rest forward. A forward set up with Buddy, Reid, McCartin, Menzel and the resting ruck is simply too top heavy. Something has to give, but what will it be?

When you add that the Swans will likely want to give Nick Blakey some game time at some stage, you’re left with a glut of talls all wanting their time in the forward half.

Buddy is a no-brainer, but who becomes the second option? Do you back in Reid and hope his body holds up? Do you try him at half back, adding to a growing list of talls looking for a home back there? Do you invest in McCartin now with one eye on the future pairing of him and Blakey? Does Menzel get his body right and show enough brilliance to relegate others to the NEAFL? Or do you have Buddy and a resting ruckman as your only two tall options and open up the chances for Papley, Ronke, Hayward and co?

It’s not a terrible problem to have, and as always, injuries will dictate much of what is to come, but with only so many spots available for talls in Sydney, we might see a bit of a dogfight for spots. Who would you opt for? Personally, I’d have a combination of Buddy-McCartin with Blakey blooded at some stage. The resting ruckman can be a liability as much as an advantage depending on output, but for mine, Reid is either reassigned as a defender, or is used as an injury back up. I trust his ability to stay on the park as much as I trust that of Menzel – as in, not very much.

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… the younger stars break out, the competition will be put on notice

So we saw plenty from the Swans youngsters in 2018, with Ben Ronke bursting into the footy world’s consciousness with his match-winning performance against the Hawks at the SCG, and Ollie Florent doing the same with a last minute goal to ice the game against the Bulldogs.

And how about third year man, Will Hayward? He had a wonderful first half of his second year in 2018 before falling back to the pack

So, assuming none of them fall in a heap, what is the best case scenario for these blokes in 2019?

Ronke will be keen to improve on his 12.67 touches and 1.33 goals per game, and with the talls mentioned above all vying for a slot up forward, he should find plenty of opportunity at their feet. An improvement of +2.33 touches and +0.17 goals per game would see him slot in nicely. He showed that he could run through the midfield and double back toward goal several times in 2018, but would also go missing for periods, and that is something he needs to address.

Hayward was looking like a potential AA squad pick at around Round 12. With 18 goals to his name at that point, and without a big bag to his name to skew that number, Hayward was a thorn in opposition sides. He petered out during the season, but with 40 games under his belt you’d think that he’d be nice and settled, and ready to put together an entire season of interrupted, consistent footy. If he gets to the same level we’ve floated for Ronke, the Swans have a small forward combo that will give opposition defenders nightmares.

Ollie Florent is the one to watch, for mine. I kept an eye on him toward the latter stages of 2018, and thought he really blossomed as he started drifting back into defence and provided run and carry for the Swans. There were times I thought they lacked a little bit of leg speed in defence, but Florent more than made up for that.

He made a hefty leap from his rookie season, going +6.92 possessions per game to sit right at 16.7 disposals per game, with a good combination of contested and uncontested touches in the mix. +3.3 touches will see him sit right at 20 touches per game, and with those  sort of numbers, I wonder just how damaging he could be as a wingman, or outside mid in 2019? Even if he’s allocated a role across half back, Florent’s pace will provide a great springboard for the Swans out of defence.

Add to those mentioned the newly acquired Ryan Clarke (4th year) and Colin O’Riordan (rookie elevation), and the Swans could surprise a few teams with the internal growth of their team. If two of those mentioned break out completely, it adds another dimension to an already successful Sydney team.

 

… Tom Papley stops threatening and starts delivering, he could be AA.

Look, I may be a little biased here. I’ve watched Papley from afar for a while now, and there just seems to be a match-winning quality about him. To me, he always looks as though he is on the verge of breaking a game open.

And then he doesn’t.

It’s a crazy situation. Because he has promised so much and delivered so little (of substance), there are a couple of Swans fans I know who have Papley as borderline best-22. When we were shooting the breeze and I sat with them, they were laying out their best 22 for 2019. Both had him on an extended bench – I almost fell off my chair.

But then they started to outline their reasons. A touch under 14 disposals and a goal a game is a standard return for a good small forward. But then you look at Ben Ronke, and he’s not far behind. Will Hayward is a little behind in disposals, but with more goals to his name, maybe he is a better option. With Parker spending time up forward, Florent drifting in and out of the forward 50 as much as the defensive 50, and Heeney drifting forward when required too, the squeeze starts to become pretty tight.

If we’re going by numbers alone, Papley went in reverse in 2018. Whilst others made strides, he took a step back, yet he was elevated into the Swans’ leadership group this season, which tells you that they see a lot more in him than stats alone.

Entering his fourth year, Papley has some young dogs snapping at his heels. The Swans forward line is laden with talent, and though he has shown the ability to work up the ground, there is little doubt he is best suited to a position in the forward half where his good decision making, leg speed and nous around goal can be applied best.

2019 must be the year Tom Papley puts his stamp on this team. Reliance on Buddy to kick bags has become expected at Sydney – it’s time they had another player bob up and kick 35-40 goals. From the outside looking in, Papley has all the tools to be that player.

Now he has to stop promising and start delivering.

 

BUT IF…

… Josh Kennedy starts to slide, how do the Swans manage it?

As much as I like the up and coming Swans midfielders, the decline of Josh Kennedy over the last two years has been significant. He was able to provide the grunt he has been known for several times, but the way he went missing in games in 2018 (three games with 16 disposals or under… unheard of!) was cause for concern.

So, if he is no longer the player he once was, and the evidence points to him dropping away a little, how do the Swans manage it? It’s not as though you can conjure 300 contested possessions from just anyone, right?

But you may be able to if you have George Hewett in your team.

Criminally underrated, Hewett made considerable strides in 2018, with almost 60% of his disposals coming in the contest. This means that he is in there, not only winning the footy, but making life miserable for the gun clearance players of opposing teams. He is yet to crack 30 touches in a single game, yet he accumulated an impressive 255 contested touches in 2018. Entering his fourth year in the league, maybe this is the season he makes the big leap, and what better wingman to have to guide you than Kennedy?

Hewett picking up the slack?

Hewett has the mature body, the lust for the contest and the tenacity to make a real mark in 2019. If Kennedy is slowing, then Hewett needs to accelerate. I was very impressed with the way he handled himself in 2018, and his ability to shut down the offensive weapons of an opposition are elite. Does an increased responsibility to get the ball mean he is less accountable? Or does the addition of Mills and Heeney to the midfield mix mean that Hewett can go about his merry way of making life miserable for his opponents?

Kennedy turns 31 this season, but 11 previous years of putting his body on the line in contests may be taking a toll. The Swans know that he is still an elite clearance player, and that he will still be able to pull out the big game, or big quarter – he just won’t be able to do it as often. With Hewett in the mix, he doesn’t have to.

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Look! Mongrel Punt Stubby Holders. Buy one and be cooler than all your friends! It also helps the site out.

 

… teams don’t play a defensive forward on Jake Lloyd, do we start asking why?

There was a little concern for me in 2018 as Lloyd ran around the half back flank, collecting uncontested touches after Dane Rampe, Heath Grundy and Aliir Aliir did the hard stuff in the air. It was his role to stay outside, receive and deliver out of the 50m arc, setting the Swans off running.

But if it was so apparent, why didn’t opposition coaches try to stop him?

“He doesn’t hurt you with the ball,” exclaimed one of my esteemed Sydney-supporting friends late in the season. “He gets a heap but he doesn’t take the risky kick – the one that carves a team up.”

I thought it was an interesting take, and something other than the boring “he doesn’t win his own ball” tripe you hear occasionally - it’s not his job to win his own ball. I started to pay a little more attention to Lloyd following that afternoon. Whilst all the key indicators from Champion Data rate him as elite, including his 75.7% kicking efficiency, I started to notice that my Swannie mate was right – he takes the safe option more often than not.

Now that’s fine – maybe he is instructed to do so, but with great amounts of uncontested disposal comes great responsibility. If he is being relied upon to kick start the Sydney offence, there’ll be times where he is required to make that gutsy 45 degree kick across the ground and into the centre to open the game up. I didn’t see that from him at all in the latter part of the year.

What I did see was Lloyd sticking to basics and going long down the line. He was playing it safe. For such a polished ball-user, I’d love to see him back his skills, take the game on and break it the hell open with a long penetrating kick across the ground that completely catches the defence off-guard.

Now either this is a reluctance from him to do that, or he’s instructed not to do so (a B&F would indicate he’s doing exactly as he’s told), but by not taking a risk, the Swans are resigned to contest after contest, which has been their strength until recently – a few easy forward 50 entries would be nice, and they come when risks pay off.

Having said all that, what are the chances that Lloyd starts to drift a bit more up the ground in 2019? Spending a bit of time on the wing would open up the game immensely should he be able to find some space. I’m sure Buddy’s eyes would light up leading up to a running Lloyd.

A move such as that may guarantee Lloyd another Bob Skilton medal.

 

OTHER STUFF

 

I’m steering clear of placing high expectations on draft picks - the temptation to think a kid will come in and have a huge impact is a big one, but it is a rarity. For every player like Jack Higgins and Jaidyn Stephenson, there are twenty others whose names are barely mentioned. Whilst Blakey will eventually have an impact, I kind of expect him to flitter in and out of the team, giving him a taste for AFL life without the immense burden.

The Swans’ other draft picks - James Rowbottom, Justin McInerney, and Zac Foot will probably only get a look in if there is a rash of injuries at the club. That said, 1-2 games for any of them is not out of the question. In terms of impact, they’ll have none.

But from players from the 2017 draft, it could be a different story. Matthew Ling was taken at pick 14 in 2017 and will be determined to get his foot in the senior door, and Ryley Stoddart may start pushing for a spot with a second pre-season under his belt. These are the players who will be ready to make an impact. This year’s kids just need to adjust to the culture shock of AFL footy.

Zak Jones is an interesting player. I reckon he needs to be less huff and puff in 2019, and more the sort that’ll just blow your damn house down! Pushing 20 touches per game for the second year in a row in 2018, this season should be the one he heads past that mark.

The return of Lewis Melican is something that hasn’t really been discussed much as far as I’ve seen. Restricted to just three games in 2018, he’d be keen to re-establish himself as a key part of that Swans defence. But who makes way for him? I’m not sure you can have too many players without genuine leg speed now, and if we’re seeing Heath Grundy, Jarrad McVeigh, Melican and even Nick Smith all crammed into the defensive six at the same time, there might be a few forward lines that will look to exploit Sydney.

For mine, we’re at the stage where Heath Grundy might have to make way for Melican at some point this year. As great as Grundy has been (and I love his ability to read the play and intercept), there was a genuine question about his place in the team last season. With the pressure for spots heating up, Grundy may find himself on the outer, particularly if the development of Aliir continues.

I touched on Kieren Jack before – is he still best-22 for Sydney? The way he travelled in 2018, I find it hard to slot him in at all, but he’ll probably get a few games due to others sitting out with injury. That said, if it was injuries that held him back in 2018 (and 2017 by the look of it) but he’s healthy this season, maybe we see a renaissance from him?

Speaking of mids, Luke Parker – genuine superstar who needs to play like one in 2019. His 23 touches per game were his lowest since 2013, and he’d want to arrest that slide. He’ll be vitally important as the Swans’ midfield regenerates this season, as the younger blokes will need his hardness around the contest. I don’t reckon the Swans need him up forward this year – if they can get manufacture his 22 goals from elsewhere, his talents are better used in the guts.

The draw. Look, at the moment it seems as though there’s no really easy week unless you have Carlton or the Gold Coast. As always, there is copious amounts of improvement expected at almost every club – that continues to be the thought process until about Round Two.

Luckily, the Swans get the Blues in Round Three. With the Dogs in Round One, and the Crows in Round Two, the Swans could very well be 3-0, though I think Adelaide will be tough this season.

The Swans get the Blues twice, which is a gift, but their other double ups are tough – Essendon, GWS, Geelong and Melbourne. They would want to have a better home record early in the season than they did in 2018, where they were racking up wins away from the SCG and falling down badly at home.

The Swans were really challenged in 2018, mentally. They looked like they’d run their race two thirds into the season, yet they rallied to be a game out of the top four by the end of the home and away fixture. Whilst it seemed that the efforts to get there took a toll on them, their ability to realise the gravity of the situation during the season, refuse to become an also-ran, and work toward another finals appearance was impressive.

As with most teams, injury will play a large role in dictating just how far Sydney go in 2019. Where can I see them finishing? It’s a loaded question, and it’s one of the reasons we do the “ifs” and “buts” kind of preview and not just throw a ladder position out there.

What we saw at the conclusion of their 2018 season was a team that had been beaten down to the point where you were relieved for them when it was all over. Their capitulation at the hands of their cross-town rivals was the sort of loss some teams don’t recover from - it was emphatic. But we’re talking about the Swans here.

They’ll be back, with a renewed hunger and a determination to be there in September – the Bloods culture demands no less. That said, top four seems to be beyond them. It would have to be reliant on several teams performing well below expectations. As much as I think we will see Sydney in September, two injuries (Franklin and name whomever else you like) could see their season derailed, and a ninth or tenth finish could be the result.

As much as you’d like to think they could make some noise in the finals, I reckon one finals win is probably their ceiling this season. Of course, once you get to September, it is a whole new ball game, and recent history tells us that it may not necessarily be the best team all year that holds the cup aloft.

Sydney have quality pieces in play. If some of those kids in the 2-4 years bracket emerge as superstars, we may not have seen the last of Sydney as a contender, but history tells us that there isn’t many teams that get a charmed run with injury (Richmond 2017 the most recent) and that’s what the Swans need to make a big impact in 2019.

Anywhere from fifth with a good run, to tenth if the injury bug strikes.

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