The Lance Franklin era is either winding down or already over in Sydney – depending on who you ask.
With four premiership heroes retiring at the end of last season – their first non-appearance in the finals since 2009 – it looks like a new era has begun in earnest for the Swans.
They started 2020 on a good note, dominating Adelaide for stretches before barely surviving a last-quarter rally to win by three points.
Here are four burning questions for Sydney coming into Round 2.
The Swans caught a lucky break initially with season postponement, as it meant Franklin’s ten-week layoff following knee surgery would only see him miss one game.
But he suffered a huge setback recently, injuring his hamstring at training, and now looks to be out of action for at least three months.
His importance to Sydney’s forward set-up is plainly obvious. He’d led the club goal-kicking every year since joining from Hawthorn until last year’s injuries saw him just play ten games.
As a result, the Swans posted their lowest total score for a season since 1968.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Tom Papley had a career year with 37 goals and was convinced to stay despite requesting a trade to Carlton. Still only 23, he could be a small forward worth building around if they can keep him. Sam Reid is still around too, but like his brother, has a long injury history.
As far as replacement talls go, Nick Blakey had a fine debut season, netting 19 goals in 21 matches, while Tom McCartin already has 35 games under his belt despite turning 20 in December.
It’s a work in progress but alongside promising youngsters Will Hayward and Ben Ronke, the Swans have the nucleus of a pretty potent forward line already. There’s no time like the present to pump games into them.
The Swans lost 1048 games of experience when premiership quartet Jarrad McVeigh, Kieren Jack, Heath Grundy and Nick Smith retired at the end of 2019 – and they’ll take some replacing.
In his prime, Jack was a superb hybrid midfielder capable of playing at the coalface or on the outside, McVeigh’s experience and ball use coming out of defence was excellent, while Grundy and Smith were some of the best lockdown defenders going around.
I disagree with the notion that their retirements will see the Swans plummet in 2020, as they only played a combined 15 games last season.
But that doesn’t change the fact they’ll need to find long-term replacements soon.
Down back, Dane Rampe is obviously the first-choice key defender, but at 30, won’t be around forever. Highly-rated 23-year-old Lewis Melican will fill one pair of shoes, but Aliir Aliir is a lot better as a Josh Gibson-esque third tall than a pure one-on-one player. Kaiden Brand could end up being a bargain, but you’d want to see something more promising from a youngster.
There’s no obvious replacement for Smith, with the club’s cohort of small and medium-sized defenders all priding themselves on speed. You have to wonder how valuable a shutdown small defender is in today’s game anyway.
George Hewett is probably the most similar player to Jack on the list right now, but doesn’t have the same pace and is probably going to end up more akin to Josh Kennedy or Luke Parker.
This is a tough one. On one hand, the Swans finished in the bottom four last season, have lost a lot of experience and their contemporaries look to have improved over the off-season more than they have.
On the other hand, they had the highest percentage for a bottom-four team of the AFL era, were in the thick of the finals race until Round 15, lost Buddy and their only ruckman and then lost six games in a row – four by ten points or fewer – to fall away.
This is a team that crushed West Coast and lost to Carlton at the same venue.
Despite being a popular pick for the bottom four – or even a wooden spoon smokey – I think the Swans are a lot harder to predict in 2020 and could surprise people.
In the midfield, they’ve still got Kennedy and Parker to hold down the fort, with the aforementioned Hewett blossoming into a key player. Ryan Clarke had a very disappointing first season in red and white, but at 22, has oodles of time to find his footing. Sam Naismith in the ruck made them look a whole lot better in the clearances in Round 1 and could free Callum Sinclair to play forward more often too.
I’ve covered the forward line in-depth already and the defence is a bit of a worry – although they’ve still got Jake Lloyd and Callum Mills delivering the ball – but the Swans could very well end up being a ninth to 12th kinda side this season.