With little more than five minutes to play at the SCG on Saturday night, the Sydney Swans cling to a 10-point lead over the Greater Western Sydney Giants in a tense, fiercely contested game.
It is the type of taut encounter needed to add credibility to the so-called Battle of the Bridge. A meeting that was, in its initial versions, a rivalry only in the PowerPoint presentations of the AFL’s enthusiastic marketing executives.
From a scrimmage in the middle of the ground, Lance Franklin gets on the end of a handball. Instinctively, he dismisses a hapless Giants’ opponent with his big right paw and wields onto his left foot.
The turning circle is so familiar it has a nickname — Buddy’s Arc. As Franklin gathers momentum and swallows up the ground there is no chance anyone will impede his stampede. The result seems preordained, a thumping 65m kick that lands precisely between the goal posts.
The Swans have the game won. The one-sided crowd is ecstatic. Later coach John Longmire will be at pains to share the praise and deflect attention from Franklin’s starring role. But as they head for the exits, the fans will talk about just one thing. That goal!
It is tempting to describe Franklin’s latest show-stopping feat as a moment that money can’t buy. But, of course, even the greatest sporting romantic must acknowledge the transactional element in his performances.
The covert $10.2 million operation that brought Franklin to (eastern) Sydney from Hawthorn will always be part of his epic tale.
Yet by matching his undoubted brilliance with unexpected longevity, he is providing an ending those of us who were sceptical about the nine-year deal never imagined.
AFL tweet: Enjoy all of Lance Franklin’s eight goals from Sydney’s strong win over the Eagles
Andrew Ireland, the Swans’ savvy chief executive, will retire this season. When Ireland signed Franklin in late 2013 after months of secret negotiations, the length of the deal seemed even more preposterous than the eight-figure price tag.
Franklin was 27 when he arrived in Sydney. He will be 36 when he collects the last of his vast annual pay cheques.
Plagued by thumb and shoulder injuries when he arrived in Sydney, it seemed certain Ireland had paid for a Rolls Royce but would leave his successor with a V8 Commodore with 200,000 kilometres on the clock. A limping salary cap liability that would compromise the club’s future.
Yet here we are nearing the halfway mark of Franklin’s contract and he is playing better than at any stage of his Swans career.
In the opening round against West Coast in Perth he kicked eight goals and, most encouragingly, took several pack marks, the one element that had been missing from his game.
In the opening round against West Coast, Franklin kicked eight goals and took several pack marks. (AAP: Travis Anderson)
Is Franklin actually underrated?
Such is Franklin’s durability that The Age’s chief football writer, Jake Niall, recently pondered whether a man who is a seven time All-Australian and four time Coleman Medallist is actually underrated by the football pundits.
As midfielders who have more possession but far less impact on contests line up to collect Brownlow Medals and the various media awards while Franklin is overlooked, it is hard to disagree with Niall’s thesis.
There is no question Ireland got value for money. A contract that guaranteed Franklin $700,000 in his first two seasons, $1.2 million in his next three and then $1.3 million, $1.4 million, $1.5 million and $1 million could never be described as a bargain.
But, at the very least, the Franklin deal can now be compared to a seemingly outrageous price paid for a house that has continued to increase in value. If $10.2 million was jaw-dropping in 2013, it is merely market price now.
And this is without considering the enormous value Franklin has provided at the turnstile and the merchandise stalls from the moment he walked through the club’s front door. If the Swans are the House That Plugger Built, then Buddy has added another wing.
There have been a couple of times when the Franklin deal seemed on a knife-edge. The injuries and depression that forced him out of the Swans team during the 2015 finals had many wondering if things had come unstuck. Although, pertinently, not coach Longmire, whose handling of his team’s star forward as a person, not merely a prime asset, has been exemplary.
Inevitably, however, Franklin’s publicity-shy off-field persona — he is Lance off the ground, while his alter-ego Buddy pulls on the boots — has only added another layer of intrigue to his performances.
So now there is just one thing missing before the Franklin deal can be hailed as an unqualified success. Buddy’s Flag.
The inability to win a premiership with the game’s best forward has not been for want of opportunity. In the 2016 grand final against the Western Bulldogs, Franklin was injured in the opening minutes and the Swans did not have the rub of the green (or they were robbed by the men in green if the dark mutterings of some officials and fans were to be believed.)
Losing their first six games last season meant the Swans needed a tremendous effort to reach the finals. The exertion required to make up lost ground left them as sitting ducks in September.
This time? If Franklin’s brilliance inflames expectations, it is the club’s excellent youngsters such as Callum Mills, Will Hayward and Oliver Florent who are the fuel on the fire.
Yet again, the Swans have regenerated while still peeking through the premiership window.
It would be poignant if the Swans were to meet the Giants in this year’s grand final — the most exciting player in the game against the new franchise that was infuriated when Franklin went to their cross-town rivals behind their backs.
Not a grand final the scalpers would want, but one for contemporary connoisseurs.
The one thing Franklin still has to give the Swans is a grand final win, after being injured out of the 2016 game against the Western Bulldogs. (AAP: Julian Smith)