When the AFL introduced the concept of the northern academies it was the Sydney Swans that were the most enthusiastic, growing the game in New South Wales from its inception in 2010 to ten hubs up and down the coast from Coffs Harbour to Woollongong.
Each year it seems the Swans academy produces another elite player and the graduates make an impressive list, with Sam Naismith, Isaac Heeney, Callum Mills, James Bell and Nick Blakey providing a foundation for the list to build around.
Dane Rampe is an example of a player who has had to take the long way round to reach his potential in the AFL. However, had he been a few years younger, he could have been groomed through the Swans’ elite training academy and not had to struggle through years of second-tier football.
Last year Sydney rookied one of their academy graduates, Jack Maibaum, but the list-size reduction forced them to delist him straight away, though the sacking of Elijah Taylor may allow the way back for one of the delistees in the preseason.
But despite all the work done by Sydney’s team of scouts and recruiters, the list managers have known for some time who they’d be recruiting from their academy at this year’s draft. It was only a matter of accommodating enough draft value index points to match early bids.
Therefore the trade period was mostly uneventful for the Swans, who were eventually forced to trade Aliir Aliir to Port Adelaide, but with Tom McCartin going into defence the loss won’t set Sydney’s regeneration back.
On the final day of trading Sydney moved back from Pick 25, which slid to 30 anyway, for Picks 31 and 43 as they started to manoeuvre for points to match bids, then as soon as the next trade window opened they offloaded 31 for Pick 48 and a future third-round selection from Carlton, which they then flipped to the Suns for Pick 37.
When the night of the draft came around, Sydney’s draft strategy was quite easy for loungeroom observers – pick the best player available at four, then match bids for their two academy cygnets.
However, the choice came down to what path to take, be it a replacement for Lance Franklin, an offsider for Rampe, a protege for Josh Kennedy or a Nick Blakey clone, so they chose the area of greatest need and arguably the best player available in Logan McDonald.
Hawthorn called Braeden Campbell’s name next, which showed the Swans’ genius in moving picks around for points, as their Picks 34, 37, and 43 had actually come in at 32, 35, 39 after the Bulldogs burnt their picks matching for Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, which matched the bid and left enough points for the Swans to match another bid.
When Geelong put a bid up for Errol Gulden at Pick 32 the Swans had almost perfectly judged the number of points needed for both, even though the first bid was higher than they’d have liked – perhaps karma after the Swans’ history of bidding on tied players – but with their second academy graduate sliding they even had points leftover that exhausted when they passed in the fourth round.
Their rookie draft was over quickly, with the Swans picking Malachy Carruthers from Sturt’s SANFL under-18s, then they took their third academy graduate and second Pennant Hills product, Marc Sheather, to fill their second Category B rookie spot, making nine Swans academy players on the current list and overall 11 NSW products.
McDonald comes to Sydney as the heir apparent to Buddy Franklin, with SCG crowds for the next ten to 15 years having yet another goal-kicking full-forward, except this time not poached from a Victorian club. Big forwards rarely become AFL coaches, so John Longmire must have had more than a little to do with the pick.
Campbell has been identified as a first-round draft pick from the 2019 NAB Academy Series where he showed his skills as a midfielder and a forward, averaging two goals across four games, including a four-goal bag. He was best on ground in the 2019 grand final curtain-raiser AFL Futures match and had his ticket stamped from there.
Gulden was for some time mentioned in the same breath as his academy teammate and only fell behind in predictions during this season when they didn’t play. The main reasons are that his kicking is not as good – Campbell is elite – and that he’s only 175 centimetres, which caused him to slide out of the first round despite his versatility and obvious footy IQ.
Carruthers is a South Australian medium defender who bucked the trend by coming into the disrupted season having missed out on the AFL academy hub squad, yet he managed to make his way onto the Swans list by leading his Sturt under-18s side into the grand final with his rebound off halfback and excellent distribution, which makes him ideal for the Swans to develop.
Sheather will also be slotted into the Swans development group where they like to bring players along slowly at senior level, though doubtless now that they’ll be playing against Victorian AFL reserves and VFL sides as well as NEAFL teams the higher standard will equalise the gap between first and second-tier football for the northern states clubs. His utility value makes him a genuine prospect of becoming an AFL player, particularly with Sydney’s record in this area.
The Swans have had arguably the best draft of all 18 teams, with two top-five picks who can immediately make the team better in Round 1, while losing Aliir and Taylor blight their overall trade and draft performance. Look for them to add a player in the preseason, potentially from among their own delistings.
Sydney has now recruited a quarter of their list from homegrown talent and their academy program continues to be the largest, with the only things holding them back being a shortage of AFL-size ovals and no AFLW licence, but with the largest supporter base in the league, they’ll have something to cheer about this year.