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The Sydney Swans are built to win flags - so why don't they?

Callum Mills of the Swans looks dejected after a loss during the 2016 Toyota AFL Grand Final match between the Sydney Swans and the Western Bulldogs at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on October 01, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)
Editor
20th September, 2017
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3169 Reads

A season that promised so much for Sydney has ultimately delivered so little. Despite that, they still have one of the most talented and well-balanced playing lists in the league.

AFL list management series
18 – Brisbane Lions
17 – Gold Coast Suns
16 – Carlton Blues
15 – North Melbourne Kangaroos
14 – Fremantle Dockers
13 – Collingwood Magpies
12 – Hawthorn Hawks
11 – St Kilda Saints
10 – Western Bulldogs
9 – Melbourne Demons
8 – Essendon Bombers
7 – Port Adelaide Power
6 – West Coast Eagles
4 – GWS Giants
3 – Geelong Cats

2017 in short

It’s remarkable that in a season where they were arguably the best team on form for a large patch of the year, 2017 was still somehow Sydney’s worst result in six years, and they haven’t had a year where they’ve achieved less since 2009, the last time they missed finals.

The season began with a poor start at 0-6, then an incredible run of form to be 14-2 over the rest of the home-and-away season, a big elimination final win against Essendon, and then seemingly forgetting to catch the plane to play Geelong.

In the end, the year has to be considered a pretty significant letdown for a team that was expected to finish in the top three by just about everyone – but is it the start of a trend, or just a blip on the radar?

Coach

John Longmire probably gets talked about the least of just about every coach in the AFL, despite being one of those who should be talked more than most.

In seven seasons at the club, he has taken Sydney to finals every year, five times to the top four, twice to the minor premiership, and once to the flag itself. Any coach in the league would kill to have a record like that.

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And yet, some remain unconvinced, and perhaps not without reason – most would agree that Sydney should have achieved more than just the one flag so far from this quality collection of players, and perhaps some of the blame lies at Longmire’s feet.

Maybe. Either way, he is signed up to coach Sydney until the end of 2020, and it doesn’t look likely that anything will interrupt that.

Cam Rose wrote a good piece on him earlier this week.

John Longmire Sydney Swans AFL 2017

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Captain

Josh P Kennedy took over the job full time this year and generally speaking did quite well – he continued his own elite form and no doubt played some role in the team’s resurgence from an 0-6 start.

He is 29 now though and even though he’s only been in the role one year the club will want to consider who might be his eventual replacement.

Dan Hannebery or Luke Parker look like obvious candidates, and it wouldn’t surprise to see Callum Mills one day captain the club.

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List management

Sydney’s playing list is a beautiful thing.

The veteran core is made up of Jarrad McVeigh (32), Heath Grundy (31), Lance Franklin, Kurt Tippett, Kieren Jack (all 30), Nick Smith and Josh P Kennedy (both 29) – a quality group of players with only Tippett really ever threatening to be a headache.

McVeigh, Grundy and Jack are all probably nearing the ends of their careers – they’re all signed on for 2018, but it might be the last year for all three. However, there’s plenty of emerging talent on the list ready to take up the slack when that happens.

Franklin and Kennedy, on the other hand, look likely to be pillars of the team for several years to come at least, regardless of age. And any contribution from Tippett or Smith is just gravy at this point, nice to have, but perhaps not crucial to success.

Lance Franklin Sydney Swans AFL 2017

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Sydney’s middle tier is made of talents like Callum Sinclair, Dean Towers, Dane Rampe (all 27), Dan Hannebery, Gary Rohan (both 26), Sam Reid, Sam Naismith (both 25), Luke Parker, Nic Newman, Jake Lloyd (all 24) and Harry Cunningham (23).

There’s a couple of genuine stars here – Rampe, Hannebery and Parker in particular, who are core players in the team, and some honest contributors in support of them.

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In terms of youth, Sydney boasts the likes of Aliir Aliir (23), Zak Jones (22), George Hewett, Isaac Heeney, Tom Papley (all 21), Lewis Melican, Callum Mills (both 20), Oliver Florent (19) and Will Hayward (18).

Really, the Swans’ kids might be the most exciting section of the list. Again, it’s a nice balance of genuine A-grade talent, like Heeney and Mills, and players around them who can play their role, like Papley and Hewett.

It all makes for a playing list that is remarkably well balanced across the three age categories. All things continuing organically, there shouldn’t be any lack of talent on Sydney’s list at any time in the forseeable future.

Isaac Heeney Sydney Swans AFL 2017

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Sydney players by age
Jarrad McVeigh – 32yr 5mth
Heath Grundy – 31yr 3mth
Lance Franklin – 30yr 7mth
Kurt Tippett – 30yr 4mth
Kieren Jack – 30yr 2mth
Nick Smith – 29yr 3mth
Josh P Kennedy – 29yr 3mth
Jeremy Laidler – 28yr 1mth
Callum Sinclair – 27yr 11mth
Dean Towers – 27yr 4mth
Dane Rampe – 27yr 3mth
Dan Hannebery – 26yr 6mth
Gary Rohan – 26yr 3mth
Sam Reid – 25yr 8mth
Alex Johnson – 25yr 6mth
Sam Naismith – 25yr 2mth
Luke Parker – 24yr 10mth
Nic Newman – 24yr 8mth
Michael Talia – 24yr 7mth
Robbie Fox (R) – 24yr 5mth
Jake Lloyd – 24yr
Harry Cunningham – 23yr 9mth
Shaun Edwards (R) – 23yr 9mth
Harrison Marsh – 23yr 8mth
Brandon Jack – 23yr 3mth
Daniel Robinson – 23yr 2mth
Aliir Aliir – 23yr
Zak Jones – 22yr 6mth
Darcy Cameron – 22yr 2mth
Colin O’Riordan (R) – 21yr 11mth
George Hewett – 21yr 8mth
Jordan Foote – 21yr 8mth
James Rose – 21yr 5mth
Isaac Heeney – 21yr 4mth
Tom Papley – 21yr 2mth
Lewis Melican (R) – 20yr 10mth
Tyrone Leonardis – 20yr 6mth
Callum Mills – 20yr 5mth
Jordan Dawson – 20yr 5mth
Sam Murray (R) – 20yr
Ben Ronke (R) – 19yr 9mth
Sam Fisher (R) – 19yr 6mth
Jack Maibaum – 19yr 5mth
Oliver Florent – 19yr 1mth
Toby Pink (R) – 19yr 1mth
Will Hayward – 18yr 10mth

Sydney have no real big priorities in this year’s out-of-contract group – they will likely sign up Alex Johnson for another year in the hope he can make a remarkable comeback, and that’s about it.

There doesn’t appear to be any likely flight risks in the 2018 contract group either, except perhaps Aliir Aliir who has already gotten some attention from other clubs having not made the team most weeks this season.

If Sydney can get him firing again and in the regular lineup then there’s unlikely to be much reason for him not to re-sign with the club on a new deal for 2018 and beyond.

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The Swans’ list management style has involved a lot of lengthy contract extensions and when they sign players, the usually do it for one or two more years than most clubs would.

For the most part this has worked out pretty well for them as it means less contract sagas and more security, though it can sometimes lead to the occasional headache.

Aliir Aliir of the Sydney Swans bumps a North Melbourne Kangaroos player

(AAP Image/Rob Blakers)

Sydney players by contract status
2023
Callum Mills

2022
Lance Franklin
Issac Heeney

2021
Daniel Hannebery
Luke Parker
Sam Reid

2020
Oliver Florent
Josh P Kennedy
Lewis Melican
Gary Rohan
Callum Sinclair
Kurt Tippett

2019
Darcy Cameron
Harry Cunningham
Jordan Dawson
Will Hayward
Kieren Jack
Zak Jones
Dane Rampe

2018
Aliir Aliir
Jordan Foote
Heath Grundy
George Hewett
Jeremy Laidler
Jake Lloyd
Jack Maibaum
Harry Marsh
Jarrad McVeigh
Sam Naismith
Nic Newman
Tom Papley
James Rose
Daniel Robinson
Nick Smith
Dean Towers

Out of contract
Shaun Edwards (R)
Robbie Fox (R)
Sam Fisher (R)
Brandon Jack
Alex Johnson
Tyrone Leonardis
Sam Murray (R)
Colin O’Riordan (R)
Toby Pink (R)
Ben Ronke (R)
Michael Talia

Delistings and retirements

No confirmed retirements or delistings for Sydney at this stage. By virtue of being out of contract, you’d expect that all of Brandon Jack, Tyrone Leonardis and Michael Talia are a chance to get chopped.

Free agency

The Swans don’t have any free agents potentially exiting the club this year, as they’ve already signed up Jarrad McVeigh to play on for one more year before likely retiring at the end of 2018.

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That was a good move – not only is McVeigh playing well enough to be a valuable piece next year, it will also mean the Swans may retain him for the long term as part of their coaching set up.

Sam Reid was also a free agent for the Swans this year and also has been signed up to stay at Sydney, but I’m a little less convinced this was the right choice.

Although versatile he’s only an average player and if the reported offers from Victoria were genuine it might have been enought to get the Swans an end-of-first-round compensation pick.

However, I suspect those offers probably went off the table when his form tailed off in the latter half of the year, and Sydney ultimately would not likely have gotten anything good in return for his departure.

Signing him up is therefore probably the right call, but a four-year deal might be something that comes back to bite the Swans – but it probably won’t.

The Swans don’t seem likely to sign any free agents this year, they haven’t been linked to any and there’s no one for them to logically target.

Sam Reid Sydney Swans AFL 2017

(AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

Trade period

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It looks like a quiet one for the Swans this year if you believe the words that come out of the club – although Aliir Aliir and Kurt Tippett have both been spoken about in whispers, Sydney have said they’re not on the trade table.

That’s a fair call on Aliir, but Tippett is worth considering in more detail. Having too few ruck types on the list can be a problem, but have too many is almost just as bad, and the Swans could rid themselves of a headache by moving him on.

However he’s on at least a medium-sized deal that not many clubs would be willing to pick up for a player with his poor recent form, and at 30 years of age would be strictly a short-term investment.

I reckon he would have been a good fit at Richmond as someone who could play as a second tall forward with Jack Riewoldt and pinch hit in the ruck for Toby Nankervis, but the Tigers probably don’t have room to make a deal like that after upping their offer to retain Dustin Martin.

The only player Sydney have been linked to coming in to the team so far this year is Anthony Miles – can’t say I’m a huge fan, but they’ve had more than a little luck getting good mileage out of recycled players in the past.

Sydney Swans player Kurt Tippett catches AFL ball

(AAP Image/Paul Miller)

Draft

First three rounds: 14, 32, 50.

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If Sydney have an immediate list need it’s probably a top quality key forward who can eventually replace Lance Franklin in a few years time, but that’s generally not the kind of thing you find as late as pick 14.

That being the case, Sydney can pretty much afford to take whoever the like most that is left on the draft board when their picks come around. It’s probably too late to grab one of the really elite talents of this draft, but they can surprise us.

Outlook

It’s hard to believe that, given what they’ve done in the past five years, Sydney haven’t won another flag to add to the 2012 premiership in that time.

The question of exactly why that’s the case is a doozy. I’d love to tell you the answer, but better football minds than mine are running the Swans and they haven’t worked it out either.

There have been a few crucial moments when they just haven’t shown up to play and there are some players on the list who don’t inspire much confidence.

Every list has its problems though, and the Swans have fewer than most. A team that’s been up as long as them shouldn’t have the young promise they do, but there it is.

Whatever it is that has kept the Swans from winning a flag in the last five years, I don’t think the quality of the playing list is a factor.

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They’ve been in a period of sustained success for really more than a decade now, and it doesn’t look likely to end any time soon.

Regarding next year in particular, it could be a real cracker for them if both Heeney and Mills come of age while all of the old guard is still there.

I’ll be very surprised if they don’t go all the way again some time in the next five years, and wouldn’t be shocked if it’s as soon as 2018.