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The eighth round of the Australian Football League season is up and running. In a rivalry that won’t stop producing mirrored results, Sydney have managed to narrowly defeat Hawthorn on Friday night.
Contested in front of a modest number of fans at the MCG, Sydney defeated Hawthorn 12.7 (79) to 10.11 (71) in rain impaired conditions.
It’s the latest in a healthy line of well-publicised close results between the pair, with Hawthorn recording two six-point and one five-point wins against Sydney the last three times they’ve played off in a chain of clashes that harken back to the fire and fury of the 2014 grand final.
I’m still trying to work out if I’m being too cynical but in the glow of a post-match reflection I think this match will be looked back on in a cliched manner – described as a thrilling, classic affair through a set of rose-tinted glasses.
What I’m trying to say is that, as far as matches go, I don’t think it was great.
All the way through the second half, commentator Bruce McAvaney screeched into the microphone long chains of adjectives describing his enjoyment of the match.
“Jesus, this is a high quality game of football,” McAvaney declared halfway through the fourth, his voice breaking like a slipping vinyl towards the end of the statement.
I didn’t agree.
Hawthorn and Sydney struggled to produce an effective style of play right through the contest and against better sides would’ve been mauled.
For Sydney the dramas came in the middle of the ground, with the inability of the team’s midfield to transfer the ball from congestion into well-positioned runners on the outsides of packs becoming more and more evident as the night dragged on.
The players were all in place, Sydney was able to win its fair share of football down low and in tight, but when the final connecting handball would head for its target it would rarely make it.
Either a Hawk would lay a tackle, intercept the ball or knock it in the opposite direction – or even worse, the Swan would miss the target.
As a result the movement forward was slow and cumbersome and often preceded a rushed kick forward in fear of another Hawthorn disruption at the final link in the chain.
The victorious Sydney ended up disposing of the ball at 73 per cent efficiency – a long way from a disgrace, and Hawthorn at 72 per cent.
However with more than 480 uncontested possessions between them I think that level of efficiency runs deserves analysis deeper than pure numbers.
Sydney offered up 84 turnovers for the match and Hawthorn 79.
Hawthorn’s dramas came in just about every part of the ground.
In the literal centre of the ground the Hawks were demolished in the clearances, and inside the forward 50 they produced just 23 shots from 62 inside 50s – while the Swans managed 22 shots from only 39 entries – a strong return.
Down back Hawthorn should’ve had a day out – and key defender James Sicily certainly did – but as a structured team? As a cohesive unit? Wow.
Conceding just 12 goals in a match isn’t a nightmare but to allow a third-gamer (Ben Ronke) to boot seven in the wet – wow.
In the third term Hawthorn lacked a killer instinct and were punished accordingly in the final term – a trend for the Hawks this season.
Sydney are in a funny funk this season – winning the hard games and dropping the ones they should secure.
Heading into the season as the premiership favourites, Sydney began by defeating West Coast away from home – a remarkable result against a side likely to go deep into finals.
After that the Swans got knocked by Port Adelaide in Sydney, a match they should’ve stitched up with a rampaging Lance Franklin, and after that they defeated Greater Western Sydney – a second hard-fought win against a quality opposition.
Sydney then narrowly defeated the Western Bulldogs, dropped the basket against a low-confidence Adelaide and followed it up with an underdog result against Geelong.
Sydney then lost to North Melbourne, a side many tipped for the wooden spoon, in Sydney.
Heading into the encounter with Hawthorn the bookies didn’t like the Swans at all, particularly without Franklin, and I think it was still a good call.
Sydney are exhausting themselves early in the campaign by dropping matches they should seal and then fighting twice as hard the week after against quality sides away from home.
Sydney hasn’t lost a game on the road this season yet but has lost nearly every match in New South Wales.
Sydney is in a funk, and I think the biggest indicator of that is the success of Ben Ronke tonight.
Playing in just his third AFL game, Ronke gathered the ball 11 times and booted seven goals.
To go with that monstrous scoreboard haul, bested only by the once-in-a-generation talent of Franklin under coach John Longmire as senior coach, Ronke produced ten tackles.
If the commentary team are to be believed that’s the first time any AFL player has produced seven goals and ten tackles in a single match – a stunning effort for a player with next to no top level experience.
And that in itself is the evidence of Sydney’s funk – the game was won, barely, by a player who is only just a Swan – he hasn’t even completed a fifth of a season in the red and white and by extension could definitely be considered outside of the system.
Sydney’s most experienced forward on the night, Gary Rohan, managed just nine disposals and didn’t kick a goal. Dean Towers, far from a star for sure but an important cog for Sydney, was equally as ineffective.
In the middle of the ground Josh Kennedy managed just 19 touches and spent long passages of play failing to influence the contest.
Kennedy was joined by Kieran Jack and Zak Jones – both with just 18 each and not playing close to the quality they’re capable of.
So what am I saying?
Sydney’s success this season has been set up on a house of sand so far.
Lance Franklin, the LeBron James of the AFL, has individually dragged them to success a handful of times, and in his absence they’ve lost to North Melbourne and relied on a third-gamer to kick seven goals to only narrowly defeat Hawthorn.
Franklin is expected to miss another handful of games and Sydney should be counting their lucky stars they now face Fremantle, Brisbane and then Carlton – because the good Lord knows they can’t rely on Ronke to break AFL records each and every week until Franklin returns.
Without rookie Ronke Sydney loses this game by six goals, barely manages to kick five goals and in truth – better defensive sides would’ve made this hypothetical a reality by focusing on the young gun when it was clear in the first half he was red hot.
This is an assessment that a lot of fans won’t like. After all, a win is a win, and Sydney is within reach of the top four and has a cruisy three weeks coming up.
But from where I’m standing Sydney’s engine room has some major issues to address moving forward and the next time they face a true, top-four benchmark of the competition, the results may be agonising for the faithful.
In particular I’m looking at a Round 13 clash with West Coast, a Round 15 clash with Richmond followed by a Round 16 clash with Geelong.
It’s a tough run only broken up by the bye and it’s going to be fascinating to see the standard of football the Swans produce with finals football in sight.