Mark Duffield: Old rivals square up as Swans fly in
Leo Barry takes his iconic mark in the 2005 grand final. Picture: AFL Media.

Here we go again. Football's great rivalry of the noughties, a match-up that produced two epic grand finals and seven games in a row with margins of two goals or less, has crept up on us again.

West Coast versus Sydney at Patersons Stadium on Sunday is not just first versus second on the ladder, it is the Eagles versus the last team to beat them at their home fortress some 18 games ago.

In round three of 2011, the Swans, lifted by the brilliance of Adam Goodes halfway through the last quarter, came from behind to snatch a 13-point win.

In the 18 games since, only Fremantle, Hawthorn and Carlton (twice) have come within two kicks of the Eagles at Patersons. It has become the biggest home-ground advantage in the game.

There is much to suggest that the Swans represent the biggest threat to that dominance, and we are not just talking about ladder positions here.

Sydney, as they have been since 2005, are selfless, well organised and tough as teak. They come to play and they come knowing how to play, regardless of the opponent and the venue.

It is a fair bet that the West Coast they will encounter are a better team than the one they beat in round three last year. The Eagles were in the process of proving to themselves they were not the easybeats they had been for three seasons when they last encountered the Swans. They have done that and then some since.

Luke Shuey, Andrew Gaff and Jack Darling have shown themselves to be among the best youngsters in the AFL.

Nic Naitanui is bigger, stronger and still jumping higher. Eric Mackenzie and Will Schofield have found their feet in defence. The oldies - Darren Glass, Dean Cox and Daniel Kerr - show no sign of fading.

Cox's last quarter against North Melbourne last Saturday rates among his finest. Given that he has been the game's pre-eminent big man for the best part of eight years now, that is saying something.

It might be time to revisit where he sits when we rank West Coast's all-time greats.

Given his longevity and his ability to adapt significantly twice throughout the course of his career to fit the demands of the game and the requirements of the team, there is an argument that he now sits alongside the likes of Ben Cousins, Chris Judd, Glen Jakovich and Peter Matera, rather than just behind them.

But it is just as fair a bet that the Swans are better as well. Lewis Jetta was a fringe player trying to make his way in the AFL in round three last year.

He had just nine touches and kicked one goal. He finished the season with just nine goals.

Jetta has kicked 32 from his 14 games this season. Last year, he averaged under 10 possessions a match. This year, he is going at 17 and has become one of the most lethal running weapons in the competition.

Jetta is just one example of how well organised the Swans are and how selflessly they work to maximise the devastation their weapons can visit on opponents.

Listed in this year's media guide at just 75kg, Jetta remains pencil thin by AFL standards and is unlikely to win too many arm wrestles in close. The Swans don't ask him to.

They block, tackle, buffet and clear paths to get him into holes with space around and ahead of him. They know he will not be caught from behind and they know he not only carries the ball quickly, he also uses it beautifully.

Jetta's improvement, the evolution of Kieren Jack into a quality midfielder and the return of Goodes from injury takes Sydney well clear of any dour, blue-collar tags we might have been tempted to put on them.

Their pace and X-factor balances the grunt of Josh Kennedy, Jude Bolton, Ryan O'Keefe and Dan Hannebery and they will be a formidable match-up for the Eagles.

The finals have come early at the top end of the ladder, where only percentage separates the top four teams, with Essendon and Hawthorn looming just one win further back.

West Coast and Sydney face top-eight sides in five of their eight matches in the run home. Losses to top two and top-four rivals will be pivotal.

A home loss for West Coast, who narrowly averted four interstate losses in a row in Hobart on Saturday, would be a significant blow to their flag aspirations.

"The finals have come early at the top end of the ladder, where only percentage separates the top four teams." "

The West Australian

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