Halfway through the second quarter of Saturday's game between Richmond and Sydney, the Tigers had built a six goal lead. When Jason Castagna kicked Richmond's seventh goal the Swans had only managed one in nearly 45 minutes of playing time. For all the hard work Sydney had done in the last few weeks to get within touch of the top eight, it looked like they were about to suffer their eighth loss and their season was almost all but over.
It would appear that this is not the same Sydney team that started the season with six consecutive losses, though. This was their worst start to a game this year by some margin but, rather than surrender the game and their season, the Swans dug in and kicked 11 of the last 14 goals to win by nine points.
Sydney now sit only one win outside the eight with a percentage better than two teams inside it. What appeared almost unthinkable six weeks ago, a Swans final berth, now feels more likely than not. When they were sitting 18th on the ladder at 0-6 most footy followers were quite reasonable of the opinion that they would be coming from too far back to make the finals. History certainly wasn't on their side. No team has played finals in the VFL/AFL having lost their first six games.
Now, though, they are 5-7 and a team making the eight having won five other first 12 definitely isn't unprecedented. In 2014 Richmond were 16th on the ladder after losing 10 of their first 13 games. They won their next nine on the trot to finish eighth. In 2011 reigning grand finalists, St. Kilda, had slumped to four wins and a draw from their first 12 games. They won their next six, and eight of their next 10, to finish sixth on the ladder. West Coast did similar in 2004 after starting the season with only five wins from their first 13. They lost only one of their last nine and finished in seventh spot.
The advantage Sydney have that those before them don't is that they are the form team of the competition. They haven't slumped to the position in which they find themselves, they've had their slump and have now stormed out the other side.
As the ladder from round seven onwards shows, the Swans are in ripping form. Not only are they the only side to have won five matches in that time, their percentage of over 146 is well ahead of their nearest rivals. It is also remarkably close to the percentage they were on when at the close of the 2016 home and away season.
The similarities between 2016 and the last six games of this year are remarkable. When Sydney sat on top of the ladder after round 23 last year their percentage was 151.2, the highest in the competition. They also had the best defence, an average of 66.8 points per game, and the fourth best attack at an average of 101 points per game. Each of those measures are very close to their corresponding numbers on the form ladder.
On average the Swans managed 16 more uncontested possessions per game than their opponents last year. In the games they won that number was +29. In losses last year to Richmond, Greater Western Sydney and Hawthorn, they had less uncontested possessions by 51, 46 and 31 respectively. The lesson would seem to be that if a team could apply enough pressure to stop the Swans getting the ball to the outside they'd have some chance of winning.
It appears that was part of the problem in the first six rounds this season. Sydney won the uncontested possession count only once in that period of time, by 40 against Port Adelaide in round one. By the end of round 6 they were averaging -31 in uncontested possessions, -11 in contested possessions and -6 in tackles. Teams were putting on the pressure, the Swans couldn't get the ball on the outside, couldn't get the ball to their marking forwards, couldn't score, couldn't win.
Since their big win against Brisbane in round 7 the trend has been reversed. On that day, despite having only one more contested possession than the Lions, Sydney were +45 in uncontested possession, leading to a massive 21 marks inside 50 (six to Lance Franklin alone) compared to Brisbane's eight, and 14 more shots at goal. In the four games they won between then and round 12 the Swans averaged +35 in uncontested possessions and +15 in contested possessions, very similar to their +29 and +16 in their 2016 wins.
The one game that Sydney have lost since round 7, against Hawthorn in round 10, helps prove the rule. In that game Hawthorn managed to deny the Swans the ball to the extent that they finished +100 in uncontested possessions. Much like last year, it was enough to claim the win but only by a very narrow margin. Quite simply, even if a team has the game to beat the Swans it's a great deal easier said than done.
Las week against Richmond stands as a feather in the cap of the Swans' side. They were beaten in key areas for much of the game but managed to recalibrate and save their season. In their last six games they now have a 45-point turnaround, four wins by seven goals or more and a six-point loss in a game they could easily have lost by five or six goals.
So from their current 5-7 standing, where do they pick up the seven wins they'll likely need to make the finals? Out of the ten games they have left, five are against teams currently in the top eight. Essendon at home this week presents as a very exciting fixture between two in form teams, but Sydney look like the likely winner there. The following week they face the similarly in form Melbourne at the MCG. At present that task looks slightly more difficult, but not beyond them.
The most difficult games ahead would appear to be Geelong at Kardinia Park and Adelaide at Adelaide Oval. The Swans don't have a great record at Kardinia, but they did win their most recent game there last season and there's every reason to believe they'll be in similar form by the time they face them again in round 20. Adelaide Oval doesn't pose a problem as a venue. Sydney have only lost one of their four matches there, by 10 points in an epic against the Crows last year. In fact, Sydney's record in the city of Adelaide in the last 10 years is rather good. They've won nine out of their last 13 at Football Park/Adelaide Oval and their average losing margin is around two goals.
All things considered, Sydney have rediscovered their mojo and from here on in they should go into every game as a realistic chance of winning. If they can string the next few together before they face GWS in round 17, the Sydney Derby could be played between two top eight teams.