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Solutions to ill-timed shockers not so simple for Sydney

Deja vu for Dan Hannebery, at left (back to camera) after the 2014 grand final and right, after Friday night’s loss to Geelong. Photos: GETTY IMAGES

Solutions to ill-timed shockers not so simple for Sydney

Rohan Connolly    

What a strange sort of football year this has been for the Swans.

Nearly one-third of the way through the season, they were 0-6, bottom of the ladder and incredibly, headed for a wooden spoon. Of their next 17 games, they won 15 and heading into last Friday night’s clash with Geelong were third favourite for the flag. And then, suddenly, it was all over, their final position fifth.

What does Sydney make of all that? From runner-up last year to out of the finals in week two this time is obviously a decline. Yet the effort of the Swans to haul themselves back into serious flag contention when no previous side with a 0-6 start had even made finals can’t be ignored.

It’s a tricky one for coach John Longmire and his football department when they conduct their reviews over the next few weeks. And frustratingly, there appear no obvious answers to problems which aren’t themselves readily apparent.

That horrendous start to the season had much to do with injuries, illness, raw replacements and some slow starts by established stars.

Early on, Sydney had to make do without Dane Rampe, Jarrad McVeigh, Isaac Heeney and Tom Papley, leaving big holes in each part of the ground. Skipper Josh Kennedy didn’t have enough support from the likes of Dan Hannebery and Luke Parker for a while, either.

Once the casualties were back and the key midfielders switched on, it all clicked. Until Friday night. And it’s that sudden, unexpected shutdown that might well be both Longmire’s biggest concern, and paradoxically, also the thing he can do least about.

It’s not the first time Sydney has picked the worst possible moment to serve up a stinker, and the comparisons with grand final day of 2014 are impossible to ignore.

Then, the Swans went into the biggest game of the year having won 18 of their previous 20 games and a red-hot favourite against Hawthorn. Like last Friday night against the Cats, they were promptly taken apart by the Hawks, barely firing a shot.

The other common denominator in those two performances is that Sydney had come off a week’s break followed by an easy “kill” in the lead-up, three years ago a preliminary final smashing of North Melbourne, this time a rout of Essendon in an elimination final.

The Swans also lost their qualifying final last year after the pre-finals bye. Perhaps this is a side that doesn’t do “R & R” well and needs a more searching hit out to keep momentum going. But if that’s the case, there isn’t a lot Longmire can do about it with the pre-finals bye here for now, and winning a qualifying final still an entrée to another week off.

Other potential issues? Geelong on Friday night, like Collingwood and Hawthorn earlier this season, managed to stymie the Swans with a careful, uncontested approach forward with the ball, regularly finding shorter lead-up targets with their kicking. But other sides have tried similarly against Sydney and come unstuck.

The MCG? It hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for several key Swans, Hannebery and Parker just two who have struggled more than once there in big games. Gary Rohan has an even worse record. In six MCG finals, he’s just once finished with anything more than seven disposals.

Sydney are now 1-4 in MCG finals since the 2012 premiership. But overall, the Swans are 10-9 at the “G” during the same period. So is the problem the ground per se?

Is Longmire himself proactive enough in the coach’s box when things don’t go according to plan? He doesn’t tend to make a lot of positional moves beyond dropping Sam Reid back as a defensive spare. But how much call is there for drastic measures when you win far more than you lose? And the Swans have won nearly 70 per cent of their games over the last five seasons.

In structural terms, what does Sydney lack? The Swans had statistically the best defence in the competition this season, one which teamed brilliantly. They were potent enough in attack, fifth for points scored, with the Coleman medallist in Lance Franklin. And their midfield group is arguably the AFL’s most reliable.

Nor are they an ageing group. Six clubs (including three other finalists) went into this year with older lists, and the Swans are mid-table for games experience. Longmire has several years ahead still with the bulk of his 2017 squad intact.

Longmire has coached Sydney now for seven seasons. The Swans have won a flag, been in three grand finals, never finished lower than sixth, and of 173 games in that time, have lost only 54. Yet two of their three heaviest defeats in his reign have come in a grand final and now a semi-final, both seemingly out of the blue.

What does that mean? Usually, when a side crashes out of a finals campaign, there are clearly identifiable issues. But Sydney’s appear to be little more than having had a couple of very ill-timed shockers.

It means that it’s more than likely the Swans will keep presenting at the pointy end of the year. But it also means until those defeats are avenged in games of equivalent importance, there’s not a lot else the coach can do.

  1. Very good article Rohan. Faultless really. Absolutely nailed it regarding a few players who have faulted on biggest stage too (rohan, parker. Hannebery). and the solutions are not easily identifiable, maybe a case of not being mentally or physically prepared. What makes fridays loss even worse is that Grundy kept Hawkins quiet and selwood didn’t do much either. I don’t believe Tom Mitchell’s loss would make much difference. They really need leg speed. Just a shame that they have now lost 3 finals at the MCG (2 GF’s & SF) they were hot favourite in. Maybe they need to trade tippett, rohan and one or two others, and hopefully Aliir can further develop as grundy nears the end. Cheers.

  2. Great article RoCo. As a devoted swans supporter the similarities between friday and the 2014 GF were eerie. i watch the team every week without fail and could tell within 10 minutes that we weren’t right at all. Fumbly, not hitting targets, and buddy looking nervous taking a shot on goal. It almost seems to me that the big occasion on the MCG especially just gets to the key players mentally. and the swans are a team that relies on the big name guys bringing the A game, which then allows the younger and bottom 6 players to play their role. Parker, Hannebery just seem to wilt in a final on the G. Which as a supporter is devastating. Maybe in all of this, Longmire’s real lack of a plan B (other than Reid as loose man) when it isn’t going our way is a major issue.

  3. Great article Rohan, some points to clarify Hannebury runner up Norm Smith 2012, Cleaned up in 2014 by Roughead, Medial in 2016 GF and slightly down on form this year, Parker poor in 2014 GF, Did PCL in prelim 2016 and played with it in Grand Final, last week well held by Scott Selwood and I mean well held continually. Gary Rohan has repeatedly said nerves get him. One other fact about 2014 which no expert has ever brought up in no team played at ANZ stadium in 2014 and won the next week except the Swans had to play round 23 then 2 finals there before the GF. If you were to ask any players who played there from Melbourne based clubs what their recovery was like after playing there for one week it may give you the answer as to what it’s like playing 3 in a row.
    And lets be serious in 2016 if all was fair we wouldn’t be talking about the Swans failures at the Mcg would we.
    Lets not also forget this team has the least players from other teams due to trade restrictions which no sports journalist has ever gotten an answer for from the AFL.

  4. Bravo Rohan. Brilliant article and nailed it. Whilst others media types are hellbent on finding an angle to blame the recruitment of Buddy, you’ve laid it out perfectly. It’s a bloody mystery how the Swans have managed to totally capitulate in the biggest games of the year for no apparent reason. They obviously need to find answers because perception is reality and at the moment the perception is the Swans are suspect in big games at the ‘G’ and it can easily manifest itself into absolute reality if they succumb meekly in 2018. In the meantime, I’ll bask in the knowledge that my team plays finals year after year and while the haters need to hate, I’ll happily keep forking out big $$$$$ to watch my boys in finals yet again in 2018…

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