SYDNEY has engineered its season's most important move almost by stealth.
Without significant attention or fanfare, the Swans have handed Tom Papley increased midfield minutes and have immediately reaped the benefits of its goal-sneak becoming one of the League's most influential players.
Having lost George Hewett and withdrawn Josh Kennedy from its midfield rotation this season – two of Sydney's most important clearance players last year – Papley has been the biggest beneficiary of the need for more numbers through the middle.
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Luke Parker, Callum Mills and James Rowbottom remain the ever-presents as Sydney decides its midfield minutes, but Chad Warner has quickly replaced Kennedy's impact and Papley is now providing an exciting wildcard option.
His centre bounce attendances have gone from 2.3 per game last year to 8.3 per game this season – the highest number of his career – with the Swans identifying the lively and flexible Papley as one of their most prominent centre-bounce players.
This season will be just the second time Papley's centre bounce attendances have lifted beyond 100 in a campaign – his sophomore year in 2017 being the other – and it's tracking to be just the second time he's ranked top-five among Swans onballers for involvements.
And it's with good reason. Of all Sydney midfielders with 50 or more centre bounce attendances this year, Papley ranks No.1 for first possession rate (13.1 percent) and just behind Errol Gulden in second for clearance rate (12.1 percent).
From there, Papley is given the freedom to roam forward where he remains one of the most instrumental and dangerous attacking options in the game, despite his own goal tally being among the lowest of his career.
Papley has kicked just 18 goals from his first 12 games this season, having endured a delayed start to the year due to a hamstring injury, which is close to his lowest ever haul of 24 goals in 2018.
But he still ranks No.1 at Sydney for both goal assists (1.6 per game) and score involvements (7.9 per game) this season, while he's emerged as one of the competition's most creative players since hitting his straps over the last five weeks.
Champion Data notes his 51 score involvements in that five-game stretch puts him No.1 in the League, his 20 forward-50 groundball gets ranks No.1 by some margin, his 11 goal assists ranks No.1 as well, while his 14 score assists also puts him No.1 in the AFL.
He's also getting his shots up. Papley's taken 26 shots at goal over the last five weeks, resulting in nine goals and 13 behinds with four efforts that haven't registered a score. That puts him No.3 in the League over that same period.
The culmination of his stellar run of form came in last Saturday's victory over Adelaide, where Papley finished with 22 disposals and 11 contested possessions to go with two goals, three goal assists, 12 score involvements, five clearances, five tackles and eight inside-50s.
As the Swans surged into a decisive 42-point lead by quarter-time – they ultimately only won the game by 33 points – Papley was at his best. He had two goals and one goal assist by the first change.
But while the numbers are fantastic, according to Sydney coach John Longmire it's the intangibles that have formed the bedrock to Papley's game. That was evident at the SCG last weekend, where the 26-year-old set the tone with his intensity in the forward half.
"Paps' pressure, probably over the last month as a high-pressure forward, it's not just his ability to get the ball and have shots at goal but his pressure has been enormous," Longmire said after the victory over the Crows.
"He's building his game off that and I think that's been really evident in what he does off the ball and at the ball. It's been just as important, and sometimes even more important, than what he's done with the ball in hand."