14/04/2024
The Sydney Swans

It was a strong year for Sydney. The Swans are back in a big way. (Picture: Sydney Swans/Twitter)

The Sydney Swans defied expectation and threw the timeline out the window when they returned to the finals for the first time in three years.

The Sydney Swans defied expectation when they returned to the finals for the first time in three years. The club finds itself in a very strong position going into 2022.

While the Swans suffered a narrow loss in the elimination final, they will be better for the experience.

They rose 10 places up the ladder to sixth, had four Rising Star Award nominees (including the first three in succession), and played a style of footy that was not only effective, but fun to watch.

Nothing seemed to faze Sydney as it played its last nine games on the road away from New South Wales due to COVID concerns, and won seven of them.

This is The Inner Sanctum’s review of the Sydney Swans’ 2021 season.

What worked?

With a far better run with injury compared to 2020, some of the young players who debuted last year for Sydney were able to be complemented by experienced heads and bodies, and those that joined in the draft took no time at all to slot into the side.

Errol Gulden and Braeden Campbell scored Rising Star nods in the first two weeks of the season, taking no time at all to settle at AFL level.

Campbell and Logan McDonald were both top ten draft picks for the Swans and played eight and seven games respectively.

But Gulden, the Swans last pick in the draft, was an early bolter for the award, eventually finishing fifth in the standings having averaged 15 disposals (five contested), two tackles, and kicking 14 goals for the season.

It was a group of second and third-year players who also impressed, with Chad Warner and Justin McInerney earning Rising Star nominations alongside Gulden and Campbell.

Warner earned Sydney’s third in a row in round three, and McInerney scored the fourth in round 16, followed by finishing fourth in the award after a very consistent season that saw him average 18 disposals (five contested), five marks, and three inside 50s.

The youth was on full display on the finals stage, with Gulden, Warner, and McInerney, alongside seven others, taking part in their first final against GWS.

The future of the Swans lies here, with all six players 25 or younger. (Picture Sydney Swans/Twitter)

What didn’t?

Had one of Sydney’s seven last quarter behinds gone through in the elimination final, it could have secured a semi-final berth. But the reality is that it was 29 points down in the first place, off the back of a huge second quarter from GWS.

It was pressure that the Swans were best at for most of the year, being the number one pressure side in the competition, averaging more tackles inside 50 (11.3 vs 9.3) and more tackles overall (60.7 vs 59.5) than their finals rival.

But they were beaten in tackles inside 50 by GWS in the finals loss, and lost this statistic in four of their seven losses, by 13 to Gold Coast in round six, by 10 to Fremantle in round 10, by five to Hawthorn in round 13, and by 12 to St Kilda in round 20.

The Swans were able to give as good as they got in pressure for most of the year, but the young side was prone to lapses. With all the above losses coming against eventual non-finalists, they would have loved to set up a better position going into September.

It was this kind of pressure that was missing in the first half of the Swans elimination final. (Picture: Sydney Swans/Twitter)

Who impressed?

Callum Mills‘ move to the midfield saw him break out in 2021 before injury hindered his run to the finals, missing three of Sydney’s last four games.

Before that Mills averaged 27 disposals (10 contested), four clearances, and five tackles, all personal best stats.

He also amassed 30 or more disposals eight times, including five in a row from rounds 13 to 20 (missing round 18 and 19 due to COVID isolation).

Wingman/half-back flanker Jordan Dawson broke out in a massive second half of the season.

Dawson averaged 22 disposals (six contested), five marks, and four rebound 50s. He also played every game for the first time, and finished third in the Swans best and fairest at the end of the season.

It was a big year for Jordan Dawson. (Picture: Sydney Swans/Twitter)

Few would have expected Tom Hickey to have become as critical to Sydney’s success as he has become. But that’s just what happened.

At his fourth club, Hickey averaged personal bests for disposals (including contested), clearances and one percenters in 2021.

Despite a knee concern threatening his season in round five, Hickey was able to play all but two games in 2021, with 21 games his best return across his 11 seasons at AFL level.

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Season Highlight

There was no shortage of highlights from games that included come-from-behind wins over GWS and Geelong, and strong wins against Brisbane and Richmond at the start of the year, and West Coast and Gold Coast towards the end.

But one major highlight was the return of Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin, who took to the field for the first time in 18 months against Adelaide in round two.

Franklin kicked three goals in his return and would just keep going. He kicked 51 goals for the year in 18 games, the 12th year out of 16 that he has kicked 50 or more.

More importantly, he moved well and was able to get back to form resembling his best, with a goal in every game bar one he played, and a spot in the All-Australian squad of 40 for the 12th time in his career.

It was a successful return season for Lance Franklin. (Picture: Sydney Swans/Twitter)

Season Lowlight

Sydney had to learn to deal with curveballs throughout the second half of 2021, with all games after the bye coming away from home. The swings and roundabouts kept coming thick and fast throughout the final two months.

These included players being forced to pull out of matches (that were already rescheduled and moved) 20 minutes before the bounce against GWS (who were also affected) to the game against Essendon being rescheduled and moved a day in advance.

The Swans have had to be especially resilient once again in 2021, and they will be hoping for smoother sailing next season.

Chopping block?

Ben Ronke has struggled to recapture the form that saw him kick seven goals in his third game in 2018, and may have played his last game this season, with limited opportunities and injuries holding him to just two games in 2021.

Lewis Taylor and Ryan Clarke, despite strong form in the reserves, only managed two and three games respectively, most of which came as the medical sub.

Kaiden Brand and Matt Ling may also struggle to hold their spots on the list, with Brand only managing three games, and Ling medical sub for just one.

Number one off-season priority

The Swans youngsters look good, and the world may be their oyster going forward, but they will still need support along the way. Co-captain Luke Parker is a perfect example of this.

With no Mills and Josh Kennedy in the Sydney midfield, Parker was forced to do the heavy lifting against GWS, and with 34 disposals (16 contested) eight clearances, and five tackles, he couldn’t have done much more to will the Swans over the line.

Parker’s signature is crucial for the Swans this off-season. The Swans may have a bit of a squeeze, short-term and long-term, but someone like him will be critical for them taking the next step in 2022 and must be retained.

The experience of the veterans will still be important for Sydney’s future. (Picture Sydney Swans/Twitter)

Final Say

The future is bright for the Sydney Swans. A year ahead of schedule, 2022 now could be anything.

Time will tell what’s to come, but there’s plenty of optimism after a massively promising year.

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