Story Of The Summer
It is hard to go past Sydney’s signing of Lance Franklin as the biggest non-Essendon football story of the off-season. The Swans’ power-play to poach the dual Hawthorn premiership star from the hands of cross-town rivals Greater Western Sydney created headlines nationwide.
The multi-million dollar deal the Swans have granted Franklin is undoubtedly a massive gamble on a player that, at the age of 27, could well have played his best football. Especially given his most successful season was his 100 goals back in 2008.
The nine-year deal will tie Franklin, and his reported $10 million salary, to the Swans for the best part of the next decade. Sydney now runs the long-term risk of footing the bill for the entirety of the forward’s contract, even if Franklin suffers a major dip in form or a career-ending injury over the duration of his time at the club.
Naturally, the trade-off to acquire Franklin involved the loss of personnel; the most notable defector being premiership ruckman Shane Mumford, who has crossed town and joined the Giants. Other departees from Sydney include Jed Lamb (GWS), Jesse White and Tony Armstrong (Collingwood) and Andrejs Everett (Carlton).
Draft-wise, the Swans selected players with a distinct long-term view, with Aliir Aliir, George Hewett, Zak Jones and Toby Nankervis not expected to feature prominently in the seniors this year.
Having exited the 2013 premiership race at the hands of Fremantle in the preliminary final, the Swans’ failure to once again meet Hawthorn in the decider was undoubtedly still fresh in their minds when they pinched the Hawks’ highest profile-player.
Where They Excel
According to Champion Data, Sydney possesses the number one rated midfield in 2014, and with quality players like Kieren Jack, Jarred McVeigh, Josh Kennedy and Daniel Hannebery in the mix, it’s not hard to see why.
Sydney was the number one tackling side in the competition in 2013, with Ryan O’Keefe and Jack ranking as the two most prolific tacklers in the league with 164 and 159 respectively. Impressively, the Swans’ defence only conceded an average of 77 points per game throughout the home and away season, surpassed by only Fremantle. Finally, with Mike Pyke and Shane Mumford leading the way in the ruck, the Swans were ranked second in the league for hitouts per game averaging 47.2.
The Swans’ forward line was ranked fourth in the league last season, averaging 14.5 goals per game. It now takes on a new dimension, with Franklin joining 2013 acquisition Kurt Tippett as a mainstay of the attack.
Tippett, acquired in the 2012 pre-season draft, still managed 35 goals in 12 matches after his suspended start to the 2012 season. With the departure of Mumford to the Giants, he will now be expected to take on more of a supporting role to Pyke in the ruck. If both players can stay on the park and work cohesively together, 120 goals plus should be the expectation from the Franklin-Tippett partnership, likely making them the most valuable forward duo in the game.
Another area the Swans don’t lack in is experience. They possess the second-oldest list in the AFL, and the most experienced in terms of games played with an average of 81.5 matches per player. The youngest player in their best 22 is Tom Mitchell at 20, and the established senior core, regularly replenished by mature-aged recruits, has helped propel the Swans to 10 finals series in the last 11 seasons. Proof of this is, in the last two seasons, the Swans have had 23 players play 10 games or more – the least of any AFL club.
Since John Longmire succeeded Paul Roos as senior coach in 2011, the Swans have accumulated 48 wins and two draws in 74 matches, including the 2012 premiership. Consistency is definitely a strong point, and with a handful of players still remaining from the 2005 breakthrough triumph, the spirit of the Bloods will continue to drive this playing group forward.
Hiccups On The Horizon
At the conclusion of round 19 last season, the Swans were sitting pretty. Holding third position on the ladder with just three losses in 18 matches, a top four berth was virtually sewn up and they were well on track to defend their 2012 premiership. However, the spluttering way the Swans finished off the season is a concern for 2014.
When it really mattered at the tail end of the season, Sydney lost five of their final seven matches. The only two wins the Swans notched up were over the struggling Saints in round 21 and their semi final win over Carlton, in which the Swans were so out on their feet after three quarters, they failed to even score in the last term. While they still had enough in the tank to record a 24-point win over the Blues, the signs were not good for the trip to Perth the next week to take on the Dockers.
As a result, it was no surprise they were jumped by Fremantle in the preliminary final, trailing 7.11 to just 2.2 at half time in what proved to be the Swans’ last match of the season, exiting the finals with a 25-point defeat.
Of course it could be argued persistent injuries to senior personnel such as Rhyce Shaw (six games in 2013), Sam Reid (10 games), Lewis Roberts-Thomson (four games), Lewis Jetta (13 games) and Adam Goodes (12 games) was a major factor in their fade out at the back end of last year.
However, when a considerable portion of the senior core is approaching or above the age of 30, the long-term trend for the Swans isn‘t all that promising. On the 2014 list, Sydney has nine players that will turn 29 or above this year. Of these, it is likely Goodes and O’Keefe are playing their last seasons, with Shaw and Roberts-Thomson not far behind them.
There is a lot of talk about the premiership window in the football media, and while the Swans are inside the clear glass at the moment, they are gradually slipping away and perhaps have two more seasons in which they could genuinely challenge for the flag.
The other concern is the method Sydney have seemingly opted for in spending the cash to lure Franklin from the Hawks. This is in stark contrast to the method of nurturing their list with astute trades and drafting as the Swans have done for the best part of the last decade. It’s very much a ‘now or never’ type of plan, and if they don’t strike success in the next year or two, the lack of wriggle room in the salary cap doesn’t bode well moving forward. Re-signing talented young prospects such as Luke Parker and Tom Mitchell will be paramount, considering they are likely to be courted by other clubs with funds the Swans simply will not have access to.
Experience and talent count for plenty, and Sydney is in no way lacking in either. How they perform this season could well come down to the simple factor of the fitness and durability of the senior playing group. If the Swans can manage to keep the majority of their stars on the park for a large portion of the season, there is no question that they will be genuine premiership contenders. However, if they suffer a run of injuries to key personnel as they did last season, their depth will be again tested. While it would seemingly take a catastrophic run of bad luck for the Swans to miss the finals, a top four berth in 2014 is by no means a certainty.
With 12 games in Sydney, including eight at the SCG, the Swans will be favoured to win most home games, but the tricky part of the fixture is the travelling component against teams that finished in the bottom half of the ladder last year. In 10 games against the bottom nine clubs, the Swans only have three SCG fixtures, while travelling six times to destinations including Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth. Factor this with the repeat encounters with Hawthorn, Richmond, Port Adelaide and Essendon and qualifying for the double chance is not exactly fait accompli.
If the Swans can get the best out of Franklin and Tippett, with an adequate supporting role played by veterans Goodes and O’Keefe up forward, they should find kicking a winning score most weeks to be within their grasp. However, the last four matches the Swans lost in 2013 happened to be to the three other clubs that finished in the top four, so maybe, just maybe, Sydney’s time at the very top of the AFL tree is coming to an end.
B: N.Smith, T.Richards, H.Shaw
HB: H.Grundy, S.Reid, N.Malceski
C: D.Hannebery, K.Jack, L.Jetta
HF: J.McVeigh, L.Franklin, R.O’Keefe
F: A.Goodes, K.Tippett, B.McGlynn
Foll: M.Pyke, J.Kennedy, L.Parker
Int: L.Roberts-Thomson, C.Bird, T.Mitchell