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AFL Saturday Study: No May, no Melbourne? How magnificent Swans exposed the Dees... again

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4th June, 2022
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Some wins mean more than just four premiership points. Sydney’s stirring come-from-behind win over Melbourne at the MCG on Saturday night might as well have been worth forty.

More than a year ago, this venue was the scene of the Swans’ breakout game – carving up a reigning premier in Richmond in the most devastating fashion. This time around, it proves the Swans aren’t just the plucky finalist we thought they were – they’re in this premiership race up to their eyeballs.

Of course, if there’s one thing we learned, it’s that no player is more important in the AFL at the moment than Steven May. With him marshalling the Dees’ defence, they look an unbeatable, impenetrable machine, capable of winning 17 matches in a row without breaking a sweat and suffocating challengers and also-rans alike.

Without him, they’re not just mortal: they’re seriously vulnerable. Even the three premiership players returning to face Sydney – Ed Langdon, Christian Salem and James Harmes – couldn’t replace the May-sized hole in the Demons’ line-up.

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May will be back next week, and the difference in the Dees’ fortunes down back should be stark. But their results should offer opposing teams the key to unsettling the reigning premiers: find some way, any way, to take May out of the game.

Tom Papley of the Swans celebrates a goal.

Tom Papley of the Swans celebrates a goal. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

It hasn’t helped, though, that the Dees have faced, in Fremantle and Sydney, two sides ideally suited to take advantage of the former Sun’s absence. Where for the Dockers, it was their crumbling smalls who proved lethal without May to keep the ball from hitting the ground in dangerous spots, it was the Swans’ talls themselves – plus Tom Papley, but more on him later – cutting out the middle man and doing the bulk of the damage.

Contested marks are where May’s absence most obviously shines through – and Sam Reid in particular looked a menace in the air – but equally important were the number of leading lanes for he and Logan McDonald to use inside 50, which May is so adept at cutting off. It’s become apparent in the last fortnight that Jake Lever is either still not 100 per cent fit, or simply in a rut – he has looked some way off his intercept marking best.

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McDonald looks a better footballer with every passing game: lightning off the mark, dangerous overhead and an endurance beast even at his tender age; the kid is going to be a star. He might already be one.

Reid, too, played his best game in years. Injury-plagued and struggling for form in equal measure in recent years, he never quite became the league-dominating key forward he loomed as being in his early days; but he still has an outstanding pair of hands and a core strength that belies his wiry frame. He plucked contested marks by the barrelful all night, even outpointing the monstrous Max Gawn on one occasion.

May’s plan when the ball is further afield is brilliant for its simplicity: he positions himself behind the ball, usually still inside the defensive 50, and feasts on any hopeful long kicks that go anywhere near him. The Dees make sure anyone staying back with him has another defender for company, to ensure zero chance of neutralising the contest.

Without him there against the Swans, there was room for things to happen. There could be no finer example of everything the Dees didn’t concede in the first 10 rounds than in this goal from Papley.

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Harry Petty, the Dees’ number one key defender in the absence of May, watches the ball sail over his head: May would never have been sucked so far up the ground, which the hard running and strong marking of Reid and McDonald compelled Petty and Adam Tomlinson to do.

It left not just a one-on-one contest for Jayden Hunt to defend, but an empty defensive 50. Against a forward as crafty as Papley, you could mark it down for a goal the moment the kick came his way.

You could tell the Swans loved that match-up by how often they tried, successfully, to generate one-on-one contests inside 50 between Papley and Hunt. It nearly paid off again during the third term, with Papley not taking the mark this time, but following up at ground level, eventually breaking free – again, no chance he has that time and space with May around – and hitting the post with a left-foot snap.

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Just like against Freo, once the Swans began to take control around the ball, it was staggering how quickly the turnaround arrived. A five-goal opening term saw the Dees take a sizeable lead for the second week in a row: then, first slowly and then with building momentum, Sydney forced their way back into the contest, then took complete control.

For the second week in a row, Clayton Oliver was tagged and successfully curtailed, this time by James Rowbottom; minus his sharp hands and elite decision-making under pressure, the Swans shaded the clearance count despite the ruck dominance of the Gawn-Luke Jackson duo.

With 44 first-half tackles, the Dees faced pressure they seldom have so far in 2022. So often they’ve been able to cool things down when it gets hot in the kitchen with a series of short kicks and marks, usually to the wingers Angus Brayshaw or Ed Langdon, steadily gaining territory while offering little chance of a turnover. The Swans cut that off at the source – the Dees had just 29 marks for the first half, including only 11 in the game-turning second term.

Denied outlet options and attacked from all sides, the Dees began to make mistakes. Lots of them – 35 clangers to half time, to be exact. It was all the Swans needed to start given their forwards chances to expose the May-less defence.

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The Swans’ own backs, too, recovered from a shaky start: Tom McCartin was beaten a couple of times by Gawn’s sheer size inside 50 throughout the night, but against anyone else, was unbelievable. It helped that the pressure further afield was such that genuine one-on-one contests were largely denied the Dees once the Swans got on top: instead, high hopeful balls coming in are just what McCartin and brother Paddy make their living from.

As a result, the Dees went through 10 inside 50s without a single score during the second term, before Bayley Fritsch finally broke through with a much-needed goal late.

The answer, as it usually does for the Dees, began with Oliver. Held to ‘only’ 10 possessions in the first half, he finally shook the Rowbottom tag after half time, racking up 13 in the third term alone. Immediately, Melbourne began to retake control at the stoppages: with it, came utter territory domination.

Gawn, too, was magnificent: almost a lone hand in the second quarter, his tap work wasn’t as damaging as it can be, but he made up for it with outstanding work around the ground. Time and again he’d neutralise a contest, or better yet, take a towering contested mark, while at every chance he threw Peter Ladhams aside to take the ball from the ruck and force it forward. It’s not too much to say he was their only regular threat in attack, as well.

Also helping was a change in style for the Dees: from more than a quarter of their 22 marks in the term, they opted to play on. The slick ball movement stretched the Swans across the ground, opening up space for more marks, and allowing Melbourne to deny the visitors possession for lengthy periods for the first time since the opening term.

The Dees slammed on 16 inside 50s for the term; that they only managed one goal was thanks to some brilliant Swans defending, regularly flooding back to turn the Dees’ attacking arc into a maul.

Still, they led at three-quarter time; it felt as if the Swans had fired their shot. Especially when Gawn drew a free kick for holding from an outmatched McCartin in the first minute of the final term to extend the lead beyond two goals.

I sincerely hope discussion around what happened next doesn’t centre on the two free kicks the Swans won to set up first Errol Gulden’s go-ahead major, then Papley’s sealing goal. Because those frees, soft though they were, were earned by the Swans simply creating chance after chance when all looked lost.

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The Swans kept tackling; the Dees kept making mistakes. Tom Sparrow missed the charging Oliver with a handball he’d hit nine times out of ten; the Swans took possession, and instantly charged up the field, where Lever dropped a mark he’d take, yep, nine times out of ten. The cracks were showing: all it needed was a wrecking ball to bash down the wall.

Then, when the Dees moved it forward, up stepped the defence. McCartin, Jake Lloyd and Ollie Florent (whose transition from outside mid to intercepting defender has seemingly happened overnight) all took telling intercept marks, while Paddy McCartin’s spoiling remained outstanding. Gulden, too, was magnificent on the outside – he’ll be the best kick in the game in three years. Papley remained dangerous whenever the ball went his way.

So it was, in some ways, fitting that both received soft – but probably there – frees for the final two goals of the match. First, Gulden’s hips got the faintest of holds from Bowey, and from 50, the laser that is his left foot swung back Jordan Dawson-style for the lead.

Papley’s free was even more generous, against Ed Langdon for landing on his back – had Langdon been a second earlier, Papley would have given the free away for contact below the legs. But his desperation, and his pace, told; and from the pocket, his snap off the non-preferred was delightful.

Of course, Dees fans will go home grumbling; but had those frees not been paid, I’m willing to bet the Swans would have found the goal they needed anyway, such was their dominance of the final minutes.

Only Gawn was keeping them in the game, continuing to take towering contested marks: his problem was that he couldn’t kick to himself, because one Mitch Brown grab aside, the Swans ruled the skies whenever he wasn’t involved.

It’s not panic stations yet for the Dees: Christian Petracca was again well down on his explosive best, and May isn’t going to miss too many games moving forward. Like I said last week after their loss to Fremantle, they’ll be fine.

But for the Swans, this is a night that promises much to come. Even a May-less Melbourne is the most formidable of foes: to storm the MCG and come from behind yet again is a sign this young, exciting team is something special.

Premiership special? We’re about to find out.

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