2016 is shaping as the tightest race in recent AFL memory, at least at the top end of the ladder.
While the bottom three team in Brisbane, Fremantle and Essendon have been putrid and the middle of the ladder contains equal parts mediocrity and over-achievement, the top eight contains quality at every turn.
Despite North Melbourne topping the ladder and Hawthorn being the three-time defending champion, major betting markets have the Sydney Swans as the flag favourites. So should that be the case? Let’s check the tale of the tape and see whether they deserve the tag of premiership favourite across a number of key areas.
Record against top eight teams
Each of the top eight teams have played between three and six games against fellow, current finalists. The Swans have the equal best record against fellow top eight teams having defeated GWS, West Coast, North Melbourne and Hawthorn while losing a close contest to Adelaide.
They share a 4-1 record with Geelong, Norths are 2-1 and no other team has a winning record against fellow finals aspirants (the Bulldogs are 2-3, Hawthorn 3-3, West Coast 0-4, GWS 3-3 and Adelaide 2-4). The Swans have proven their worth with wins both at home and away against these teams, conceding just 59 points a game in their four wins.
The old saying is that statistics can tell you anything and it is normally true.
Case in point – the Swans control the ball in all facets of the game and that has translated to success. They rank third in total disposal differential, second in contested possession differential and fifth in uncontested disposal differential. They rank fifth in inside 50 differential and when they go inside they rank third in marks inside 50 differential.
Interestingly, they rank second last in effective disposal efficiency, which may say more about the value of that particular statistic than how ‘well’ the Swans do it, especially given Carlton rank third, Essendon fifth and Richmond eighth.
Champion Data’s “hot plot” is based on the premise that teams need to score in excess of 100 points and concede less than 86 points in order to be a premiership team; 16 of the last 17 AFL premiers have done the former and 15 of 17 have done the latter, so it stands up through the many changes in game styles throughout this era. The graph following Round 11 shows Sydney quite clearly deserving of their spot near the top end of the ladder.
— Champion Data AFL (@championdata) June 5, 2016
The five teams regarded as being premiership standard are in the top eight, with the Swans having the best percentage.
Of the top 20 disposal getters in the league, the Swans have four – Dan Hannebery (second), Josh Kennedy (sixth), Tom Mitchell (16th) and Luke Parker (19th). Those same four players rank within the top 12 in handballs, which reflects the Swans’ game style around the middle of the ground.
When you add Jarrad McVeigh, Kieran Jack and Jake Lloyd to that star quartet then you will back the Swans to get the ball out of the middle in most situations.
When they kick it forward, the ball normally goes towards Lance Franklin. A few weeks back, it was seen as newsworthy that the ball goes to ‘Buddy’ more often than any other player in the league.
This is hardly a ground-breaking strategy. Franklin not only ranks first in the Coleman Medal race with 41 goals in 11 games, but he ranks second in inside 50s and fifth in marks inside 50. When you kick like a mule from 60 metres as he does, the inside 50 statistics are cream on the cake.
Franklin has been ably supported by Isaac Heeney, with the second year star kicking a goal and a half a game, but perhaps more important to Sydney’s success has been the improvement of Kurt Tippett.
The former Adelaide Crow is in career-best form. He ranks sixth in total hit-outs and eighth in hit-outs per game and is tallying career-high numbers for both disposals and tackles. He’s also kicked 15 goals. If Tippett can continue with his consistent form, the Swans look all the more menacing.
As has been the case for most of this generation, Sydney’s defence is full of players who seem like they are vulnerable if separated and simply do not evoke fear or excitement on paper, but they continue to produce at an elite level.
They have not ranked below sixth in fewest points conceded since 2009. They ranked first in three seasons during that time and are only marginally behind the top-ranked Western Bulldogs in 2016.
Dane Rampe has developed his game to rank second in rebound 50s per game, also ranking in the top 20 for one-percenters. Nick Smith, Jeremy Laidler, Heath Grundy and Ted Richards contribute to a defence that does what it needs to do when it needs to be done.
Plenty has been said about the New South Wales academy privileges given to the Swans, and they have done very well to secure Callum Mills, Dan Robinson and Heeney via those means.
However, let’s not forget they have drafted very shrewdly in getting Tom Papley via the rookie draft and George Hewett in the second round of the draft. All five young players are an integral part of Sydney’s current team and add a degree of freshness to what is largely a dour, hard-working team.
The run home
Sitting in second place one game and percentage clear of the chasing pack, the Swans have six of their last 11 games at the fortress that is the SCG.
While the next five games sees them play fellow top eight aspirants GWS, Hawthorn, Geelong and the Western Bulldogs, they face just one top eight sides in their last six games, that being North Melbourne in Round 22.
Compare that to the Kangaroos, who face all other top eight teams in the last 11 rounds including Hawthorn twice, and it would be surprising if the Swans didn’t finish above them come the end of the season.
The Swans have won at least 13 games in every season under John Longmire since he took over the head coaching reigns in 2011 and this may be the most balanced and talented team he has ever had.
Given their consistency and strong home form, it would be a shock if they didn’t finish in the top two. While Hawthorn have earned the respect that comes with being a three-time premier and Geelong are also strong contenders, the remainder of the top eight have their flaws and don’t seem likely to challenge for the flag this season.
It may well be time for Sydney, who are deserved premiership favourites at half-time in the 2016 AFL season.