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Swans hit dizzying AFL heights in their best start to a season since 1935 | Jonathan Horn


“Sydney loves winners,” David Marr wrote nearly 30 years ago. “Horses, shows, writers, painters, football teams, politicians, lovers and crooks. When the Swans are on a winning streak, we’re fans for life – unless they start losing.” Under a tangerine sky, nearly 45,000 people packed the SCG on Sunday, the biggest home-and-away crowd at the ground this century. But they didn’t belt out Sweet Caroline with the usual gusto at quarter-time. Their Swans were sluggish, unusually reactive and six goals down to Geelong.

What sets this Sydney side apart however is their ability to solve problems on the run, to absorb the opposition’s flurries, to adapt and to then go into hyperdrive. If Isaac Heeney is clamped, Errol Gulden will take over. If both are quiet, Chad Warner will run rampant. If by some stroke of genius you take care of all three, they have the system and the talent to find another way. They are so adaptable, and have the perfect blend of superstar midfielders and lockdown players; between chaos-wreaking lizards and orthodox shutdown defenders.

When they finally woke up, the precision and crispness of their ball movement and the lacework of their passes was almost dizzying. But everyone, including their champions, worked exceptionally hard both ways. They closed space, harassed and plugged exits. It was personified by James Rowbottom, who has finished third in the past two best and fairests and who has never received a Brownlow vote. He threw himself around like a Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter on the grappling mat, and remains on track to break the record for the most tackles in a season.

But it’s the Big Three that bring the swagger, the singalongs, the full houses and the headaches for opposition coaches. Heeney, Gulden and Warner were all in exquisite touch. Heeney always seems to have more time than anyone else on the field. He never looks like he’s labouring. Footballers like Patrick Cripps play with a grimace. Everything about his teammate Nick Blakey looks wrong, and utterly ridiculous. Heeney looks like he was made in a footballing lab. He’s perfectly pressed. He glides and grins his way around the field. But he’s still prepared to put his head in the hole and to run hard defensively. Gulden is very different, but just as effective. He was directly involved in 15 scores on Sunday. He runs all day, tackles hard and has probably the best kick in the country. Dermott Brereton compares his kicking to Darren Jarman and Doug Hawkins, which is high but not outlandish praise.

Isaac Heeney wheels away after kicking a goal against Geelong. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

And then there’s Warner. His ability to break tackles, to cut and weave, and to go from zero to a hundred is unmatched. His gut-running, match-sealing goal in the final quarter, when the Cats were still pressing, started at centre half back. He went through his gears, took the ball at high speed, and was almost laughing as he ran into an open goal. There was another moment, halfway through the third term, when he ran back with the ball, Nick Riewoldt-style, and bent himself like a pretzel to pluck it at its highest point. It was touched off the boot, and a moot mark, but it’s hard to imagine any other footballer who would have attempted it, or pulled it off.

Of course, it’s only early June. They will be studied, copied and plotted against. And history is against them. Geelong of 2019 had the same win-loss ratio and percentage at this point of the season. But Richmond, who were eighth in early June, were waiting with balaclavas and baseball bats. Collingwood’s 2011 team had 20% on them in terms of percentage, but there were a lot of easy kills that year. And St Kilda’s 2009 team, undefeated all through June and July, came unglued in September. Incidentally, this is the Swans’ best start to a season since 1935, the year champion full forward Bob Pratt was pummelled by a brick truck as he stepped off a tram on the eve of the grand final.

But this is an outstanding football team and the clear premiership favourite. The only team to rattle them was a full strength and switched on Richmond, on their own deck, in the late March haze. It should be on the football curriculum. That aberration aside, they’ve passed every test, absorbed every punch and deserve every plaudit.



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