Six months ago, few saw the Sydney Swans being where they are now.
No rival club captain picked the Swans to make the finals and few in the media liked their chances either.
Even coach John Longmire and co-captain Josh Kennedy were somewhat downplaying expectations, focusing on the long-term potential of the team instead of making finals predictions.
There was some weight to these predictions. Sydney had just missed finals for the second straight year, the first time that’s happened in a quarter of a century. Many believed that the Swans were rebuilding well, but were not ready for that next step.
But expectations are sometimes fickle and can change in a heartbeat, or with a couple of big upsets.
In round one, the Swans claimed the big scalp of the Lions, preliminary finalists in 2020. Two weeks later, they beat two-time reigning premiers Richmond by 45 points.
All talk about the future turned to the present. Not only were Sydney playing winning football, but also exciting football, with young talent and daring ball movement propelling them up the ladder.
On Saturday, in their adopted home of Launceston, the Swans will play GWS in the most southerly Sydney derby so far for a spot in the semi-final.
The evolution of defence
In Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, the Chinese military strategist stated that “Attack is the secret of defence; defence is the planning of an attack.”
It’s not known if Sydney coach John Longmire is a fan of Chinese military history, but there are parallels with how Sydney have put points on the board in 2021. Defence has long been the strong point of the Sydney setup, but they now take a slightly different approach to their signature focus.
As the Swans slipped from finals contention in the crazy season that was 2020, Longmire shifted focus towards building a group for the future, and experimenting on field.
Longmire told SEN that the football department came to a breakpoint during last season, where they had to consider how to get the most out of a season where they’d likely finish early, out of finals.
Instead of throwing everything at winning every game, Longmire and the Swans decided to play a slightly longer game.
“We would’ve liked to have won more games, that’s what we’re about, but we wanted to keep playing some of the younger players and exposing players in different positions,” Longmire told SEN.
“Tom McCartin went back, that was strong, Will Hayward spent a bit of time back, we changed up a couple of different roles throughout the season just to have a look at them, which is good for their development and good for the team’s development.”
Coming into the year, the Swans had finished inside the top three, and usually top, for fewest points conceded per opposition inside 50 every year for the past decade. The defence stayed strong, even as the mainstays of old, such as Ted Richards, Heath Grundy and Nick Smith, retired.
This idea of “bend, don’t break” formed the bedrock of Sydney’s success in their last era. In 2021, they still allow fewer points per inside 50 than the league average, but it’s a step down from previous levels.
From a purely defensive point of view, the Swans are still executing strongly enough. Across the ground, no side concedes fewer marks than the Swans. When opposition sides can get inside 50, Sydney are extremely effective at denying marks, with McCartin, Dane Rampe and Robbie Fox excelling at repelling high balls going forward.
Where in the past the Swans have been built to absorb attack after attack, this year they are counter punching better than almost any side.
After experimenting during 2020 with a more aggressive playing style out of defence, this year they are getting a lot of attacking drive out of their defensive ranks. Over the home and away season, they have scored the highest percentage of points from turnovers by all finalists.
Sydney has a plethora of attacking ball users coming out of the defensive half, who look for not only the safe targets down the line but also the riskier ones in the corridor. Players such as Jake Lloyd, Jordan Dawson, McCartin and Callum Mills have been entrusted to launch the Swans forward with solid ball use.
This willingness to push opposing transition defences to their limits is critical to making space coming up the ground. The mere threat of inboard passes makes defences actively defend more space, and opens more alleys to goal. This has allowed for the Swans to find open targets in their forward line, and favourable one-on-one opportunities.
A resurgent Lance Franklin has rounded out their attack, providing a focal point for the side. Franklin, who made the All Australian squad of 40 for a record setting twelfth time in 2021, has provided the key to opening up their attacking set up, providing the likes of Tom Papley, Isaac Heeney, Hayward and Hayden McLean with more favourable match ups to exploit.
A giant task
The thing about expectations is they aren’t set in stone. Once you start to do well, public and private expectations grow. While preseason talk may have been about building a sustainable future side, by round three the goal was finals.
As we enter the final four weeks of football for the year, the hopes of fans rise and the stakes become higher. Players dare to dream, and coaches try their best to help make that a reality.
Despite sharing a city, the Swans and the Giants approach the game pretty differently. Where the Swans derive their attacking strength off the mistakes of others, the Giants like to take control at the stoppages.
No side scores a higher share of their points from stoppages than the Giants. Furthermore, the Giants are the only top-eight side to not also be in the top eight for points per game from intercepts. Where the successful teams seem to be zigging towards the counter attack, the Giants are zagging back in the other direction.
On paper, conceding from stoppage should be the biggest concern for the Swans, but their head-to-head results paint a slightly different picture.
In their two match ups this year, split one apiece, the Swans have outscored the Giants from clearances around the ground 41 to 37, and from centre bounces 25 to 12. The sample size is small, but it is backed up by an overall edge in both areas in their matches this year.
Since the arrival of Tom Hickey, Sydney have solidified their balance in the contests. They’re ahead in the stoppage clearance battle for the first time since their last grand final appearance, in 2016.
Of course, the most memorable clearance from their encounters this year was Josh Kelly’s late game snap to snatch a victory from the Swans in round five.
Sydney will be desperate for victory, and to keep playing deep into September. However, whatever the result, their performance in 2021 has undoubtedly been a giant success, boding well for the future.