There’s a special ignominy that greets the losing elimination finalists.
For 23 rounds of football and several months of pre-season beforehand, there is one goal: finals.
Over the course of the home and away rounds, we assess clubs through the prism of one thing: finals.
There is a clear line between failure and success: finals.
The top-four teams get to play at least two games. They have plenty to unfold. The story of the winning elimination finalists carries on. They dare to dream and regardless of what happens next, they’ve won a final. A pass mark has been achieved.
But for the losing elimination finalist, it’s over before it’s begun. They’re out. Gone. Never to be thought of again.
And if you’ve finished top six – with a significant amount of wins – what a wasted season.
Sydney won 15 games this year to finish sixth and turned some heads doing it. Only twice this century has sixth position on the ladder won 15 games or more, and most years that amount of victories would actually have you in the top four.
The Swans finished four games and 20 per cent clear of seventh, but just so happened to run into their nemesis in Greater Western Sydney.
To add insult to the injury of being bundled out immediately, the Giants only won one quarter on the day. Sydney conceded five goals in 12 minutes in the second term and lost by a point. Ouch.
It’s a long season to just lose under those circumstances. But it’s the reality John Longmire and his team have to face.
The positive is – and they won’t see it this way – no one remotely expected the Swans to be there. They finished bottom four in 2019 and 2020. The rebuild was on.
Their team on Saturday contained six players aged 21 or under. Half the team had played 64 games or less. Buddy Franklin has kicked more goals on his own that the rest of the side combined.
Luke Parker was the fourth-oldest player wearing red and white, and he’s 28 with four or five more seasons of top level football to come. The only three older are Buddy himself, who still has incredible athleticism in his mid-30s, the reliable co-captain Dane Rampe, and the evergreen 30-year-old Tom Hickey, who is coming off a career-best year.
Sydney should carry confidence into 2022 – they mixed it with the best all year, beating five of the other finalists at some stage, and losing to likely grand finalists Melbourne and Port by under two goals.
They have a strong band of players in their mid-20s, including star forwards Isaac Heeney and Tom Papley, and they kick the ball as well as any team. They know how to attack, and there is no doubt Longmire will work to stiffen their all-ground defence in the off-season, and improve how to protect themselves on turnover when the fast break doesn’t go their way.
The Swans should be using 2021 as no less than a market from which they can rise, the base from which to mount the campaign to the summit.
Essendon is in a similar position. Widely tipped to finish bottom four, playing a final can only be seen as a bonus on the way to greater heights.
They only won 11 games, sure, but with a healthy percentage of 109. They were involved in six games decided by fewer than two goals, losing five of them. Three of them were by three points or less.
Similar to Sydney, the Bombers had no problem with hitting the scoreboard. In fact, both teams finished top four in points for. No coincidence they were two of the most attractive sides to watch this season.
The Dons weren’t terrible in defence, but several levels below the top teams.
Senior coach Ben Rutten was an All Australian full-back for Adelaide, and defensive and backline assistant coach at Richmond during their 2017 premiership and 2018 where they finished on top of the ladder. Across those two seasons, the Tigers conceded fewer points than any other club.
All of this is to say, don’t worry, the defensive aspect to Essendon’s gameplan will sharpen right up as they rise. It’s never far from Rutten’s mind.
And let’s not forget they may well have had the most inexperienced back six in the league this season, in terms of games played inside defensive 50.
The Bombers have plenty of upside, and must now bridge the gap between fringe finalist to contender – it would be wise to make hay while Jake Stringer shines. He’ll be 28 early next season, and with the irresistible form he showed in large patches this year, he can deliver them to a grand final in the near future.
Sydney and Essendon have every right to think that 2021 was merely one step on a bigger journey. Every premiership side in recent memory has lost a final in the first week or two on the way through. And it can happen quickly too.
The Bulldogs lost an elimination final in 2015 and won a storied flag the next year. Richmond was the other elimination final loser in 2015, and we saw what happened after a gap year.
Swans and Bombers fans can be satisfied with a season that promised much. The best is yet to come.