The Swans needed to find a way past mighty May. Buddy the decoy was how they did it

We’re two games into the 2022 finals series, and already we’ve seen enough drama, enough quality, and enough spectacle to last us through the rest of September.

If Brisbane’s win over Richmond was unimprovable as a match, as I argued on Thursday night, then Sydney’s win over Melbourne on Friday night was very nearly its rival.

Even more amazingly, it was a magnificent, compelling contest in a vastly different way.

Unlike the Lions and Tigers, both of whom put the foot to the accelerator and hoped their individual strengths would outweigh the others’, both the Demons and Swans were good enough to try and nullify one of their opponents’ claims to fame, while still having more than enough tricks in the kit bag to find ways to score and dominate another exceptional team.

Where Thursday night was all-out nuclear war, this felt more like a chess match. Oh, there was still chaos, but where in the elimination final it seemed like neither the Tigers nor Lions were ever truly in control of proceedings, there was a feel of organisation to the Swans’ dashing, freewheeling play, or the Demons’ breathtaking speed of handball in close.

In the end, the Swans come out with a 22-point victory, a home preliminary final, and their premiership credentials enhanced tenfold. But don’t discount Melbourne just yet.

For their Demons, their intent from the outset was to deny the Swans any semblance of intercept marking behind the ball. 20 intercept marks, with the McCartin brothers combining for seven of them, proved so crucial to the Swans’ stunning victory in Round 12. This time, the Demons had a plan.

As it happened, the plan was relatively straightforward: stack the forward line with height and force Paddy and Tom to defend first, then worry about marking later. Max Gawn, as has been his wont of late, began forward and spent large chunks of time stationed deep in attack. He’d even make an effort to charge forward as part of any surge, where most of the time he’d instead set up behind the ball to cut off any rebound footy coming the other way.

Jake Melksham, while far quieter than in recent heroic outings in front of goal, stuck to the task of curtailing Paddy McCartin and did it wonderfully well. It took until the third term for the Swans’ number 39 to take his first mark, and the result was the style that succeeded so emphatically 12 weeks ago was never able to flourish.

In contrast, the Dees had 12 intercept marks to half time, with Steven May taking the lion’s share of them. Absent the last time these two sides played after ‘that’ incident with Melksham, the difference he makes to the Demons’ defensive set-up is painfully clear whenever he takes the field these days.

Matched up on Franklin, May had three intercept marks to quarter time, frequently outpointing the champion in one-on-one situations and reading the ball in flight a fraction of a second quicker. Everyone knows how frequently the Swans target Buddy moving forward: to keep him touchless to half time while proving such a danger on counterattack was May at his absolute best.

There may be better players in the competition, but few are more impactful than the Dees’ number one.

The Swans, though, had a plan to respond. Unable to get their normal slingshot game going due to the absence of intercepts behind the ball, they resolved instead to control the ball from stoppages, having fought the Dees to a draw in that area in Round 12.

Then, once the ball was in their forward half, Tom Papley, Chad Warner, James Rowbottom, Callum Mills and company would tackle, harrass, harangue and generally accost the Dees whenever they had the footy back. Where the focus on Thursday night was the speed of play rather than any special ferocity at the contest, this was finals-like intensity if ever you’d seen it.

It’s such an incredibly brave way of playing, especially against a Demons outfit that is so calm, composed and controlled behind the ball. With such a high press, the Swans were vulnerable should the Dees ever break through. On the occasions they did, space was ample inside 50 for the home side to score.

Steven May of the Demons and Lance Franklin of the Swans compete for the ball.

Steven May of the Demons and Lance Franklin of the Swans compete for the ball. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Just like against the Lions, the Dees’ forwards again showed far better sync than they have for a long time. Case in point was Ed Langdon finding a leading Bayley Fritsch with a worm-burning pass inside 50 in the first term.

What would have delighted Simon Goodwin wasn’t just the strong mark from Fritsch; it was the movement of Ben Brown 20 metres in front, double-leading and then drawing Tom McCartin into the pocket, opening up a leading lane for Fritsch to explode through.

In the past, the Langdon kick would have been directed only to Gawn, who was running back towards goal; but had the kick gone there, it’s likely Dane Rampe would have arrived on time to make the spoil. But with Fritsch attacking the ball full-chested, it was he who arrived in the nick of time.

But while their boldness wouldn’t pay off early – the Demons took a 10-point lead into quarter time, and had 16 inside 50s to 10 – the worm would begin to turn in the second quarter.

After giving up the first goal of the term to Kysaiah Pickett – the Dees’ forwards setting up exceptionally deep and allowing one-on-ones without the Swans’ midfield cavalry able to arrive in time, with Pickett’s goal coming after a strong mark on Jake Lloyd – the turning point came.

May, so dominant on Franklin up to then, gave up an off the ball free kick following an elbow to the back. Buddy milked it for all it was worth, to be sure, but it was an unfathomably reckless thing to do all the same, given the moment and given his dominance of the contest until then.

Compounding the error, May would again look to exert his dominance on Franklin, bumping him off the ball as he charged back towards goal. A 50m penalty ensued, a goal to Will Hayward, and suddenly the Swans were back in the match.

Lack of discipline has cost the Dees at times this year – they famously gave up a billion 50m penalties in a pre-season match against Carlton – and for May, these were his most costly infractions since he thanked Joel Smith for being injured in last year’s grand final.

Having won the clearances 11-7 in the first quarter, but finding themselves incapable of bypassing May when moving forward, the Swans made the change that you’d have never seen from them before, even in their grand final days of the mid-2010s: John Longmire turned Buddy into, for all intents and purposes, a decoy.

Where the ball had been targeted to his and May’s contest throughout the first term – with May winning or drawing every single time – the new plan was for Franklin to suck his opponent as deep as possible, and create spaces at the midpoint of the 50, 30 or so metres out, for the Swans to control.

With the Swans continuing to control things from the coalface, and lowering their eyes when going inside 50, things began to happen.

Tom Papley, fired up after inserting himself into the Franklin-May feud, began to dictate terms. Not enough has been made of his incredible second half of the season, having transformed from one of the game’s most dangerous small forwards into a damaging midfielder without losing the ability to hit the scoreboard.

There’s so much of, say, 2018-era Dustin Martin about the way he is playing at the moment: every possession is impactful, his goal nous and explosive speed from stoppages makes him a difficult match-up wherever he is on the field, and the Swans back themselves to cover him defensively. His strength are just too damaging to not have everyone else pull their weight, just as Kane Lambert, Shane Edwards and co. did for Dusty during the Tigers’ three-flag run.

By half time, Papley had 13 disposals, seven contested possessions, four score involvements and a crafty goal. All of it took place in the front half of the ground for the Swans. More than anyone else, the Swans’ four goals to one quarter, turning a well-deserved quarter time deficit into a lead, was down to him.

By half time, it was a game played on two fronts: the Demons ruling the skies with 12 contested marks to one, 12 intercept marks to two and six marks inside 50 to three, the Swans brilliant whenever the ball hit the deck.

It took the Dees just five minutes to show why they, even following this loss, remain a premiership threat: their ability to generate goals from the centre is unparalleled.

Within five minutes, they’d slammed on three goals from four clearances, including a Tom Sparrow major that could have been copy-pasted from last year’s grand final. It was a frightening display of strength; and seemed, momentarily, like a back-breaker for a Swans outfit that had hung in gamely throughout the match.

After just two clearances in the first half, sat on by Callum Mills, Oliver exploded: he’d bag two goals and five clearances for the quarter alone, starting every chain and getting the Dees’ handball game, which slowly got suffocated in the second term by the Swans, back going again. It was a quarter equal to any of Lachie Neale’s four on Thursday night.

But these Swans had tricks of their own to respond. Slowly but surely, their intercept game began to return, as pressure around the ball forced the Dees to abandon their handball-happy first half and bang it on the boot with greater frequency.

It helped as well that the Swans took every chance they got, and then some. Another Papley goal against the play was vital, but it’s almost expected at this point for him to weave magic. Jake Lloyd threading the needle from 50 out on the boundary, for his first goal since Round 8 last year (as it happens, against Melbourne), was less so.

But the Swans had found their edge – May, for all his brilliance early, had been effectively taken out of the game by his desire to stick to Franklin like glue. The Demons rely on him too heavily as an intercepting influence, and as an organiser of their defence, for him to be so singularly focussed on being a stopper.

May said earlier in the year that there are only a handful of opponents he bothers to mind directly, opting to roam the defence loose and hand over responsibilities to Harry Petty as much as possible. The Swans exploited his respect for Franklin perfectly.

When Florent intercepted a hacked Christian Petracca kick at half forward – subdued all night after an early cork and unable to break through the Swans’ pressure around the ball – his kick landed 25 metres out from goal.

Normally, that’s May’s territory. But Franklin had dragged him all the way back to the goal line, feigned a lead out wide, and sucked Franklin far enough away to open up a hole. A hole that May usually fills. This time, Luke Parker filled it.

Another example was to come shortly after; with the Swans surging down the wing late in the term, Franklin led may out to the forward flank. The Swans, who in the past would have honoured a lead out wide, cut back inboard, as far away from Buddy as possible, and found Tom Hickey charging towards goal, ahead of Gawn.

He’d goal. Suddenly, the Swans were 12 points up.

Franklin hadn’t had a disposal – he’d finish with just two kicks for the evening – but don’t for a minute think he wasn’t critical to the result.

May’s first half still had him as one of the premier players on the ground. He still handily won his duel with Franklin. But Buddy and the Swans were able to save so much face in the second half. It took a lot of courage from the Swans, and an absence of ego from an all-time great of the game, to not just take a secondary role, but actively have no influence on the game beyond taking his opponent out of proceedings.

All that stood between the Swans and controlling the game early was Melbourne’s number one. He ended up with 16 intercept disposals – a finals record. But for a brief stint in the third and fourth quarters when the game was truly up for grabs, Sydney were able to find a way to nullify their greatest (hell, only) threat. And a lot of that was Buddy’s doing.

Chasing the game late, the Demons couldn’t afford twin misses from Jake Melksham – rare set shot blunders in a match where pinpoint accuracy was the standard set down. With the Swans’ pressure reaching a phenomenal 2.52 in the final term, refusing to allow the Dees a second of air to get back into the game, every chance needed to be taken. And they weren’t.

Another 50m penalty to Lloyd led to a goal – the Swans’ third by that method from the night – and suddenly the margin was at a game-high 18 points.

Only one more goal would follow – the Dees’ defence pushing too far up the ground desperate to create, leaving Isaac Heeney out the back in the goalsquare for the sealer – but the Swans weren’t letting it go.

They’d finish with 82 tackles, 25 of them inside 50. It was suffocating. By the end, the Dees, remarkably, had 166 contested possessions to 168 uncontested possessions. They couldn’t find a modicum of space.

This was a far closer contest than 22 points. Bar those Melksham misses, or those 50m penalties, or a multitude of crucial tipping points throughout the match that Sydney dominated throughout, the result might have gone differently.

The Demons are still a threat. Play the way they did tonight, and Brisbane will stand no chance. Heck, Geelong will be watching on nervously should they defeat Collingwood on Saturday. That looming preliminary final will be an absolute cracker should it come about.

But this is all about Sydney. We knew about their electric, attacking play, their brilliant foot skills, their young talent. But this is a tough as nails team as well, capable of matching the undisputed best midfield in the competition blow for blow on their own turf.

Luke Parker, with nine clearances and 17 contested possessions, and Mills, with 11 tackles, and Rowbottom, with seven clearances, aren’t as celebrated as the Demons’ fab trio of Oliver, Petracca and Jack Viney. But there was a clear winner in that stoush tonight, and its impact on the game can’t be overstated.

Who’d have thought a month ago that the Swans could win so decisively, particularly out of the centre, with Warner restricted to just 13 disposals?

This is a team that can lock down when it needs to, and go full bore when it doesn’t. A team that can take the greatest forward of his generation, watch him get utterly destroyed, turn him into a decoy, and make it work. Praise can’t be high enough for Longmire for his performance from the coaches’ box tonight.

I wrote during the week that the one lingering question mark over the Swans was whether their game could stand up in the heat of finals. We know the answer now.

Nothing summed up the Swans better than this passage of play in the last quarter. With the Demons surging towards goal and the match still well and truly alive, Charlie Spargo marked inside 50, then handballed over to a free Melksham, running towards goal.

One slip, and the Swans were back. Robbie Fox arrived on the scene, first to bump Melksham off his kick, then to follow up, and as Spargo recovered to regather and snap from close range, executed a perfect smother. The danger, and the Dees’ last hope, quickly passed.

They might be the most exhilarating team in the game to watch when at full flow, but there’s a steel to this Sydney team now. For Fox, an unsung but important contributor in a back six that gets the job done week in week out to little fanfare, to be the one on the end of this moment speaks volumes about the Swans’ culture, their standards, and above all, their quality.

You can’t be certain of anything in footy: but another Swans premiership seems now a matter of if, and not when. What a club they are.

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