AFL flag rivals Cats, Swans rebuild on run

·5-min read

It's fitting that the two most consistent AFL teams of the last two decades will face off in the grand final.

And it's a touch surprising that two of the competition's foundation clubs will do so for the first time, especially given both have been regular September threats this century.

Throughout an era of restrictive equalisation measures, Geelong and Sydney have continually defied those constraints to keep themselves in the premiership mix against the odds.

Other clubs rise and fall with the cyclical nature of the AFL, but the Cats and Swans have both reached 17 of the last 20 finals series.

Chris Scott took Geelong to a premiership in his first year at the helm - the 2011 flag was the club's third in five seasons at that point - and has guided them back to the finals in 10 of 11 years since.

Rebuild isn't a dirty word for the Cats, they just do it on the run.

"We are not going to worry about being a good side in five to six years," Scott said on the eve of the 2022 campaign.

"We are going to give (the players) every chance now and with that comes that little bit of extra pressure.

"It probably magnifies disappointment when it doesn't quite work out but that is the risk we are willing to take."

In Scott's time, high-profile recruits have given Geelong star power in the quest for their next premiership, most notably Patrick Dangerfield and Jeremy Cameron.

A string of experienced players have crossed from rival clubs - including Isaac Smith, Zach Tuohy, Gary Rohan and Rhys Stanley - all keen to be part of the Cats' highly-rated program.

And there have been wise draft choices, some of them steals or gambles that have paid off.

Tom Stewart, Tyson Stengle and Sam Menegola are among them, while top-end draft talents like Sam De Koning and Max Holmes are also having an impact.

Only Joel Selwood, Tom Hawkins and Mitch Duncan remain from the 2011 premiership side.

It's an annual event for critics to predict the Cats will "fall off the cliff" when the new season rolls around, but it's still yet to happen under the Scott regime.

If Geelong made big splashes landing Dangerfield and Cameron, Sydney emptied the pool when they dived in to beat cross-town rivals GWS to Lance Franklin's signature.

Like Scott at the Cats, John Longmire took over at Sydney in 2011.

He led the Swans to a flag the following year and, after recruiting Franklin, reached the grand final in both 2014 and 2016.

Then came what many thought might be the full-blown rebuild.

After a week-one finals exit in 2018, the Swans managed just eight wins the following year.

The tally dipped to five during the shortened 2020 season, but the subsequent rebound has been faster than many onlookers expected.

Driven by an exciting mix of youth and experience, Sydney rocketed back into the finals last year and the top-four this time around.

They're now just one more victory away from a premiership few externally thought was possible, even at the start of this year.

"We had high expectations internally," Longmire said.

"We want to give these blokes a crack at playing finals every year.

"That's our role as the footy department, to give the players a crack at the finals every year and give your supporters some hope.

"We're pretty determined to do that and last year we were pretty disappointed to get bailed out in the first week (of the finals) even though we played some good footy in the second half (of the season).

"This year we've just had confidence in our playing group."

The senior core of Luke Parker, Dane Rampe, Callum Mills, Jake Lloyd and Franklin - the goalkicking legend who appeared finished when he missed the entire 2020 season through injury - have been key drivers in Sydney's resurgence.

Drafted talents Chad Warner, Logan McDonald and Dylan Stephens have become important contributors, as have academy products Errol Gulden, Braeden Campbell and Nick Blakey.

And recycled recruits like Tom Hickey, Ryan Clarke and Paddy McCartin - the former No.1 draft pick who was handed a career lifeline after retiring because of repeated concussions - have each added their own talents.

Parker is the only 2012 premiership player certain to line up for the Swans on Saturday, with Josh Kennedy injured and Sam Reid also likely to miss with an adductor strain.

"They're a good group," Longmire said.

"They've got some experience there and we've got some terrific young blokes that I really enjoy working with.

"We've got terrific staff ... and if you get the right people in the right positions it gives you an opportunity."

Despite their regular finals appearances, the ultimate success has eluded both Geelong and Sydney over the last decade.

But they've had legitimate shots at silverware more often than not - and that's more than most clubs can say.

One of the two sides will finally have another day in the sun at the MCG on Saturday.

"If it doesn't work out for us, we just want to come back together in November and have another crack," Scott said.

"That's one thing that our whole club's done well over a period of time is just say to our people, 'We're going to have a crack and we're not going to roll over'.

"It might not work and you might be disappointed. You've got to take that emotional risk, but we're going to have a go."