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AFL pre-season notebook: Damning stat shows Dimma's Suns have a long way to go, unique role for star Swans recruit

29th February, 2024
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29th February, 2024
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Two pre-season matches were supposed to run simultaneously on Thursday night, confusing and annoying everyone who’s inexplicably keen to watch as many matches back-to-back as possible. So really, just me.

Happily, with first the power going out at Blacktown and then a snake deciding to audition for a spot on Sydney’s rookie list, the Swans’ clash with Brisbane was delayed long enough for GWS and Gold Coast to get nearly a full quarter in.

Results in the pre-season should never be the focus; it’s more about the aesthetic – how teams are looking, fresh faces and new roles, different styles and, in the Suns’ case, how new coach Damien Hardwick has them shaping up.

The results were… well, let’s just say, eye-opening.

Here’s what we learned out of GWS’s win over Gold Coast, and Brisbane’s win over Sydney.

Dimma’s Suns are different – but not better just yet

Gold Coast were just about the most unique team in the AFL in Stuart Dew’s final seasons. In 2023, they and Brisbane were far and away the most kick-heavy team in the competition, with nearly two-thirds of their disposals coming off the boot (the AFL average was 59 per cent), while only the Lions, Bulldogs and Adelaide fared better from clearances.

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It was a pretty easy gameplan to follow: Matt Rowell was the on-ball extractor, Noah Anderson the next link in the chain, Touk Miller the hybrid in-and-out player when fully fit, and Jack Lukosius the link man between half-forward and Ben King in attack. It wasn’t without its flaws, and good teams ripped it to shreds, but you more or less knew what you were getting out of Dew’s Suns.

Hardwick’s Suns, quite understandably, are still working out what their style will be, but the early signs are that it’s going to be very different indeed.

More handballing is one aspect: especially when spreading from stoppages, the Suns used it by hand more than for nearly all of 2023 against GWS, with their tally of 198 kicks lower than all 23 of their matches last year, and their handball count beaten just twice.

Rowell (4 kicks, 12 handballs) exemplified this: encouraged to either burst from packs and pass penetratingly or hack it out of stoppages if that wasn’t possible under Dew, his first port of call now seems to be to move it on to a teammate in space nearby.

With seven clearances and eight contested possessions, he’s still far more of an inside bull than any other Sun, and Hardwick seems to have him playing that role more typically than Dew did. Rowell’s stats made him a unicorn last year – his numbers against the Giants were about what you’d expect from the in-and-under stoppage merchants of the footy world.

Naturally, there are teething problems with any rapid change of coaching direction, and so it proved for the Suns at Manuka Oval: they were comprehensively bullied at stoppages by a Giants team for whom that was scarcely a strength last year, beaten 45-34 clearances and unable to stop their classy opponents from taking full toll.

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A 72-41 inside 50 differential is an absolute smashing, and reflective of the Suns being butchered in an area that last year was their main source of success. Hardwick will need to hope his team are fast learners, otherwise 2024, especially the first half of the year, could be a very tough slog.

Damien Hardwick.

Damien Hardwick. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Bringing Sexy back

A forward for nearly all his career, the veteran Sun, who fell out of favour in the last few years under Dew, looks so natural as a rebounding half-back it’s almost hard to fathom why he’s only making the switch now.

31 disposals and a game-high 11 marks, all uncontested, shows how much the Suns want the ball in his hands down there; and with 10 rebound 50s and a disposal efficiency of 87 per cent, little wonder.

That’s a whole lot of numbers I’ve just thrown at you, but suffice to say Sexton looks like being your typical loose defender, with his primary focus to be on spreading into space and offering an outlet for teammates when they win the ball back in defence, with Charlie Ballard, Sam Collins and Wil Powell the chief interceptors in that regard.

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Notably, the rejig saw Mac Andrew, used as a quasi-tall defender last season, get shifted forward, where he looked considerably less comfortable in his new role than Sexton.

It will be interesting to see if Hardwick is willing to allow the talented youngster to find his feet in attack as a forward/ruck to support Jarrod Witts and provide a foil for Ben King, or if the lure for instant gratification will mean Levi Casboult gets more of a run in an identical role.

The Giants are scarier than ever

The Giants’ list really should be the envy of the competition – and while part of that was already there before Adam Kingsley took over, the number of stars he has unearthed is truly impressive.

The established guns are, of course, still beasts. Toby Greene did Toby Greene things on Thursday night, roaming freely from the goalsquare to the wing and looking menacing wherever he went; Tom Green looks bigger and more imposing with every passing year and could easily be the best inside mid in the game by season’s end; and Lachie Whitfield and Josh Kelly barely got out of second gear but ooze class in everything they do.

But these Giants bat deep, with Kieren Briggs looking set to continue his ascension into the elite ruck category, running Jarrod Witts ragged around the ground and dominant with his follow-up work to render the Sun’s 37-21 hitout advantage obsolete.

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Given more midfield time off a wing, Xavier O’Halloran also showed he could be a potent second-stringer to add to the on-ball rotation, with his ferocious attack on the footy more than making up for his tendency to aimlessly blaze with his kicking – he’s a fascinating outside player to watch go about it given both the above attributes.

Draftee Harvey Thomas is a pressure machine, and I’d be shocked if Kingsley didn’t find room for him in his Opening Round line-up, alongside Toby Bedford and (if he’s fit) Brent Daniels: that trio will just about make it impossible for opposition teams to safely leave their defensive 50 without being harassed every step of the way.

Mid-table for clearances in 2023, the Giants’ dismantling of a Suns team with some high-profile names in midfield might just hint at a rise in those stakes, too: do that, and they’ll take some serious, serious beating at all in 2024.

Adams’ interesting role

Before a knee injury the Swans insist is minor ended his night, Taylor Adams’ role in the Sydney midfield against Brisbane, especially given the absence of Callum Mills and Luke Parker, gave a clear insight as to how John Longmire will manage his bevy of talented on-ballers.

Nominally, the hard-nosed Adams was meant to add some stoppage power and contested hardness to a Swans team that was always more about its slick ball movement away from the coalface.

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But after attending the first centre bounce of the game, Adams’ attendance at them was sporadic, attending fewer than half before his night was ended just short of three-quarter time.

Instead, Longmire often had the equally tough James Rowbottom alongside young gun Angus Sheldrick and – most interesting of all – Isaac Heeney as his on-ball trio beneath ruckman Brodie Grundy, with Adams regularly starting at half-forward and drifting up to become part of the stoppage at subsequent ball-ups.

Heeney’s inclusion makes sense – a burst player, his speed and power offers a more aggressive midfield option than the more athletically limited (in the nicest possible way) Adams, even if he has always been deemed more valuable as a forward by Longmire.

Sheldrick, too, the Swans clearly rate highly, having been a regular centre bounce attendant during his brief but impressive time in the seniors in mid-2023. Similarly to Chad Warner, who missed the practice match, he’s more of an outside distributor than inside ball-winner, with Rowbottom (six clearances) doing the lion’s share of the work there.

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Adams will no doubt be handy throughout the year for Sydney, but his role now seems unlikely to be as prevalent as it seemed set to be when he departed Collingwood in last year’s Trade Period.

It’s certainly seeming less crucial to the overall structure than the much lower-profile recruit James Jordon, who primarily played on a wing and is already a key link player for the Swans coming out of defence. The defensive wingman, with Errol Gulden far more aggressive on the other, Jordon finished with four rebound 50s, behind only Matt Roberts and Nick Blakey among Swans, with his ability to find space resulting in nine marks and 31 disposals.

Hugh McCluggage’s time is now

One of the most controversial admissions from The Roar‘s recently announced Top 50 players list was Lions gun McCluggage. He seems to have taken that to heart.

Supremely skilled, there are few outside midfielders in the game more damaging at their best, and the clear best afield against the Swans simply ran them ragged on the outside.

The perfect foil to Lachie Neale and Josh Dunkley on the inside, McCluggage was a regular entrant at centre bounces but spent most of his time loping from a wing into the follow-up stoppages, where the Lions made a point of trying to create room for him to move.

The results were sensational: with 31 disposals and a game-high nine score involvements, McCluggage made things happen for the Lions all night long.

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We won’t be able to keep underrating him for much longer if he keeps producing performances like that when the real stuff starts.

Random Observations

– At this point the snake catcher should really just be a permanent member of the Blacktown groundstaff.

– I can’t express how much I rate Harvey Thomas right now. Really, really hope he cracks the Giants’ best team this year.

– Toby Greene didn’t need to go that hard in the pre-season, but he did, and I respect it.

– If Isaac Heeney stays on ball even when Chad Warner and Luke Parker return, someone should really test John Longmire for concussion.

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