It was the last home game for Aaron Sandilands and Hayden Ballantyne.
It’s a clash of two different comeback stories when the Sydney Swans host the Essendon Bombers for an elimination final at the SCG on Saturday afternoon.
For Sydney, it’s the story of rising up despite an 0-6 start, being comfortably the best team in the league from Round 7 onward, and earning a home final.
For Essendon, it’s a return to the big stage after several years in the wilderness as the result of their drugs scandal.
Fair to say that for most neutral fans the former is more inspiring than the latter, but in the respective camps of both clubs there will be a certain pride at having come this far.
Most looking at this matchup would say that of the two teams, it is the Swans who look like they can really go far in the 2017 finals.
Indeed on last night’s commentary, many were already looking at a loss to Geelong as being the path to a straight sets exit at the hands of Sydney (and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t had similar thoughts) – but that is two whole wins away first!
Extraordinary things are expected of them in this finals series because they have set that tone for themselves by virtue of their incredible form once recovering from a slow start.
They’re the shortest-priced favourites out of every game this week – but they’re up against the team that got closer to them than anyone else has bar Hawthorn since Round 6.
Don’t for a second count out Essendon’s ability to put an end to this Swan fairytale before it even really begins.
Last five matches
Round 14, 2017 – Sydney Swans 11.20.86 defeated Essendon Bombers 12.13.85
Round 7, 2016 – Sydney Swans 20.15.135 defeated Essendon Bombers 7.12.54
Round 1, 2015 – Sydney Swans 10.17.72 defeated Essendon Bombers 9.6.60
Round 19, 2014 – Sydney Swans 11.13.79 defeated Essendon Bombers 8.9.57
Round 9, 2014 – Essendon Bombers 9.10.64 defeated by Sydney Swans 18.6.114
IN: Sam Naismith, Dan Hannebery, Tom Papley
OUT: Harry Cunningham (Omitted), Will Hayward (Omitted), Kurt Tippett (Omitted)
B: Nick Smith, Heath Grundy, Dane Rampe
HB: Callum Mills, Lewis Melican, Jarrad McVeigh
C: Jake Lloyd, Josh P. Kennedy, Isaac Heeney
HF: George Hewett, Lance Franklin, Gary Rohan
F: Kieren Jack, Callum Sinclair, Sam Reid
FOL: Sam Naismith, Luke Parker, Dan Hannebery
I/C: Zak Jones, Nic Newman, Tom Papley, Dean Towers
EMG: Aliir Aliir, Harry Cunningham, Daniel Robinson
IN: Orazio Fantasia, Michael Hurley
OUT: Jayden Laverde (Omitted), Cale Hooker (Leg)
B: James Kelly, Michael Hartley, Mark Baguley
HB: Andrew McGrath, Patrick Ambrose, Conor McKenna
C: Jobe Watson, Darcy Parish, Brendon Goddard
HF: Zach Merrett, James Stewart, Martin Gleeson
F: Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, Joe Daniher, Joshua Begley
FOL: Tom Bellchambers, David Zaharakis, Dyson Heppell
I/C: Orazio Fantasia, Michael Hurley, David Myers, Travis Colyer
EMG: Jayden Laverde, Heath Hocking, Shaun McKernan
Will Sydney’s hard calls at the selection table pay off?
Both Kurt Tippett and Will Hayward could rightly feel somewhat aggrieved at being left out of this side ahead of finals.
Tippett’s form in the last four games of the year was solid enough, kicking four goals and having some impact in the ruck, but he has made way for Sam Naismith.
Hayward has played 17 games this year, an outstanding effort for a debut player taken outside the top 20 in an elite team, and kicked three goals in Round 23 – hardly the kind of performance one expects to be dropped after.
Sydney, however, have obviously settled on a mix that they feel works best for them as a team. They usually get it right, but there are no second chances for them, so they’ll want to hope they’ve done it again.
How much of a loss is Cale Hooker?
There’s been a fair bit of back and forth about Cale Hooker this year. Sometimes he looks completely out of his depth as a key forward, at other times he is a match-winner.
All up he has kicked 41 goals this year though, a return that I imagine most Dons fans would happily have settled for at the start of the year.
Unfortunately, he missed the last game of the home-and-away season through injury and though it was a close call, didn’t pull up in time to play in this one.
While Joe Daniher is still Essendon’s most potent forward weapon, Hooker’s presence as a dangerous second target means opposition defences don’t have the luxury of double-teaming Daniher.
Going up against the most miserly backline in the league, Daniher will have his work cut out for him as he’s likely to find a loose man rushing to his contests time and time again.
Are the Bombers still Buddy’s bunnies?
Lance Franklin doesn’t love playing any team more than he loves playing against Essendon, a side has repeatedly kicked bags against from the earliest days of his career.
Even though the Bombers have had two really elite key defenders in recent years, Cale Hooker and Michael Hurley both at All Australian quality, they’ve never found a genuine Buddy-stopper.
In Round 14 against them this year though, he was held goalless – which sounds quite impressive, until you move to the next column on the stat list and see that he kicked six behinds.
So was it a case of the Bombers finally finding their way to keep Franklin quiet, or merely a bad night for Buddy’s radar?
Either way, the Bombers will be hoping to see much the same on Saturday – but the man himself will be confident of burying them again as he has so many times before.
I have tipped the Swans to win the flag this year, so I can hardly tip against them in an elimination final, but I do feel that they’ve drawn an opponent who can challenge them more than most other finals teams can.
The Swans always seem to go to another level in finals though and if they do so again then they should win this one comfortably, perhaps crushingly.
Sydney Swans to win by 24.
When: 4:20pm AEST Saturday 9 September
TV: Seven, live, Fox Footy, live
Betting: Sydney $1.18, Essendon $5.10
Head-to-head: Sydney 87, Essendon 130, Drawn 1
Last five: Sydney 5, Essendon 0
In finals: Sydney 2, Essendon 5