On Saturday, south-east Queensland will play host to two classic AFL grand final match-ups from the noughties.
The Sydney Swans are the poster child for ‘rebuilding on the fly’. With the arrival of academy selection Nick Blakey the Swans have got a bargain deal on a potential key forward star to one day replace the best forward in the game, Buddy Franklin.
Beginning with Tony Lockett leading the club to the grand final in 1996 the Swans have only missed the finals a remarkable three times over the last 23 seasons. But for the Swans to remain relevant in 2019 they’ll be needing Buddy to overcome history.
The Swans forged their Bloods identity in the mid-2000s when the narrative was that they were the less talented side, but full of hard workers and a great culture that led to their 2005 premiership win.
While the narrative played well against the star-studded midfield of the West Coast Eagles, it did overlook that the Swans boasted Adam Goodes, who will finish a ‘legend’ in the hall of fame, Micky O’Loughlin who sits 55th in the all-time goal scorers list and Barry Hall, who when he wasn’t handing out round house punches was kicking bags of goals and was as good a spearhead as any in the league.
Once again the Swans find themselves relying on buzzwords like ‘culture’ and ‘structure’ to overcome a talent deficit as they re-tool their list but in reality their reliance on Buddy is at an all time high.
In the four seasons since Buddy’s salary cap-sucking arrival in 2014 only one other Swan has scored more than 30 goals in a year, the retired Kurt Tippett, who similarly remains a salary cap drain, still being paid despite his “retirement”. Despite the Swans’ attempts to revitalise their list with youth, it’s hard to see how they can make a meaningful scoreboard impact over the course of season outside of their marquee star.
The problem for the Swans is Buddy enters murky territory for a tall forward. Franklin will go into the 2019 season aged 32 with game 300 in his sights in the early part of the year. Power forwards by definition are power athletes, not endurance, and power has a way of disappearing quickly even for the leagues biggest names.
The steepest of declines was Jonathan Brown. Bowing out aged 32, Brown averaged less than 15 games a season over the last five years of his career, kicking less than 50 goals in his last two seasons. Amidst all the shattered faces, Brown simply lost his ability to impose himself on the game.
There are positive examples of footballers in Franklin’s situation. In the modern era, the star power forwards who have delivered meaning contribution at age 32 is relatively short but prove it can be done.
Matthew Richardson scored 101 goals over two season playing much of the time off the wing. Likewise, a revitalised Barry Hall scored an impressive 80 goals in 2010 following his move to the Bulldogs age 33.
In his final season, age 34, Hall scored 55 goals in just 15 games before bowing out. But both these stars careers wound down before the pressing tactics that demanded forwards work further up the ground were emerging.
The better comparison though, is Nick Reiwoldt and Matthew Pavlich. These stars, like Franklin ascended past the 300 game mark. Reiwoldt entered 2016 with 298 games under his belt and although his final two seasons managed 38 of 44 games, Reiwoldt kicked less than two goals a game.
Likewise, Pavlich entered 2014 having just ticked over 290 games and failed to kick 50+ goals in his final three seasons despite playing primarily as a forward.
Buddy, as a key forward, must achieve what hasn’t been done since Y2K. Cross the 300-game mark, move past age 32 and still kick 50 goals. Buddy is the greatest of his generation, so the feat isn’t out of question, but what is the ceiling for the Swans should Buddy manage only 40 goals this year?
With news that Buddy was entering surgery and wouldn’t resume pre-season training until 2019, the beginning of the end may have already begun for Buddy.
The Swans survived the three games of Buddy’s absence in 2018 with two wins but the likelihood of repeating the performances that led to the victories, Ben Ronke’s seven goal haul at the MCG and the Swans +18 clearances in Geelong (the league high Magpies averaged just +3.7 over the season).
The grim reality is that life without Buddy would more likely look like the Swans’ Round 7 loss to the Kangaroos who managed just 68 points but still defeated the impotent Buddyless Swans.
In the short term, the Swans have brought a short term insurance policy in the form of Dan Menzel. His cold reception following delisting from the Cats shows that Menzel has many perceived weaknesses, but one thing not in doubt, is that he can kick goals.
Paired with Buddy, Menzel might have some success thanks to the attention Franklin demands but without the star the sidekick lacks the ability to make a contest in a pack and find the game a little more claustrophobic, especially at the smaller scale SCG.
The preferred partner for Buddy will be the oft injured Sam Reid. If all fit, a line up of Buddy, Reid and a resting ruck combo of Naismith and Sinclair form an intimidating sized forward line.
As impressive as a Sam Reid contested mark looks, they tend to be few and far between and often ruined by poor finishing around goal. Now with 121 games played, Reid’s career high is just 31 goals in a season.
Midfielders Luke Parker and Isaac Heeney have proven capable goal kickers with strong overhead marking ability, but playing them forward is often a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul as they move some of the more game-breaking midfielders away from the action.
So with Tom McCartin being the youngest player from the 2017 draft managing just eight goals from his 15 games and Blakey, while being a hyped prospect, weighs in around 80 kilos and is unlikely to make an immediate impact over the length of the season the Swans short term success remains hinged to Buddy.
Buddy, who can stun the football world like none other must stun history for the Swans to make history and find another path to a premiership.