Coming off a heartbreaking end to their 2017 campaign that saw them lose the Grand Final to a rampant Richmond, the Adelaide Crows entered 2018 looking to leave no stone unturned in their quest for their third flag.
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I’m wildly generalising here, but footy fans don’t like hearing excuses in defeat.
That might be chest-beating machismo or perhaps it’s not wanting to take credit away from the victors – it’s probably a bit of both.
Injuries, travel, short breaks – who cares? After all, the game’s best coach is known for his “one soldier out, one soldier in” motto.
Of course, that’s mostly for Alastair Clarkson’s benefit; he wouldn’t want his charges to start doubting themselves due to something their coach said publicly.
The reality is there are often excuses beyond “we played rubbish” for why a team doesn’t perform well; and the Crows have plenty of them.
Forget Charlie Cameron and Jake Lever, because those guys aren’t coming back.
Forget Brodie Smith even, because as much as Don Pyke would love Smith’s drive out of defence, he’s about as likely to help them in 2018 as Lever and Cameron.
But with Rory Sloane, Matt Crouch, Brad Crouch, Eddie Betts and David Mackay sidelined, the Crows are fighting with an arm tied behind their back.
That veteran recruit Sam Gibson hasn’t been fit to debut for the Crows after 130-straight games for North Melbourne is just rubbing it in.
Even with Sloane – albeit a hobbled Sloane – in the line-up against Collingwood in round four, the Crows were dismantled in the midfield.
Collingwood had a +36 advantage in contested possessions. At centre bounces, where things are more predictable with only eight players involved, the Crows managed to gain a 15-13 clearance advantage. Unfortunately, they were humiliated around the ground.
At throw-ins and ball-ups in general play, where the Pies could throw extra numbers at the contest or get a player closest to the ruckmen, Adelaide didn’t – or couldn’t – adjust and were dominated, losing those stoppages 19-44. Yikes.
Thankfully for the Crows, they won’t have to deal with Brodie Grundy again tonight. Callum Sinclair is unlikely to match Grundy’s 12 clearances or 15 groundball gets.
Nonetheless, Josh Kennedy and Luke Parker are both in their element in close, and Isaac Heeney ain’t bad either. The Crows are going to need a hell of a game from Bryce Gibbs and a dominant ruck performance from Sam Jacobs to be any chance… and that’s just the start of it.
Hugh Greenwood and Cam Ellis-Yolmen are the men most likely to step up in the absence of the Crows’ gun ball winners. More importantly, Adelaide will need to control the ball once they get their hands on it.
Bang it long and high and you’re just playing into Sydney’s hands, but chip it, switch it and make their defenders roll and change direction and you’re in the game.
The Hawks have shown the way in the past, and if not for some poor goal kicking, the Bulldogs, who took 113 marks to Sydney’s 85, could well have pulled off an upset against the Swans last week.
Taylor Walker has come under fire in recent weeks – though if we’re being honest, people have been sinking the boots in since his poor grand final.
The Adelaide skipper was below-par last week, though he does have nine goals in three games this season. Him playing well at the SCG certainly won’t guarantee the visitors a win, but it’s unlikely they can win with him delivering much less than his best.
Tex is at his most dangerous 50-70m from goal, where he can hit the ball on the lead and wheel onto his lethal right leg to either shoot for goal or pierce the defence with precision kicking – there are few better field kicks in the league.
If Walker can have a hand in a half a dozen goals, the Crows might just stand a chance. Tom Lynch will also be critical as a link man for the Crows in transition.
Sydney captain Kennedy is coming off of one of his worst games in years. The midfield brute had just one clearance in Round 4. It was the first time he’d had so few since Roudn 3, 2010 – which was the 208-game star’s 16th game and only his third for the Swans.
His 16 touches were the second fewest he’s had since 2014 and you have to go back to 2013 for the last time he had consecutive games with fewer than 20 disposals. You’re braver than I if you’re willing to bet on that happening again here.
Both teams know what they need to do to win tonight. The Swans need to win the contested ball and put the Crows on the back foot.
For Adelaide, it’s all about control. They simply don’t have the midfield power to match it with the Swans in a scrap. They have to be clean in the air and patient and efficient by foot to stand a chance.
It’s not mission impossible for the Crows, but they have little to no room for error, and Sydney’s midfield advantage appears too great – it doesn’t hurt that they also have one of the most dynamic forwards in history on their side.
It’s a shame that what looked like a juicy match-up at the start of the season suddenly looms as a mismatch. I’m tipping the Swans to win by 25 points.
That’s my Friday night forecast. What’s yours?