27/02/2024

James Rowbottom (left), Chad Warner (centre) and Errol Gulden (right) have all been major contributors to Sydney’s success in 2022. (Photos: Sydney Swans; @sydneyswans/Twitter)

On Saturday, the Sydney Swans will be competing in their first AFL preliminary final since 2016. A lot of water has gone under the Harbour Bridge since that night, with only seven players from the Swans’ immense qualifying final win over Melbourne involved in that finals campaign. 

In an age where trade and free agency dominate the headlines, it’s been fruitful investments in the draft which have led the Swans to the precipice of yet another grand final birth. 

A fortnight ago against the Demons, the footy world sat back and marvelled at the hard-nosed James Rowbottom, the dynamic Ollie Florent, the explosive Chad Warner, and the inspired defensive efforts of Robbie Fox.

Not to mention to the silky skills of Errol Gulden and the long-range goal from Dylan Stephens in the dying stages of the first half.

For many, Sydney’s toppling of the reigning premier was a coming-of-age performance. 

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As Swans fans basked in the joys of victory, one man who likely had a gleeful smile on his face was Kinnear Beatson.

As the General Manager of Recruiting and List Strategy, Beatson has overseen the club’s acquisition of high-quality talent via the draft, many of whom emphatically made their mark at the MCG under the Friday night lights.

Following the disappointment of defeat to the Western Bulldogs in the 2016 Grand Final, the Swans have exemplified a commitment to gradually regenerate their list with youth. 

Even before the start of the 2016 season, Sydney had already picked up Ollie Florent (pick 11), Will Hayward (pick 21) and elevated Tom Papley to the senior list. This was just the beginning of a series of inspired selections. 

In the 2017 National Draft, the Swans selected Tom McCartin with pick 33. Meanwhile, Robbie Fox was plucked from VFL side Coburg with pick 34 in the 2017 Rookie Draft.  

Both McCartin and Fox have since become vital cogs in John Longmire’s backline. McCartin, who this season has teamed up seamlessly with brother Paddy, has been a pillar of consistency, missing only one game in the last two years.

Fox, on the other hand, has cemented his spot in the Swans back six from Round 11 onwards. A desperate smother in the final term of the qualifying win over the Demons epitomising his value to the revered Bloods culture. 

Turning to the 2018 National Draft and the Swans remained steadfast in their willingness to invest come draft time. This represented a stark contrast to the off-season activities of their rival counterpart Hawthorn, who just like the Swans, had challenged consistently for silverware in previous years.

The Hawks had brought in Tom Mitchell, Jaeger O’Meara, Chad Wingard and Jarman Impey over a three-year period, coughing up multiple first and second round selections in the process.

Yet the Swans would again yield terrific results at the 2018 draft, recruiting academy product Nick Blakey (pick 10), James Rowbottom (pick 25) and Justin McInerney (pick 44).

Blakey’s trademark run and carry from the half-back line has mirrored Sydney’s fearless approach to its football. 

The hard-working Rowbottom has assumed increased midfield responsibilities with consummate ease in 2022, and is firming as the likely successor to stalwart Josh Kennedy in the engine room. 

Notably, McInerney also shapes as one of the Swans’ biggest steals from recent drafts. The 22-year-old has come into his own on the wing, averaging career best numbers for disposals and inside 50s.

Selected with pick 44 in the 2018 National Draft, Justin McInerney has since played 51 AFL games. (Photo: Sydney Swans)

Significant change at the conclusion of the 2019 season saw premiership players Heath Grundy, Kieran Jack, Nick Smith, and Jarrod McVeigh all hang up the boots. The Swans had plummeted to 15th on the ladder that year, missing out on finals for the first time in a decade. 

This was backed up with a 16th placed finish in 2020, prompting external belief that the Swans were in the early stages of a rebuild. However, absence from finals football proved to be short lived, with Sydney securing itself an elimination final birth as soon as 2021. 

In that stretch, the Swans recruitment team again got to work, bringing in Dylan Stephens (pick five) and Chad Warner (pick 39) at the 2019 National Draft, followed by trio Logan McDonald (pick four), Braeden Campbell (pick five) and Errol Gulden (pick 32) the next year. 

Warner has blossomed at AFL level in 2022, showcasing his devastating speed and power through the midfield. He’s been well supported by the classy Gulden, whose swift transition to the rigours of AFL football saw him earn a Rising Star nomination on debut last year.

Key forward McDonald continues to grow into his role both physically and figuratively, whilst left-footers Dylan Stephens and Braeden Campbell are forging their own paths. 

It would also be remiss not to highlight the successful arrival of Paddy McCartin at the Swans, whose return to the AFL landscape has made for one of the stories of the season. Joining the club as a delisted free agent, the former number one pick has rewarded the faith placed in him by Kinnear Beatson and co.

The McCartin brothers have formed a formidable partnership within the Swans backline in 2022. (Photo: Sydney Swans/Twitter)

The acquisition of all this talent via calculated drafting has culminated in the formation of a Swans outfit which finds itself on the cusp of achieving the ultimate success.

13 players drafted since the onset of 2016 donned the red and white in week one of finals, a reflection of shrewd recruitment and forward-thinking.

But beyond just raw talent, the hunger and determination of a budding playing group is there for all to see. With many not yet familiar with the taste of premiership glory, there is a visible yearning to reach the pinnacle. 

If the Swans are to go on to lift the premiership cup on the last Saturday of September, it will be their young brigade who will have played a part in shaping their destiny. 

The Sydney Swans will do battle with Collingwood on Saturday at the SCG to book themselves a spot in this year’s AFL Grand Final.

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