It has come with little fanfare, but the Sydney Swans are nearing the end of a major list overhaul. While few are expecting the red and white to win the AFL premiership this season, most pundits will have them nestled inside the top eight.
And with good reason.
The Swans finished sixth last year in coach John Longmire’s first season in charge, when six players made their finals debut and tasted success in week one.
From that squad, Tadhg Kennelly – whose retirement means just four are left from the 2005 premiership team – is the only notable departure.
“It’s interesting that over the last three years I think we’ve made 33 changes to a list of 44,” Longmire said of the remarkably seamless transition.
“We’ve lost an enormous amount of premiership players over that period, and it just so happens to coincide with the compromised drafts.
“We’ve come off the end of an era … a team that was ageing and some champions – Mick O’Loughlin, Leo Barry, Brett Kirk – retiring.
“We’ve had to replace them. And you never replace those blokes.”
The common explanation is some slick hustling at the trade table – a theory well supported again this year by the recruitment of Tony Armstrong, Mitch Morton and most notably Tommy Walsh.
But it’s not really that simple.
“You try to regenerate your list and we think Kinnear Beatson has done a really good job recruiting,” Longmire said.
“He’s picked some terrific young talent over the last couple of years in the draft. Particularly with some of our picks that were down the draft a little bit. Sam Reid was 38, Luke Parker was 40 and Alex Johnson was 57.”
In Reid the Swans have a young key forward contracted until the end of 2017 who oozes potential and can already clutch a contested mark with the best of them.
But as Longmire stresses, Reid has yet to celebrate his 21st birthday.
“We’re all excited by what we see with Sam, but we’ve also got to understand that he’s still young and playing the toughest position on the ground. You’re going to have your ups and downs.
“It’s still probably a couple of years away before we see his best. That’s only natural, when you look across the competition most 20-year-olds are still improving.”
Reid and fellow 2009 draftees Gary Rohan and Lewis Jetta are expected to again improve, but mature-bodied midfielder Parker and key defender Johnson, who combined for 33 games in 2011, could also help drive the Swans further up the ladder in what for both will be their second season.
“To have a couple of 18-year-olds playing significant roles in their first year after being drafted, that probably hasn’t happened for quite a while,” Longmire said.
“And they weren’t just given token games, because we were playing finals. But they need to go again. That’s just the reality of AFL footy.”
Longmire is also quick to pay tribute to the help of a talented group of senior players.
The Swans’ 2005 success has long passed, but Longmire understands the importance of premiership players Adam Goodes, Jude Bolton, Ryan O’Keefe and Lewis Roberts-Thomson – valuing their off-field guidance as much as their on-field guile and grit.
“We saw last year some of the younger kids coming through, they combined with the older players and we thought it worked really well.
“It was pretty seamless and they really helped develop them, which is fantastic. We’re really lucky to have players like that.
“We have to try to get that next group to come up while we’ve still got those older blokes playing at a really high level.”