The most golden words can be those we choose not to say. Four weeks ago, after the Sydney Swans lost their fourth game in a row, this space was to be dedicated to an affectionate farewell to the wonderful Bloods culture of the past decade. With three grand finals and one premiership since 2012 and, more importantly, a consistent record of trying their guts out, this team had delivered so much to its fans week after genuine week. After defeats by Richmond, Geelong, the Gold Coast (aargh!) and Essendon, no wins since June and a looming date with the improving Collingwood, it was time to say so long and thanks for the memories.
As in so much else, biting your tongue can save you a world of grief. A Little Voice piped up: "If your premise about the Swans is correct – that this is a football club that constantly exceeds the sum of its parts, that manages to fight back and win when it is written off, that possesses a unique intangible competitive heart, then to declare that they will miss the finals only proves you are a fool. And you’re contradicting yourself." While Big Voices blustered away with Big Opinions, Little Voice whispered: "Take the dog for a walk and think about it". Little Voice said: "Shut your fricken mouth". Little Voice, I owe you (another) one.
So here are the Swans on Saturday afternoon, in the finals for the ninth year in a row and the 24th season in the past 27. Their game against the GWS Giants will be the most-attended sporting event in Sydney on the opening weekend of the NRL finals, although rugby league will reply with superior television numbers. If league is winning the TV war, AFL is gaining in the parks and the schools and the ground game of well-organised junior participation. I wonder who will be winning this one in 20 years' time.
As an ambassadorial force, the Swans have been quite remarkable. The AFL favoured them with draft concessions until, as the Swans graduated from perennial losers to weekly winners, these benefits were clawed back. The Swans kept on winning. Nobody can call them lucky anymore. Their current team has operated all year with a single ruckman, Callum Sinclair, who never smiles because he probably never sleeps for worry about what would happen if he got injured. Sydney lost its other big men, Sam Naismith to injury and Kurt Tippett to retirement, before round one. Their backup beanpole, Sam Reid, has been fit to play just one game. Reid was a star of the 2012 premiership season as a 20-year-old, yet the best you can say about his luck since then is that it has been better than the desperately ill-omened Alex Johnson, who came back after six years out to give a glimpse of the outstanding defender trapped inside, only to injure himself again.
Held together by stickytape and Dencorub, the Swans would have relied on their strong leadership group except that they too have been hurt. Iron men like Dan Hannebery, Kieren Jack and Luke Parker have missed games, while Lance Franklin has trained for a reported 20 minutes all year. In Jarrad McVeigh and Josh Kennedy, Sydney have two of the finest men in football, but sometimes their team list has boasted names that would be unknown even in their own households. The club’s continued success has something miraculous about it.
The proposition that only a premiership justifies the recruitment of Franklin has never held much water. A fan’s experience is not about one week but all those other weeks from autumn through to spring; it’s an accumulation of how their club makes them feel each weekend. Franklin has been a major contributor to the Swans’ ability to inspire their supporters’ loyalty every round, not just in September. His selection last week as All-Australian captain recognises his eighth selection in that team, his third in five seasons at the Swans. His effort, charisma and athleticism have already made him an unqualified success for the club, and it’s fair to say that as the Swans have been good for him, he has been good for them. A premiership is not the benchmark, though for the Swans and Franklin it would be the icing on a well-made cake.
I often come from a Swans game feeling proud of them, and they’re not even ‘mine’. It’s a curious admiration that I’ve noticed in other neutrals. The Swans, home of the "no dickheads" policy, have offered such good value for the past 20 years that they have achieved an institutional status in Sydney. Even those with a casual interest in the AFL know that this club has something special about it, a cohesion and sportsmanship that lifts those who go near it.
Their cross-town rivals in the SCG derby, the Giants, are a narrative in progress, and more interesting than they first appeared.
If the Giants have helped the Swans in any way, it has been to give Melbourne people a club to disdain more. The Giants are an outreach program for the AFL, and perhaps their most significant long-term legacy will be to show the NRL how hopelessly compromised it has been by bowing to the influence of the Brisbane Broncos and not having a second team in the Queensland capital. The AFL was strong enough to resist opposition and install a second Sydney team, and favoured the Giants with opportunities to assemble a high-priced list.
A club’s personality can’t be purchased, however, and as time has gone on the Giants have resisted any characterisation as a glamorous, artificial team. With a squad of young veterans such as Jeremy Cameron, Tom Scully, Toby Greene, Jonathan Patton and Josh Kelly, they were forecast to win a string of premierships from around 2015 onwards and send Melbourne AFL fans screaming into the night. But it hasn’t panned out that way. Homebush has been a place where nothing comes easily. No AFL team has been more decimated by injury than the Giants in the past three seasons. This week, their injury list is, as ever, longer than any other team’s. If there are football gods, they have been hard at work cutting the Giants down to size.
Amid this misfortune, the Giants have developed a playing style that defies any cliches about Sydney flash. GWS have a scrapping, gritty, gnarly approach to the game, which is kind of the way AFL is played these days, but they are building an independent on-field personality as rugged and rather bad-tempered. Their key player against the Swans is captain Phil Davis, an irritating, spoiling, highly-skilled fullback who has an outstanding record in shutting down Franklin. The Giants have become a team that only their followers would love, which is actually far better for their story than if they had premierships handed to them on a plate. This cussed personality will take them a long way to establishing a permanent identity as the team of the west.
The world would like to portray the Sydney AFL teams as spoilt children, but that’s a view that, year after year, belongs more to caricature than real character. On Saturday afternoon, the Swans and Giants will most likely produce an unpretty, desperate, intense final that the aesthetes will disdain – the AFL has been copping plenty for its lack of beauty – but it’s a rivalry that will keep the expansion into Sydney rolling along. Big Voices are wrong about the Swans, wrong about the Giants, wrong about Sydney. Little Voice can’t wait for the game.
Malcolm Knox is a sports columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.