Perennial heavyweights the Sydney Swans and Hawthorn Hawks are facing the inevitable decline many of their fans had feared for a while.
Before the season started, not one AFL expert would have forecast that the Swans and Hawks be winless at this early point, but that’s exactly what has transpired.
Both clubs, as well as North Melbourne, are 0-4 to start the season, and not since North in 1975 has any club gone on to reach the finals after starting a season so poorly (although the Kangaroos went on to win their first premiership that year).
While the Roos’ poor start to the year was somewhat expected, given coach Brad Scott made it clear his club was rebuilding, the Swans’ and Hawks’ dismal efforts come as a surprise.
Both clubs have made significant changes to their playing lists, with Hawthorn offloading club stalwarts Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis to West Coast and Melbourne respectively. They also replaced captain Luke Hodge with Jarryd Roughead, who hadn’t played at all in 2016 after first battling a knee injury and then melanoma, and added Jaeger O’Meara and Tyrone Vickery to their list.
After the club’s semi-final loss to the Western Bulldogs last September, coach Alastair Clarkson said he would be happy to finish 18th in 2017 if it meant having a healthy Roughead on deck.
Likewise, the Swans traded Tom Mitchell and Toby Nankervis out to Hawthorn and Richmond respectively, while co-captains Kieren Jack and Jarrad McVeigh made way for Josh Kennedy, who has been a model of consistency since arriving at the club from Hawthorn in 2010.
The events of the off-season came after the Hawks and Swans both fell victim to the Western Bulldogs’ Cinderella run to last year’s premiership.
That, and the emergence of the Greater Western Sydney Giants, could be seen as the beginning of a significant shift in the AFL landscape after years of domination by the Hawks and Swans, during which eight of the last 12 grand finals featured either side (or both in the case of 2012 and 2014).
The latter point will become a huge talking point when the Swans and Giants face off in the 12th edition of the Sydney Derby at the SCG this Saturday night.
When the Giants entered the AFL, in 2012, they started miles behind most other clubs in terms of player development and experience, with the Gold Coast Suns only marginally ahead by virtue of them having entered the competition 12 months prior.
Therefore it came as no surprise that the Giants finished last in each of their first two seasons, across which they won just three games and copped ten losses by over 100 points.
GWS lost their first four derbies against the Swans by an average of 79 points, including a 129-point thrashing on their first visit to the SCG, in mid-2013.
But the tide has turned since then, with the Giants pulling off a surprise 32-point win at Spotless Stadium in Round 1 of the 2014 season. Despite this, the Swans still finished on top of the ladder and went on to reach another grand final, losing to Hawthorn by 63 points.
More significantly, the Giants defeated the Swans in their maiden finals match, last September. They had already beaten the Swans by 42 points when the teams met at Spotless Stadium in June; it was the red and white’s heaviest defeat for the 2016 season.
Leon Cameron’s men now have the chance to break their SCG hoodoo this Saturday night, and doing that will almost certainly land the knockout blow to the Swans’ season.
Like many clubs before them, injuries, poor form and the aforementioned player turnover have been blamed for both Sydney and Hawthorn starting this year poorly.
Isaac Heeney, Jarrad McVeigh and Gary Rohan have yet to play for Sydney this year, while Tom Papley, Dane Rampe and Kurt Tippett have also spent time on the sidelines this year due to injury. Despite this, the club has been competitive in their four losses so far, with their young brigade playing strong roles.
However, skill errors cost them dearly against the West Coast Eagles in Perth, and a repeat against the Giants will be punished more severely.
Still, the Swans’ worst start to a season since 1993 is a clear sign that the long-term success the club has enjoyed under current coach John Longmire and his predecessor, Paul Roos, is starting to catch up.
Only three times since 1995 has the club missed out on September action, during which they featured in six grand finals for two premierships, and won over 50 per cent of finals matches.
In the eight completed seasons under Roos, between 2003 and 2010, the Swans missed the finals just once, in 2009, while under Longmire they have reached at least the preliminary final four times in six completed seasons.
The club’s success under Roos and Longmire is a testament to their will to strive in a city dominated by rugby league and, in recent years, association football.
While the Swans could have won any or all of their first four matches, the Hawks have had a shocking start.
After losing their first two matches, against Essendon and the Adelaide Crows, by 25 and 24 points respectively, Clarkson’s men have dropped their past two, to the Gold Coast Suns and Geelong Cats, both by 86 points. They are now sitting 18th, with a percentage of just 56.
In a disturbing sign that their time at the top is just about to come to a crashing halt, they have scored the least amount of points for (281), and more shockingly, conceded the most amount of points (502).
This is not the same champion Hawthorn side that we were used to seeing at the turn of this decade, and there is a chance they may suffer the same long-term decline the Brisbane Lions have over the last decade and a bit.
The Lions won three consecutive premierships between 2001 and 2003 under the coaching of Leigh Matthews, and narrowly missed out on matching Collingwood’s four-peat set in 1927-30 when they lost to Port Adelaide in the 2004 decider.
The club has not recovered from that missed opportunity since and, after four consecutive years without finals football, Matthews quit in September 2008, saying the time was right.
The club reached the finals under first-year coach Michael Voss in 2009 but have finished no higher than 12th in seven completed seasons since.
Now it has been suggested by former Geelong Cats coach Mark Thompson that Clarkson should leave before he is pushed.
‘Bomber’ Thompson suddenly quit his post as Cats coach at the height of the team’s success, in 2010, with Chris Scott doing very well to keep them at the upper echelon of the ladder in the years since.
Clarkson has been at the helm of the Hawks since 2005, taking over when the club had finished 15th in 2004. In this time, he has transformed them from a basket case into the comp’s most consistent side, winning four premierships between 2008 and 2015.
Having been there for the good times, it’s a fair bet to say he will be there when the club undergoes its rebuild, much like John Worsfold at the West Coast Eagles, where ‘Woosha’ oversaw sustained success in the mid-noughties and a rebuilding period at the back end of the decade.
The Eagles’ rebuild came about as a result of the trading out of club champion Chris Judd, as well as the sacking of Ben Cousins, who was then suspended for 12 months for bringing the game into disrepute.
Likewise, the Hawks appear to be bottoming out this year, having offloaded Mitchell and Lewis in controversial circumstances last October. With Hodge in the twilight of his career, the tough times that lie ahead for this once-dominant club could remain for the long-term.
So how will the Hawks and Swans go about their rebuilding processes in the short-term, after all the glory they have enjoyed in recent years?
For the sake of their fans, let’s just hope that their seasons don’t end in embarrassment, like Fremantle’s did last year.