Sydney’s midfield is back to being the AFL’s best

It feels like Luke Parker’s feet should be more loyal to the ground. He is a hunter, a brawler with a Ph.D. in grit, a player born to thrive in unpleasant conditions. So when he takes flight, rises with unusual height, and grips the ball at its apex with realised delusions of a centre-half forward, the Matrix breaks a little.

When Parker’s contested marking game is on, everything seems to flow for him. He already plays with more swagger than most inside midfielders. The game’s pre-eminent class acts hold the ball with overt calmness, standing curiously upright, treating the ball as a sheriff treats their revolver. Think Shaun Burgoyne, Sam Mitchell and Marcus Bontempelli.

Parker does the same thing. Unlike them, he’s made of stone instead of silk. He’s an average kick – someone who almost never seems to make sweet connection. An expert at snapped goals from congestion, even when the ball sails through it always seems a little nauseous, a little too low, a little too laboured. Burgoyne’s kicks ascend to infinity – Parker’s begrudgingly go where they’re told.

But he gets away with his swagger because he has moments of genius, even if they’re a different sort of aesthetic. A 183cm rover taking a contested mark is its own sort of beautiful.

It’s the Sydney Swans type of beautiful. This team, and particularly this midfield, has never captured the imagination like other great squads before them. The three-peat Hawks were absurdly, cruelly skilled. The dynasty Cats were bold and daring like none before them. The premiership Eagles had Judd, Cousins and Kerr (it’s somehow better as one word, which functions as syllabic euphoria and a worthy email password: juddcousinskerr) and their iconic acceleration.

These Swans aren’t from heaven, they’re just the best type of earth. They are bruising and powerful and unyielding. Where other great midfields excel by bursting into space or cutting through it by foot, this unit seems most comfortable in cramped quarters. While the Giants and Cats, with their Kellys, Shiels, Dangerfields and Selwoods, try and recreate West Coast era Judd, the Swans are content with perfecting Carlton era Chris.

 

They take great Al Pacino speeches in bad Al Pacino movies to heart – they fight for inches. Josh Kennedy reads the tap, receives it in a stationary position, feels unwanted arms wrap around him, and uses his strength to free his own arms just above the tackle. He dishes a short handball to Parker, who waits for a precious split-second for Dan Hannebery to spread from the stoppage. Just as Parker is crushed, he releases a handball that finds Hannebery at the perfect height, at the perfect cadence of his run, and then he scraps a kick forward. And then they all chase.

The Swans had been doing this for years, and then, for some reason, for six weeks they stopped. Relentlessness has to relent once every half-decade, you figure. Now, though, they’re back.

After struggling over the season’s first two months in contested ball, forward territory and clearances, since the bye four weeks ago they have destroyed teams (good teams) in those areas.

Kennedy is the game’s most consistent superstar. Hannebery has awoken and is back to meshing his inside sensibility with his outside devastation. Isaac Heeney and Callum Mills are a birther scandal, with accomplished, composed minds suspiciously older than their listed ages. Zak Jones is Heath Shaw on caffeinated cocaine.

On Friday night, Parker was central to the destruction of the league’s brief darlings. The game was a reminder that the status quo hasn’t left us yet – the top four isn’t in Melbourne’s grasp yet, and it still hasn’t left Sydney’s. The Demons, victims of circumstance, are losing bodies at the crucial time. The Swans are rounding perfectly into form. Their midfield is back, and it’s the best in the competition.

And they’re kicking the ball to Lance Franklin.