Once again many pundits in the pre-season were writing the Sydney Swans’ obituary. Once again, they have been proved wrong.
With the mid-season bye approaching, the Swans find themselves third on the ladder with the second-best percentage in the competition.
Had it not been for the stumble last weekend against Greater Western Sydney the club would be atop the ladder.
Since 2003, the Swans have missed the finals just once – in 2009 when they finished 12th. In that time, Sydney have won two flags, contested a further two grand finals and been eliminated at the preliminary final stage twice.
While the red and whites have not had the premiership success of the likes of Hawthorn (four flags) and Geelong (three) since 2003, Sydney’s 12 finals campaigns in the past 13 seasons betters all other clubs – Geelong have contested September action ten times and Hawthorn and West Coast on eight occasions.
Year after year the Swans fly under the radar.
Like those to their north, they play in a market where Australian rules football is very much a second-tier sport in the eyes of the media and while the southern states report on the code fiercely Sydney is seldom mentioned.
This season, with the rise of GWS, the club is even taking somewhat of a backseat in the Sydney press.
For coach John Longmire, it is a perfect situation.
The talk nationally has mainly surrounded GWS’s looming maiden finals series, Geelong’s Patrick Dangerfield-led charge, speculation of whether or not Hawthorn can claim four in a row, the implosion of Fremantle, and the continued trials at both Collingwood and Richmond.
Meanwhile, the Swans just keep purring along. Another finals campaign appears a formality and another flag a very real possibility.
One of the strengths of Sydney over the past dozen years has been their ability to replenish the club’s stocks despite the luxury of top-end draft picks.
The club secured the services of the likes of Craig Bolton, Kieran Jack, Dan Hannebery, Luke Parker, Tom Mitchell, Sam Reid and Kurt Tippett through various drafts while also proving highly successful during the annual trade period.
While Lance Franklin’s stellar ten-year, $10 million deal to whip him away from Hawthorn under free agency remains one of the biggest coups of recent times, Sydney also traded successfully for the services of Josh Kennedy, Ted Richards, Rhyce Shaw, Craig Bird, Martin Mattner, Darren Jolly and Ben McGlynn.
While many clubs bemoan the performance of their recruiting department, Sydney have deftly been able to maintain a high-quality, highly competitive list for over 12 years.
The current squad has plenty of class.
One of the hallmarks of the Swans’ recent success is its midfield. For both class and depth, few in the competition can compete.
The club is blessed with the perfect blend of in-and-under on-ballers and outside runners who rack up heavy possessions. So far this season, Hannebery averages 31 disposals, with Kennedy (30), Mitchell (28), Parker (27) and Jack (23) all rolling through the midfield and wreaking havoc at various times.
On the end of much of the midfield’s enterprise is Franklin.
To date, the proven match-winner has kicked 43 goals to lead the charge for the Coleman Medal. While ‘Buddy’ is a handful inside 50, he has also run amok up the ground.
On Sunday, against GWS, he lined up on a wing early in the game. His ability to run and carry the ball and then kick it forward 50-60 metres when playing up the ground puts enormous pressure on opposition defences. Finding a suitable opponent for him is a major challenge.
While Franklin more often than not is the go-to man inside 50, the Swans have found numerous avenues to goal. Their midfielders are renowned for hitting the scoreboard, and likes of McGlynn, Isaac Heaney and elevated rookie Tom Papley have also regularly bobbed up.
Down back, Sydney have plenty of steel and rebounding ability.
Richards and Heath Shaw fill the primary key defender’s role while skipper Jarrad McVeigh, Dane Rampe, Nick Smith and Jeremy Laidler provide plenty of run.
With the retirement of Mike Pyke, Kurt Tippett has been used more on the ball this season. Coming off a 44-goal season last year – his best return since 2010 – he has carried the bulk of the ruck work this season while also managing to kick 15 goals.
The club was struck a blow on Sunday when Tippett succumbed to a hamstring tendon injury which is expected to sideline him for up to six weeks.
Callum Sinclair, who was traded to Sydney last year from West Coast in return for Lewis Jetta, will now shoulder the rucking duties with his sidekick, should one be deemed necessary from week-to-week. It is a choice between Sam Naismith, Toby Nankervis and Tom Derickx who have each been playing in the NEAFL in recent times.
The loss of Tippett will hurt the Swans.
Either side of the bye, over the next six weeks Sydney meet Melbourne (H), Western Bulldogs (H), Geelong (A), Hawthorn (H), Carlton (H) and Fremantle (A).
Sinclair will be an able replacement for Tippett but the lack of a genuine two-prong ruck combination will put real pressure on the midfield against the classier opponents.
It appears that the competition at the top of the ladder will be tight come season’s end.
The period sans Tippett will be challenging but a positive win-loss ratio through that period will place the club well in contention for a one-two finish at the end of the home-and-away series.
Come September, and deep into it, the Sydney Swans will likely find themselves front and centre in the AFL media.
For now, Longmire and his charges will simply continue to do what they do best – play tough and uncompromising football – and hope the other clubs continue to dominate the AFL discussion.