Hell’s Kitchen: Swans make a meal of 2018

You know that feeling you get when you go to KFC, you get the burger and chips, upsize it and munch away. It’s really bloody enjoyable at first, tasty even, but half an hour later you start having regrets and wonder why you keep going back? It looked promising beforehand and tasty when you started eating it. But before the meal ends you realise it’s a sloppy tasteless mess of jumbled ingredients with a couple of good bits, and a really unsatisfying meal. That’s what the Swans season feels like to me, a meal that started well going horribly wrong.

If the Swans were a restaurant, then a season of football is a four-course meal. The pre-season JLT serves as an entrée, a sneak peek into what is to come. You soon learn the restaurant is a good one by the quality of the entrée, and entrée this year was quite good, despite the injuries to Sam Naismith and the beginning of Aliir’s injury and form concerns. Kurt Tippett never made dinner, having retired pre-season due to a failed ankle reconstruction.

Two games, two wins, including one over the Giants, boasting most of their regular starting 22. Both wins showed the Swans looking fit and ready fire for the season. Buddy Franklin was in ominous form with 6 goals in 2 games, while Sam Reid looked set to take on the season 4 of his own. Our usual ball winners were putting up solid number and there were promising signs from younger guys in Riley Stoddart, Will Hayward and Oliver Florent.

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First course arrives and while the meal is good, it’s not sensational. A first round injury to Lance Franklin’s heel would set the tone for the rest of the year. Patchy form, average scoring and an inability to generate enough inside fifties, or put teams to the sword, lead to the Swans losing matches they shouldn’t have. Several dogged wins mixed with terrible losses by narrow margins were punctuated by a common element – beaten to the contested ball, turnovers in general play, and an inability to create forward half pressure, while conceding more inside fifties than most teams in the league.

Despite sitting second on the ladder – and being the only team to beat ladder leaders West Coast twice – there were signs that showed the Swans were only just getting by on occasion, if not luck. Perhaps the most egregious was the a negative inside 50 differential for 9 out of the first 13 games, with the largest being -24 while averaging 88 points per game – just above the league average.

Sam Reid quad injury

Sam Reid – for the second time in three years – would last less than one full game, blowing up his quad, while Lewis Melican suffered a hamstring injury in the same passage of play. Both would be gone for the season, Melican suffering repeat hamstring strains in both legs, while Reid required achilles surgery again. It left the Swans with Lance Franklin as their tall forward and Callum Sinclair as their sole ruck, creating a structural deficiency in their front line that could not be rectified all year.

Overall, there seemed to be a lack of that ever talked about consistency. The gravy wasn’t quite right and the garnish was missing, the pasta just overcooked and the steak a little bit raw.

The excitement of seeing the future of the Swans on display with the young guys taking the field – often performing above expectations, may have glazed over the struggling form of Sydney’s more established players. Dan Hannebery had his worst year since his debut season in 2010, a “robbing Peter to pay Paul” situation had developed in the midfield where Luke Parker and Isaac Heeney were used to prop up an inexperienced forward line, particularly when Lance Franklin and Dan Hannebery went out for 4 weeks.

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Ben Ronke and Tom Papley were increasingly played in the midfield ala Ben McGlynn, despite being natural forwards; the lack of a tall target was clearly detrimental to the forward structure. With no one to bring it to ground, the small forwards were less effective, and this was ruthlessly exploited during the year by the opposition. The quality of inside fifties fell away significantly, with players often reverting to dump and hope kicks, while there was a greater reliance on an injured Franklin to perform overhead marks and minor miracles to drag the Swans over the line, culminating in the appearance of Aliir Aliir at full forward in Round 3, with no fitness or touch to warrant selection.

Some wins came from unexpected places, some off the back of individual brilliance from unexpected sources (Ben Ronke with 7-goals in Round 8) and one of the greatest individual quarters ever from Josh Kennedy in Round 7 against the Cats, had some pundits believing the Swans were riding high, while others were feeling they were just getting by.

“I say, waiter! My wine glass is half empty”

“But sir, your wine glass is half full!”

Onto the main course……….

Sydney Swans vs West Coast Eagles, Round 13 2018

The Swans came out of the bye playing ladder leader Richmond at Etihad. Although the Swans lost, there was a general feeling that a lack of composure and disposal efficiency tarnished what was an otherwise reasonably solid performance, with the Tigers only kicking away in the last few minutes. While things still smelled good, we had not taken a bite out of the second half of the season. But when we did take a bite, we promptly spat it back out.

Demoralising losses soon followed, the Cats well and truly letting the Swans off the hook with a 12-point loss, booting 9.23 for the game in what really should have been a triple-figure loss. A gutsy win against North Melbourne gave people hope again and showed the future of Sydney with the young guys coming to the fore once again after the Skipper went off with a back injury.

What followed the week after has since been termed the “upset of the decade”, with the Swans losing on their home deck to the Gold Coast Suns by 4-goals, one of the biggest upsets in the history of the game and one of the shortest priced favourites to ever lose a match of AFL. The game is a statistical anomaly, with the Swans breaking even or better in most categories by games end, but were constantly let down by shocking disposal efficiency, no midfield pressure and wastefulness in front of goal. After kicking 6 first-quarter goals, their seventh game two minutes into the last quarter, trailing the Suns by 20-points after leading by 29-points at quarter time.

Sydney Swans vs Gold Coast Suns, 2018

Longmire conceded in his post-match conference that the evidence suggested that the players were cocky and complacent after quarter time and paid the price for their lack of respect to the opposition. For the first time in a long time, the Swans left the field to the sound of jeers at the SCG, such was the dismay and disappointment of their longtime supporters.

Essendon turned the heat to 250 degrees and baked the Swans for 43-points the following week. Tough as an old boot and as tasteful as week-old garbage cardboard, the Swans were out tackled, out pressured and out played. Unable to stop Essendon’s run off half back while generate any of their own, the Swans were beaten in all areas they pride themselves on, losing contested and uncontested possessions, tackles and only laying 3 tackles in their forward fifty while Essendon produced a stunning 20 forward fifty tackles and 33 more inside fifties.

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After falling from fourth to tenth – one of the biggest single-round ladder drops by an AFL team in a history - a narrow win against a depleted Collingwood by 2-points the following week, gave fans hope that the team would improve its consistency. There was hope that Alex Johnson, back from 6 years in the rehab wilderness would be a feature of our back six for years to come. Tom McCartin clutched victory for the Swans, with an unbelievable goal from nothing clutched, after the Swans conceded 4.6 in the last quarter.

What must have been a dream the week before for Alex Johnson turned into a nightmare against the Demons when he ruptured the ACL in his good knee in the first quarter. The Demon’s took full advantage and booted three goals to close out the first quarter. The Swans burst back to life after quarter time, already down two defenders, to pile on 12-goals-to-4 over the next half of football. They grimly hung on for victory with Isaac Heeney playing a lone hand in defence and taking one of the best marks of the decade, a spectacular grab over the hobbled Jesse Hogan.

Nic Newman and Alex Johnson after Sydney Swans vs Melbourne Demons, Round 21, 2018

What followed was akin to asking for that tough old boot of a steak to be re-fired – you asked for medium rare, this time they bring out medium well, it’s edible but if you love your steaks, it’s a crime.

The 20-point win against GWS Giants was a tough pill to swallow. While the Giants clearly had the upper hand in the first half, the Swans utterly dominated after half time and should have won by a greater margin. The worst part was watching Franklin come to the boundary with 30 seconds left pointing at his groin, and later on finding out that Parker had injured his groin too. Team sheet shenanigans followed as well – here’s hoping they fire that line cook who thought up that appetiser.

It opened the door for the Hawks with a top-4 place on the line. The matches between the two teams are always tight, and that tough old steak was getting harder to chew by the minute. Long gone was the jous, we used it all on the Giants, it’s just tough old meat now. Chef Clarkson simply presented a better plate, while the Swans managed to smash their perfectly cooked steak on the way to my table.

As a measure of how poor the main course was, you have to compare both halves of the season, to see the Swans' dramatic and substantial drop off in several statistical categories.

  • -21 points per game, average 67, down from 88
  • Average disposal efficiency dropped by nearly 10%
  • -6 inside fifties per game – average 47 and below the league average
  • Average inside fifty efficiency dropped by nearly 10%, with the swans generating less coring shots off less inside fifties than before the bye and just above the league average
  • -7 contested possessions
  • -41 uncontested possession
  • -6 marks
  • -3 marks inside forward fifty
  • +2 marks conceded in our defensive fifty
  • -2 tackles inside forward fifty
  • +2 tackles conceded in defensive fifty
  • -4 clearances per game

It’s with this in mind desert was served. I say “served”, what I mean is Chef Leon Cameron walked into the dining room from the kitchen, laughed and threw the soufflé at Chef John Longmire’s face, while Chef Longmire was desperately trying to fix his curdled custard.

Lance Franklin vs GWS, Sydney Swans vs GWS Giants, Elimination Final, 2018

A game that saw the culmination of the Swans patchy form, worsening fitness situation to key players, season long structural issue from injury’s and declining effectiveness of the midfield, combined with the inexperience of our young forwards, turned into a 49-point pounding at the hands of the Giants. Talk about tenderised chicken breast, we begged for it to stop before half-time.

A team the Swans had beaten 3-weeks before by 20-points, having regained several of its stars, scored 79 points to 30. A score that almost broke a record for the lowest score the Swans have had in a final set in 1899 (they kicked 2.6 until 5 minutes before the end of the match), and the lowest score they have ever set at the SCG. Quite a feat when you consider the dark days after the clubs relocation (Swans in 2018 averaged less score for than 1994 at the SCG).

No Micheline star for you…..

So, where to for café de la Swan? Judging by the very early moves heading into the free agency and draft period, the kitchen at the Swans appear to be changing ingredients for the next service. Like most diners, I will come back after an average meal when it’s my favourite restaurant.

Bon Appétit

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Joshua Maher

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