Sydney have played finals in each of the last seven years, and 13 of the last 14. They have finished in the top four on the ladder for five years in a row.
It is an imposing record from a mighty club, and the Swans are sure to further those stats in 2017.
But, the grand final losses are starting to mount. Being beaten favourites in two grand finals in the last three years starts leaving scars. Supporters are bored during the home-and-away rounds. Sure, they’ll pretend to enjoy the victories mount up (what else are they going to do?), but really they’re just waiting with a mixture of apprehension and fear for the finals to start.
Tom Mitchell has left, to spearhead the Hawthorn midfield. Ted Richards and Ben McGlynn have retired, Toby Nankervis has gone to Richmond. The latter three were on the fringes of the best team, but were important depth. No-one of significance has come in.
|B||Nick Smith||Aliir Aliir||Zak Jones|
|HB||Dane Rampe||Heath Grundy||Callum Mills|
|C||Dan Hannebery||Josh Kennedy||Jake Lloyd|
|HF||Isaac Heeney||Sam Reid||Lance Franklin|
|F||George Hewett||Kurt Tippett||Tom Papley|
|Foll||Sam Naismith||Kieren Jack||Luke Parker|
|Int||Jarrad McVeigh||Dean Towers||Gary Rohan||Harry Cunningham|
Emergencies: Jeremy Laidler, Callum Sinclair, Daniel Robinson
After years of building a reputation of being the best at recycling lesser players from other clubs, Sydney has just three men in the best 22 that started their careers elsewhere, and they are all marquee names – Buddy Franklin, Kurt Tippett and captain Josh Kennedy.
But what is significant is that nine players named in the team above started their AFL lives on the rookie list. You can add to that the likes of Luke Parker and Aliir Aliir, taken in the 40s of their respective national drafts.
The Swans are still the masters of identifying and developing underrated talent, but it tends to be from closer to home rather than from elsewhere these days.
Academy guns like Isaac Heeney and Callum Mills, who will arguably be the best players from their drafts yet were picked up for snack change, are the icing on a well-constructed cake.
Sydney are as good as any team at orchestrating the changing of the guard within their side, with the defence as the perfect example.
Heath Grundy, who returned to his best last year, and Nick Smith are the mainstays, but players like Ted Richards, Nick Malceski, and Jarrad McVeigh have been gradually phased out so Aliir Aliir can get an opportunity, Dane Rampe can flourish, Jake Lloyd can take on more rebounding responsibility, and Callum Mills can slot seamlessly in.
Zak Jones, after three years on the list, looks like he is ready to graduate to permanent status, having looked most impressive in the JLT Series with his pace and skill off half-back.
Tom Mitchell is a better player than many think, which he will prove at the Hawks, and he’ll be missed.
But his absence still leaves a star-laden midfield, consisting of familiar names like Josh Kennedy, Dan Hannebery and Luke Parker, with support from veterans Kieren Jack and Jarrad McVeigh. Lloyd and Jones will roll through there too, as well as Mills from time to time.
Of course, what we’re all waiting for is Isaac Heeney to take literal centre stage.
Heeney’s short career has already included five bags of four goals or more playing as a rotating forward, alternating between deep and high, but it was his preliminary final performance against Geelong last year, as a 20-year-oldin just his 37th game, that has whet the appetite of football fans throughout the land.
Playing a midfield role, he had team high disposals (28) and clearances (six), along with seven tackles, 13 contested possessions and a goal. A week earlier, in the semi-final against Adelaide, he played an outside game, with 24 uncontested possessions in his 32 touches.
He’s already one of the best one-on-one marks in the league, and has the capacity to do the simple things well and often, but combines that with a natural flair and ability to pull off the impossible. He’s the closest thing we’ve had to James Hird since the Essendon champion and all-time great retired.
Unfortunately, Heeney has suffered glandular fever during the pre-season, and so will miss the early rounds. Hopefully it is not too debilitating, as many the year of a young player has never recovered from a bout.
The Sydney forward line should look different this year, with Sam Reid ready to reclaim his place after not playing at all in 2017, and Kurt Tippett likely to play as a full-forward instead of first ruck, thanks to the rapid improvement of Sam Naismith.
Buddy Franklin is still the greatest forward flanker the game has ever seen. Tom Papley and George Hewett were revelations last season, both debuting in Round 1 and holding their places in the best 22 for the entire year.
As good as Papley and Hewett were, the Swans were let down by their bottom six on grand final day, and it speaks to a weakness that may be a problem this season.
Hewett did nothing, yet was twice the player Gary Rohan was on the day. Papley didn’t touch the ball in the third term with the game in the balance. Jeremy Laidler had no impact. Xavier Richards was so poor he’s not on an AFL list this season. Ben McGlynn retired after an ignominious performance.
Harry Cunningham went backwards last year, while Dean Towers continues to offer up brain fades and disappointments. Dan Robinson and Brandon Jack are approaching the crossroads. None of these four took part in finals.
Coach John Longmire has had more wins than losses off the field when it comes to development and has been able to find spots in the 22 for his most talented young players in recent time, apart from the failing that was allowing another year for Adam Goodes, forcing Tim Membrey to leave for St Kilda.
But Longmire has been torn apart on-field in his last two grand finals, and Sydney’s recent finals record isn’t flattering given the outstanding talent they’ve had on the list. Under Longmire, the Swans have struggled to arrest momentum when it goes against them. If their plan isn’t working on the day, they have little else.
The Swans will get a chance to set their season up, with five ‘gimmes’ in the opening eight rounds. Away games to the Western Bulldogs and West Coast as well as a clash with GWS are the tough matches. Win one or two of these, and they’re away, with another top-four finish beckoning.
Sydney’s top end talent means they’ll beat who they should nine times out of ten, and the same quality will ensure competitiveness against the better sides, while they enjoy home ground advantage at the SCG.
But can they rely on 22 contributors once they get to the pointy end? As the Bulldogs did through September? As Hawthorn did during their threepeat?
Or will the Swans lower end once again be found out on the big stage, with the big names unable to carry them over the line?
Predicted ladder spread: 1st-4th
Predicted finish: 2nd
Best and fairest: Josh Kennedy
Leading goalkicker: Lance Franklin
All-Australian potential: Lance Franklin, Dan Hannebery, Josh Kennedy, Luke Parker, Dane Rampe
Rising Star candidates: Oliver Florent
2nd – Sydney
3rd – Western Bulldogs
4th – Geelong
5th – West Coast
6th – Melbourne
7th – Adelaide
8th – St Kilda
9th – Hawthorn
10th – Richmond
11th – Collingwood
12th – Gold Coast
13th – Port Adelaide
14th – Fremantle
15th – Essendon
16th – North Melbourne
17th – Carlton
18th – Brisbane