2017 AFL preview series: Sydney Swans – 2nd

Cameron Rose Columnist

By Cameron Rose, Cameron Rose is a Roar Expert

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    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.

    Isaac Heeney Sydney Swans 2015 AFL

    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.

    Sydney Swans player Lance Franklin reaches after kicking a goal

    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

    Cam Rose’s AFL preview series ladder

    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

    Cameron Rose
    Cameron Rose

    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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    The Crowd Says (63)

    • March 21st 2017 @ 1:19pm
      Jim said | March 21st 2017 @ 1:19pm | ! Report

      The story is pretty simply for the Swans in aggregate Cameron, as you point out in your article. In short, they need the bottom six to perform in a manner like they did in the 2012 GF, not in a manner like they did in the 2016 GF (2014 GF doesn’t count per say as they had probably a bottom 18 or 20 that day!). Improvement at the bottom end is where the Swans can make up the difference they need.

      These stats tell the interesting story about the Swans list, and tell an interesting story – one with clearly some elite talent, mixed in with quite a bit of inexperience.
      http://www.afl.com.au/news/2016-12-03/total-list-breakdown-all-the-key-stats

      – 5th youngest average age as at rd 1 2017
      – 5th fewest average afl games per player
      – 4th most players yet to debut at AFL level (13)
      – 4th least players with 100 games +
      – But despite all that, the 2nd most finals experience (267 games in total).

      Of course these are somewhat skewed by retirements in recent years of highly experienced and decorated players – and may well be further changed if McVeigh goes at the end of the season, which looks likely.

      What it suggests is that, on average, its a pretty young and relatively inexperienced list. The Swans will need ongoing improvement and growth from the mid tier players if they are going to take the next step – and probably a few more surprise packets to come from nowhere and stake their claim, which was a huge upside in season 2016. There is little doubt of the overall quality of the Swans top tier players – though one can argue they need better from some of their more experience players come the heat of the finals.

      But in the end, its the middle/lower tier players that need to improve significantly if the Swans are to really fulfil their overall potential, and win a flag. Its there that they have been found out against the best teams in recent finals series. The top end talent will continue on doing its job more than likely – and there is a lot of upside in Heeney and Mills in particular. But players like Hewett, Aliir, Naismith, Lloyd and Zak Jones (who I am sure will have a great year- his pre season has followed on from fantastic games in both the prelim and grand final) need to take the next step and up their game to the next level – to allow pressure to be taken off the top tier, and spread the load when the going gets tough.

      Beyond that, some of the ‘halfway house’ players need to find a way to take the next step (such as Rohan) and fully fulfil their talent.

      The other key are, as others have mentioned, is the need for support for Buddy up forward. Sam Reid needs a big year, that is for sure. Tippett needs to find his form of pre-2016 injury as well, when he was doing very well, and the Swans ideally need to unearth another unheralded gem or two, especially while Papley is missing early in the season (I feel criticism of his finals performance from some has been very harsh, from a guy that came on the list at the end of 2015 as very much a project player – he is still a hell of a long way in front of where the club expected him to be)

      Its something the Swans of 2000 onwards have always been very good at – having a list that contributes well from 1 to 22. But since 2012, it hasn’t functioned as well as it once did. Most will take the easy route and blame in on too much capital being in Buddy and Tippo, but its a bit more complex than that in my book.

      I’m sure my swans will have another very good year, and I hope they can take the final step and get another Premiership, which in my opinion would see the history books more accurately reflect just how good the Swans teams of 2012-2016 (and of course assuming 2017)) have been. But football is a funny old game, and winning a flag is an exceptionally tough thing to do at the best of times, and the current generation would not be the first Swans one, let alone in the wider community, that didn’t end up getting the results it deserves.

      Saying all that, there is one thing I hope beyond hope that the Swans faithful get to see in 2017 – and that is Alex Johnson, back on the park, playing footy (hopefully AFL but NEAFL would be a good start). Even if the rest of the season proves to be a disaster, that would be an absolute highlight for me, and I have made a pledge to myself to make sure, no matter where the game is, that I am there to cheer him back on the park if he can make it back to the AFL. His story of dogged determination, despite awful setbacks, is inspiring, and he will get an enormous roar if he can get back on the park.

      • Columnist

        March 21st 2017 @ 1:35pm
        Cameron Rose said | March 21st 2017 @ 1:35pm | ! Report

        Fantastic commentary Jim, and we’re all with you on Alex Johnson.

        Zak Jones is certainly ticking all the boxes for becoming a break-out player. With him, Mills, Heeney and Lloyd leading the next generation, the future is in good hands.

    • March 21st 2017 @ 1:35pm
      Red and White Army said | March 21st 2017 @ 1:35pm | ! Report

      That is by far the best ‘best 22’ for the Swans I have seen so far. The only changes I would like to see are on the bench, with Florent coming in for Towers and Alex Johnson for Cunningham – however, I can definitely see the logic in picking the (slightly) more experienced Towers first up to make Florent earn his spot, and Johnson’s injury history means he can’t really be considered just yet.

      Johnson and Reid have the potential to make or break our season this year – Reid’s marking presence up forward was badly missed late last year, and most people (if not all) who don’t follow the Swans have probably forgotten all about Johnson by now. Both of them were crucial to our run to the flag in 2012.

      Most concerning would be how to take on the Dogs and Giants in the middle of the ground. Both sides exposed us last year as being a bit one-paced. Kennedy, Parker and Mitchell are all great at finding the ball, but a little on the slow side when they were in the middle together. Hopefully injecting Zak Jones, Callum Mills and (when fit) Isaac Heeney can help address this issue against the top sides.

      Should be another fantastic year, here’s hoping we can get over our Grand Final Day nerves this year! (provided we get there)

      • March 21st 2017 @ 3:25pm
        Jim said | March 21st 2017 @ 3:25pm | ! Report

        I’d love to see Johnson come back make a huge difference (see my comment above), but to be honest I think the Back 6 is probably the least of our worries – we were all in all an excellent defensive team last year, even with the demise of Ted. A fully fit and firing AJ would certainly improve the back 6 – but that is only likely to happen in 2018, if sadly at all (still have everything crossed that he will make it back!)

        Taking pressure off Buddy and addressing the issue you’ve talked about in midfield is where the difference will be made.

    • March 21st 2017 @ 4:13pm
      Birdman said | March 21st 2017 @ 4:13pm | ! Report

      “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?”

      is it just me or have many of their big names gone missing at the ‘pointest’ end – McVeigh, Jack, Hannerbry, Tippett, Rohan and Parker have all misfired in a couple of grannies IIRC.

      • March 21st 2017 @ 4:32pm
        ryantanner said | March 21st 2017 @ 4:32pm | ! Report

        I agree. We’ve gone into two grand finals as red-hot favourites for a reason. Most people really rated us, so there’s obviously a reason for that. One game in which many of the Swans players were blatantly poor or below their usual standard suddenly changes everyones mind? Fickle bunch these experts are.

        • March 21st 2017 @ 9:54pm
          Jim said | March 21st 2017 @ 9:54pm | ! Report

          I think the biggest challenge for our swans ryan, maybe not noted here, is in the coaches box and the sports psychologist rooms.

          The first have to find a way to tinker the gameplan to overcome those teams where clearly we are going to struggle against (Dogs, GWS are 2 for sure in that category). I think in that space, the loss of Mitchell (assuming Heeney/Mills/Jones can adequately contribute through midfield) may help the cause a little bit. But I’ve said it for a long time – the Swans struggle when the A gameplan doesn’t work – been the same ever since the days of Eade and Roos as coach.

          The second group have to find a way to get inside the heads of those players that keep underperforming in the biggest games – there are, as Birdman has outlined, some players that clearly should be doing a lot better in those games. At least part of it must be between the ears for mine. In that space, hopefully the move to Joey as captain will help, given he is one that simply takes his game up another notch in the biggest games.

      • March 21st 2017 @ 9:35pm
        Jim said | March 21st 2017 @ 9:35pm | ! Report

        A bit harsh on Hannebrey birdman. He was poor in 2014 (but in the better group of the Swans team on the day – not that there was too much good about them), but was superb in 2012, and pretty good in 2016 as well, up until the infamous injury early in the 4th.

        As for the others, you can certainly mount an argument that when the going has got tough in ’14 and ’16, they didn’t stand up as you expect. Parker in particular hasn’t stepped up in finals as one would hope from a player of his calibre, and McVeigh and Jack as leaders were disappointing in 2014 and 16.

        As for Tippo – I so want to like the guy, but he hasn’t consistently delivered for his pay packet. Granted however in ’16 he was looking very good up until his injury mid season, which it took him a long time to recover from.

        Finally, Rohan – well he is one that I feel the club vastly overrates, on flashes of brilliance alone. Granted I’m happy to give him a lot of leeway because of that original awful injury that did set him back a long way, but he is nowhere near the quality of player that a first rounder with his skills should be by this stage of his career. He has really only ever had one standout finals game – the ’14 prelim against the Roos, and was dreadful in both the ’14 and ’16 grand final. If it wasn’t for his manic pressure and speed, I wouldn’t have him anywhere near the top 22 if I was coach. But I’m not (and I’m sure that’s a good thing!)

    • March 21st 2017 @ 4:30pm
      ryantanner said | March 21st 2017 @ 4:30pm | ! Report

      Perspective is important. Going into both the 2014 and 2016 grand finals, we were pretty hot favourites, and rightfully so. Both years we had a pretty even team. Everyone contributed, including the likes of Rohan etc. We had good depth, and had everything required to beat both the Hawks and the Bulldogs. We choked in both games, plain and simple. On both days we faced an opposition who just had more players playing well than we did. It’s our fault, and it’s their credit. It’s easy to come out the other side on the back of a loss and blame lack of depth, being too Buddy-reliant, game-plan etc. when you lose a grand final, but the truth of the matter is that everything was completely fine going into both grand finals. Lack of depth, Buddy-dependance and game-plan did not cost us either grand finals. Even star players like Hannebery, Parker, Jack, McVeigh etc. had ordinary days that just weren’t good enough.

      That is why I am confident going into 2017. We’ve proven that if we have a full 22-man contribution, we’re probably the best team in the competition. It also has nothing to do with coaching, in my opinion. We don’t fall to bits whenever the game isn’t on our terms, nor do we struggle to find multiple ways of winning. Last year was a prime example. We played some dominant show-boating footy, but we also had tough defensive games, low-scoring rain-soaked affairs, and high-scoring attacking games. Over the past four years, only Hawthorn have proven themselves better at winning in any given situation regardless of whether the game suits them or not.

      I think people just read into the grand final losses too much. The fact is, some of our best players did not perform up to their usual standard. That really is the crux of it. When that happens, you’re never going to win a grand final. But we still have everything required to go again.

      Our forward line is currently injury-depleted, with the absences of Rohan, Papley, Heeney, X. Richards and McGlynn from last year. But once we get some of those blokes back, we’ll have Buddy roaming the 50m arc, Reid playing as more of an up-the-ground lead-up option (we work pretty effectively when he and Buddy collaborate), Tippett will be deeper inside 50, but still play some ruck-time. Naismith will be the lead ruck, though. If we’re against taller forward lines, such as St Kilda, Geelong or GWS, I would expect to see Darcy Cameron playing full forward too. He could very well be a Tony Lockett replica if he can just stand in the goal-square and pluck marks. May not happen immediately as it’s his first season, but if we can mould him into that role, it’d be just what we’re lacking, since both Tippett and Buddy aren’t great in marking contests.

      Our midfield is still the best in the competition in terms of quality, but we’re far behind others (like Bulldogs, GWS) in terms of quantity. You couldn’t ask for four better gun mids in the one team than Kennedy, Hannebery, Parker and Jack. But after those four blokes, it drops away rather significantly. Mitchell leaving makes things worse, but it does not spell disaster. Hopefully Heeney’s glandular fever won’t hinder his ability to return as a full-time mid, because I was really looking forward to 2017 becoming the year he became not just a permanent midfielder, but one of the best midfielders in the competition. He provides us with that spark in the middle that we currently only get from Parker’s class. Zak Jones is who I’m pegging my hopes on this year. He’s got great pace, meaning he can break those lines, great skills which means he can improve our forward forays with more efficiency, and also a bit of mongrel in him, meaning he wouldn’t go astray right in the contests like Kennedy and Parker. Lloyd has also proven to have continued his gradual improvement, and he’s now a pretty important part of our outside link-ups, even if he’s a flawed flanker. Then there’s blokes like Hewett and Robinson, who aren’t ball magnets, but have enough class to gain 20 or so possessions, and make most of them count.

      To win a premiership, it’s better to have a dozen or so blokes getting 20-25 touches and them all being good ones than just three or four of the same guys getting over 30, and then everyone else dropping away. This is the one area I believe John Longmire could improve the Swans, but he’s also trying to juggle easing the kids into senior footy by playing them in various positions (Mills on the half-back, Heeney as a half-forward, Hewett as a small forward, Jones as a half-back flanker etc.) so I can understand why he’s struggled to build a large midfield group.

      Our defence is self-explanatory. I suspect we’ll be as difficult as ever to score against, perhaps even more difficult now that our relatively young back-line of Marsh, Aliir and Mills will have another year under their belts and should have improved. Our depth is also pretty good, with blokes like Laidler, Melican and Talia playing in our reserves. Of course, we’d still be pretty stuffed if our two anchors in Grundy and Rampe went down, but take away the two best defenders out of any team and they wouldn’t be as dangerous.

      BEST 22:

      Smith – Grundy – Marsh (potentially Melican)
      Rampe – Aliir – Mills (can swap with Jones)
      Heeney – Parker – Jones (can swap with Mills)
      Naismith – Kennedy – Hannebery
      K. Jack – Franklin – Reid
      Rohan – Tippett – Papley

      Hewett – Robinson – Lloyd – McVeigh

      Which means Florent, Towers, Laidler, Cunningham and Sinclair are the guys capable of playing senior footy who miss out for me. IMO, the last four just aren’t up to it though to be considered above any of the guys I’ve listed in the team. As for Florent, he’s playing this week almost certainly, so we’ll see how he goes. If he impresses, and his attributes like his pace and class shine through, he should keep McVeigh out the team. The game’s just gone past the champion unfortunately.

      • March 21st 2017 @ 10:03pm
        Jim said | March 21st 2017 @ 10:03pm | ! Report

        I reckon Zak Jones is in for an outstanding year. He was great in the Prelim final and one of our best in a disappointing GF. His pre-season form suggests he is in great nick and roaring to go. Watch him take the next step this year for sure.

        Looking forward to see what Robinson can do this year. He was playing very well up until the bad injury last year that stuffed his season. His pre-season, like Jones, has been very good – got 26 touches in one of the JLT games, and used the ball pretty well. I hope he can take the next step up as well.

    • March 21st 2017 @ 6:28pm
      Philthy said | March 21st 2017 @ 6:28pm | ! Report

      Sydney’s issue both times they played the Bulldogs was the players ranked 15-22 in the team and their contribution or lack thereof. During the home and away game in Sydney, their big guns fired (Kennedy, Hannebery, Parker, Franklin and Jack) and they lost. The same happened (save for Franklin) in the GF. They can’t blame inexperience because the Bulldogs players ranked 15-22 on the team have just as little experience and still had an impact in those games.

      • March 21st 2017 @ 7:29pm
        ryantanner said | March 21st 2017 @ 7:29pm | ! Report

        Hannebery missed virtually an entire quarter due to injury and Parker went into the game with the same injury he acquired in the preliminary final a week earlier. You could clearly see Parker’s movement was limited.

        As for the game earlier in the season, the Swans should have won that game. We were woeful in front of goal and with our efficiency inside 50, and would have won if it weren’t for a weak defensive moment when the Bulldogs scored one of the easiest goals of the game on the final siren. So Bulldogs got kind of lucky in that game.

        • March 21st 2017 @ 8:37pm
          Maggie said | March 21st 2017 @ 8:37pm | ! Report

          Buddy Franklin went into the GF with a shoulder injury incurred in the finals round and then hurt his ankle within the first 10 minutes of the match. He was subsequently severely limited in his running ability. This was the single most significant factor in the Swans performing at less than their best.

      • March 21st 2017 @ 9:58pm
        Jim said | March 21st 2017 @ 9:58pm | ! Report

        Spot on Philthy. Certainly as others have indicated below, it wasn’t helped on Grand Final day by some stupid decisions made about carrying players with injuries – in particular, neither Parker nor Mills should have been anywhere near the 22, given the injury everyone knew about with Mills, and the subsequent injury that Parker was carrying.

        The bottom six is clearly the issue the Swans need to address this year if they are to take the final step – that and get the underperforming big names to stand up when it matters in the big games. Twice in three years too many of them have been disappointing when it mattered.

    • March 21st 2017 @ 8:10pm
      Swannies said | March 21st 2017 @ 8:10pm | ! Report

      Swans look even better in 2017 and look certainties to play in this year’s grand final and make amends for last year. We all look forward to seeing Buddy win a premiership this year…he really deserves it more than anyone. I think Longmire can win another 2 or 3 flags for the mighty Swans. The best coach in the business! My prediction is Swans to win back to back premierships in 2017-18.

      • March 21st 2017 @ 9:56pm
        Jim said | March 21st 2017 @ 9:56pm | ! Report

        Didn’t you get the Memo Swannies – that sort of talk only should happen after we get over the recent hiccups and win on the big day 😛

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