The 3-2-1 for the Swans in 2023
2022 has been an exciting time for Swans fans. With the shortest rebuild ever after just two years outside of the finals, Sydney won five of their first six and finished the season firmly in the top four.
They won their first two finals games but were rebounded in the big dance, succumbing to a relentless Geelong team in an 81-point hammer.
In recent years, such large margins have meant that the losing team at the Grand Final next season developed a mysterious case of can’t-play-football-a fate many Bloods fans are hoping to avoid John Longmire’s experience can help them avoid. It’s certainly possible as this young group has the right mix of evolving talent and established star power to win it back and thrive, but it will be a challenge.
Stealing Brownlow’s classic 3-2-1 voting format to appreciate key elements of the Sydney season. Here’s what needs to happen for the red-whites to meet this challenge and exceed expectations in 2023.
1. Hickey’s health
Since the loss of the impressive duo of Shane Mumford and Mike Pyke, the Swans have struggled to find a ruckman to rival the best. The Sams (Naismith and Reid) are struggling to avoid injuries, while converted forwards Cal Sinclair and Kurt Tippet have always been considered viable only down the middle.
Enter Tom Hickey. Hickey, who moved across the country from the West Coast in 2021, was viewed more as a depth option for a Swans team amid a rebuild. Sydney was his fourth club and the principle of using the shaggy veteran as an experienced voice for the youngsters’ development was sound.
Well, he did more than just that.
Tall Jesus, as he’s commonly known today, has become a crucial cog in Sydney’s top 22 and a key reason they’ve boosted the rankings so quickly. While Hickey may not have the bulk of the more traditional rucks in the competition and doesn’t win very many hitouts, it’s his work around the ground that makes him so important.
He competes at every stoppage and his tracking efforts once the ball hits the ground are second to none. In 2021, he ranked among the elite among backpackers in center clearances, stop clearances, and kicks while averaging nearly five ground ball gets per game.
Injuries plagued Hickey’s 2022 season, but when he got on the field, the Swans looked a lot better. The big man rose to the occasion in last year’s final, almost single-handedly wiping out Melbourne’s acclaimed ruck duo while scoring with five clearances and seven intercepts.
Against Collingwood the next weekend, Hickey was again the top ruck on the floor, with the most hit-outs and the second-most center clearances for the Swans.
In an unfortunate setback, Sydney will start the season without Hickey, who has been ruled out for several weeks with a calf strain. The clumsy looking giant plays such a vital role for the Swans and they will be counting on him staying largely healthy this year if they are to have any chance of succeeding in 2023.
2. Versatility dilemma
Callum Mills and Isaac Heeney are in the prime of their careers. Both have developed the ability to play almost anywhere on the field and Longmire likes to take advantage of this, often moving them around depending on the game situation. While this may seem like a smart idea and has often paid off in the form of a powerful clarification from Heeney or a piece of defensive brilliance from Mills, it has to stop.
Heeney has the ability to be one of the most damaging forwards in the game with his aerial skills, ground ball skills and intelligent goal shooting. A tough matchup for opponents every week, he can turn a game upside down in the blink of an eye. The star started 2022 with a bang, averaging 2.5 goals, six tackles and 19 disposals in his first six games. He finished the season with just one goal under 50 and made his debut for the all-Australia team.
Sydney can’t afford to keep one of his best attacking threats too far from goal, especially as his cover ability provides a key alternative to the constant Lance Franklin-centric problem the Swans have faced in the past. Heeney has confirmed the plan for 2023 is a 70/30 split between forward and midfield, but I’d like to see him anchored in the forward line as much as possible and become Sydney’s point of contact at the top.
While Mills started his career at the back, every man and dog knew it was only a matter of time before the hardened weapon transitioned to midfield. What surprised many was his early success as a defender, leading to Mills being used as Longmire’s plug when the defense became too leaky. That can’t happen either.
Sydney’s captain established himself as one of the league’s superstars in the competition in 2022, averaging 24 disposals, seven points and six tackles in the season and joining forces with James Rowbottom and Luke Parker to form one of the toughest midfielders in the competition. He often goes up against the opponent’s best ball chaser and does an excellent job of restricting them while influencing the game with his own touches.
Mills is too important to the balance of Sydney’s midfield to be wasted at the back as his unique defensive ability allows the likes of Tom Papley and Chad Warner to step up in attack. For Sydney to be among the best again in 2023, Mr. Fix-it must become a fixture in the midfield.
3. The Trio 2020
Last season, many of Sydney’s promising youngsters finally took the next step. Warner became an attacking superstar, registering in the elite group with seven goals and six appearances within the 50s, which was often the catalyst for a goal in Sydney.
At the other end of the field, Tom McCartin frequently took on the other team’s best key forward and emerged victorious, consistently thwarting opposition goals with his eight game wins.
Adding Flash and Dash from the backline and down the wings, Nick Blakey and Justin McInerney became game-breakers with their pace (though sometimes biting off more than they could chew). James Rowbottom was a powerhouse in the thick of things, attacking hard and getting the ball out to his outside runners, and Will Hayward became a reliable goalscorer, his 32 majors good for third on the team.
With ex-Bombers swingman Aaron Francis the only off-season addition, Sydney will have to look for improvements internally. Luckily for them, the next superstars are poised and ready to go. 2023 will be the year Logan McDonald, Braeden Campbell and Errol Gulden take off.
McDonald is being groomed to take over the forward line from Buddy and while things have not gone smoothly in his short career so far, the big man should start putting everything together this season. His draft report lists him as a dangerous goalscorer with the ability to stagger his opponents and we’ve seen glimpses of that talent so far.
He scored multiple goals five times last season and was hard to beat when he was knocked out by a defender. With Franklin likely to retire after this season, now is the time for McDonald to step up and claim the prime forward spot.
Campbell is lightning fast and not afraid to get under the big bodies. He has the talent to justify his top five picks but hasn’t gotten much of a chance yet. A Rising Star nomination in just his second game at the AFL level, in which he had 25 disposals (including 21 kicks), underscores his ball collecting ability, but it’s his precise use that sets him up for big things.
Campbell doesn’t seem to miss his mark, whether coming out of a heavily congested backline or leading a forward into space to make a mark within 50. He could follow a similar path to Mills and, as his development progressed, previously fill the back eventually into midfield.
Having Blakey and Campbell controlling possession and dictating how Sydney launches their counter-attacks is a delicious prospect and I hope that sometime in 2023 Longmire gives serious thought to doing so.
Rounding out the class of 2020 is Errol Gulden. The most consistent player of the three to date, Gulden has made a home for Sydney and played every game last season. Like Campbell, he is an excellent user on foot and excels at delivering dangerous balls within 50.
Gulden showed his brilliance in Round 20 against GWS, where the nimble striker amassed 33 possessions to go along with 12 points, four tackles and two goals. Playing primarily as a forward or on the wing in 2022, the fan favorite expects to take part in more center bounces this season, where his speed and lethal use of the ball will add to the current roster of midfielders.
The above paragraph was written before Sydney’s last preseason game. Gulden played many minutes through center without Mills against Carlton and starred. Forty-five touches, nine clearances, six marks, five tackles and three goals is about as complete a game as you can have. Stay tuned for more of this in 2023!
On the right foot from 2023
The very first game against the Suns on the Gold Coast will be revealing, revealing whether Sydney managed to snuff out their demons of the pre-season Grand Final. Led by the strong midfield of Touk Miller, Matt Rowell and Noah Anderson, the expansion squad looks poised for a strong year and even a possible finals debut.
Sydney needs to be on the money from the very first clearance and can’t afford to let lingering doubts at the end of last season slow him down. A strong Round 1 win away and a week later against arch-rivals Hawthorn will go a long way in restoring confidence to the young Sydney side.
With alternating home and away games in the first five rounds, the Swans might struggle to find consistency early in the season but if they manage to string together a few wins watch out for the rest of the league with Sydney coming for it 2023 Prime Minister!
https://www.theroar.com.au/2023/03/12/the-3-2-1-for-the-swans-in-2023/ The 3-2-1 for the Swans in 2023