Footy is back, and not a moment too soon. The 2016 AFL home and away season gets underway this week as 18 teams begin their quest for the ultimate, the AFL premiership. Once again the off season has been dominated by off field events mainly surrounding one club, Essendon, so it's a relief in many ways to get back to what the league, and the sport is all about, the actual game itself. The season starts on Thursday night with a predictably one sided game between Richmond and Carlton at the MCG but there are plenty of mouth watering matchups in round 1.
One of those is in Sydney on Saturday night when the Sydney Swans welcome the Collingwood Magpies to the S.C.G. This game was initially scheduled to be played at the Olympic stadium (ANZ stadium) but the AFL, the Swans and stadium directors in Sydney got together and negotiated a shift to the Sydney Cricket Ground. In terms of pure football it's the best move for the AFL and the Swans, even if the change of venue came a little too late and inconvenienced traveling fans. Either way the game will be played at the S.C.G. on Saturday night, and the Swans will start the game as favorites at home.
The Sydney Swans had a decent year last year, well at least until the finals came about. They finished in 4th position after the home and away season but lost both their finals to rather embarrassingly go out in straight sets. They had injury and off field problems that were partially to blame but in the end it was a disappointing end to a promising season. Of course Swans fans will point out that at least they played finals, something that Collingwood hasn't achieved for the past two seasons. The Magpies have followed the same pattern for the past two years, they've started will to be inside the top 4 after 11 rounds, only to collapse and miss the finals altogether. 2016 is a big year for both clubs. These two clubs met only once last season, in round 20, with the Swans coming away with an 11 point win at the S.C.G.
The past two seasons have been failures for the biggest club in the land, let's not beat around the bush. Missing the finals never achieves a pass mark at any club, but especially one who had made the finals in every season from 2006 to 2013. There are signs of life though at the Holden Centre (Collingwood's training facility) with a list that includes some of the standout young players in the competition looking to dramatically improve on the output of previous seasons.
The young Magpies pre season (7th youngest list in the AFL) has been impressive with three close wins over classy, more experienced opponents. What has been noticeable in the Pies pre season is the game plan has become more open in both attack and defense. This has led to the Pies being dominated and dominant in patches throughout each of their 3 NAB Challenge games. Whether that game plan is adjusted a little for the regular season will be interesting to observe.
The three close pre season wins are important for the young Pies because last season they lost most of their close games, especially against the better sides. A three week stretch after the mid season bye saw losses to Hawthorn, Fremantle and Port Adelaide by a total of 20 points. This hurt the Pies in more ways than one and they never really recovered.
Coming into the opening round of season 2016 though Collingwood is in a relatively healthy state. In past seasons they've started the year well than fallen away mainly due to not having enough depth to cover a rash of injuries. This year though they seem to have a deeper list to choose from, apart from Jamie Elliott and Matthew Scharenberg everyone on the list is available for selection. However there was a setback on Monday with Travis Varcoe suffering a hamstring strain and training and the tough ex Cat will miss at least 2 weeks. Varcoe had been in stellar form in the NAB challenge and his loss is a blow to the Pies for sure. The Magpies midfield will lead the way for them this year and that's in large part to the addition of an elite 23 year old, Adam Treloar. The recruitment of Treloar was one of two massive moves in the off season (Dangerfield to Geelong the other one) and he's shown already what he will offer the Pies in 2016 and in years to come.
Against the Swans this Saturday night the Magpies coaches have a tough job on their hand selecting a final 22. There's the new interchange rules to consider, with the number of changes reduced to 90 and the abolition of the controversial, and silly substitute rule. How that effects the final selection is yet to be known but it may mean that Collingwood's two promising young rucks, Brodie Grundy and Jarrod Witts get to play together, which was a rarity last season. Other tough choices include who to select in the key position roles down back with Ben Reid getting through an intra club match last Friday and putting his hand up to play at centre half back. No matter what the final selection is for this Collingwood team they will believe a win is within their grasp and will come away disappointed with anything other than the 4 premiership points.
The Sydney Swans looked like a premiership contender for most of season 2015 but fell away rather quickly at the end. They were only outside of the top 4 once (after round 1) yet when it came to finals they were unable to win any. It was a sour end to what could have been another strong year.
Sydney will look to once again be up the pointy end of the table in 2016, the Swans have however lost some experience and talent from their list in the off season. The loss of Adam Goodes, Rhyce Shaw, Mike Pyke, Lewis Jetta and Craig Bird will effect their depth. It's kind of a mini rebuild for the Swans with a reliance now on their talented youth to regenerate what was an aging list.
Their best 22 is still a very strong unit and if they can keep their best players on the park they will be formidable again this season.
The undoubted strength of the Swans is their midfield. Rolling off the names of their ball winning brigade is mouth watering. Kennedy, Jack (times 2), Mitchell, Heeney, Mills, Parker, Hannebery and McVeigh all get together to create the toughest central grouping in the AFL. In 2015 the Swans were the best pressure side in the competition and the 4th best clearance team. With the addition of young Callum Mills and Isaac Heeney having one year under his belt this midfield may be about to get even better. The ruck has been an area that the Swans have maintained a competitive rating in for several years, mainly due to the work of Canadian Mike Pyke. But with Pyke retiring they needed to find a replacement, so they went out and got Callum Sinclair, an Eagles ruckman who managed 20 games last season, although it was at the expense of losing Lewis Jetta. The midfield is the area of the ground the Swans will look to dominate in during the 2016 home and away season.
The Swans defense is still holding up it's end of the bargain. Last season Sydney conceded just the 6th most total points in the home and away season. They actually led the lead for restricting sides inside 50 attacks too, allowing scores at a rate of only 43% per inside 50 entry. Ted Richards, Heath Grundy and Jarrad McVeigh led the way there and it kept the Swans in a higher position than they would have been otherwise. The problem for Sydney is two of those three players won't be available this weekend with McVeigh and Richards still recovering from injuries. That presents an opportunity for another new recruit to come in and make his Swans debut though. Michael Talia made the move north in the off season after a bizarre incident at the Western Bulldogs that saw him accused of insider trading with his brother. Talia managed 14 games for the Dogs last season and will fill in nicely for Sydney.
The Sydney forward line should be an area that frightens opposition defences. With names like Franklin, Tippett, Heeney, Reid (likely to miss) and McGlynn it really should be better than it was at times last season. When the Swans brought in Franklin and Tippett to the club on huge contracts, they expected it would increase their output straight away up forward. In fact it's had the opposite effect with the Swans total points decreasing over the past 3 years. They still managed to score the 6th most points in 2015 but were significantly off the pace with the three time reigning premiers, Hawthorn. The loss of Adam Goodes from that forward line also creates another hole that needs to be filled. Of course Lance Franklin is back though after missing the back half of last season due to mental issues. Buddy has looked back to his old self in the NAB Challenge and along with a few youngsters may be able to fire up the Swans struggling attack.
Sydney will go into this game worse off than the Pies in terms of the health of their list. The absence of Mcveigh, Reid, Richards and Rohan will leave a hole that may not be able to filled to full effect. Long term though this might be a good thing for a Swans team that wants to quickly regenerate it's list while still staying competitive. Many have tipped Sydney to slide down the ladder in 2016 so this first game is of vital importance to one of the AFL's most important clubs.
B: Jackson Ramsay, Nathan Brown, Tom Langdon
HB: Ben Sinclair, Jack Frost, Marley Williams
C: Steele Sidebottom, Adam Treloar, Levi Greenwood
HF: Dane Swan, Darcy Moore, Jordan De Goey
F: Alex Fasolo, Travis Cloke, Corey Gault
Foll: Jarrod Witts, Scott Pendlebury, Taylor Adams
Int: Brent Macaffer, Jarryd Blair, Jack Crisp, Brayden Maynard
Emg: Brodie Grundy, Alan Toovey, Adam Oxley
New: Adam Treloar (23, Greater Western Sydney)
Sydney will start favourites for this game and they have earned that right. They finished above Collingwood in the past few seasons, have a more mature list and are playing at their home ground. The Magpies have a good record in Sydney though, having won 9 of their past 10 games against the Swans. Of course most of those games have been at the Olympic Stadium and this game will be at the S.C.G. due to a controversial late switch in venue. Even last season though, the Magpies, a team who struggled immensely in the second half of the year, almost beat the Swans on this very ground, only going down by 11 points in the end.
Then there's the relative health of each teams' list, which favours the Magpies. With only Varcoe and Elliott missing from their best 22 this Collingwood outfit is as strong and fit as it has been for many a year leading into the opening game. Ultimately that's the reason why I can see the Magpies coming away with a valuable round 1 win.
MAGPIES BY 9 POINTS