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Footy Fix: How the Swans have turned their biggest weakness into another strength - and become all but unstoppable

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17th May, 2024
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A few weeks ago, I dubbed Carlton and Geelong as the premiership frontrunners – at a time when they sat, respectively, fourth and first on the ladder.

Nestled in between was Sydney, in second spot with a 5-1 record and the AFL’s second-best percentage, who nevertheless, after a shock loss to Richmond and a relatively uninspiring win over West Coast in their recent run of matches, I still held a few doubts over.

No longer. More fool me. This Swans team is a breathtaking machine firing on all cylinders, deserved premiership favourites, and by the end of the round they’ll be at least six points clear atop the ladder, with a percentage past 150, and as good a run home under the circumstances as they could have hoped for.

Watching them dismantle the Blues on Friday night was to witness the team we figured was bound to arrive at some point that famous day in early 2021 when they battered then-reigning premiers the Tigers on a sunny afternoon at the MCG.

They’ve played three finals series since then, including a grand final run in 2022, yet I think only now have they reached their final form.

So what has turned the inconsistent team that spluttered their way through 2023 and only reached finals via THAT hit the post call against Adelaide?

It’s simple: stoppages. Or to be more accurate, efficiency from them.

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The Sydney of prime Josh Kennedy’s era was a contested beast of a team: just about unbeatable in the wet, the toughest bunch of hombres around tackled and punished every opposition to within an inch of their lives, and rode that brutal style to two grand finals and nine consecutive September runs between 2010 and 2018.

Those days are gone: heading into Round 10, the Swans sat 14th in the league for average clearances per game, at 35. Only four teams – Brisbane, St Kilda, Hawthorn and Richmond, three of them in the bottom five – have had fewer centre clearances than them all year.

It’s a quite baffling stat when you apply the eye test and see the Swans waltzing the ball out of the middle at will against the Blues, piling on five goals from centre bounces alone and 51 points from total stoppages: but that data is meaningful.

The Swans had just four more clearances (39-35) than the Blues on Friday night, and the same amount extra from centre clearances (16-12). They’re not simply racking up such huge numbers around stoppages to make such scoring power inevitable – they’re just cashing in big time whenever it’s their turn.

After Friday night, Sydney sat, despite being near the bottom for stoppages won, second at scoring from them, averaging 37.5 points from that source per match. And even more notably, only two other teams – Collingwood and the Western Bulldogs – can match them in averaging more than a point for every clearance won this year.

It just so happens that the Swans also sit #1 for points from defensive half and points from turnovers as well. But we all know how destructive they are, and have been for years, in these facets.

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The reason for the Swans’ incredible efficiency in scoring from stoppages, and on Friday night from centre bounces particularly, is in a vastly improved and more settled set-up than in previous years.

In 2023, John Longmire had 10 different players attend at least 30 per cent of centre bounces in the games they played: combine three of them, Tom Hickey, Peter Ladhams and Lachlan McAndrew, under the ‘mandatory ruckman’ banner, and you still get eight different guys spending regular periods there.

Of those, Luke Parker was the only one who had an attendance rate above 60 per cent – he was up at 75 per cent, with the next-best James Rowbottom at 55 per cent, Chad Warner at 53 per cent, and then Callum Mills at 37 per cent. Errol Gulden, Tom Papley and Angus Sheldrick round out that least – Isaac Heeney, notably, is down at 12 per cent, with just one game as a fully-fledged midfielder.

Such a variety is an example of the embarrassment of midfield riches the Swans have at their disposal, but it also led to a lack of cohesion: they actually averaged more clearances (36.3) than they have in 2024 so far, but scored just 32.5 points per game from them – ranked 11th – while conceding 33.6 a game from that source, placing them fifth-worst. At centre bounces, only a historically bad West Coast gave up more than their 13.2 per match… by 0.1.

That’s a whole lot of numbers I’ve just thrown at you, so let me explain in simpler terms: different faces at so many stoppages, centre bounces especially, must make it tough to set into place a structure where every player knows their role at all times. It only takes one link snapping for the whole thing to fall apart – just look at the last minute of the third quarter of the 2021 grand final if you don’t believe me.

Through a combination of factors, most obviously the off-season shoulder injury to Callum Mills and Luke Parker breaking his arm in the scratch matches, the Swans have stumbled on a stoppage combination as consistent as any in the competition. Along with Brodie Grundy, Heeney (72 per cent of centre bounces), Rowbottom (64 per cent) and Warner (59 per cent) are there more often than not; and only Gulden of the rest (36 per cent) is at an attendance rate above a third.

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The same was true on Friday night: of 30 centre bounces, Heeney attended 23, Rowbottom and Warner 22, and the next-best midfielders were Taylor Adams and Tom Papley, with seven apiece. And I could only count one instance all evening when there weren’t at least two of the ‘big three’ in for one.

All three have different strengths. Rowbottom is a tackling machine and pressure beast, the number one hugger in the AFL this year and second to Matt Rowell for pressure acts. He does the grunt stuff so Warner and Gulden can provide the attacking menace: they sit fourth and third in the league respectively for inside 50s this year, third and fourth for score involvements, and only Christian Petracca and Toby Greene this year have had more goal assists than Gulden’s 12.

Heeney basically does everything, and does it magnificently: he’s top 10 for disposals this year, fifth for inside 50s (and yet still third at the Swans) with the best disposal efficiency of anyone inside the top 30 in that latter stat, equal-11th for goal assists, outright first for score involvements while kicking 16 majors himself, 15th in the game for tackles and fifth for pressure acts. He’s mental.

Their roles at centre bounces are also perfectly clear, and pretty straightforward: take this one for example, which led to a Sydney centre-bounce goal in the third term.

Both Heeney and Rowbottom engage immediately with their Blues opponents, George Hewett and Patrick Cripps respectively; they key, though, is that they are jostling them to the far side of the centre circle, the opposite side to which Chad Warner is about to sprint through, with Matt Kennedy paying him far too little attention and focussing solely on hunting the ball.

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It’s a safer play than you might think, too: while Rowbottom clears Cripps away from the dangerous space on the Swans’ side of the stoppage, Heeney positions himself goal side of Hewett, so if Pittonet wins the tap and hits it to Warner’s man Kennedy, he’ll likely be close enough to tackle. Or Grundy himself will get involved – his rank of seventh in the league for tackles attests to his strength in this regard.

The set play on this occasion works flawlessly: Grundy taps perfectly down into the dangerous space, Rowbottom gathers and handpasses to the oncoming Warner, who has timed his sprint perfectly, who races to 55 and dobs a goal from long range.

But even if something had gone wrong, the Swans had a set-up to enable them to switch from defence to attack and cover for Warner: this was far from a kamikaze, death or glory play.

That’s why the Swans are also the most miserly team at CONCEDING points from stoppages, averaging just 24.5 a game against from this source: by comparison, the Blues, who are just 0.1 points a game behind Sydney for scoring themselves, have 42.2 shipped on them every match. Only North Melbourne and West Coast do worse.

Want another example? How about this one – again, Heeney and Rowbottom engage with their men, but this time, Cripps is at least goal side of Warner to prevent him doing his thing.

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Not that it works – this time, Marc Pittonet wins the loose ball, but he’s immediately tackled by Grundy and loses it. Rowbottom picks up, and in close quarters gives to Heeney, who works his way through traffic elegantly, Blues opponents melting away around him, and hits up Hayden McLean inside 50. Another goal.

The effectiveness of this stoppage structure has forced Parker to plug away in the VFL for nearly a month now, and if and when he does return it will probably have to be in the mid-sized forward role that Heeney has vacated. Mills, too, probably has to slot in in his old role at half-back; if I’m Longmire, there’s no way in hell I’m changing what’s currently working so well.

Helping out immeasurably as well is Grundy’s influence in the ruck: it helps to have such an outstanding midfield to hit to, but he seems much more in sync with his teammates than he was in his later years at Collingwood, where a lot of his tapwork became maligned for hitting opposition midfielders as much as his own.

In 2022, the Swans ranked second-last for average hitouts to advantage per match, in raw numbers as well as as an average of total taps. In 2023, not only were they last in both, but third last for average taps a game as well. For all Tom Hickey’s honesty, an elite ruckman in that regard he was not.

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Grundy’s main claim to fame is his ability to win the ball and compete hard at ground level, but his ruckwork this year has never been better: while the Swans are ninth for average hitouts per match, they’re in the top four for hitouts to advantage, behind the Bulldogs’ Tim English and Port Adelaide’s Ivan Soldo-Jordan Sweet-Dante Visentini trinity.

That’s colossal improvement: between Grundy’s slick tapwork, Heeney’s domination and a far more settled midfield structure, little wonder what was once an Achilles heel for Sydney is now just another strength in the AFL’s most dominant team.

With a ruckman like Grundy, the Swans can establish set plays as they please, confident in the knowledge he can win the tap and get the ball where it needs to be: that then allows Warner to be the aggressive, pacy, Dustin Martin-esque midfielder currently tearing up the league forward of centre.

Next week’s contest with the Bulldogs, the only team that score more from stoppages than the Swans and are nearly as miserly at preventing it – though that might just be the benefit of a very handy draw to start the year – will be fascinating.

The Swans already had a dozen ways they could rip you apart – now, they’ve added another.

And if it doesn’t make them just about unstoppable now, then they’re damn close.

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