There are no shortage of reasons why Sydney proved too strong for Carlton at the SCG.
For starters, the Blues’ kicking, in just about every way describable, was putrid. Brought down due to pressure in the early stages and then seemingly because of their own mental demons thereafter, short chip passes slewed wide, set shots barely connected with the foot, and the Swans continually feasted on ill-fated attempts to clear the ball from their defensive 50.
It was bad kicking that turned what should have been a sizeable Blues advantage in the form of Charlie Curnow and Harry McKay into, for all intents and purposes, a non-factor. Between them, they had seven marks inside 50 – a decent effort considering the kicks directed at them were, to put it mildly, haphazard – for the grand total of one goal, six behinds, and an out of bounds on the full from McKay.
In the last three weeks, the Blues have kicked 21 goals, and… 41 behinds. It’s ripping their season apart in itself.
It’s that sort of kicking that turns an otherwise dominant first quarter into a narrow deficit – it’s that sort of kicking that, if you head into the final quarter with a shoestring bench after a horror run of injuries, begins to look more costly with every passing minute.
There’s no doubt those injuries proved crucial for the Swans, too. For all the Blues’ faults, they were dogged throughout Friday night’s encounter, and restricting the home side to just 38 inside 50s at three quarter time – five fewer than the Blues – was a result Michael Voss would take every day of the week, especially given the Swans frequently looked menacing with Nick Blakey’s penetrating runs slicing through the corridor and driving the ball forward.
With George Hewett KOed in an early collision, Nic Newman pinging a hamstring and Ollie Hollands injuring a shoulder, having just two fit men on the bench for the start of the last quarter – and down to one by its midpoint when Patrick Cripps hobbled off with an ankle injury – brought with it a noticeable uptick in the penetration of the Swans’ entries.
Where once, Sydney players had streamed forward to find the impenetrable wall of Jacob Weitering, with Mitch McGovern, Jordan Boyd and the gut-running Matt Cottrell providing ample support, now it was Weitering on an island against, more often than not, Franklin.
And as soundly beaten as he was all night, it now meant Franklin only had to neutralise that contest, and hold things up until the cavalry arrived. And it was the Swans with more energy for that fina sprint – Chad Warner’s goal an especially shining example.
The proof of the pudding was that the Swans retained possession from 69 per cent of their inside 50 entries in the final quarter – the Blues were way back at 18 per cent. It’s a minor miracle they could only muster three goals, but at no point did they ever look like ceding control of the game.
Swinging back to Blakey, he might have been the biggest reason of all. For all Weitering’s brilliance as an intercept marker throughout proceedings at the SCG, the Swan had an extra string to his bow: his work overhead was equally exceptional, but it’s when he put pedal to metal that the Lizard really shone.
Weitering ended with 11 rebounds 50s to Blakey’s nine – but when Blakey got it, he went. Dashing up the corridor – he was the main reason why the Swans used the central corridor with 30 per cent of their first-half rebounds – he’d finish with five bounces, three inside 50s and four score involvements to boot. Weitering was involved in just one Blues’ score.
He’s the reason the Swans scored six goals to one – the final margin encapsulated – from defensive half possession chains.
That’s not a knock on the Blue, either; more a sign of how extraordinary Blakey’s game was in every facet. Because when, in the last quarter, the Swans needed to lock the game down, the Lizard became a Brachiosaurus.
He’d clunk five intercept marks for the term alone – three of them contested – as he, with an occasional cameo from Aaron Francis, single-handedly held the Blues at bay. With Carlton on top at stoppages, winning the clearance count 11-4 after a topsy-turvy midfield battle throughout the evening, this was staggeringly crucial for a side which, in the first three quarters, had always been vulnerable to being outmarked near goal by the Blues’ talls.
Blakey is basically what would happen if the High Evolutionary from Guardians of the Galaxy 3 merged Weitering and Adam Saad together in some horrifying genetic experiment. Stronger in the air and less susceptible to a tag than Saad, who was curtailed all evening by the dogged Ryan Clarke, and swifter and more daring than Weitering, his 26 disposals for the evening weren’t always perfect, but they seldom failed to take the game on.
As wonderful as Blakey was, though, there was another man who – while certainly not as big a match-winner this week – might prove even more crucial if the Swans hope to save their season. And that man is Isaac Heeney.
I wrote a fortnight ago that it was time for Heeney, struggling this season as a mid-forward in a team unable to provide quality supply, to be unleashed on the ball. At long last, John Longmire pulled the trigger – and it paid dividends.
Heeney’s role was a simple one: he was to go head-to-head with Patrick Cripps at nearly every stoppage and, just like Jordan Dawson for Adelaide in the Gather Round opener, hurt him offensively.
Heeney’s breakaway speed caught Cripps on the hop a number of times, pointed out in vivid detail by David King on Fox Footy at half time: he’d end with five inside 50s, equal-fifth on the ground, from just 19 disposals.
But while that worked a treat, it was his work as a bullocking, in-and-under ball-winner that made the biggest difference: of those 19 disposals, a whopping 14 were contested, and they came with six clearances (two directly from the centre) and laid ten crunching tackles.
Heading into Friday night, the Swans sat equal 12th for clearances this season; just as tellingly, they’d won the count only twice in the first ten rounds, and been obliterated 27-47 by North Melbourne of all teams just last week.
For a Blues team whose greatest strength was – last year at least – at the coalface, this had alarm bells written all over it. Yet the Swans would win the centre clearance count 13-7, and battled evenly throughout further around the ground, only losing their way in the final quarter.
Heeney’s injection meant Chad Warner, the Swans’ speediest on-baller, was freed up to be a link player receiving those handballs dished out by Heeney and Luke Parker from the bottom of packs; he’d respond with 29 disposals, 575 metres gained and two valuable goals. Does that happen without Heeney starting it all?
The move wasn’t without its drawbacks – the Swans struggled mightily at converting their inside 50s into scores all night, and with both he and Tom Papley regularly on the ball, there was precious little star power inside attacking 50 to clutter the Blues’ minds. But the benefits far, far outweighed the disadvantages.
Strong as an ox, tough as nails and supremely skilled to boot, Heeney is exactly the midfielder the Swans have been crying out for all year. With another week or two to hone his craft – he said post-match this was the first week in years he’d trained as a full-time mid – he’s only going to get better, too.
It was Blakey who beat the Blues on Friday night. But it might be Heeney who turns Sydney’s spluttering season around in the weeks to come.