After two years in the finals wilderness, a return to better times may not be far off for the Sydney Swans.
Over the weekend, the Swans produced arguably their best performance for over a year when they put Richmond to the sword at the MCG, winning by 45 points and sending a spine-tingling warning to the rest of the competition that they are here to contend in season 2021.
Not least each of the other 17 club captains, none of whom gave the red-and-whites any chance of returning to September football after finishing 15th and 16th in the past two seasons.
And it would not surprise you that it was their young brigade which was again at the forefront of the win, as they flipped the script and gave the more experienced and battle-hardened Tigers a footballing lesson on the field.
Two of last year’s draftees, Errol Gulden and Logan McDonald, continued to show maturity beyond their years, while Chad Warner played easily the match of his life in just his fifth career game.
Combined with impressive individual performances from a host of others, they managed to do what several other teams have struggled to do in recent years – bring down a machine with names such as Cotchin, Martin, Riewoldt, Nankervis and Prestia to name a few.
It marked the first time since rounds 7-9 in 2017 that John Longmire’s side have scored over 100 points in consecutive matches, further, they were also the first side to crack a ton against Richmond before three-quarter-time since St Kilda did so in Round 16, 2017.
What made the win all the more impressive was the fact they were without their talisman Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin, who remained in Sydney but is certain to return when the Swans face Essendon this Thursday night.
It was the first time Richmond had lost to a non-Victorian side at the MCG, or in Melbourne for that matter, since Round 13, 2017 – which also happened to be against the Swans.
For the most part of this millennium the club has been a defence-oriented team, as evidenced in 2006, 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017 when, in each of those five seasons, they conceded the fewest points of any side in the league.
Further, in 2001 and 2005, they were the second-best defensive side, winning their drought-breaking premiership in the latter year.
During this period, despite boasting the likes of Barry Hall and Michael O’Loughlin in the forward line, their style of play has sometimes come under scrutiny – most notably, in the 2005 premiership season, they ranked 14th in offence, only ahead of Hawthorn and Collingwood.
Even wooden spooners Carlton scored 42 more points than the Swans that year.
Last year, Richmond coach Damien Hardwick savaged their game plan after the Tigers were kept to only 4.10 (34) while the Swans booted only 3.8 (26) themselves in the corresponding match at the Gabba.
He, however, praised the Swans for their performance on Saturday, saying they could’ve beaten his side by ten goals and that his three-time premiership side had simply been outclassed.
Put simply, the Tigers were beaten at their own game, and beaten convincingly.
After years of centring their game plan around defence and wearing opposition teams down, the Swans have revolutionised their attack like never before to the point that they have scored the most points than any other side, averaging 121 from their opening three rounds.
This included booting the highest score in each of the opening two rounds, including kicking 19 goals against the Brisbane Lions at the Gabba, where the northerners proved hard to beat last year.
A lot of this has been attributed to the presence of assistant coach Don Pyke, who arrived at the club after a year off following his tenure as Adelaide Crows coach, during which the club ranked first in offence in 2016 and 2017, advancing to the grand final in the latter year.
The Swans’ win over the Tigers came as personal revenge for Pyke, whose Crows were humiliated on the big day in 2017 when they only mustered 8.12 (60) – their lowest score for the whole season.
His time at West Lakes came to a sour end when the club missed the finals in 2018 and 2019, leading to his departure from the Crows and a year out of the game before re-emerging from the coaching wilderness in Sydney.
The red-and-white resurgence also has many comparing them to the famous “Baby Bombers” side of 1993 that won an unexpected flag with rookie names such as James Hird, Dustin Fletcher, Joe Misiti, Mark Mercuri and a reborn Tim Watson to name a few.
All but Watson (who retired at the end of 1994) then formed the nucleus of their 2000 premiership side, which also included, among others, Matthew Lloyd, Scott Lucas, Damien Hardwick, Steven Alessio and Dean Solomon.
Similarly, the Swans class of 2021 has Errol Gulden, Logan McDonald, Chad Warner, Justin McInerney and a reborn Lance Franklin around which to possibly build their next premiership team.
Buddy is also in the penultimate year of his nine-year contract with the Sydney Swans; it is expected he will retire at the end of next season, which is when it runs out.
A flag in either this or next year, while unlikely this year, would be the perfect way for him to ride into the retirement sunset, before which he is likely to crack the 1000-goal milestone, something that has not been achieved since 1996.
It comes as cross-town rivals the GWS Giants continue to struggle with the Homebush-based club currently sitting in 17th place on the ladder with no wins from three matches this season and also enduring a six-match losing streak dating back to Round 16 last year.
In contrast to the Swans’ newfound attacking style of play, the Giants’ on-field fortunes have continued to deteriorate since being humiliated by the Tigers in the 2019 grand final, having cracked the ton just once since then – in Round 1 last year.
Therefore, it is possible that after several frustrating years of playing second-fiddle to their younger brothers, the Swans could this year reclaim their mantle as the top side in Sydney, and in New South Wales for that matter.
This will provide a subplot to the Round 5 Sydney Derby, which will be played at the SCG after last year’s only Derby was played at the unusual venue of Optus Stadium, behind Western Australia’s hard borders, which have since been loosened.
In that match, the young Swans shined on the Thursday night stage, keeping the Giants goalless in the opening quarter and preventing them from scoring freely with their only three goals that evening coming via free kicks.
Barring a major coronavirus outbreak, a full house will be expected at that match, but not before the Swans play Essendon in what promises to be a prime-time blockbuster under the SCG lights this Thursday night.
The Bombers will go into this match fresh off an unexpected 75-point thrashing of St Kilda, which has provided their coach Ben Rutten with some relief after they had started the season with a heartbreaking loss to Hawthorn and a poor loss to Port Adelaide at the Oval.
Buddy’s return will be a case of bad timing for the Bombers, whom the 34-year-old has consistently dominated kicking more goals against them than any other side in the competition at an average of 4.3 goals from 16 matches.
Should the Swans continue their impressive early-season form, it is possible they could be 6-0 by the time they face last year’s runners-up, the Geelong Cats, at the SCG in Round 7.
While a timeslot for that match is still to be determined, it is highly likely the match will be scheduled for Friday evening, which would give the developing side the chance to shine on prime time television.
Without doubt these are exciting times ahead for the Sydney Swans and after years of dominance by Richmond, perhaps the Swans will be the team that no-one will want to face in September, should they get that far.