AFL Finals Focus: They made it by the skin of their teeth

Footy, huh.

I put it to you here: there’s not a sport in the world that can so frequently provide the sort of drama, action, chaos and skill that we saw at the SCG on Saturday evening.

People I know who’ve never seen a game before in their lives let me know that after watching the last quarter between Sydney and Collingwood, their hearts were pounding, their hands clammy and the stress and tension too much. I can’t begin to fathom what it was like for fans with an actual stake in things.

As with any Collingwood game, so much of the autopsy must needs deal with the finish. These Magpies play completely without fear – more than any other side I’ve seen, and maybe more than any other side period, they care not a fig for the scoreboard.

Whether they’re six goals down and on death row, as they were midway through the third term with the Swans running rampant, or desperately searching for the last goal to confirm their status as footy’s clutchest ever team, Craig McRae’s men play the same way. They take the game on, kick quickly, keep running, and hit you with wave after wave of the most suffocating pressure.

It takes a hell of a team to withstand it, and means even a Magpies team only capable of controlling matches through bursts as of yet are still destructive enough to keep winning games. It’s my theory as to why they’ve had such success in close games this year: no matter who they play, they are good enough to have just enough time spent dictating terms to take the four points home with them.

The Pies were simply breathtaking in the final ten minutes; from the moment Tom Papley kicked a controversial goal to put the Swans 20 points up and seemingly into the grand final, it was one-way traffic.

And a side on a nine-game winning streak, on their own turf, having controlled this match from the very first bounce, had absolutely nothing in their considerable arsenal to do a damn thing about it.

The stats tell you that the Pies rank near the bottom of the league for clearances and contested possessions; but in that final term against Sydney, they showed you why all that is meaningless. Against a very, very good Swans midfield, the Pies matched them at the coalface, winning the clearances 14-11, won the contested possessions 42-37 (the dominance was even greater post-clearance) and gave the Swans nothing their own way.

Having been blanketed by the Swans’ equally awesome pressure early – a 204 first-quarter pressure rating from the Swans was stiff enough for the Magpies to regularly see their aggressive kicks come unstuck, leading to disaster – the minute fatigue saw it relent, they cut through them time and time again.

This is a Sydney team that has won last quarters by a combined 169 points this season. To not just edge them in a final term, but absolutely blow them off the canvas, was utterly incredible from Collingwood, regardless of the result.

In the home-and-away season, the incredible passage of play that saw Beau McCreery mark at half-back and sprint full tilt through the middle, running rings around Tom Hickey and making it all the way to his own 50, would have ended in a goal.

But his handball just didn’t quite find Nathan Kreuger, and suddenly under pressure, the activated medi-sub would miss a goal the Pies just found a way to convert all year long. Lady luck, eh.

Make no mistake – the Swans fell into the grand final. Had that match gone for another minute, the Pies would be preparing to take on Geelong right now; another five, and they could very well have won by three goals.

Ifs and buts, though: Sydney’s best was good enough, particularly early, that the game was always theirs to lose. That’s a key – hell, THE key – difference between most of the Magpies’ other tight games.

Barring the Jamie Elliott Essendon game, the Pies have won close games by holding their nerve, not making glaring mistakes, and not backing themselves into a corner by shutting up shop

Here, the Pies had to chase the game late – and where the Bombers broke down spectacularly in Round 19, the Swans just didn’t. Instead, they found heroes.

A titanic tackle from Errol Gulden here. A towering contested mark from Lance Franklin there. A huge pair of hands from Hickey, perhaps the most unlikely best on ground in a preliminary final since Clay Smith kicked four goals in 2016 for the Western Bulldogs.

By the end, the Swans were running on fumes. But they were still good enough, steely enough, to cling on.

The Pies didn’t lose this game – they didn’t fritter away golden chances like Carlton against them in Round 23. Against another side, a lesser side, they’d have clinched this one too. It just so happened that the Swans, like Geelong in the qualifying final, are good enough outfits to hold them at bay.

For all the Magpies’ closing, in the words of Gerard Whateley, like the Grim Reaper late, Sydney never looked likely to lose it – though in those last seconds as the footy pinballed around their defensive 50, it might have been 51-49. It’s that which puts this game a shade below the Brisbane-Richmond elimination final as the game of this finals series, merely into the ‘instant classic’ realm – though I imagine plenty will have it in the very highest echelons.

But that’s enough talking about the finish. Now what matters, given the result, is how the Swans got into such a commanding position to hold off the charging Pies by the barest of all margins.

Remarkably considering how tight it became, this was a contest for all intents and purposes decided in the first ten minutes. The Magpies never led, and at 26-0 down after a stunning Swans surge, played catchup football for the rest of the evening.

The Swans ransacked the first two centre clearances, with James Rowbottom heavily involved, and that set the tone for their early territory control.

And it also made it clear that Sydney weren’t going to muck around, as Fremantle did to their detriment in the semi final. None of this chipping it around, holding possessions nonsense – out of the centre, bang it in, and see what happens.

What happened was plenty. The Magpies are probably the team’s most overachieving team defence – they’ve been brilliantly tight this year by working as a collective, rather than any individual defensive brilliance.

The Swans ruthlessly exposed their weak links in the first half, dividing and conquering a Pies back six that looked decidedly vulnerable every time it went in. Chances for them to take a breath, set up, and fill the gaps were few and far between as the Swans surged into attack with their usual breakneck speed.

Not helping the Pies was their attacking kicking game turning kamikaze. Against a team like the Swans, midfield turnovers are a killer – they don’t give you any time to reset behind the footy.

As a result, from 14 midfield intercept possessions in the first quarter, they’d bag five goals. The moment a spillage was caused, or a mark taken, half the team began to sprint pedal to the metal back towards goal. One-on-ones were everywhere, the Pies weren’t granted the luxury of a spare man, and the six-pointers rained down.

By half time, the Swans had 73 points on the board – their equal-highest score for the year at the main break.

Key to it all was the Swans finding a way to bypass Darcy Moore. Unbeatable against the Cats and Dockers this finals series, Moore had a single intercept possession to his name at half time, and only two marks in total.

Sam Reid had done a tremendous job in keeping him occupied, and it probably took McRae far too long to make the switch onto a rampaging Lance Franklin. With Jeremy Howe and Brayden Maynard for company, Buddy began to peel off contested marks at every turn – one of the few things that hasn’t been a typical strength in his all-time career.

His two second-term goals both came from contested grabs inside 50, and both opposed to Maynard, who while dogged as they come, just isn’t big enough to compete against a human of Buddy’s size. On both occasions, Moore was nowhere in sight.

No one summed up just why the Magpies struggle to handle the Swans’ speed of attack better than Nick Daicos, either. It’s underrated just how well the first-year sensation reads the play behind the ball: he gets himself into quality positions against slow ball, trusts his talls to bring the ball to ground, and is always on deck for a handball receive to start a rebound chain.

Under a high ball in the first term, forced to defend his tagger in Ryan Clarke rather than hanging off the contest, Daicos proved that for all his exceptional football in 2022, he hasn’t spent a lot of time as a pure defender.

With a simple shift of the body, Clarke shunted him to the opposite side of the marking contest, sharked the crumb, and from close range, snapped the easiest of goals under no pressure.

I’m not sure Daicos has had to confront that too many times – for the second match in a row against the Swans, Clarke was well and truly on top from the get-go.

As an aside, Clarke might just be the most fascinating pure football score of the season. In the blink of an eye, he has made himself irreplaceable in this Swans team – and it’s all his own doing.

Brought in for his first starting game of 2022 against St Kilda in Round 15, with the specific, one-off job of shutting down Jack Sinclair off half-back, Clarke did such a sensational job as to change John Longmire’s attitude towards needing a defensive forward.

Switched to medi-sub the week after against Essendon, Clarke watched from the pine as Nick Hind and Mason Redman tore the Swans to shreds off half-back to set up an upset win. The former Roo was recalled the week after, nullified the Bulldogs’ Bailey Dale, and neither he nor the Swans have lost since.

There will be a massive task next week in the form of Tom Stewart, who’s claim to fame isn’t in Daicos-esque run and gun from defence, but instead his incredible intercept marking. How Clarke fares in a challenge unlike most that he’s dealt with this year, save perhaps for a half spent on Harry Himmelberg against GWS, already looms as an intriguing grand final subplot.

The Swans, in contrast to the Pies, always leave something in reserve in case their run-and-gun approach doesn’t pay off. Truthfully, the difference is that pound for pound, the Sydney defenders are bigger, stronger and better than the Magpies.

Paddy and Tom McCartin are more than capable of winning or at least drawing one-on-ones that Howe and Nathan Murphy just aren’t; Dane Rampe is exactly the sort of mid-sized defender you’d want to combat a Pies team full of forwards that play taller than they are, Jamie Elliott chief among them.

Where the Pies had 12 midfield intercepts in the first term – just two fewer than the Swans – they managed just one goal. By half time, the discrepancy was 19-17 midfield intercepts Sydney’s way – pretty close – 13 inside 50s to 11 – also quite close – and six goals to two – oh dear.

That’s a defensive miserliness mixed with an aggressive efficiency that seems ideally equipped to face Geelong, who rank first in both conceding from turnovers AND scoring from them.

In the middle, too, the Swans had full control. It’s here their heroes become less unlikely – Callum Mills was always going to be a star of the game, while we’ve known about Chad Warner’s destructive capabilities out of the guts for weeks.

Will Hayward and Callum Mills of the Swans celebrate winning the preliminary final.

Will Hayward and Callum Mills of the Swans celebrate winning the preliminary final. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Mills is the Swans’ answer to Blicavs – his versatility is just about as vital, with the exception that he doesn’t play in the ruck at all. Full-time, he’s an inside midfielder, both capable of winning clearances, getting involved in scoring chains and aiding the Swans’ attack and playing a tagging role on a damaging opponent.

For much of this match, Mills lead a team-wide push to clamp down on Jordan De Goey – he and Luke Parker in particular wouldn’t give him a single inch at any stoppage. When Elliott went to the stoppages in the second term to block one, the other would step in.

The result was just four touches to De Goey at half time, and no influence to speak of from the player of the finals series so far. Finishing with just 12 touches, there is no doubt at all that a dominant number 2 was the difference in this match.

Then, in the second term, Mills went to Scott Pendlebury, on fire early with 10 touches and 239 metres gained. And he did the job again – the Pies skipper touched it just once in the second term, letting the Swans take control.

He was the defensive fulcrum to allow Warner to attack with almost impunity – and with 15 touches to half time, plus 433 metres gained and an elite goal, he was everything De Goey had been in the Pies’ first two finals.

Mills finished with a game-high 27 touches, 10 contested, and three clearances – only because he spent as much time in the second half stationed in defence as he did on the ball.

I’d make the case, though, that Longmire ought to be wary about when he puts Mills back – in recent times, it’s become a sign that his team have shut up shop. It worked superbly as a rebounding tool earlier in the year against Richmond, with Mills looking to punch the ball into space and kickstart attacking chains, but now it’s a case of him going for intercept marks and slowing things down.

It also weakened them noticeably in midfield, and allowed the Pies to begin to dominate territory. And with the Pies moving the ball just as fast as the Swans late, once they took control of the footy, the margin began to get whittled down.

Where Jack Crisp was a one-man show in the first half, incredible with his teammates curtailed with seven clearances and 12 contested possessions to the main break, suddenly Pendlebury, Patrick Lipinski, and Steele Sidebottom roaming in from a wing began to control proceedings.

The turning point came, as it often does, with an injury: Reid, so crucial in shutting down Moore, was done with an adductor injury – having resuscitated his career as a key forward slash ruckman in spectacular style this year, the Swans’ grand final chances may hinge on his availability.

Mason Cox, while admirable in a battle with Hickey in the ruck, was far from as seismic a loss when his afternoon was also declared done shortly after.

In response, Moore went from invisible to being arguably the most impactful player on the ground in the second half. By the time he’d taken a brilliant one-handed intercept mark on Tom Papley during the last term, he’d had seven intercept possessions for the half of ten touches, and was up to seven marks in total.

Suddenly, the Swans needed the Pies to stuff up to be able to score – as they did when Jeremy Howe waited too long for a dangerous cross-goal Moore kick to allow Justin McInerney into an open goal. As heartbreaking that was, it was clear that the tide had turned.

Dominating territory in a 15-minute burst, winning inside 50s 10-4, dominating clearances 14-8 and banging on three quick goals, the game was afoot once again.

It’s at this point I’ll circle back to Hickey – you’ll recall he was my pick for best on ground.

I hardly talked about him in the qualifying final, despite having just as impressive a game, which was unfair, so it’s only right to make up for it with a big section devoted to just what he brought to the table at the SCG.

There was a point in time where Sydney did what they’ve done with Hickey for a living – turn bit-part, fringe players from other teams into stars, either fully-fledged ones or by virtue of the crucial role they play.

Signing Franklin in 2013 was when Sydney fully embraced their status as a destination club, rather than a home for ugly ducklings to become swans. But Hickey’s success story in his two years in red and white is just as amazing as the tales of Ted Richards, Ben McGlynn, Mitch Morton or Rhyce Shaw in seasons and premierships past.

A raw hopeful at Gold Coast, a willing but limited plodder at St Kilda, a backup to Nic Naitanui that didn’t do enough around the ground at West Coast, Hickey right now is the AFL’s most underrated ruckman.

He does everything the best big men in the game do – yes, even Max Gawn – with about a tenth of the fanfare. He taps to advantage, he follows up at ground level, lays tackles, creates clearances, and then drops behind the ball to take intercept marks too.

Ruckmen aren’t supposed to have 437 metres gained in preliminary finals – Darcy Cameron on the Pies’ side managed only 311, despite spending far more time in attack. But the Swans know they can count on him to be an active presence in their attacking chains, and not, like some ruckmen, surplus to requirements the moment the accelerator is pushed.

His five clearances were only behind Rowbottom (six) among Swans, while with 27 hitouts, he frequently gave the Swans first use.

But it was his mark in the last two minutes, from a high, hopeful forward ball from the Swans, that was the true game-winner. Yes, the Pies kept coming, but the colossal grab, getting himself under the footy, holding his ground and standing tall, that bought them enough time that the panicked rushed behind to reduce the lead to a point ran out the clock.

There’s every chance Tom Hickey, at 31 years old, on his fourth club, with 102 games under his belt in 10 seasons before finding himself at the Swans for the start of 2021, will be a premiership player in a week’s time. The Rhys Stanley-Mark Blicavs ruck combination will be a challenge, but equally, no doubt Chris Scott will put plenty of time in this week to figuring out how to keep the big, long-haired fella in the number 31 quiet.

Hickey, and everything he stands for, is why the Swans are in the grand final. Why they keep putting themselves in contention time and again, with barely a down year in between. And they started this run four years before Geelong put it together, too – they are the OG perma-contenders.

From Clarke to Mills to Hickey to Buddy, these Swans have made their way into this team in many weird and wonderful ways. Only the best of clubs – and Sydney are well and truly in that category now – could have taken them all and made them stars.

And maybe, a week from now, premiership stars too.

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