ESSENDON coach Ben Rutten still rates Sydney as one of the AFL’s best contested beasts despite the Swans’ inconsistencies at the coalface this year.
Sydney (5-3) has lost consecutive games at the SCG to slip to sixth on the ladder, with the team’s poor first quarters one of its biggest concerns.
The Swans have won just two of their eight first quarters this year, with one of those coming against hapless West Coast.
Sydney is ranked 17th for contested possession differential across first quarters this year and ninth overall for contested possessions in the league this season.
The Swans have built a reputation for being one of the best contested-ball teams during coach John Longmire’s 12-year reign, and Rutten feels the aura still remains.
“That’s a hallmark of their game,” Rutten said ahead of Saturday night’s clash at the SCG.
“I think their attack and ball movement over the last couple of years is what’s shifted in their game. They’re really aggressive from the back half, from turnovers in particular.
“That’s a threat that’s maybe taken the (external) attention off the contest, but it certainly underpins their games.”
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The 16th-placed Bombers (2-6) welcome back Jordan Ridley, Jake Kelly, Sam Durham and Matt Guelfi after they were late withdrawals through illness last week.
Devon Smith, who was a late inclusion in the 27-point win over Hawthorn despite battling a knee injury, has been ruled out with illness, while Brandon Zerk-Thatcher (injured) is also unavailable.
Swans ruckman Tom Hickey will return from a knee injury, while Sam Wicks and James Bell are also included.
Hickey’s return for his first game since round three is a vital boost for Sydney.
The 31-year-old will partner former Port Adelaide big man Peter Ladhams in a powerful ruck combination.
“Hickey gives us that flexibility to play ruck and play forward, as well as Peter Ladhams,” Longmire said.
“The two of them are doing a bit of a dual role this week.”
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The past five matches between Essendon and Sydney have been decided by 10 points or less, with three of those going the way of the Swans.
Essendon gained a confidence boost last week following an eight-goal final-quarter blitz against Hawthorn, and will be aiming to celebrate captain Dyson Heppell’s 200-game milestone in style.
It will also be Heppell’s 30th birthday.
“Dyson’s ability to get around guys no matter if you’re the boot-studder or the best player in the team; that’s what makes him a really strong contributor for the club and he’s such a loved player,” Rutten said.