Offence is bedazzling, defence is heart-warming.
The resounding memory of last Friday night’s Sydney v Adelaide clash will invariably be Lance Franklin’s goal, but the game itself was defined by Sydney’s defenders. Franklin’s run and finish were an exclamation point, but the Swans’ resolute defence filled the game’s paragraphs.
By the fourth quarter, it became clear that the best game of the season was going to be an endurance test. The Crows were majestic – they extracted the ball from tight spaces, gave impossibly quick 2016 Bulldogs-type handballs, burst into space and then used the competition’s most lethal foot skills to accelerate forward. They played unstoppable football, and Sydney were tasked with stopping it.
After a point sometime early in the second half, it became apparent that Sydney was not going to be able to control the arm-wrestle anymore. They were going to have to hold steady at a disadvantage, refuse to tap out, and then wait for a cramp. Or, as it were, a 50-metre penalty.
The Adelaide onslaught was relentless but they never knocked Sydney out. They bloodied them red, the Bloods, but they couldn’t put them on the mat.
A defender needs two skills to live: toughness and composure. Heath Grundy and Dane Rampe are the heart of the Sydney defence, brutal, unrelenting animals in the air, patient surgeons on the ground. They attack the contest at full flight and might, they play the calculated percentages when the ball is in dispute at ground level, and with ball in hand their movements are dictated by what the best decision available is. There are no preconceived ideas – there are only impossibly quick assessments of the situation and then executions of the best possible play.
They are inspired, and the inspiration is contagious. Callum Mills is a marvel, a less primal, less part-time cage-fighter version of Luke Hodge, with a sublime ability to read the play and intercept mark, and then incredible skills to launch counter-attacks. He has height and an athletic burst that has always eluded Jarrad McVeigh, but he also possesses McVeigh’s football nous and serenity.
Zak Jones has a bit more cage-fighter in him, and ‘serenity’ is not a word one would use to describe a player whose reality is best typed ZAK. But Jones, as infuriating as he can be, gives the Sydney defence a healthy violence and dynamism, and the force he plays with was instrumental in giving Sydney the lead in the first half, and wrestling it back at the death.
Nick Smith’s reliability is the stuff of grinning cliché, and Lewis Melican might be headed down the same path. All these Swans, they just do the right thing.
The connectivity of the defence has always been the team’s identity – more than the supernova talents in the forward line, more even than the game’s best midfield.
It is, after all, not necessarily the players who aggressively make things go right for your team that fans treasure the most – it’s the players who stop things from going wrong.