Lance Franklin's decision to join the established Sydney team, rather than the fledgling club that needed his brand power, was well concealed for this reason: That no one could quite believe that the Swans could fit him under their salary cap.
Everyone knew that Buddy liked the idea of living in Sydney, where his rugby and NRL mates reside and where he probably fancied he would could escape the goldfish bowl of Melbourne - a vain hope, given his profile. But the assumption of everyone was that the Swans had consumed much of their salary cap by recruiting Kurt Tippett, in their corresponding coup 12 months ago.
No one had conceived of the notion of a nine-year contract - which is extraordinary in an era when clubs are reluctant to contract any player - even champions - long past their 30th birthday. Yet, the man behind the deal, Sydney chief executive Andrew Ireland, had put together a deal of this nature once before - when he lured Alastair Lynch to Brisbane (then the dismal Bears) on a 10-year contract, which, ultimately, had to be revised because Lynch was being underpaid.
Swans that may make way for Lance Franklin.
Lynch, though, was in his early 20s when he received his very long contract. Franklin will be 27 by the time he runs out in red and white. So, he may be theoretically contracted until he is 36, which is about four or five years past conventional retirement age for a key forward. Andrew Ireland said on AFL 360 on Tuesday evening that Buddy could play until he was 35. That's right. But it's unlikely he can play well at that age.
Sydney did not swoop on Buddy at the last minute. The Swans don't operate that way. They carefully target a player, establish a strategy and then strike at season's end. This was the Tippett modus operandi and Fairfax Media believes that the Franklin coup was in the breeze for some time, perhaps 12 months ago. But it was inconceivable that the Swans could accommodate him, just as a nine-year, $10 million contract is unfathomable. Yet, that term and ball-park number is confirmed. We will be hearing plenty about the merits of Sydney's contentious cost-of-living allowance (COLA) - as we did following the Tippett deal last year. The Swans have taken enormous risks in getting Buddy on multiple fronts - it will intensify pressure on the COLA, it will erode some of their depth as players are sacrificed and, not least, they will be stuck with him at an age when 99 per cent of players are finished or useless.
The noise around the competition was that Shane Mumford wanted a four-year deal, but that the Swans had not made him an offer. In hindsight, one can see why Sydney held off on the Mummy, why Andrejs Everitt wasn't contracted (and is up for grabs) and why Jesse White's bags are packed, with a ticket to Collingwood. When one considers that Jude Bolton and Marty Mattner have retired, that Adam Goodes (estimated to be on $700,000-$800,000) and Ryan O'Keefe ($500,000-plus) might last only for one more season each, the notion of finding a million dollars in the salary cap for Buddy isn't so fanciful. When you do the maths, it's clear that the Swans can open up well over a million dollars in their salary cap for next year - and that's with Goodes and O'Keefe.
Being Buddy Franklin
From his days at draft camp in 2004 to his thirteen goal haul in Tasmania. We look back through the archives of superstar forward Lance 'Buddy' Franklin. Photo: Anthony Johnson
That said, the idea of Buddy Swanning himself at Bondi Beach and in the trendy Paddington pubs, rather than promoting the game in the western (football) wasteland, should be an embarrassment to the AFL. The game needed him at Greater Western Sydney, even if the Giants' football department didn't. GWS has struggled on all levels - for profile, seasoned players and, consequently, wins. It is utterly ridiculous that a team that won the 2012 premiership and finished top four this year can snare Buddy, and the bottom team in the same market cannot. In part, that's a tribute to the canny Swans, whose advantage as an established, successful club serves as a warning on the pitfalls of a free-agency system in which players exercise greater freedom of movement. Coveted players will only go to a bottom team for exorbitant sums - ask Melbourne. The Swans, actually, could pay Franklin considerably fewer dollars than the Giants, who would have paid Buddy something like $1.7 million for six years once the AFL's ambassadorial largesse was added.
In a way, the Buddy shock completes what's been a shocking year for headquarters.