Sam Reid. Photo: Getty Images
SYDNEY coach John Longmire has done a fine job in his short two-year tenure in the hot seat. But can he steer his team to a premiership flag tomorrow? The bookies and popular opinion think not. I think he can, but so much of the end result will depend on the form, fitness and confidence of two key Swans. They are tall forward Sam Reid and All-Australian centre half-back Ted Richards.
The 20-year-old has had a lean season in a team that has played so well. Last week's return of four disposals and no goals against Collingwood was very disappointing. In fact, in the two finals Reid has played this year he has taken just the one mark inside forward 50.
Ted Richards. Photo: Getty Images
The boy from the bush played just one senior game in his debut season of 2010, but he arrived with a bang the year after.
In 2011 Reid's skinny body, with the long arms and sticky fingers, impressed the footy world as he pulled in over 100 marks. The fact that half of them were in contested situations in the forward half made it special. Reid was going to be a star. His ability to take pack marks was unique. He had a fantastic vertical leap, could launch from the side, front and back, and has the ability to pluck the ball from the reach of others.
The Swans signed Reid to a five-year contract, such was the confidence in him. Unfortunately, that confidence hasn't been matched by his confidence in himself. This season the marks have dried up, dropping from an average of five a game to three. His average disposal count per game sits at just nine.
Watching Reid play, one thing stands out. He just doesn't fly for enough marks. He is picking and choosing his attacks on the ball.
The Swans are a long-kicking team who put plenty of high balls into their forward line, so the opportunities are there for Reid to show his aerial skills. Too often he hesitates, allows a bump to put him off balance, or waits for the perfect leading space to open up.
Well, tomorrow there won't be too many perfect opportunities. Reid has to fly for everything.
An old coach of mine told me, as a young forward, that the more marks you go for the more you will get. Simple, but true. Tomorrow, the young fellow has to play with reckless abandon. He has to cover enormous ground and have such a strong focus on the footy that bumps, knees, elbows and trips don't even register, such is his intent on winning the ball.
He should be buoyed by the fact that the Hawthorn defence is vulnerable to tall-marking forwards. In the first week of the finals, Collingwood's Travis Cloke bagged six goals against the Hawks and last week, Crows pair Kurt Tippett and Taylor Walker each kicked four.
Last year, Geelong's Tom Hawkins ''arrived'' on the centre stage at the MCG on football's biggest day. Can Sam Reid do the same?
Most know the Ted Richards story. Nice lad, private school, played some handy football as a flighty forward for the Bombers in his 33-game, four-year career. But deep down, it was thought he didn't have the grunt to be a top liner.
So he goes to Sydney in 2006, and Paul Roos realises there's a lot to like. In fact, Roosy sees a bit of himself in young Ted. The boy from Xavier College is tall, athletic, can cover the ground and, above all, is an exceptionally good overhead mark. Roos decides to teach him how to play as a defender. Richards plays in the losing 2006 grand final, but significantly he plays well.
Since then, slowly but surely, Richards has matured into one of the game's best tall defenders. Now he takes on the opposition's best. Week in, week out he stands Matthew Pavlich, Cloke, Jack Riewoldt, Hawkins and Drew Petrie. Players who can do that are invaluable to their side.
Now Richards leads the best defensive six in the business. On average they concede just 74 points a game. At 29 and with 180 games to his credit, the ex-Bomber is in career-best form.
He has taken the most marks for his team, won the most contested ball in the back half and has a disposal efficiency of 82.4 per cent, which is his team's best.
But figures don't mean anything. It's hard to measure courage and will. If you could, Richards would set the benchmark for the Swans. In last week's preliminary final, he was smashed early on in the first quarter when he headed back into Alex Fasolo, who was coming through full steam. Richards didn't flinch, took the hit and badly rolled an ankle when he landed awkwardly. The defender looked done and dusted as they escorted him from the ground.
But within five minutes, he was back. He couldn't accelerate, couldn't jump, but he was determined to play his role. Playing in pain, Richards blocked the paths of Cloke and Chris Dawes. Neither could get any rhythm into their games as Richards choked their space in his selfless way. At game's end, the All-Australian hobbled from the ground hurt, but happy.
For the Swans to win tomorrow, it is vital that Richards be close to full fitness because he will have the toughest assignment of all. He has to restrain Lance Franklin. They have played against each other twice this year. In round five in Launceston, when Sydney won, Franklin was kept goalless. In round 22 at the SCG, when the Hawks rallied late to win by seven points, Franklin kicked four goals.
If Richards can limit Franklin to two goals or less, take intercept marks and launch effective defensive rebounds, his team may well take its fifth premiership cup.