Sydney Swans are the Masters

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The Swans and Kangaroos face off for a spot in the 2014 AFL grand final. (Photo: Craig Golding/AFL Media)

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The US Masters is the most famous golf event on the planet, and one of the most revered players in the tournament’s storied history is American Fred Couples.

Even though the evergreen veteran has only won the Masters once, he’s a perennial contender, and has a further ten top 10 finishes to complement his 1992 green jacket.

Again, this morning, at 53 years of age, he’ll be staking his claim for victory.

The Sydney Swans are AFL’s version of Fred Couples at the Masters, and they’re on track to contend again in 2013.

While the likes of Hawthorn, Carlton and North Melbourne were handed extremely tough draws in the early part this season, Sydney were gifted the two expansion teams in the opening two rounds.

And in the opening six weeks they only play two of last year finalists, seventh and eighth from last year, Geelong and North Melbourne.

But why shouldn’t the reigning premier get a few perks? In the world golf match-play championship, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy don’t play each other in the early rounds.

The Swans displayed plenty of ring-rust in Round 1 against GWS, who scrapped away with conviction all day. The cow paddock dressed up as a football ground at ANZ Stadium isn’t conducive to attractive play, and after a less than impressive pre-season from his men, John Longmire gladly accepted the five goal win.

Sydney also started slowly against Gold Coast back at the SCG, but improved as the match wore on, increasing their scoring rate in every quarter to run away with a comfortable victory.

There is a school of thought suggesting the Swans are a side that elevates their level of play depending on the opposition. That being the case, we expected them to find a gear or two when facing North Melbourne on Saturday down in Tasmania.

The Roos were disappointing against an under-strength but committed Collingwood in Round 1, but turned around their form with a dazzling first half against Geelong, playing some of the best football of the season.

Ultimately, they couldn’t hold on against the irrepressible Cats, but their form was sharp, and a statement was required at Blundstone Arena in Tasmania, their second home. North couldn’t afford to be 0-3.

The Swans started slowly once more, and went in at half-time 14 points in arrears, a deficit that would have been much greater if it wasn’t for Jude Bolton’s three first half goals. Talk about evergreen. If Sydney are the Fred Couples of the AFL, Jude Bolton is the Fred Couples of Sydney.

The 33-year-old could easily have retired after the fairytale second flag last year, but decided to keep on, and it’s clear that he’ll continue to add value during this premiership tilt.

After the half time break, Sydney unleashed a blitzkrieg that should have woken the ignorant to the fact they’ll be right in contention again this year. An 11 goal third quarter against a respected opponent was the result, including the last nine in a row.

No longer are these the ‘stodgy Swans’, and haven’t been for some time. Yes, they were still the best defensive team in 2012, but averaged over 100 points a match for the year as well.

Ted Richards is up with the best key defenders around, Heath Grundy can defend and attack with equal aplomb, Nick Smith is a terrier who I doubt has been beaten in anything since he was 10 years old, and good old LRT continues to do whatever job is asked of him in his no frills way.

Alex Johnson went down with an ACL in the pre-season, but as well drilled as the Swans are, combined with the versatility and depth of their list, injuries are more easily covered and losses of otherwise key players not as keenly felt as at other clubs.

Few teams transition as well from defence, utilising the run and skill of Nick Malceski, Rhys Shaw, Marty Mattner and Tony Armstrong, when he’s there, to rebound from defensive 50, opening up Lewis Jetta, Daniel Hanneberry and Kieren Jack to create run through the middle.

Jetta has been a disappointment in 2013 so far, and needs to lift his work-rate. He was near All-Australian last season, and needs to not rest on those laurels, but double his efforts under the closer attention he’s now receiving.

If there are three qualities that we all want in a deep midfield, they would probably be an ability for each player to hit the scoreboard, toughness at and around the ball, and a never-say-die attitude.

Sydney have all of these attributes in spades.

Multiple goals on Saturday from Bolton, Hanneberry, McGlynn, McVeigh and Parker took the game away from North. And if you had a set-shot that was the equivalent of a trickly little 8-10 foot downhill slider at Augusta, Ryan O’Keefe would be your man to make it every time.

Speaking of Jarrad McVeigh, do opposition coaches put any time into him at all?

He vied for Norm Smith honours in the grand final last year, has probably been Sydney’s most consistent player for years, and is still able to stroll around as he likes. 27 disposals and four goals against the Suns was followed up with 28 and two against North. He can also perform a minder’s role when required, and rarely makes a wrong decision under pressure.

‘Underrated’ gets bandied about too much in football, and is often used by people who want to appear to know more than what they do. I simply hate it. Most players it’s attributed to are simply good average players who’ll never be any more than that. But it’s a tag I’m willing to put on McVeigh. An understated gun.

You want toughness and a refusal to admit defeat? Try almost every player who steps out in a Sydney jumper. The same can be said for their opponent this week, Geelong.

Boy is that going to be a Friday night epic. A grand final preview? It’s not preposterous.

Adam Scott, Jason Day and Marc Leishman will probably have finished their run at US Masters glory by the time you read this, and hopefully one of them has secured the holy grail of Australian sport.

When it gets tough down the stretch, and they need to make a clutch putt or a par-saving up-and-down, there are worse things they could channel than the belief and courage of the Sydney Football Club, forever contending, and winning when all others have written them off.

Cameron Rose is a born and bred Melbournian, raised on a regime of AFL, cricket and horse racing. He likes people who agree with him but loves those that don't, for there's nothing better than a roaring debate. He tweets from @camtherose.
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