No May, no Melbourne? How magnificent swans unmasked the Dees… again

Some wins mean more than just four Premiership points. Sydney’s rousing come-from-behind victory over Melbourne at the MCG on Saturday night might as well have been worth forty.

Over a year ago, this location was the scene of the Swans’ breakout game – bringing in a reigning prime minister in Richmond in the most devastating way. This time it proves that the Swans aren’t just the brave finalist we thought they were – they’re up to theirs in this premiership race.

Of course, if there’s one thing we’ve learned, there’s no player more important in the AFL right now than Steven May. With him directing the Dees’ defenses, they look like an unbeatable, impenetrable machine, capable of winning 17 games in a row without breaking a sweat and suffocating challengers and too-rans.

Without him, they are not only mortal: they are very vulnerable. Even the three Premiership players who returned to face Sydney – Ed Langdon, Christian Salem and James Harmes – were unable to replace May’s size gap in the Demons’ lineup.

May is back next week, and the difference in the Dees’ fortunes should be big. But their results should provide opponents with the key to upsetting the reigning prime ministers: finding a way to take May out of the game.

Tom Papley of the Swans celebrates a goal.

Tom Papley of the Swans celebrates a goal. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

It didn’t help, however, that in Fremantle and Sydney the Dees were faced with two sides ideally suited to take advantage of the former Sun’s absence. Where for the Dockers it was their crumbling little ones who proved deadly without May to keep the ball from hitting the ground in dangerous spots, it was the greats of the Swans themselves – plus Tom Papley, but more about him later – who made the took out the middle man and do most of the damage.

Controversial points are where May’s absence shines through most clearly – and Sam Reid in particular seemed a menace in the air – but equally important was the number of leading lanes he and Logan McDonald could use within 50, which May is so adept at cutting. It has become clear in the past two weeks that Jake Lever is either still not 100 percent fit, or just in a rut – he seemed to be best off his interception mark.

McDonald looks a better footballer with every passing game: lightning off goal, dangerous overhead and a stamina even at his young age; the child becomes a star. Maybe he is already one.

Reid also played his best game in years. Plagued by injuries in recent years, he struggled equally for form, but never quite became the league-dominant striker he appeared to be in his early days; but he still has an excellent pair of hands and a core strength that belies his sinewy frame. He picked disputed characters at the barrelful all night, even outsmarting the monstrous Max Gawn once.

May’s plan when the ball is further away is brilliant for its simplicity: he positions himself behind the ball, usually still within the defensive 50, and feasts on all the hopeful long kicks that come close to him. The Dees make sure that anyone who stays with him has another defender for company, meaning zero chance of neutralizing the match.

Without him there against the Swans, there was room for things to happen. There couldn’t be a better example of everything the Dees didn’t concede in the first 10 rounds than in this Papley goal.

Harry Petty, the Dees’ main defender in May’s absence, watches the ball sail over his head: May would never have been sucked so far into the ground, forcing Petty and Reid and McDonald’s strong marking. Adam Tomlinson to do.

Jayden Hunt had to defend not only a one-on-one game, but an empty defensive 50. Against a striker as cunning as Papley, you could score a goal the moment the stairs came his way.

You could tell the Swans loved that match-up by how many times they tried, with success, to generate one-on-one matches within 50 between Papley and Hunt. It almost paid off again in the third term, with Papley not taking the goal this time, but following at ground level, eventually breaking loose – again, no chance of having that time and space with May around – and the pole hit with a left foot snap.

As against Freo, once the Swans started to gain control around the ball, it was amazing how quickly the turnaround came. A five-goal opening run gave the Dees a significant lead for the second week in a row: then, slowly at first and then with building momentum, Sydney pushed back into the game and then took full control.

For the second week in a row, Clayton Oliver was tagged and successfully curtailed, this time by James Rowbottom; minus his sharp hands and elite decision-making pressure, the Swans shadowed the clearance count despite the duo’s ruck dominance Gawn-Luke Jackson.

With 44 tackles in the first half, the Dees were under pressure that they have rarely had until now in 2022. So many times have they been able to cool things down when it gets hot in the kitchen with a series of short kicks and punches, mostly to the wingers Angus Brayshaw or Ed Langdon, who are steadily gaining ground while offering little chance of turnover. The Swans cut that off at the source – the Dees had just 29 points for the first half, with just 11 in the game-changing second term.

Denied outlet options and attacking from all sides, the Dees started making mistakes. A lot of them – 35 clangers for halftime, to be exact. It was all the Swans needed to get started, given their attackers’ chances of exposing the May-less defence.

The Swans’ own backs also recovered from a shaky start: Tom McCartin was beaten several times throughout the night by Gawn’s massive size within 50, but against everyone was unbelievable. It helped that further afield the pressure was so great that real one-on-one matches were largely denied to the Dees once the Swans got to the top: instead, McCartin and brother Paddy make their living with high hopes coming in.

As a result, the Dees went through 10 in the 50s without a single score in the second term, before Bayley Fritsch finally broke through with a much-needed late goal.

The answer, as usual for the Dees, started with Oliver. With ‘just’ 10 possessions in the first half, he finally shook the Rowbottom tag after halftime, 13 in third term alone. Immediately, Melbourne began to regain control at the interruptions: with that came complete territory domination.

Gawn was great too: almost a lone hand in the second quarter, his taping wasn’t as damaging as it could be, but he made up for it with some excellent ground work. Time and again, he would neutralize a game, or better yet, take a towering contested mark, while at every opportunity tossing Peter Ladhams to the side to get the ball out of the ruck and force it forward. It’s not too much to say that he was also their only regular attack threat.

Also helping was a change in style for the Dees: from more than a quarter of their 22 points in the period, they chose to play on. The smooth ball movement stretched the Swans across the ground, freeing up more space for more markings and allowing Melbourne to deny the visitors possession for extended periods for the first time since the opening period.

The Dees hit 16 within the 50s for the run; that they only managed to score one goal was thanks to a pair of brilliant Swans defending, who regularly streamed back to turn the Dees’ attack arc into a maul.

Still, they led at three-quarters of the time; it felt like the Swans had fired their shot. Especially when Gawn was awarded a free-kick in the first minute of the final term for holding an outclassed McCartin to extend the lead to more than two goals.

I sincerely hope the discussion of what happened next doesn’t revolve around the two free kicks the Swans won to set up Errol Gulden’s leading major first, then Papley’s sealing goal. Because that cutter, soft as they were, was earned by the Swans who simply created chance after chance when all looked lost.

The Swans kept tackling; the Dees continued to make mistakes. Tom Sparrow missed the attacking Oliver with a handball that he had hit nine times out of ten; the Swans took possession and immediately charged onto the field, where Lever dropped a point he would take, yes, nine times out of ten. The cracks were visible: all it took was a wrecking ball to hit the wall.

When the Dees pushed it forward, the defense stepped up. McCartin, Jake Lloyd and Ollie Florent (whose transition from out-center to intercepting defender seemingly happened overnight) all received telling interception marks, while Paddy McCartin’s indulgence remained excellent. Gulden was magnificent on the outside too – he will be the best kick in the game three years from now. Papley remained dangerous when the ball went his way.

So it was, in a way, fitting that both were given soft – but probably there – releases for the last two goals of the game. At first Gulden’s hips got the least hold from Bowey, and from 50, the laser of his left foot swung back Jordan Dawson-style for the lead.

Papley’s freestyle was even more generous, against Ed Langdon for landing on his back – if Langdon had been a second earlier, Papley would have cleared the way for under-the-leg contact. But his desperation and his pace told; and out of the bag his morsel of the unpreferred was delectable.

Of course Dees fans go home grumbling; but if those freezers hadn’t been paid I’ll bet the Swans would have found the target they needed after all, that’s how strong their dominance was in the final minutes.

Only Gawn kept them in the game and continued to score sky-high contentious points: his problem was he couldn’t kick himself, as one time Mitch Brown grabbed the side, the Swans ruled the skies when he wasn’t involved.

No panic stations for the Dees just yet: Christian Petracca was once again well on his way with his explosive performance and May won’t miss too many games in the future. As I said last week, after their loss to Fremantle, they will be fine.

But for the Swans, this is a night that promises a lot. Even Melbourne without May is the most formidable enemy: storming the MCG and coming back from behind is a sign that this young, exciting team is something special.

Eredivisie special? We’re going to find out.