IT WAS less than nine months ago Richmond coach Damien Hardwick publicly criticised John Longmire for Sydney's dour brand of footy.

Hardwick's comments, which he later apologised for, came after the Tigers' four-goals-to-three win at a wet Gabba.

Hardwick labelled it a "horrendous" game, "farcical", blaming Longmire for "folding back" into his defensive 50 with extra players and bottling up the contest.

Sydney's coach was unhappy.

When the teams meet at the MCG on Saturday afternoon, Hardwick and his Tigers will face a totally different Sydney to the one they encountered last July.

Of all the stories in the opening two rounds, it's the high-octane Swans that have been the most eye-catching, with their exciting draftees and rapid ball movement outgunning Brisbane and Adelaide.

Sam Wicks celebrates a goal against Adelaide in round two, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

How have they gone from a team seemingly stuck in hard-working mediocrity to one that's become the envy of many in the competition?

There's new faces, positional switches, and a (not-so) new gameplan to thank.

New ball movement, same hard work

Despite winning just five games last year, Longmire ever-so-quietly went about changing the way the Swans played.

What the Swans have been for much of the past two decades – stoppage specialists and methodical ball movers – is simply no longer the case.

Statistics courtesy of Champion Data show Longmire has crafted a gameplan to suit his young and athletic team.

While their scoring profile has completely changed, one thing that remains is their willingness to work hard. Sydney has a pressure factor of 1.91 through the opening fortnight, which is the best in the competition.

The biggest changes have come outside that.

Get it into the corridor – and fast

The Swans are not only punishing teams on turnover – particularly in their forward half – but they're also killing opponents with swift ball movement from the back half.

Longmire's aggressive mindset hasn't just been hatched in the off-season, although the acquisition of Don Pyke to his staff has helped, with a definitive change taking place last year.

In 2020, the Swans led the League in moving the ball from defensive 50 into the corridor.

Through the first two rounds this year they're ranked second.

Sydney almost rarely heads towards the boundary and while that approach didn't always result in inside 50 opportunities last season, the first two rounds this season have been exceptionally profitable.

The Swans have converted almost 40 per cent of their rebound 50s into inside 50s, which is the top mark in the competition.

The opening minute of the third quarter against Adelaide last Saturday was a prime example.

Sam Wicks picked up a loose ball 40m from the Crows' goal near the boundary line, but immediately looked in-board and kicked to a pack of six players, three from each team, in the middle of the ground.

Errol Gulden managed a knock-on and then Tom Papley tapped the ball into space before gathering and hitting Lance Franklin on the lead for a mark 30m from goal.

It was risky, it was quick and it was direct.

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Stoppage kings no longer

Although they've developed a deeper midfield, the Swans are not relying on stoppages for success.

They are ranked 16th for percentage of clearances won and have the AFL's worst differential in scores from stoppages.

What they lack there is more than made up for in punishing turnovers. It's a formula that has served Richmond so well over the past four years.

Despite being ranked 10th in generating forward half turnovers, they're ranked first in scores (51.5) from turnovers in that part of the ground scores from turnovers overall (81).

SWANS' STUNNING STATS (R1-2, 2021)

 

2021 avg

AFL Rank

Pressure Factor

1.91

#1

Defensive 1v1 Loss Rate

16.7%

#3

R50 to In50 %

37.8%

#1

Scores from Turnover

81.5

#1

Scores from Turnover Diff.

+37.0

#2

Scores from Fwd Half Turnovers

51.5

#1

Marks Inside 50

19.0

#1

Score per Inside 50%

50.8%

#2

Goal per Inside 50%

30.8%

#1

There's more to Sydney's revival than changing its gamestyle though.

Curing the injury curse

The Swans had a horrible run with injuries last year, with the tall stocks hit particularly badly.

But it was a blessing in disguise, as younger players had to be dropped into important roles, including Tom McCartin making a successful move to defence.

Oliver Florent and James Rowbottom took on more midfield responsibility that accelerated their progress, while Dylan Stephens, Justin McInerney, Wicks and James Bell played more than expected.

With an almost non-existent injury list to start the season, competition for spots is fierce, with Stephens, Bell and Will Hayward missing out to date.

Rebuilding the midfield

It has been flagged for years, but a reworked backline has seen Callum Mills finally move to the midfield.

The 2016 NAB AFL Rising Star winner made his name as an intercepting half-back, but has flourished with a return to the position he dominated as a junior. Mills is averaging 24 highly efficient disposals, seven of them contested, and a goal a game through the first fortnight.

In the same vein, Florent, Rowbottom and Chad Warner offer a balance of inside grunt and outside run. McInerney adds a point of difference with his pace and flair. Mills just turned 24, the rest are 22 or under, and all look primed to own spots in the Swans midfield that have been up for grabs since 2019.

Josh Kennedy and Luke Parker remain contested ball-winning beasts and the inspirational leaders of a renewed on-ball brigade.

James Rowbottom and Callum Mills celebrate Sydney's win over Brisbane in round one, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

The fountain of youth

It wouldn't be possible to rebuild on the run without nailing the draft, and the Swans have done just that the past three years.

The 2020 additions of Logan McDonald (pick No.4), Braeden Campbell (No.5) and Errol Gulden (No.32) have all made an immediate impact.

Academy products Campbell and Gulden claimed the first two NAB AFL Rising Star nominations of the season and McDonald has made a promising start to the near-impossible task of being Franklin's long-term successor in the forward line.

In 2019, the Swans grabbed Stephens and Warner among their six picks. A year earlier, they added Nick Blakey, Rowbottom and McInerney with their first three selections.

Warner has had a crucial influence too, in just his third and fourth games.

Suddenly the Swans have one of the most exciting young lists in the competition. The future is now.