Several of the 2018 finalists met an inglorious end last September. It was almost a theme of the finals series.
Richmond was demolished by Collingwood in the first preliminary final, Melbourne were utterly pathetic against West Coast in the second. Hawthorn didn’t fire a shot in being bundled out in straight sets. Geelong could only manage six goals in their elimination final.
But the most embarrassing performance of the 2018 finals series was from the Sydney Swans, where they scored a meagre 30 points.
And, frankly, they were lucky to get that many, kicking two late goals when the match was well and truly over. There was a 70-minute period of the game where they added only two behinds to their tally.
The performance was a surprise because in the lead-up to finals, Sydney had beaten Collingwood, Melbourne and Greater Western Sydney to establish their credentials. Was that run home a truer reflection of their position and potential, or has the perennial contender come to the end of the road?
Sydney best 22
B: N.Smith A.Aliir L.Melican
HB: J.Lloyd D.Rampe C.Mills
C: G.Hewett J.Kennedy H.Cunningham
HF: W.Hayward L.Franklin O.Florent
F: D.Menzel S.Reid T.Papley
Foll: C.Sinclair I.Heeney L.Parker
Int: J.McVeigh B.Ronke Z.Jones K.Jack
Em: H.Grundy J.Thurlow T.McCartin
Generational change is sweeping through the lines.
We see examples of this down back through Callum Millis (55 games), Aliir Aliir (28) and Lewis Melican (20), with a veteran like Heath Grundy potentially on the outer.
Few can control the air like Aliir when he is on song, an athletic ball of muscle that reads the play well. Melican has strengths in this area too, so in time the two could form quite the potent duo.
There is always talk of Mills leaving the backline to join the midfield, but he looks more of a natural behind the ball and may not provide as much as people think if taking centre square duties. He could quite easily be a player that doesn’t improve much beyond his first year or two, that has a base and ceiling very close together.
Dane Rampe is not the offensive player he once was, being asked to defend more in recent seasons, so could potentially be let off the leash in the right circumstances. Nick Smith has been a lock-down back pocket since South Melbourne moved to Sydney.
The prime mover in the backline is Jake Lloyd, who last year had the ball in his hands more any other Swan. He led his team in marks and disposals, and was top five in the league for uncontested possessions.
Lloyd is one of the best short-medium kicks in the comp, if not the best, so using him to rebound as often as possible made sense. But Lloyd’s weight of numbers was also due to the Sydney game style which was to absorb a lot of inside 50’s and then try to run the ball out. This won them a premiership in 2012 under the guise of slingshot footy, but it’s seven years later now and that format isn’t sustainable.
There is also inexperience up forward, with plenty of younger players surrounding Lance Franklin. Tom Papley has played 60 games, and there is also Will Hayward (40), Ollie Florent (32), Ben Ronke (18) and Tom McCartin (15), with talk of Nick Blakey sure to get games in his first season too.
Papley is smart, Hayward a natural, Ronke clever. And some hard markers would say McCartin showed more in one year than his older brother, Paddy, has shown at St Kilda in four.
But Florent looks the player of the future, one that can become a genuine star of the competition. He has a burst of speed that he knows how to use tactically, and showed with a mid-season run of form what he is capable of.
Buddy will once again be the focus of the forward-line though, and will doubtless dazzle us with his exploits. All the talk last year was that he didn’t train for the entire season, yet was still named All-Australian captain.
Will Franklin’s production start to dip, hitting 2019 at 32 years of age? And will he move further and further up the ground, potentially playing off a wing? If he loses his speed and mobility, he doesn’t have contested marking to fall back on.
What can Dan Menzel produce in a new environment? Is there room for him, McCartin, Blakey and Sam Reid in the same forward-line? One or two of them are going to have to miss out.
Do Sydney use Sam Naismith as the primary ruck, and push Callum Sinclair back to full-forward, which makes them taller still? Sinclair is coming off a career-best year rucking solo, to the extent that the next most hit-outs for the Swans was the de-listed Dean Towers with 25. They had no back-up ruckman, but do the new rules force a change?
John Longmire has liked playing two ruckmen in the past, when he’s had the appropriate candidates fit and available. Sinclair is not much of a tap artist, and the feeling is that Sydney lost some centre square advantage last season – this was seen internally as a reason why their SCG record was so poor, given winning territory on the smaller ground is key.
Isaac Heeney was voted ahead of best and fairest winner Luke Parker and ex-skipper Josh Kennedy in The Roar Top 50, which some will object to. Heeney has superstar qualities, and must be given more midfield responsibility to demonstrate them.
Parker is tough and rugged, but lacks the class to put him in the truly elite. Josh Kennedy’s output has started to diminish as time goes on, but he played more forward last year than previous. We know what we’re getting from him. George Hewett is one of the best run with players going around, and will likely start to transition to a more offensive role.
Sydney are in a position now where they don’t have much exposed depth, hence bringing in the likes of Jackson Thurlow from Geelong and Ryan Clarke from North. The Swans of old used to find plenty of treasure from other clubs trash – can they do so again? Both are in the right age bracket, if there is anything there to unearth. Kieren Jack may well have his spot taken by someone like Clarke.
A new suite of assistants has been brought in to support the tired and stale John Longmire. Longmire can churn out the same old style forever and have teams be competitive – especially when they get unearned free kicks like Heeney, Mills and Blakey every year or two. But he needs to find a way to inject more pace and flair into his team, some brighter ball movement, and more offensive power.
If the Swans keep trying to play attritional footy with ball movement from the back half, they will cop some spankings this year. The dam wall will break at various stages, against the top quality teams. We hark back to last year when even the pitiful Gold Coast was able to run them ragged.
Sydney were 12th in points for in 2018, and had the worst percentage of any side in the eight. Add in the ignominious finals exit, no top-class players added during the off-season, and it points a picture of a side going south.
The Swans have always got people writing them off and, usually, they resist. But are they going to hack around the bottom of the eight again, or will they go backwards before going forward once more?