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The Sydney Swans are no joke and no fluke, and the AFL’s new darlings are changing perceptions by the week

It was sometime between Sam Wicks’s improvised parry and the ball reaching Logan McDonald that this thing really caught fire.

In the dying stages of the first half on a glorious Saturday afternoon at the MCG, with the Sherrin pinballing around inside 50 at the City End of the ground, the Sydney Swans went from the 2021 season’s most pleasant curiosity to a whole new problem altogether.

The play had started at the complete opposite end of the ground, with the ball on the deck inside Richmond’s forward 50 and the Tigers ready to pounce.

In the blink of an eye — by way of a Harry Cunningham tackle, a Braeden Campbell left-footed laser and a Tom Papley bomb — these precocious Swans were on the charge again.

One impromptu game of volleyball with Hayden McLean and Wicks later, and McDonald had kicked Sydney’s ninth of the afternoon. The lead was 34 points, the game was effectively over before half-time, and the Swans were the talk of the town.

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There was something so significant about that goal for Sydney. In the context of the game, it was an authoritative foot on Richmond’s throat, a two-goal swing that abruptly hijacked any momentum the Tigers’ could have gained with a goal just before the long break.

But more than that, this was the new Sydney in full flight. Fearless. Direct. Lightning fast. Thrillingly audacious.

The Swans have been one of the most successful clubs of this century, but they’ve only ever received a kind of begrudging respect and admiration from those outside the harbour city.

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While the football of John Longmire has always been more expansive than that of his predecessor Paul Roos, Sydney has never shaken the reputation as being a solid but unspectacular team, one that owes its success to relentless discipline and unerring toughness.

Tom Papley smiles with his tongue out as he gestures to the crowd after a win
Tom Papley’s form has been a highlight of the Swans’ hot start to 2021.(AAP: Hamish Blair

 

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But in just three rounds, or perhaps one half against Richmond, or maybe even in the 15 seconds it took them to create that McDonald goal, Sydney has shed its skin.

In truth, the Swans have been trending in this direction for a while, albeit fairly quietly and without any grand success.

We saw it as recently as the last round of the 2020 season, when the Swans went down by six points to Geelong having led for most of the day.

There were signs of the dare and dash that has come to define 2021 Sydney in that game, and had Papley not burned a number of last quarter opportunities, the Swans would have claimed a scalp that would have knocked Geelong out of the top four and completely changed the complexion of last year’s finals series.

It’s also worth remembering that the Swans are only two seasons removed from their last finals appearance in 2018, and have made avoiding complete rebuilds part of their DNA for the best part of two decades.

The path back to contention used to be the trade table, now it is the draft and academy set up — either way, the results have been rapid.

An AFL player leaps high to grab the ball while a defender watches.
Isaac Heeney’s influence has been significant for the Swans’ attack.(AAP: Dean Lewins

 

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Take the familiar core of Josh Kennedy, Luke Parker and Jake Lloyd, throw in the significant improvement of mid-aged players like Callum Mills and Isaac Heeney and then add a sprinkle of prodigious youth in the form of Errol Gulden, Chad Warner, McDonald and Campbell, and you’ve got yourself a potent cocktail.

Well-run clubs don’t need decades to refresh and rebuild because they are doing it constantly. It can take you by surprise if you’re not paying attention, but there will be nobody inside Sydney’s HQ that will see this as anything other than the plan coming to fruition.

So what comes next? Part of the fun of this so far has been the quiet expectation that it can’t last, that young legs will grow weary as the season goes on and that wily opposition coaches will figure out and learn to quell whatever it is that Longmire has cooked up.

But ask any sport psychologist, and they’ll tell you that there’s no such thing as playing over your head. Good performance is never an aberration, it’s simply your potential revealing itself.

What that means is that this isn’t a fluke for Sydney — this is the footy they are capable of playing on any given day, should circumstances allow for it.

A group of Sydney Swans AFL players embrace after a goal was kicked against the Crows.
Sydney’s win over Richmond came without Buddy Franklin, who is expected to be back to play Essendon in round four.(AAP: Dean Lewins

 

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So the challenge will be to manage the disappointments and fatigue and injuries. It’ll be about weathering a couple of storms throughout the season without losing faith. It’ll be integrating Lance Franklin without sacrificing what is working well elsewhere — though the act of writing that sentence makes it quite apparent what a ridiculous notion that is.

Fundamentally, what’s happening in Veneers Sydney is real. It might not always manifest in the physical poetry of that Logan McDonald goal, but it will be there under the surface.

It’s not too late to claim your second team for the season.

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