Lance Franklin and Daniel Hannebery. Photo: Getty Images
By coming from 20 points down at half-time to beat Hawthorn on Sunday, Sydney made a statement. "Legitimate", "genuine contenders", "the real thing". Those sentiments peppered every dispatch from Launceston as if the Swans' first four victories had been over the Nar Nar Goon reserves.
But, beyond providing recognition that, this time, the Swans could be more than the usual September nuisance value, the Hawthorn triumph has handed them an extraordinary advantage in the race for the top four. One aided by an excellent draw.
This – before fans begin bombarding websites – is not to suggest the Swans would not be a worthy top four team. Further results against strong opposition will determine that.
Simply that, in a season when the addition of Greater Western Sydney has significantly skewed the AFL fixtures, the Swans are one of the greatest beneficiaries. Undeniably, two gimmes against GWS and repeat games against apparent sliders Western Bulldogs and St Kilda, will further any advantage their excellent play has delivered – particularly in comparison with some other top four contenders.
Of the other early front runners, Carlton have also made their luck – victories over the injury-struck Collingwood and Fremantle in Perth – and had it made for them by a relatively soft draw. As with the Swans, it would take a significant form slump or catastrophic run with injuries for the much-improved Blues not to be in the top handful by the end of the season, given they have the friendliest draw of the top teams.
Again – take your hands off that mouse Blues fans – Carlton would be a worthy top four team. The top draft picks that were the consequence of a lamentable decade in which they "won" three wooden spoons have matured, and the Blues were a pre-season fancy. You might also argue that, in the past, other teams – notably Collingwood – have been handed easy, virtually travel-free draws because of a commercially compromised fixture list.
However, as Jake Niall observed in The Sunday Age, this is the first season in which the AFL schedule has reached tipping point. One in which the necessary money-making fixtures, combined with the addition of Gold Coast Suns and GWS, will almost certainly have a significant impact on the finals rankings.
There are some other factors at play. Of last year's top four finishers, only undefeated West Coast have started strongly. That is a heroic effort given they have lost small forwards Mark LeCras and Mark Nicoski. Even without their latest casualty, full-forward Josh Kennedy, the Eagles are already in a strong position to finish in the top four.
But, despite the early season results, has the balance of power really changed so dramatically?
Geelong clearly miss the presence of retired ruckman Brad Ottens and tagger Cameron Ling. However, as they showed in yet another breathtaking victory over Hawthorn in round two, they retain a hardened, experienced team capable of rising to the big occasion.
At the same time, it is difficult to imagine the Hawthorn team beaten by the Swans will relent so easily in September. The addition of Brad Hodge, the wiles of their ultra-competitive coach Alastair Clarkson and the brilliance of Lance Franklin and Cyril Rioli mitigate such a spectacular fall.
Nor does it seem likely Collingwood will continue to be as feeble as they were when thrashed by Carlton, when their absent stars return to form and fitness. Having limped into last year's grand final, the Magpies are on a Bart Cummings preparation. Willing to lose more home and away games in order to peak in September.
The consequences of the fast starts by Sydney, Carlton and West Coast, combined with favourable draws for the Swans and Blues particularly, could make for a fascinating September. If, as seems highly possible, the Swans, Blues and Eagles take three of the top four positions, only one of Hawthorn, Geelong and Collingwood would be part of the favoured four.
Assuming the Hawks, Cats and Magpies are anywhere near their best, that would make for the most unpredictable September in memory. One in which Sydney, and the other front runners, could face extraordinary competition from those below.