Swans' season review: A winless season, but plenty of green shoots

IT WAS a tough induction to the AFLW for Sydney, one of four teams to build a program in the shortest off-season in competition history, albeit in the toughest state to do so.

There were little wins along the way, with top Victorian talents Montana Ham and Sofia Hurley opting to head north and three Rising Star nominations, but it was ultimately a winless season for the Swans.

Over the next few weeks, womens.afl will look at each of the 18 AFLW teams' season's in reverse ladder order.

Sydney players look dejected after their S7 round three loss to Greater Western Sydney at the SCG. Picture: AFL Photos

Head coach: Scott Gowans

Leadership group: Maddy Collier, Brooke Lochland, Lauren Szigeti (co-captains), Lisa Steane, Rebecca Privitelli, Alana Woodward

Ladder position: 18th, zero wins and 10 losses, 35.9%

Debutants: Jaide Anthony, Kiara Beesley, Tiarne Cavanagh, Molly Eastman, Sarah Ford, Montana Ham, Cynthia Hamilton, Ella Heads, Sofia Hurley, Zoe Hurrell, Genevieve Lawson-Tavan, Kate Reynolds, Ruby Sargent-Wilson, Paige Sheppard, Sarah Skinner, Lauren Szigeti, Eliza Vale, Aimee Whelan (AFLW debuts), Maddy Collier, Sarah Dargan, Lexi Hamilton, Bridie Kennedy, Brooke Lochland, Ally Morphett, Aliesha Newman, Bec Privitelli, Bella Smith, Lisa Steane, Brenna Tarrant, Alana Woodward (club debuts)

Milestones: Brenna Tarrant, Lisa Steane (25 games)

Rising Star nominations: Montana Ham (round four), Sofia Hurley (round nine), Cynthia Hamilton (round 10)

Retirements: TBC

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Best team performance

In round eight against Essendon, the expectation was that the Swans' fellow expansion side would dispense of them easily at Ikon Park, but Sydney had other ideas.

The Swans went into the main break 10 points up - one of just two half-time leads for the season - and despite falling away in the third quarter they fought back into the game in a way not previously seen from the emerging side.

Young guns Sofia Hurley and Cynthia Hamilton spent much of the game forward, offering some much needed attacking structure and forward targets and each kicking two goals, while No.1 draft pick Montana Ham was used outside the contest much more than previously seen.

Sydney played a far slower, more controlled style of play thanks to this disciplined structuring and showed off just how much improvement it had made in such a short period of time, registering its highest score, and coming within four points of a maiden win.

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Oct 15. 2022. 5:13 PM

The Bombers and Swans clash in round eight of the 2022 NAB AFL Women's Competition

Best individual performance

Sofia Hurley's performance in that round eight game against the Bombers was an underrated, albeit important, one. She was vital to Sydney's best performance of the season and proved her versatility across lines.

Offering much needed structure in attack - not an easy task for a young talent who is used to playing in the thick of it - Hurley kicked two goals from her 12 disposals, while also laying six tackles and winning three clearances.

This came not only from her willingness to sit ahead of the ball, but quick thinking and willingness to take opportunities the Swans in the past may have shirked.

Most improved

This season Brenna Tarrant went from being a fringe player at a strong Melbourne side to a defensive leader at the emerging Swans.

Typically used to playing around experienced defenders, this season the 21-year-old was often tasked with the most dangerous opposing key forward in the backline under more pressure than any AFLW backline has been before.

Tarrant started the season with a bang, registering a career-high 13 disposals and eight intercepts and ended up averaging career-highs in several metrics including intercepts (five), disposals (8.1) and one percenters (3.8).

Brenna Tarrant in action in Sydney's S7 round 10 match against Geelong at GMHBA Stadium. Picture: AFL Photos

Star recruit

While much of the attention at the draft was on Montana Ham and Sofia Hurley for their move away from Victoria, top NSW/ACT draftee Cynthia Hamilton was not to be discounted.

Playing her aggressive, attacking style of footy through both the midfield and forward lines, Hamilton missed just one game due to concussion.

Her 19 disposals, six clearances and eight score involvements against Hawthorn in round four announced Hamilton on the big stage, and her 19 disposals at 78.9 per cent efficiency and five clearances against Geelong in round 10 earned her a rising star nomination.

Unsung hero

Coming to the Swans with 10 games and two seasons under her belt, Bella Smith doubled that tally this season, proving to be an important utility for coach Scott Gowans.

Utilised in different roles across all lines throughout the season, including the ruck thanks to her 182cm, Smith was often most valuable in defence tacking kick ins. Because of her booming kick she was able to clear the defensive 50 and offer some reprieve to her fellow defenders, and really came into her own as the season progressed.

Smith finished the season with an average 250.6m gained, 4.4 intercepts, 3.5 rebound 50s and 9.5 disposals in a career best season. Still just 21, she has huge potential to continue to improve and become an exceptionally damaging player for Sydney.

Bella Smith poses for a photo at Sydney's S7 Official Team Photo Day at the SCG. Picture: AFL Photos

What went well

After waiting six years to see their Swans in action in the AFLW, the fans turned out for their side in its inaugural season. Kicking off its AFLW history in front of a sold out, 8,264-person strong crowd at North Sydney Oval, Sydney felt the fans' backing right through the home and away season.

The Swans also enjoyed the most AFLW members of any club with 7,757 people signing on, only further proving the wave of support behind the side.

On the field, the improvement was evident. Between rounds one and six they averaged just 15.5 points per game. This elevated to 28.5 points per game across rounds seven to 10. While this may seem marginal, it is indicative of two things: the ability to control play to transition forward, and having players in position to hit the scoreboard.

This was a result of developing team cohesion - something that really could only be earned over time spent together. While it was not ideal, having to develop this cohesion largely in-season, it was a task the young Swans saw more results from than anything else.

What needs improvement

There is no shying away from the fact that Sydney is now the third team to go winless in a season, finishing on the bottom of the ladder with just 35.9 per cent. While this is partially the result of the speed in which the club had to build its program, in the most difficult footy state in the country, it was also regularly down to a lack of in-game awareness.

The ability to play controlled footy comes not only from the skill of players, but also those players' awareness of when to move quickly, and when to slow the play down. The Swans started to develop this toward the back half of the season, but there is still a long way to go when it comes to finding consistent control in games.

Often caught wanting to move the ball on quickly from a mark or free kick when, frankly, that option wouldn't have been the right one for even the best sides, the Swans consistently handed the ball back to their opposition and as a result, conceded 57.7 points per game - the highest season average in competition history - from 36.5 inside 50s, another unwanted record.

While things might not necessarily be as bleak as a 0-10 record suggests, there is still a mountain of work to do for Scott Gowans and his Swans.

Brooke Lochland is tackled during Sydney's S7 round one clash with St Kilda at North Sydney Oval. Picture: AFL Photos

Off season focus

First and foremost, bringing in some top-level talent will no doubt be front of mind for Gowans. On all lines, but most specifically midfield and forward - improvement in defence and control up the field will better protect Sydney's young, developing backline.

Adding some experience should assist in creating some stability around the ball, and from there the focus can become the transition forward. Keeping that structure ahead of the ball and kicking to their forwards' advantage, rather than kicks inside 50 that are easily picked off and rebounded back out.