AFL Elimination Final: Sydney vs. Essendon
Saturday Twilight, 9th September 2017 at the SCG
I did read one newspaper preview which suggested the Swans had to win or push the Bombers all the way to convince the football world that we really were on our way back from oblivion.
Michael O’Loughlin 
The defining memory of the 1996 season is Tony Lockett kicking a behind from outside 50 after the siren to send the Swans into their first Grand Final in 51 years. As the ball sailed through post high, the Swans players swamped Lockett and they did an old school ground stacks on the mill, as described by Lockett himself :
Before the goal umpire had even signaled a point I was on the ground under a blanket of Swans players. I just kept thinking to myself, “Will they hurry up and get off.” I couldn’t breathe.
This is a familiar sensation for anyone who has had the inconvenience of being on the bottom of such a stack. Regardless, Michael O’Loughlin described the moment rather more eloquently :
I watched, mouth agape, as the ball landed in the crowd. I was standing just metres from Lockett, so I ran to him, wrapped my arms around him and pulled the big fella to the ground. Teammates ran in from every point of the ground to form a jubilant pyramid over the fallen Lockett. It was a wriggling, writhing mass of unbridled emotion until I heard a rumbling voice from the very bottom of the pack. It was Lockett, who yelled out: “Get off me, you pricks, I’ve got a sore groin.”
But the 1996 season was blessed with two classics between the Swans and the Bombers. Their Round 6 clash at the SCG is now overshadowed by the heroics of the Preliminary Final but it was crucial in forming a springboard for the success the Swans achieved that year, as Michael O’Louglin reflected :
I did read one newspaper preview which suggested the Swans had to win or push the Bombers all the way to convince the football world that we really were on our way back from oblivion. In many ways this was a test of our character as much as our football ability. Essendon slipped away several times during the match, but we kept pegging them back and the fact that we managed a draw after fighting and scrapping all the way spoke volumes for our new character. The match was tight from start to finish. Essendon started to get away and led by 29 points early in the final quarter, but the Swans managed to come back and the game ended in a draw. Finally, many of our critics started to suggest we could make the finals.
Tony Lockett was at his dominant best that day kicking 8 goals and it was a James Hird torpedo punt from outside 50 late in the game that gave the Bombers the point that meant the game ended in a memorable draw. But the Swans would go on to be undefeated at home for the remainder of the season. It may have only been a draw, but their ability to fight back against a fancied opponent gave them the belief they needed.
Parallels can be drawn to the Round 14 match between these two teams earlier this season. Just as was the case in 1996, Sydney's critics finally started to believe they could make finals after the game and they have remained undefeated at home since. Having started the season 0-6, the Swans had recovered to 5-7 ahead of the match. A loss would have meant they would slump to 5-8 and their chances of making finals would have been very tenuous. And with 5 minutes to go in the last quarter, that was precisely what they were facing as they trailed by 19 points. Yet they pulled off the miracle comeback to win by a point after the siren.
Sydney have gone on from strength to strength from that night and are possibly the most feared team entering the Finals series. But given what we have seen from Sydney for the remainder of the season, Essendon should actually take some heart from their performance that night. Sydney is the best defensive team in the league and no-one protects a lead better than they do. Yet, after being 24 points down late in the third quarter, Essendon kicked 7 goals without reply either side of the three-quarter time break to surge to their 19-point lead (see the Match Worm in Figure-1) - an incredible feat against the stingy Swans. And if anyone is to threaten the Swans this Finals series it is potentially the speed of the Bombers and their efficiency once in their forward 50.
But with all the focus on what happened in that dramatic last quarter in Round 14, the most crucial quarter of the game was arguably the first, where the Bombers did not let the Swans blow them away. Sydney has been developing a trend in big games of bursting out of the blocks and then absorbing the pressure for the remainder of the match. So the key to beating or at the very least challenging Sydney is getting a lead and making them chase the game.
As a starting point to demonstrate this trend, let’s look back at Sydney’s 2016 Finals Series. Figure-2 presents the quarter by quarter performances from the 4 finals the Swans played. In the Qualifying Final they were neck and neck with the Giants in the first half before being overwhelmed after half-time. They bounced back with consecutive wins against the Crows and the Cats. But both these wins were built off big first quarters. And although they won both games comfortably, they lost the Inside forward 50 count in both games. Incredibly, against the Cats they conceded 32 more inside 50’s yet won the game by 37 points as Sydney's defence deflected wave after wave of Geelong attacking forays. In the Grand Final, the Bulldogs repeated the Giants template, keeping the match close in the first half before overwhelming the Swans after half-time. So the template to beat the Swans was already there for everyone to see last year - do not allow them a good start and give them a lead that they can protect.
In 2017 the trend has been similar. Figure-3 presents the quarter by quarter performances from their 4 wins away from home against the Top-4 teams this season. With the exception of their match against Richmond, their first quarter was their most dominant quarter in each of the games. As an anomaly, the Richmond game is fascinating, as their performance improved from quarter to quarter as if they were building momentum into the game. Yet, Richmond led that game until time-on in the last quarter, and aside form the Bombers and Hawthorn, they were as close as anyone has come to beating the Swans since Round 6.
Which brings us to Hawthorn, the only team to beat Sydney since Round 6, a feat the Hawks achieved twice in Rounds 10 and 19. Figure-4 presents the quarter by quarter performances from Sydney's 2 losses to Hawthorn. Their Finals opponents would do well to review those games to find out how the Hawks got the better of them. But tactics aside, in both games the Hawks got off to a flyer winning both the first and second quarters of each game. The Swans mounted a fight back after half-time on both occassions but were not able to get across the line.
So the Swans are the undoubted favourites against the Bombers this weekend and even have the credentials of emulating the Dogs of 2016 and get through to the Grand Final from outside the Top-4. Given their strong form, a 10-goal home win to the Swans would not be unexpected. But if the Bombers can win that first quarter, I believe they can go on and win the game. Hedging my bets I’ll pick a score line half way in-between, but I'll be barracking for the narrative of another dramatic finale to further add to the tale of this rivalry.
Sydney to win by 30 points
Post Match Comments:
Final Score: Sydney 19.7.121, Essendon 8.8.56
After the Swans held the Bombers at arm's length in the first quarter, the Swans blew the game open in the second quarter to take a 61-point lead into half-time. As the Bombers couldn't get that good start, the 10-goal+ loss was almost inevitable.
 O’Loughlin, M. & Main, J. (2012). “Micky O: Determination. Hard work. And a little bit of magic”, HarperCollins, NSW, Australia.
 Lockett, T. (1999). “My Life”, Pan Macmillan Australia, Sydney, Australia.