Lance Franklin with his new guernsey.

Lance Franklin with his new guernsey. Photo: Getty Images

'Where's Buddy?'' said Stewie Dew. The Sydney coach was worried. No one had seen Franklin for several days. The last sighting of him was in the Lavazza marquee at Flemington with Sonny Bill Williams and Kurtley Beale on Derby day.

Buddy had assured Dew, his old Hawthorn teammate, that he'd be back and ''fit as a pole dancer'' for the pre-season. The problem was that pre-season had already started. Buddy had been to Auckland, supposedly on a promotional tour, after the races. His phone was off and Franklin's manager suggested the Swans phone Beale or James O'Connor.

Not that he'd really be missed. Dew had long ago given up on Franklin playing a meaningful role in his re-cast forward line. Franklin had missed most of the 2019 season with back and hamstring problems, and was still coasting on the glory of the 2016 grand final, when he'd dobbed the winning goal - a banana from 55 out on the boundary - to sink the Suns.

The coach, who knew what it was to be the difference in a grand final, wanted him gone. Buddy had given all he had left to John Longmire, who was coaching the Hawks now. Never capable overhead, Franklin no longer had those nimble dancer's feet; he had knee, back and chronic hamstrings. He was putting on pounds. But there was no chance he'd retire.

The contract made that impossible, thought Dew. THREE YEARS to go! The coach understood why the club had given Franklin his wish - he'd wanted $10 million. Next year, 34-year-old Buddy would be due $1.4 million, with $1.5 million to follow in 2021 and ''only'' a million in 2022.

But the Swans no longer had an allowance. Meantime, Greater Western Sydney's chairman Jeff Kennett had persuaded the AFL that - to retain its stars (triple Coleman medallist Jeremy Cameron was on $1.9 million, Tom Boyd $1.7 million) - it needed to boost the ''expansion allowance'' to 20 per cent. The league had obliged, outraging Melbourne clubs. In effect, Dew was coaching a team that was paying almost 30 per cent less than the Giants, if you considered Buddy to be worth two bob.

''What can we do about Buddy, Kirky?''

Dew's senior assistant and spiritual advisor was staring out the window, contemplating the Faustian pact the Swans had struck for Franklin. He had won them a flag, his body was broken and they still owed him almost $4 million. ''I never see what has been done,'' thought Kirk. ''I only see what remains to be done.''

A thought bubble formed. ''Get the president to talk to headquarters,'' suggested Kirk. ''Maybe we can cut a deal.''

Dew phoned his president, Malcolm Turnbull.

''Malcolm, the Buddy deal is killing us. We need the AFL on board?''

''I'll have a crack,'' said Turnbull, who wondered how his board would regard the axing of Franklin. Of the directors, Nicole Kidman would be especially upset. Buddy had filled the SCG - and the back page of the Tele. He had made the dour Swans sexy for a while. Baz Luhrmann had arranged for Buddy to have acting lessons.

Turnbull was in Melbourne, meeting with investors. He persuaded the AFL chief executive to meet for what he called ''serious Buddy trouble'' without providing details, knowing that the boss would jump.

''What's Franklin done now?,'' asked the AFL CEO David Gallop

''Nothing,'' said Turnbull. ''That's the problem. He's done, but we still have to pay the prick. We're 15th David, and we can't get up quickly without attracting some free agents. Josh Kennedy is back at Hawthorn, Kieren Jack is finished.''

''Didn't Demetriou and Fitzpatrick warn the club about this contract way back when?''

''They did, yes. The club reckoned the salary cap would be higher, remember. And Demetriou took COLA away from us.''

''What did you have in mind?'' Gallop guessed what was coming - the television rights cards.

''Well, you know the ratings are crap. The Collingwood game was smashed by beach volleyball and reruns of Two and a Half Men. We need to find a way to pay him out, without exploding the salary cap. ''We can push him to retire, but we can't avoid paying him.''

''It has to stay in the cap for the next three years,'' Gallop said sternly. ''The Colless board agreed.''

''Nothing to do with me,'' said Turnbull. ''Not your idea, either David. But there are ways to get out of it. What if we made Buddy a NSW ambassador, on say, $750,000 for the next 5 years?''

''Who pays for that?''

''We thought you'd help us there. It's in the best interests of the code. Sydney FC are making major inroads.''

Gallop didn't answer. He wanted to help the Swans, who remained important to the game, but their star was in eclipse. The AFL's expansion into west Sydney was gaining SOME traction. The Giants were averaging 16,000 a game. Sydney was a genuine two-team town.

Turnbull continued. ''OK, how about if we put half of Buddy's contract into the injury allowance. I recall that something similar happened at other clubs in the dark ages. And Buddy really is a cripple - he qualifies.''

Gallop inhaled sharply. The integrity of the salary cap would be compromised. Or the Swans would be screwed. They were not the cheating Storm of his NRL days. They'd made a blue, though it wasn't really a mistake, because Buddy had built the club, as Plugger and Capper had. But the game didn't need him any more. ''OK,'' said Gallop. ''But only half of it.''