The Sydney Football Club is an incredible organisation. 25 years ago this club was on its knees. They had no money, no success, sub-standard facilities and a dwindling supporter base. With a little bit of help from the AFL and some shrewd decision making the Sydney Swans have gone from the basket case of the early 90s to nothing short of a powerhouse now, and are aiming for a third flag in just over a decade.
As recently as the start of the current season there were pundits, myself included, that were predicting a slide down the ladder for the Swans. Probably without much justification, either, aside from other teams catching up to them. How wrong we were.
With five wins in the last six rounds, Sydney have more or less cemented their spot in the top four for the fifth consecutive year. Only Hawthorn can boast a better recent record than that. Not only that, but they will play finals for the seventh consecutive year. Again, only Hawthorn have played in every finals series in that time. Thanks to winning their last three by an average of 75 points, they've virtually assured themselves of a top two spot and two home finals as well.
All the more admirable about the current crop of Swans is that if this were just about any other AFL club, this would be branded a "rebuilding" year. Consider the age and experience of a few players in their best 22 - George Hewett (20 years old, 18 senior games), Tom Papley (20yo, 14g), Isaac Heeney (20yo, 32g), Aliir Aliir (21yo, 8g), Callum Mills (19yo, 19g), Sam Naismith (24yo, 7g). There's over a quarter of the senior side with less than 100 games between them. Couple that with the fact that the Swans lost more than 750 games worth of experience with the retirements of premiership players Adam Goodes, Rhyce Shaw and Mike Pyke, and the trading of Lewis Jetta - there is no doubt this is a list in transition.
We shouldn't be surprised, though. For the last 20 years the Sydney Swans have been able to stay at or near the top while still turning over their playing list. Ever since that bleak era, when they were a club that lost 36 out of 37 games from 1992-1994 and when they'd often struggle to get 10,000 people to come to the SCG to see them play, the powers that be at the Swans have realised they need to do things differently to other clubs.
It was common thinking at one time that due to the fickle, non-AFL nature of the Sydney sporting market, the Swans couldn't afford to bottom out and still retain their supporter base. While that is probably not as true now as it once was, that thinking has bred an indelible culture. It began with recruiting established superstars such as Tony Lockett and Paul Roos, but has transformed into finding value in the rookie draft, the later picks of the national draft and in the trade period.
Current mainstays of the senior side, Heath Grundy, Nick Smith and co-captain, Kieren Jack were all selected in the rookie draft. Dan Hannebery and Luke Parker were second round picks in their respective national drafts. Josh Kennedy couldn't get a game at Hawthorn and has since won two best & fairests, two All-Australian selections and a premiership at Sydney. This club knows how to stay at the top.
Then, of course, what were possibly the two most audacious trade period manoeuvres of recent times, the signing of Kurt Tippett and Lance Franklin. Two players that could absolutely justify every dollar they are getting paid in the next month and a half.
Before getting injured in round 12, Tippett was putting together a career-best season, and his imminent return has come at an ideal time. During his absence, and the subsequent injury to Callum Sinclair, Sam Naismith has consolidated his spot in the ruck, meaning Tippett will ease back into the team as a forward for the last two home and away games.
What can be said about Tippett's fellow forward, Lance Franklin, that hasn't been said before? He is easily the greatest forward of his generation, and could lay claim to being the greatest player of his generation. And just in case anyone was doubting his influence and ability, thinking maybe his form was dropping off, he put those thoughts to rest with one of the best individual performances of the year against St. Kilda last week. It's worth remembering that when Sydney exited last year's finals with two straight losses, Franklin was missing from the team.
Also missing from that finals side was Luke Parker, whose 33 touches and three goals against the Saints went close to stealing best on ground honours from Franklin. In fact none of Kieren Jack, Tom Papley, George Hewett, Aliir Aliir, Callum Mills or Sam Naismith played finals last year. That's eight players in total that any club would be more than happy to have coming into a side heading into finals.
I've posited before that Adelaide may be the best team in the competition, and with 11 wins from their last 12 games there's no reason to change that position. Sydney are staking their claim though. Four of their five losses this year have been by 10 points or less, so they are very hard to beat, and their last three weeks have been scintillating. Between them, Adelaide and Sydney in the last three weeks have won by an average of 86 points. The game in round four between these two sides was arguably the game of the year and if they were to meet again in the 2016 decider I for one would not be disappointed.