It was one new experience after another for many of the players in the QBE Sydney Swans Academy’s under-18 team when they touched down in Melbourne on the weekend.
As they drove from Tullamarine Airport to their accommodation in the southern suburb of Cheltenham, coach Jared Crouch says the boys couldn’t believe how many AFL footy fields they passed.
Then they drove through the city and spotted the MCG light towers.
“Quite a few of them had never seen the MCG,’’ Crouch said.
And then there was another first when they had a win over top-rated Melbourne-based under-18 side the Sandringham Dragons, overpowering the Victorians in their NAB League game at Trevor Barker Oval on Saturday.
The Swans had never played the Dragons - or any Victorian team for that matter - but they rose to the challenge and dominated the match from the first bounce.
The Academy jumped out to an early lead after big-framed forward Harry Maguire kicked two goals, and led by 16 points at the end of the first term.
By half-time the Swans were 29 points up, and increased their lead to 39 points at three-quarter time.
With a couple of players injured, the Swans tired in the last term but still won a tough, physical encounter by 22 points.
Crouch said he was immensely proud of the Academy players who had proved they could match it with top, young Victorian footballers.
“It was a really good game. It was great to get our boys down there and expose them to Victorian football which we all know is played at a very high level,’’ Crouch said.
“There is always this feeling that the southern states are significantly better, but we played a really good style of football and hopefully we’re starting to earn respect.
“There were a lot of unknowns going down to Melbourne to play the Dragons, but we certainly showed that our boys can match it at that level so I was very pleased."
Captain Sam Thorne was a standout, picking up 21 disposals and kicking two goals, and midfielder Errol Gulden, not eligible for the AFL Draft until 2020, put in another strong performance.
Forwards Maguire and Hamish Ellem gave the Academy good service in attack, Braeden Campbell was slick with four goals and Aidan Watling injected drive from the middle of the ground.
In defence, Luke Parks and Josh Rayner were impressive.
But Crouch said there was an even contribution across the board, with the Academy playing a high-pressure style of football.
“What you get with the Victorian teams is a very high level skill across the board. We certainly found that if we didn’t execute our skills well or were lazy, with one step kicks, then they hurt us and we’d turn it over,’’ Crouch said.
“But the style we play, putting an enormous amount of pressure on the opposition, enables you to be in the game. Our pressure was outstanding and we were able to capitalise on our hard work and kick goals.’’
The Dragons were missing a swag of their best players who were taking part in a trial game for the Victoria Metro under-18 team to play in the national championships later this year, but Crouch said they were still a very talented side.
The Swans will play two more games against Victorian sides as part of their NAB League fixture.
On April 27 they play the Murray Bushrangers at Blacktown in Sydney, and then on Sunday, May 5 they'll be back in Melbourne to play the Geelong Falcons at Ikon Park in Carlton.
Crouch said it was fantastic to see some Melbourne-based Swans supporters watching the Academy play against the Dragons last weekend, and he’s encouraging red and white fans to come to Ikon Park in two weeks time.
Crouch is a big fan of the new NAB League that has given the Academy the chance to play Victorian sides as well as other Academy teams.
“It is fantastic. It’s a great change, but we’ve only got five games in the competition and I want more,’’ he said.
“In the future I hope we can play another two or three games at the back end of the season after the annual national under-18 championships because it’s the best way to keep improving our boys.
“But the whole competition really is a step in the right direction,’’ Crouch said.
QBE Sydney Swans Academy v Sandringham Dragons
16.9 (105) to 12.11 (83)
GOALS - Swans: Campbell 4, Maguire 3, Ellem 2, Thorne 2, Tyson 2, Gulden, Watling, McGrath 1
BEST - Swans: Thorne, Campbell, Watling, Parks, Brewer, Gulden, Ellem