SYDNEY'S midfield hulk Josh Kennedy is shaping as the most important player on the field in tomorrow night's preliminary final - and he has already earned rave reviews from reigning Brownlow medallist Dane Swan.
Kennedy's massive frame is set to become a red-and-white battering ram in a match that is likely to turn into an even grimmer battle of attrition than the Swans' first-up finals triumph a fortnight ago.
So keenly fought was Sydney's last clash with Collingwood, the two sides amassed a season-high 131 stoppages around the ground - more than double the season average of 63.6 - and easy kicks were at a premium.
Star power ... Dane Swan is wary of Sydney's midfield. Photo: Getty Images
A repeat tomorrow night will play to Kennedy's strengths as he ranks first for clearances and contested possessions, second in hard-ball gets and equal fourth for centre clearances, according to the AFL's official stats supplier Champion Data.
Even before he was crowned All-Australian for the first time earlier this week, Kennedy was being spoken of glowingly in the Magpies dressing room, particularly after his 40-possession effort at ANZ Stadium last month.
''I didn't play but the boys in the midfield that night said he was the strongest player they've ever played against,'' Swan said. ''He's a super-strong player. Hopefully he doesn't throw me out of the way on the weekend.''
At 188 centimetres and 96 kilograms, Kennedy would not have been out of place playing as a marking forward in a bygone era but Swan said it's not just the former Hawk's strength that makes him such a good player. Kennedy's scoring ability has also raised his value, particularly since the advent of the substitute's rule necessitated midfielders being rotated more through the forward line than the bench.
Of the top 20 ball-winners in the home-and-away season, only Dayne Beams (27 goals), Gary Ablett (26) and Kieren Jack (25) have kicked more goals than Kennedy.
''He has an innate sense of where the ball's going and he's very good at clearances,'' Swan said. ''He's a goalkicker, too. He's got a lot of strings to his bow - he's a very, very good player. I won't be surprised if he wins the Brownlow. I certainly think he's one of the main chances.''
Swan rates Kennedy alongside dual Brownlow winner Adam Goodes and much-improved playmaker Lewis Jetta among Sydney's most important players.
Goodes and Jetta both had little influence in the Swans' most recent loss to Collingwood.
''We all know Adam Goodes is one of the best players to have ever played the game and Lewis Jetta's an up-and-coming star and is as quick as anyone I've ever seen,'' Swan said. ''Thankfully I don't have to play on those two, it's not my job to stop them. If they get going and have super games then more often than not they win. They are three blokes we're going to have to try and stop.''
Sydney co-captain Jarrad McVeigh said Kennedy had been outstanding this season.
''He's a really strong player, hard and tough and clean. That's what we need with those players - those big bodies,'' McVeigh said. ''The way he's performed this year has been unbelievable.''
The Magpies, however, have not been proponents of applying a hard tag under rookie coach Nathan Buckley and are unlikely to break the practice - even with Kennedy.
''Everyone seems to be besotted and obsessed with a Collingwood tagger,'' Buckley told Melbourne radio station SEN. ''We didn't have one over the past couple of weeks and we've been OK. It's got to be the system that gets it done.''
Swan said the Magpies' 11-match winning streak over Sydney would have little bearing on tomorrow night's outcome. ''It's not like we get a three-goal head-start because we've won so many in a row, finals are a different motza altogether,'' he said.
''[To win] it's going to take being harder for longer. It's about knuckling down, playing contested footy and winning clearances, getting the ball going our way first because they're such a strong-bodied midfield.
''They've been super all year. You don't finish in the top four for no reason.''