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Footy Fix: No Mills, no Parker, no problems - How Swans' new-look midfield beat the Dees at their own game

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7th March, 2024
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In 2023, Sydney were one of the AFL’s worst teams when it came to clearances.

Only West Coast and Adelaide conceded them at a greater clip than the Swans’ 39.9 per game; only the Eagles had a worse differential than their -85 over the course of the season. It was their kryptonite, and a big reason why they fell from grand finalists in 2022 to coming within a whisker of missing the eight entirely.

So heading into an Opening Round date with Melbourne, clearance bullies for years now, and facing a midfield consisting of Max Gawn, Clayton Oliver, Christian Salem and Jack Viney, things were always going to be tough in the clinches for the Swans.

Throw in the absence of Callum Mills, Luke Parker and Taylor Adams – pretty much their first-choice starting on-ball trio – and you’d fear a smashing was in store.

And you’d have been right: it was. 45 clearances to 34, as a matter of fact. The best midfielder had a whopping 13 of them, the ruckman had nine, and eight different players had at least two. It led to a 65-51 inside 50 advantage, from which much of the game was set up; and by the last quarter, a tired and outgunned midfield group was taken to the cleaners.

Except it was the Swans doing the thrashing. Who would have thunk it?

In a scrappy, gritty contest at the SCG – and yet, that is code for borderline unwatchable – the Swans, who have made their name in recent years around their beautiful skills and daring ball movement on the outside, were stronger, smarter and tougher at the coalface than their far more decorated rivals.

Key to it all was Brodie Grundy, who at a stroke proved he’s a frontrunner for recruit of the year with a best-afield performance made all the sweeter coming against the team which chewed him up and spit him out last year like yesterday’s tuna salad sandwich.

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With a second-string midfield at his feet, the stage could hardly have been better for Grundy: missing the usual on-ball grunt of Parker, plus new recruit Adams who had been specifically targeted to fill that role, the former Demon and Pie was needed as a contest enforcer in a way he hasn’t been since his halcyon days at Collingwood as Max Gawn’s nearest rival for best ruckman in the game.

Christian Salem reacts to pressure from Brodie Grundy and Isaac Heeney.

Christian Salem reacts to pressure from Brodie Grundy and Isaac Heeney. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Grundy made Gawn’s night as miserable as the jellyfish that stung his ear earlier in the day had made his afternoon (yes, that’s 100 oer cent real).

Jumping into him at every ruck contest, grappling and harassing him within an inch of his life, Grundy and the Swans copied the blueprint famously used by Port Adelaide last year of giving the Dees captain an almighty working over around the ground; by the last quarter, Gawn was a shadow of himself, and Grundy was still going strong.

A stat line of 23 disposals, six tackles, 33 hitouts, nine clearances and 15 contested possessions is the Grundy of 2018 and 2019 all over again: a contested ball monster who fights and wins ruck contests against even the best big men in the game, then follows up at ground level again and again and again as another midfielder.

For all Tom Hickey manfully achieved in the later stages of his career, the Swans haven’t had a ruckman of Grundy’s calibre since… Darren Jolly, maybe? Even earlier?

How his game evolves when the Swans get the core of their usual midfield back is anyone’s guess, but for the time being at least, he is the leader of a new-look midfield, with all the responsibility that that entails. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

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But Grundy was only part of the Swans’ story; what might prove to be just as consequential for their season was the 13 clearances, and mountain of grunt work, provided by Isaac Heeney.

For a long time, Heeney’s aerial brilliance, goal nous and footy smarts have been deemed too important to the Swans’ forward line for John Longmire to move him into the midfield role he’d seemed destined for as a junior.

But desperate times call for desperate measures, and after impressing in the pre-season, he played the night as a full-time on-baller… and by the time the final siren blew, he was the best midfielder on the ground.

It’s games like this that make you realise, for all the inconsistency his forward role brings, what an extraordinary talent Sydney’s number five is.

His game is virtually devoid of weaknesses: strong as an ox, he busts tackles and explodes from stoppages like Patrick Dangerfield or Dustin Martin, if lacking that extra spurt of pace. Around the ground, he’s just as dangerous outside the coalface as inside it, sending the ball inside 50 eight times for the night and hitting targets more often than not.

His 13 clearances were as many as Clayton Oliver and Jack Viney, two of the hardest, most relentless hombres in the league when it comes to contested ball, managed for the evening. Combined.

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Both those above stats, plus his game-high 18 contested possessions, were career-highs for Heeney – his clearance count was five more than his next-best, a quite absurd uptick for a player entering his 10th season.

The other advantage is his kicking: on a night where, with the ball slippery and skills dulled by only having practice matches to fall back on, the Swans were quicker to judge that gaining territory, then tackling and pressuring hard to retain it, were going to be key.

Only Nick Blakey had more kicks than Heeney’s 18 for the night; with the Swans going at a 234-123 kick-handball differential, their style played right into his wheelhouse. It’s there he has an edge over the scrappier Adams, and even the smooth-moving Mills.

As is his forward craft: in the below video, he showed up Jack Viney’s lack of defensive nous with this mark inside 50. You simply can’t leave Isaac Heeney unchecked inside 50 the way you might a normal, run-of-the-mill midfielder without the knowledge of leading patterns and holding space that he has from a decade of playing near exclusively as a forward.

That pair meant, slowly but eventually inevitably, Sydney’s lesser light midfield overpowered that of the Dees. Down by 21 in the contested possession count at half time, they had broken even by the early minutes of the fourth term, and finished four ahead.

To do that to a team once renowned for its fast finishing, even as recently as last year, is some effort.

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Tom Papley’s role was likewise a fascinating gamble by Longmire; risking robbing Peter to pay Paul by having two of his best forwards in Heeney and Papley on ball for large periods, the latter was constantly menacing.

Regularly attending centre bounces, the occasional follow-up stoppage, then pushing forward, Papley’s two marks inside 50 were an equal game high, and came about as a result of the confusion generated by his running patterns from midfield stoppages.

Where the Dees could have set up for Papley by having their best small defender, Judd McVee, effectively sit on him as a pure forward, the changeover required by having him start on ball so regularly created enough confusion for a player as smart as the Swans’ No.11 to pounce.

Throw in a rotation consisting of the ferocious James Rowbottom (14 contested possessions and six clearances), and the brilliant Chad Warner – whose dominant last quarter reaffirmed his standing as a superstar on the rise – and not even a quieter than usual night for Errol Gulden, with ‘only’ 20 disposals, damaged their ability to get the ball moving forward.

When Gulden gets the ball in his hands more – and that seems inevitable – the Swans will only be more potent going into attack.

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It was worth noting that, with a two-point three quarter time lead and the match on a knife’s edge going into the last quarter, who Longmire chose to attend the pivotal first bounce.

Grundy was there, obviously. But the three others were Warner, Heeney and Papley. No Rowbottom, their best in-and-under player. No Gulden, outside on a wing.

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No; their most damaging breakaway on-baller, Warner. The ball of speed and chaos that is Papley. And Heeney, who might just be becoming the uber-midfielder we all thought he’d be earlier in his career, the player we thought might be too good in a less glamorous role to ever truly reach those heights.

Longmire trusted that oddest of foursomes – the new recruit, the converted forward, the burst player and the future star – for the game’s most important moment.

And like everything else the Swans did to begin their season, he was utterly vindicated.

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