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Is it getting harder to keep hanging on in the finals hunt?


Sydney’s Josh Kennedy and Geelong’s Joel Selwood leave the arena for the last time in 2018 after their sides’ elimination final defeats. Photos: AFL MEDIA

Is it getting harder to keep hanging on in the finals hunt?

Rohan Connolly    

For the last 15 years or so, while various other contenders have come and gone, at least one of three names, Hawthorn, Geelong and Sydney, has remained somewhere near the top of the ladder.

Since 2005, those three clubs have shared nine of 13 premierships and only two grand finals haven’t featured at least one of the trio. And the ability of each of them to regenerate their playing lists whilst remaining a serious September player has been the envy of their rivals.

But the finals landscape is changing. The Western Bulldogs won their first premiership since 1954 two years ago, coming from seventh spot to do it. Richmond last season won its first flag for 37 years.

And if Melbourne defeats Hawthorn on Friday night at the MCG, it will be the first time since 2002 that none of the Hawks, Cats or Swans has made it to preliminary final weekend.

For so long, those three clubs have defied the equalisation processes of the draft and salary cap and the theory that a great era must be accompanied sooner or later by a dry spell, however short. But the first week of the 2018 finals wasn’t a good one for believers in endless premiership contention.

That Hawthorn was good enough to win a top four spot and thus is still alive despite its loss to Richmond on Thursday is in itself something given that having lost a clutch of premiership stars and at 1-5 six rounds into last season the Hawks’ profile had “start again” written all over it.

But their top-order contemporaries, both eliminated from the September hunt within 24 hours of each other over the weekend, have some serious thinking to do over the next little while about how they handle their playing stocks from here. And that doesn’t necessarily mean either has been misguided.

Geelong, for example, had played in the last two preliminary finals, justifying its decision to continue to stock up on senior talent like returned favourite son Gary Ablett in order to go one better.

It can be a fine line. Even this year, Geelong was good enough to beat Melbourne twice, Collingwood, GWS, Sydney, and push Richmond to the edge. But you nonetheless always had the feeling the Cats’ best in 2018 wasn’t quite good enough to go all the way.

The influx of experienced players from other clubs has produced mixed results. Patrick Dangerfield, obviously, has been the pick. Zac Tuohy has been consistently good and Lachie Henderson useful. But whether through injury or consistency, you can’t claim similarly for the likes of Scott Selwood, Zac Smith, Rhys Stanley, Aaron Black or Stewart Crameri.

Many of the younger faces Geelong has continued to push through the senior team, with no fewer than 15 players making their AFL debuts either this season or last, have shown signs, this year Jack Henry, Brandan Parfitt and Esava Ratugolea in particular.

But Geelong still had overall the fourth oldest list in the AFL this year. Even with addition of a still youthful Tim Kelly to the mix, its midfield core of Dangerfield, Ablett, Joel Selwood, Mitch Duncan and Sam Menegola contained no player under the age of 26.

It meant that those younger Cats still found it hard to play a leading role, squeezed to the margins by experience and proven track records. Perhaps, given that, it wasn’t so surprising that in the crunch, Geelong kept getting found out at the bottom end of its best 22.

And that is a situation with which Sydney has some familiarity. Since 2016, the Swans have handed no fewer than 18 players their AFL debuts, indeed half-a-dozen in that same season in which they were good enough to reach a grand final.

One of them, George Hewett, has emerged as a valuable run-with player. Two players who debuted prior to 2016, Isaac Heeney and Jake Lloyd, are clearly leaders of the future, as is Callum Mills, who injury cut down this season.

But the largest three pillars of the Sydney performance remain Lance Franklin, Josh Kennedy and Luke Parker, who filled the three placings in last year’s Swans best and fairest and will go close to doing so again this season. Tom Papley is the only member of that top 10 to have played fewer than 70 games.

Other youngsters like Will Hayward and Ollie Florent still have a way to go to reach their sort of consistency and influence over Sydney’s fortunes. And, like the Cats, that means they go on playing support roles rather than having to step up and lead.

The Swans’ game style is looking a little dated, too. The dependence upon an obviously sore and compromised Franklin was never more obvious than in Saturday’s elimination final loss to GWS, when they limped, literally, to the lowest finals scoreline recorded since Collingwood’s 2.2 in the 1960 VFL grand final.

Sydney ranked only 12th for scores this year compared to fifth in 2017, and a team which had the most miserly defence last season was in 2018 only seventh for fewest points conceded. The backline certainly had plenty with which to deal this year, only three of the bottom four teams on the ladder conceding more inside 50s per week than did the Swans.

A finish of seventh in 2018 is Sydney’s lowest ladder position since 2009, when Paul Roos was still coach. Geelong, meanwhile, has now lost nine of its past finals since winning the 2011 flag.

As close as both clubs have continued to get in recent times, there’s nonetheless plenty of soul-searching to be done in either camp over the long summer months ahead. And it’s mainly about how long you can keep knocking on the door before trying another entry point.

*This article first appeared at SPORTING NEWS.

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