by Frank Ienco, reporting for AFANA from Sydney
The Sydney Swans will play off in their second successive AFL Grand Final after a characteristically hard-fought 19.13 (127) to 14.8 (92) Preliminary Final win over a spirited Fremantle Dockers at Telstra Stadium.
The Swans, who led at every change, were challenged during each of the first three quarters, before slamming on the accelerator in the final term to secure a return trip to the MCG on the last Saturday in September. But unlike last year, they had over 61,000 red-and-white fans to celebrate with them. Both sides entered the match in sparkling form, the Swans winning eight of their last nine; Freo nine of their last 10.
Much was made this week of the Dockers’ first visit to the Olympic Stadium and early indications showed they were struggling with their new surroundings. A number of skill errors in the opening minutes gave the Swans chances at goal, but it wasn’t until their fourth scoring shot that Ryan O’Keefe made them pay. Barry Hall took a strong contested mark to kick his first goal a few minutes later and Fremantle were already chasing a result. With Sydney playing a man-on-man style to stifle the Dockers explosive running game, the match played out more open and free-scoring than many anticipated. Jeff Farmer’s 14th minute goal appeared to finally settle the visitors as they searched for openings in the staunch Sydney defense.
Jude Bolton increased the Swans margin again just before time-on as Sydney held the ascendancy. They were winning the contested balls and shutting down any run from the Dockers midfield. However, still being plagued by inaccurate kicking as they have been in different parts of the season, the Swans missed a number of chances to stamp their authority on the scoreboard. They were made to pay late in the term when Ryan Crowley and Matthew Pavlich kicked majors for the Dockers. After being outclassed and outplayed for most of the quarter, Fremantle were remarkably only four points in arrears, 3.6 (24) to 3.2 (20).
The second quarter was a see-saw affair that finally went the way of the Swans and would ultimately decide the match. Sydney overcame the disappointment of the previous term when Michael O’Loughlin kicked his first from the 50 meter arc, before Jude Bolton confirmed pushed the Swans further ahead with his second. Pavlich was effectively keeping the Dockers in the contest when he took a stunning contested mark to kick his second. A further goal to veteran Peter Bell brought Fremantle back to five points entering time-on, as the Dockers found a spring in their step.
But the first half had one more twist as Sydney was able to turn things around. Keeping continual pressure on the visitors, the Swans were able to rebound off half-back and create chances up front. After Ryan O’Keefe pegged one back for the Swans, Luke McPharlin was unfortunate not to be given a mark or free kick as Adam Goodes ran into an open goal.
Hall’s 10th mark inside the first half gave him his third goal late in the term as the Swans led by a commanding 23 points, and it was only Bell’s second goal just before the siren that kept the Dockers in the game. Just as Fremantle hadn’t deserved to get so close to the Swans at the end of the first term; the Swans didn't deserve to be so far in front at half-time; the lead 8.7 (55) to 6.2 (38).
History and fatigue were against the Dockers in the second half. Under the current finals format since 2000, only two of twelve sides had won a preliminary final without the week off; while the Dockers were playing in a third state in as many weeks. Worse still, the Dockers went into the second half without versatile midfielder Matthew Carr due to a knee injury which sidelined him for the rest of the match. After being outplayed in the centre contests for much of the match, Fremantle finally began to use the dominance of 6'9" ruckman Aaron Sandilands, often pushing a third man to grab the takeaway. With the Dockers getting first hands on the ball, they were finally able to release their speedy midfielders and exploit a relatively empty forward line.
Consecutive goals mid-way through the third term to Pavlich- who effectively was keeping the Dockers in the game off his own boot- and Troy Cook reduced the margin to just 10 points. Crowley missed a crucial chance from the 50 meter arc to put the Dockers within a goal for the first time since the first quarter. Moments later, O’Loughlin nailed his effort from a similar position, as momentum continued to swing each way.
Like any finals match, the game ebbed and flowed in the third quarter as both sides continued to trade goals. But whenever the Swans were challenged, they knew the right time to reply. Just as Cook’s goal appeared to give the Dockers the edge, the Swans continued to push hard were rewarded. As they did in the second term, Sydney clinched the upper hand late in the quarter when they kicked two consecutive goals- both after the half hour mark- to effectively seal the game. After O’Loughlin kicked his third, Nick Davis delivered a killer blow to the Dockers as his free kick sailed through as the three quarter time siren. The three quarter time margin was 20 points, 14.8 (92) to 11.6 (72).
While the Dockers, and indeed West Coast, have been accused of having one-dimensional game plans, the same can’t be said of coach Paul Roos' Swans. Notorious for committing numbers around the stoppages and shutting down their opposition, the Swans were able to beat Fremantle at their own running game and kick the crucial goals when it mattered. The Swans showcased this goal scoring talent in a commanding final quarter. Pavlich again kept the Dockers in touch when he kicked his fourth, but goals to Hall, O’Keefe and O’Loughlin in the space of five minutes sealed a meeting with either Adelaide or West Coast next week. What will be most frightening for either of these sides is that Sydney looks an even better outfit than last year.
Tonight’s match felt nothing like a Preliminary Final. Perhaps it was the different surroundings, or the fact this was Fremantle's first time on this stage. More likely, it was the free-running and high-scoring contest at a time of year usually reserved for conservative, negating tactics. It was extra unusual tonight given the latter is the Swans preferred style of play. For a side about to play in a Grand Final, Swans fans were oddly subdued in the latter stages of the match, but the crowd erupted when the final siren sounded.
In another typical team-oriented performance, there were many standouts for the home side, not least of whom was co-captain Brett Kirk (28 touches) and Jude Bolton (26 and 2 goals). But the stars of the show were the Swans key forwards, led by Hall (6 goals), O’Keefe and O’Loughlin (4 goals each) proved the match-winners.
Where the Swans had rarely a bad player across the park, the Dockers lost because too many of their key players went missing in action when their team needed them to stand up. The likes of Des Headland (11 disposals), Justin Longmuir (12) and Heath Black (12) were all disappointing on such an important night. While the Dockers exceeded all expectations this season, coach Chris Connolly and his Fremantle players will undoubtedly spend Mad Monday ruing missed chances, though some others will be contemplating sub-standard performances when it mattered most.
Tonight’s win for the Swans, and the massive crowd, is also a major victory for the AFL and their fight in the harbor city. With a Brisbane/Melbourne NRL Grand Final still a possibility at the time of going to print, the Swans could have an adoring Sydney public and press all to themselves next week. A madcap week for Paul Roos’ men begins on Monday night with a function at the Hilton Hotel for the Brownlow Medal, with Goodes one of the red-hot favorites. The glare of the nation will be on them for the next seven days, but having reached the summit last year they will know what is ahead.
Goals- Sydney: Hall 6, O’Keefe 4, O’Loughlin 4, J. Bolton 2, Goodes, Davis, Dempster
Fremantle: Pavlich 4, Crowley 3, Bell 3, Farmer, Peake, Murphy, Cook
Best- Sydney: Hall, J. Bolton, O’Keefe, O’Loughlin, Kirk, L. Ablett.
Fremantle: Pavlich, Bell, Sandliands, J. Carr
Changes- Sydney: Nil. Fremantle: Nil.
Injuries- Sydney: Nil. Fremantle: M. Carr (knee), Farmer (leg)
Umpires- Vozzo, McBurney, Allen
Attendance- 61,373 at Telstra Stadium
Article last changed on Saturday, September 23, 2006 - 1:16 PM EDT