The 3-2-1 for the Swans in 2023
2022 was an exciting time for Swans fans. With the shortest rebuild ever coming to an end after just two years outside the finals, Sydney won five of their first six and finished the season firmly entrenched in the top four.
They managed wins in their first two games of finals but were bounced out in the big dance, succumbing to a relentless Geelong outfit in an 81-point thumping.
In recent years, such large margins have resulted in the losing Grand Final team developing a mysterious case of can’t-play-football-anymore-itis during the very next season, a fate many Bloods fans are hoping John Longmire’s experience can help them avoid. It is certainly possible, as this young group has the right mix of developing talent and established star-power to run it back again and find success, but it will be a challenge.
Stealing the classic 3-2-1 Brownlow voting format to value the most important elements of Sydney’s season, here’s what needs to happen for the Red and White to overcome this challenge and exceed expectations in 2023.
1. Hickey’s health
Since the loss of formidable duo Shane Mumford and Mike Pyke, the Swans have struggled to find a ruckman capable of matching it with the very best. The Sams (Naismith and Reid) have struggled to avoid injuries, while Cal Sinclair and Kurt Tippet were only ever considered serviceable in the middle as converted forwards.
Enter Tom Hickey. Moving across the country from West Coast in 2021, Hickey was seen as more of a depth option for a Swans team in the midst of a rebuild. Sydney was his fourth club, and the principle of adding the mop-haired veteran as an experienced voice to help the young players develop was sound.
Well, he did more than just that.
Tall Jesus, as he is now more commonly known, has become a crucial cog in Sydney’s best 22, and a vital reason why they charged up the rankings so quickly. While Hickey might not have the bulk of the more traditional rucks in the competition and doesn’t win very many hit-outs, it’s his work around the ground that makes him so important.
He competes at every stoppage, and his follow-up efforts once the ball hits the ground are second to none. In 2021 he ranked elite among ruckmen in centre clearances, stoppage clearances and kicks while also averaging almost five ground ball gets per game.
Injuries plagued Hickey’s 2022 season, but when he was on the field the Swans looked a whole lot better. The big man rose to the occasion in last year’s finals, nullifying Melbourne’s acclaimed ruck duo almost singlehandedly, while booting a goal to go with five clearances and seven intercepts.
Against Collingwood the next weekend Hickey was once again the best ruck on the ground, with the most hit-outs and second-most centre clearances for the Swans.
In an unfortunate setback, Sydney will start the season without Hickey, who has been ruled out for multiple weeks with a calf strain. The awkward-looking giant plays such an important role for the Swans, and they’ll be relying on him to remain largely healthy this year if they are to have any chance of success 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 situation in the game. While this might seem like a smart idea and has often paid off through a powerful clearance by Heeney or a piece of defensive brilliance by Mills, it needs to stop.
Heeney has the ability to be one of the most damaging forwards in the game with his aerial prowess, ground ball ability and goal-kicking smarts. He’s a hard matchup each week for the opposition and can turn a game on its head in an instant. The star began 2022 with a bang, averaging 2.5 goals, six tackles and 19 disposals in his first six games. He ended just one goal shy of 50 for the season and made his debut appearance in the All-Australian team.
Sydney can’t afford to keep one of their best attacking threats too far from the goal, especially as his marking ability provides a key alternative to the constant Lance Franklin-centric issue the Swans have faced in the past. Heeney has confirmed that the plan for 2023 is a 70/30 split between forward and midfield, but I’d love to see him entrenched in the forward line as often as possible and to become Sydney’s go-to guy up top.
While Mills began his career down back, every man and his dog knew it was only a matter of time before the hard-nosed gun transitioned into the midfield. What surprised many was his success as a defender early-on, and this caused Mills to be utilised as Longmire’s plug when the backline got too leaky. Again, this can’t happen.
Sydney’s captain established himself as one of the league’s superstars in the contest in 2022, averaging 24 disposals, seven marks and six tackles on the season and combining with James Rowbottom and Luke Parker to form one of the toughest midfields in the competition. He’s often paired against the opposition’s top ball getter and does an excellent job restricting them while still influencing the game with his own touches.
Mills is too important to the balance of Sydney’s midfield to be wasted down back, as his unique defensive ability allows the like of Tom Papley and Chad Warner to go on the attack. For Sydney to be among the best once again in 2023, Mr Fix-it has to become a staple in the midfield.
3. The 2020 trio
Last season saw plenty of Sydney’s promising youngsters finally take the next step. Warner became an offensive superstar, registering among elite company with seven score involvements and six inside 50s, often the catalyst for a Sydney goal.
At the opposite end of the field Tom McCartin frequently matched up against the best key forward on the other team and came out on top, with his eight spoils a game thwarting opposition targets time and time again.
Nick Blakey and Justin McInerney added flash and dash from the backline and down the wings, becoming game-breakers with their pace (even if they sometimes bit off more than they could chew). James Rowbottom was a powerhouse in the thick of it, tackling hard and extracting the ball out to his outside runners, and Will Hayward became a reliable goal-kicker, his 32 majors good for third in the team.
With ex-Bombers swingman Aaron Francis the only off-season addition, Sydney will have to look internally for improvements. Luckily for them, the next batch of superstars are ready and raring to go. 2023 will be the year Logan McDonald, Braeden Campbell and Errol Gulden take flight.
McDonald is being groomed to take over the forward line from Buddy, and while it hasn’t been all smooth sailing so far during his short career, this season the big man should start to put it all together. His draft report lists him as a dangerous goal-kicker with the ability to run his opponents ragged and we’ve seen glimpses of that talent so far.
He kicked multiple goals on five occasions last season and was tough to beat when one-out with a defender. With Franklin probably set to retire after this season, now is the time for McDonald to step up and claim the key forward spot as his own.
Lightning quick and not afraid to get in amongst the big bodies, Campbell has the talent to justify his top-five selection but hasn’t been given much of a chance yet. A Rising Star nomination in just his second game at AFL level where he had 25 disposals (21 of which were kicks) highlights his ball gathering ability, but it’s his precision usage that earmarks him for big things.
Campbell doesn’t seem to miss his target, whether he’s coming out of a highly congested backline or leading a forward into space to take a mark inside 50. He could follow a similar path to Mills, filling in down back as he develops, before eventually joining the midfield.
Having Blakey and Campbell controlling possession and dictating how Sydney start their counter-attacks is a mouth-watering prospect and one I hope Longmire strongly considers going with during the course of 2023.
Rounding out the class of 2020 is Errol Gulden. The most consistent player of the three so far, Gulden has found himself a home out wide for Sydney, playing every game last season. Like Campbell he’s an excellent user by foot, and excels at delivering dangerous balls inside 50.
Gulden showcased his brilliance in Round 20 versus GWS, where the nippy forward gathered 33 possessions to go along with 12 marks, four tackles and two goals. Playing mostly as a forward flanker or on the wing in 2022, expect to see the fan favourite attend more centre bounces this season where his quickness and deadly ball usage will augment the current crop of midfielders.
The above section was written before Sydney’s last pre-season game. Gulden played plenty of minutes through the middle without Mills against Carlton and starred. Forty-five touches, nine clearances, six marks, five tackles and three goals is about as complete a game you can have. Look forward to more of that in 2023!
Starting 2023 off on the right foot
The very first game against the Suns on the Gold Coast will be telling and reveal if Sydney managed to expunge their Grand Final demons over the pre-season. Led by the powerful midfield of Touk Miller, Matt Rowell and Noah Anderson, the expansion side looks set for a strong year and even a potential finals debut.
Sydney will have to be on the money from the very first clearance and cannot afford to let lingering doubts from last season’s end slow them down. A strong Round 1 win away from home, and then backing up against arch-rivals Hawthorn the week after, will go a long way towards restoring the confidence of the young Sydney side.
With alternating home and away games in the first five rounds the Swans could struggle to find consistency to start the season, but if they do manage to string a few wins together, watch out to the rest of the league because Sydney are coming for that 2023 premiership!