Youthful Swans can channel Grand Final experience into another decade of relevance - and success

I came to a startling realisation earlier in the week when a couple of work colleagues and I began tossing around the age-old notion of experience and what it counts for on Grand Final day. "How many Swans players from their 2012 premiership will play on Saturday," someone asked. Without giving it a moment's thought, I opened my palm and prepared to rattle off five or six names. But, of course, I couldn't.

Let's count them, shall we? There's ruck-forward Sam Reid. One. You've got midfield heartbeat, now co-captain, Luke Parker, who actually started the 2012 decider wearing the green vest. Two. And ... um ... that's it!

There's a bit of a misconception with the Swans that aside from a couple of flashy kids, they're an older, experienced side littered with ageing premiership stars and players closer to the end of their careers than the beginning, and thus, primed for immediate success. With that line of thinking, Saturday's Grand Final thumping at the hands of Geelong -- who on Saturday afternoon extended their winning streak to 16 games to land the club's 10th premiership -- will seem like a wasted opportunity for the 'Bloods'. And while the crushing 81-point loss will no doubt sting for some time, there's enough evidence to suggest this Swans team is perfectly poised for the decade ahead.

"I'm confident that our playing group ... they're a really good group and we have had some wonderful achievements and taken some real steps forward as a footy team," said Swans coach John Longmire after the game. "Most of our players would have improved this year. We just buggered it up today."

One of the reasons we may overestimate Sydney's experience is the fact Longmire's side has managed to stay relevant for the past 10 years, contesting a further three Grand Finals since their epic 2012 triumph over Hawthorn. In many ways, the Swans, just like the Cats, have shown the rest of the AFL how a modern-day football club should operate.

They've both proven it's possible to reconstruct a list without a traditional full-blown rebuild. For Sydney, who made finals appearances in each year between 2010 and 2018, there was a drop off in 2019 when only eight wins were recorded, causing them to miss the September action. The following year yielded just five wins, for a 16th-place finish, and at that point, the vast majority of football media had relegated them to also-rans of the competition for the foreseeable future.

But not only have Longmire and Co. managed to navigate away from football's doldrums, they've done it almost instantaneously. True, the Swans have been aided by several Academy prospects, but the club's drafting, recruitment and list management has been exceptional in recent years, culminating in a trip back to the Grand Final this year.

On Saturday afternoon, the Swans fielded 15 players aged 26 years or younger. The Cats had just seven. Not only is Sydney's list bursting with youth, but it's the kind of youth which is excelling early in their careers, despite the Grand Final blowout.

Chad Warner's transition from young talent to bone fide AFL superstar has been both seamless and swift. Not since Chris Judd have we seen a 21-year-old possess the dual ability to burst from stoppages and use the ball with pin-point accuracy. In what's really just his second season, Warner has averaged 23 disposals and a shade under a goal per outing. In Saturday's Grand Final, he had 29 and kicked two, and was clearly Sydney's best. Some pundits have already declared him a future Brownlow medallist.

In the second quarter, Warner had three efforts in a play where he ran the ball almost 100 metres up the wing, before lacing out skipper Callum Mills on the 50m paint. Later in the game, he chased down Cats midfielder Cam Guthrie before turning around and kicking truly from outside the arc. Had the game been tighter, he would almost certainly have featured in Norm Smith Medal voting.

But it's not just Warner.

Oliver Florent, Justin McInerney, Will Hayward, and James Rowbottom all fall into the Under 24 age bracket, and each played a key role in Sydney's run to the 'Big Dance', even if their performances on Grand Final day weren't what they would have been hoping for.

There's Nick Blakey (22) who offers drive and dash off half back and possesses a lethal left foot, Tom McCartin (22) who has made a defensive lock-down role his own, and Errol Gulden (20) who, along with Warner, might be the Swan with the greatest amount of potential.

Spare a thought for Logan McDonald, too, who missed out on a spot in Sydney's Grand Final team. He's been touted as a man who can one day replace Swans spearhead Lance Franklin, and become the focal point of the forward line. Hayden McLean, who came into the side for McDonald, is also just 23, and is a talent worth persisting with.

Even some of the Swans who feel as though they've been household names for a decade have barely scratched the surface of their footballing career. The 2022 All-Australian pair of Mills and Isaac Heeney are just 25 and 26, respectively. Tom Papley only 26. The same age as footy's fairytale man, Paddy McCartin.

In fact, outside fan favourite Josh Kennedy, who announced his retirement earlier this year, aged 34, and Franklin, 35, the Swans barely have a player with best 22 claims over the age of 30.

The Cats were deserved favourites heading into the 2022 Grand Final and won the contest in convincing fashion. At an average of 28 years and 173 days, they are the oldest team every fielded - not just in a Grand Final, but for any VFL/AFL game.

The Swans will be hurting. They will be feeling the pain. But in time, their youth will take plenty of positives from playing on the last Saturday in September, and they too will have their moment in the sun.

"It'll be hard not to think about this game and this will be in the back of my mind for a long time to come, that's for sure," Mills told reporters after the game. "[But we will] use this as fuel and use it to move forward together. We'll be back."