For the second week in a row, we’ve got a tasty Friday night match-up. In fact, it might be the best one of the season.
When these sides last met in Round 1, things went about as expected. The Swans scored a reasonably comfortable five-goal win against a West Coast side tipped to slide into the lower-middle part of the table.
No one could possibly have tipped what was to come next, with the Eagles winning their next ten games to sit four points clear on top of the ladder despite playing one fewer game than every other team in the eight.
The Swans have done what the Swans always do, which is win a lot of games. They’ve haven’t been as impressive as recent years, but you can’t fluke nine wins from 12 games, and their 6-0 road record is impressive too.
At home, though, they’ve been a little shakier, losing as many as they’ve won. Sydney have gone down to Port Adelaide and North Melbourne as well as an undermanned Adelaide side at the SCG. Their wins have come against GWS, Fremantle, and Carlton. Ho-hum.
In the past, teams who can control the ball by foot have been able to get the better of the Swans, and you’d expect that to be the Eagles’ plan.
West Coast are the No.1 marking team in the league at 103.7 marks a game – Sydney are 13th at 87.8 – and also No.1 for contested marks (14.2 per game).
The Eagles will be keen to get the ball in the hands of classy ball users Shannon Hurn, Elliot Yeo and Andrew Gaff as often as possible.
It’s a shame Jack Darling won’t be part of tonight’s clash, he is arguably the form player of the competition – and has taken more contested marks than anyone this season. What a luxury for the Eagles that they still have the AFL’s leading goalkicker since the start of 2013, Josh Kennedy, as a key-forward target.
While the Eagles will try to win the ball and then spread the field, the Swans will aim to have numbers at the contest and extra players behind the ball. They’ll desperately want to pressure West Coast into hurried, long kicks.
Few teams, if any, are as comfortable defending in their own half as Sydney.
And with good reason, the Swans concede a goal on just 18.8 percent of their opponents’ inside-50s, which is the second-best rate in the league. Heath Grundy, Dane Rampe, Jarrad McVeigh and Jake Lloyd have got things under control down there.
With Nic Naitanui, the Eagles will get first hands to most hit-outs, the key will be turning that advantage into clean possession and ball movement. Luke Shuey will be a welcome addition after missing since the opening minutes of a Round 7 clash against Port Adelaide. Not many players have his combination of explosiveness from congestion and skill.
Sydney won’t let the Eagles have things their own way at stoppages though. You’d have a hard time finding a more willing midfield trio than Josh Kennedy, Luke Parker and Isaac Heeney. And the unflinching George Hewett will likely be tasked with clamping Gaff or Shuey.
Heeney has become the best of the Swans’ onballers. Should the Eagles choose to deploy Yeo in the midfield rather than off halfback, he could get the job on Heeney, which would be good news for neutral viewers.
Both midfielders are tough and have clean hands both on the ground and in the air. Yeo is one of the few midfielders in the league who won’t be outmatched when Heeney makes his way forward. Fingers crossed the two of them spend plenty of time matched up.
Of course, you can’t talk about this game without mentioning its two best players: Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin and Jeremy McGovern.
Future hall-of-famer Franklin put on one of the great performances in Round 1, slotting eight goals and doing so in the many ways that only Buddy can.
With defensive partner Tom Barrass out injured, McGovern will be called on to spend more time on the Sydney superstar. In the air, he should have Buddy’s measure, what will be interesting is how the Eagles defend Franklin when he makes his way high up the ground. Expect to see the underrated Brad Sheppard, Hurn and even Yeo on Franklin when that happens while McGovern sets deeper up to pick off any high balls.
That’s probably the right strategy, but it’s not without risk. For Buddy, the goals are in play anytime he gets the ball forward of centre – or perhaps any time at all.
This could be a finals preview – maybe even the big one – and shapes as one of the best contests of the season. Here’s hoping it lives up to that.
It’s tough to split these sides at the SCG but I think the Eagles are better and I’m tipping them by two goals.
That’s my Friday night forecast. What’s yours?