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Unexpected delights: Sydney Swans season review

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Roar Guru
2nd October, 2021
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In the latest of my series of annual reviews is a side that flew up the ladder from an ignominious bottom-four finish last year to being a premiership smokey in 2021: the Sydney Swans.

As always, we will begin with what worked for the Swans before looking at what failed, the questions that remain and how they can improve their performance in 2022.

The Swans played with reckless abandon and warmed the cockles of my very cynical heart. Gone was the rigid adherence to inside-clearance domination that has defined the Bloods of yesteryear and in its place was a powerful new ball movement dominated by the changes made by former senior coach Don Pyke.

What worked

The appointment of Don Pyke and the new ball-movement strategies
The Swans of old were an afterthought. From the Paul Roos era they’ve been dominated by a dour and defensive style that seemed anachronistic at times. However, in 2021 the new outside-first mentality came to the fore and worked brilliantly, taking them to third in the competition for total points. It was most clear in their new kick-mark mentality, whereby the superb ball use of Jordan Dawson and Jake Lloyd gave the Swans excellent distribution from the back half of the ground. Both players sat in the top 20 of the AFL for effective kicks because of the strategy, with 344 and 270 respectively.

The Swans were excellent at holding their width, allowing them to control the ball and stretch defences as every player became a member of the forward forays, allowing them to control both possession as well as depriving the opposition of any forward impetus. Out was the blue-collar defence that has defined the Sydney Swans for nearly two decades; in was the champagne footy that was led by enigmatic key forward Lance Franklin.

Don Pyke, assistant coach of the Swans

Don Pyke (Photo by Ryan Pierse/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

Their young jets
Not to sound like the punditocracy of the AFL who slavishly devoted column after column after column to the young players of the Sydney Swans, but the Swans really do have some very good young talent. The selection of Logan McDonald, Braeden Campbell and Errol Gulden at last year’s draft feeds into an extremely solid and talented cohort that should see the Swans challenge for the top four next year.

Gulden, as well as being the second Errol ever to play AFL football, was a proverbial bulldog, gathering the ball up the ground and distributing it down the ground. He’s rated elite for effective disposals (11.3) and metres gained (287) and is above average for clearances (1.8), tackles (2.9) and marks (4.6). This was in the first year during which he easily outshone fellow draftees also in their first year.

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Moreover, the Swans have continued to wring every drop of talent from their academy. This becomes more significant when you consider that two-thirds of their picks from the first two rounds last year were academy players. When you combine that with the already established talent in Nick Blakey, Callum Mills and Isaac Heeney it becomes apparent that the Swans have built a wonderful development mechanism for their players as well as ensuring they have a presence in the Sydney community.

Mills took a huge leap forward this year with his inevitable move to the midfield, where he was able to use his bigger frame to get over the footy and dominate possession. Heeney was third in Sydney’s goal kicking and has found his niche as a pseudo tall forward who can play taller than he is.

Finally, there is the Lizard himself, Nick Blakey. Rated as a top-ten prospect in the super draft, Blakey has taken a bit of time to come on, but this year he seemed to thrive as a taller halfback, filling the void left by Jordan Dawson when he pushed up to a wing and Callum Mills’s switch to the midfield. It is a different position than he would have expected, but he seems to enjoy seeing the play develop in front of him.

Nick Blakey of the Swans celebrates a goal

Nick Blakey (Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Tom Hickey
Tom Hickey gets his own section as perhaps the most improved trade target of the past year. He has been magnificent for the Swans in the ruck. He’s rated as elite for disposals (16.5), score involvements (4.7) and contested possessions and is above average for hit-outs, hit-outs to advantage, pressure acts and goals. Hickey has been able to deploy his heavy frame at stoppages and around the ground to brutal efficiency.

The one mark against him is his age. He will be 31 in the early part of next season, so it is unclear how many more years the Swans will be able to get out of Hickey. But he has effectively played the Swans into having an extremely deep ruck, a position they lacked as recently as last year.

Tom Hickey

Tom Hickey (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

What didn’t work

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The salary cap squeeze
Lance Franklin has been magnificent for the Swans, but his contract is an albatross around the neck of the club, forcing them to creatively shift their salary cap all over the place. You can see it is affecting the contracts of players like Isaac Heeney and Callum Mills, who are prolonging the suffering by taking more back-ended deals and trusting the club will look after them. And Bob Skilton medallist Luke Parker was almost forced out of the club altogether as a result of the machinations surrounding his contract, as the club were reluctant to give him his true value or extend him such that he becomes a one-club player.

Finally, there were the issues surrounding Jordan Dawson. I know he’s leaving primarily as a result of homesickness, being a South Australian native, but the lack of room to manoeuvre in the salary cap has made it much harder for the Swans to be able to entice Dawson to stay. It is a decision that is sure to dominate the headlines for the trade period, with Dawson stuck between a rock and a hard place, with the Crows and Swans unable to meet somewhere in the middle.

Kick it to Buddy
This is perhaps unfairly Buddy-centric; however, the Swans still at times this season fell into a tendency to kick the ball to Lance Franklin. It was most acutely felt in the first half of the elimination final against the Giants, when Sam Taylor was able to effective zone off against Franklin and cut off multiple attacks. It is understandable they’re so focused on Franklin, with him sitting on the precipice of 1000 goals and being sure to be the last key forward to reach such a milestone. However, he needs to gracefully fade and become the bit player in the Swans offence to allow players like Logan McDonald and Isaac Heeney to come to the fore. It would almost be worthwhile playing further afield away from the goal, where he can use his exemplary field kicking to launch attacks.

Lance Franklin

Lance Franklin (Photo by Tony Feder/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Questions that remain

How long can Buddy go on?
Lance Franklin has been great for the Swans, a premiership notwithstanding. He’s done everything that has been asked of him, including leading the Swans goal kicking in 2021. He is going into the last year of his remarkable nine-year contract on 995 goals, just five shy of the remarkable tally of 1000 goals. However, with 48 goals from 18 games in 2021, he is showing that he may very well have two or three years left in him if the Swans want it. I think it depends on how successful the Swans are next year as to whether they can get the elusive premiership.

Who will be ousted from the jam-packed salary cap?
Earlier this week extensions were announced for Colin O’Riordan, Callum Sinclair and Braeden Campbell on top of the already extended Luke Parker and Dylan Stephens. The Swans currently have nine players out of contract in 2021 and a further 12 out of contract in 2022, with Sam Reid and Sam Wicks the headliners of the current out of contract bunch. It is clear the Swans are going to have to move some big names on, most notably Sam Reid, who has found himself somewhat on the outer due to injuries. It remains to be seen how dramatically the Swans will cut, but the majority of the players out of contract are on the fringes of the best 22, so they can afford to lose some players.

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Solutions to the swans problems

Develop James Rowbottom as a permanent inside midfielder
One of the problems the Swans have run into is the inflexibility of talismanic veteran Josh Kennedy, who will be 34 years old midway through next year’s campaign. While Sydney have developed a new outside game built on running lanes, they still require players to feed the ball out to them. In James Rowbottom they have the heir apparent to Josh Kennedy’s position; they need to give him the appropriate minutes in that position so he can continue to develop and refine his craft.

Extend Logan McDonald before the Eagles get their talons in
Logan McDonald is the only player of last year’s draft class for the Swans yet to extend. Despite the latter half of his season being derailed by injury, he has shown enough to continue persisting with. However, one narrative that has predominated this year’s trade period is homesickness and players forcing their way out of clubs due to interstate COVID restrictions. If the Swans wish to prevent this, they may want to lock him away early. The same goes for Will Gould, who is a successor for Dane Rampe down back.

Season summary

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Best win: Brisbane Lions, Round 1
Like the Bombers, the Swans were a surprise packet this year. This was a match in which Logan McDonald, Errol Gulden and Braeden Campbell roared onto the scene, showing their importance to the Swans line-up. Playing a heavily fancied Brisbane side that was to be challenging for the premiership, they forced them into playing at their pace.

Best and fairest: Luke Parker
Parker was able to be the ultimate distributor, averaging above-average disposals and kicks while being elite for handballs, enabling the outside runners. He was also pretty handy in front of goal, with 15 goals and eight behinds. He earnt his third Bob Skilton Medal to go with his placement in the Brownlow back in 2017.

Way too early prediction: between third and 12th
As much as I have a cognitive bias against the Swans, I do believe they’re on an upwards trajectory. While I believe it is too early to chalk them in for the premiership, they are going to challenge the sides above them with another preseason into their young guns.

Letter grade: B+
If they had won a final, it would have been an A. However, going from the bottom three to pushing the top four, the Swans were able to surprise everyone this year. They need to work inconsistencies out of their game and not drop games against worse opposition, as they did against the Suns and Saints.

I apologise for the delay in this latest review, but I was watching Squid Game and I don’t speak Korean so these reviews had to go on the backburner. The good news is I’ve completed it and should be able to smash out the remainder of these reviews by the close of the trade period this week.

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Join me tomorrow for the season review for the Giants.

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