‘He’s still a topliner’: What is a reasonable expectation for 36-year-old Buddy?

Two years ago when Lance Franklin made his belated return after 581 days out, Sydney were quietly confident their marquee man still had the magic.

On the eve of Franklin’s 19th season, the Swans are tempering expectations in what looms to be the final act of the legend’s fabled career.

Season 2023 is likely to be Lance Franklin’s last in the AFL.Credit:Jessica Hroma / Sydney Morning Herald

Perhaps it’s a case of under-promising, so Franklin can over-deliver, but also recognition that at 36 years of age his days of domination have more than likely passed him by. After all, it is asking a lot for the greatest forward of his generation to beat the next generation as well.

The Age and Sydney Morning Herald canvassed the opinions of several former players and club insiders on what is a reasonable expectation for Franklin this year. Reflecting the respect he commands, none have dared write him off as a spent force.

At the top end, three-time Coleman Medallist Matthew Lloyd says a 50-goal season, on top of 51 and 52 the past two years, is within reach. Former North Melbourne premiership player David King would be stunned if Franklin failed to reach 40, but insiders were more cautious. The keys, they say, are injuries and Sydney’s management of him.

“He only needs one calf or hammy and you miss five games, and it’s not quite as good a year,” an assistant coach at another club said.

There is a scenario where Franklin, if he is injured and needed match conditioning, spends time in the VFL, though the Swans would be surprised if that materialised. There is a precedent. Short of game time, Swans great Adam Goodes asked to play in the NEAFL to regain form and fitness early in his final season.

Franklin has been on a specifically modified program since 2020 but has had a restricted preseason. He has not taken part in match simulation, his pre-season match practice limited to two practice matches where he had little impact.

On top of an underwhelming finals series, where Leigh Matthews said Franklin played as if he had aged overnight, it’s understandable why there are doubts over his form. The Age columnist Kane Cornes said last year Franklin was no longer in the league’s top 200 players.

Matthew Lloyd says Lance Franklin can kick 50 goals this year.Credit:Sydney Morning Herald

One club insider has noted Franklin is leaner but also going to ground more often. Though he believes Franklin can no longer beat the game’s premier defenders, he would still be dangerous against a club’s second or third tall backman.

One assistant coach expects most clubs to play their best defender on him. Carlton used Jacob Weitering on Franklin in a practice match. “Underestimating him is the worst thing you can do,” the assistant coach said.

King, a respected football analyst with SEN and Fox Footy who won two flags with North Melbourne, is bullish on what Franklin can achieve. Just by taking to the field, King said, Franklin would help the Swans by alleviating the pressure on Isaac Heeney and rising star Logan McDonald.

“The criticism of where Lance is at is overplayed,” King told The Age and the Herald at a Fox Footy function this week.

“For 15 years he’s had the best defender the opposition can find every week. If you want to take the risk of putting the second-ranked defender on Buddy look out. He’s still a topliner in our competition.”

One of the most athletically gifted players the game has seen, Franklin is belatedly showing his age. The twinkle toes he once had to get back on to his left foot are no longer as fast. He kicked two goals last year on his right foot, a sight so rare Longmire has said he could not recall the goalkicking great using his non-preferred side.

Though Lloyd says Franklin is still quick enough to trouble defenders, he believes the veteran has lost the explosive speed off the mark to burn off his opponent, and does not get to as many contests anymore. King would like Longmire to give Franklin the occasional run on the wing, à la Matthew Richardson in his near Brownlow year of 2008, where he does not need to be as ballistic.

“As a key forward, that’s your biggest asset – your first couple of metres off the mark,” Lloyd said.

“I can only speak from personal experience. I didn’t feel as confident at 31 in terms of a lack of speed. I felt like I lost a bit of speed and power.

“Once you lose that, you lose some confidence in yourself and start to think “I’m best to go now” rather than one more year and be under pressure and struggling to hold my position.

“Buddy’s got enormous confidence in himself but I’m sure he will have doubts going into this season.”

Lance Franklin had a poor grand final.Credit:Getty

For all that, Lloyd is confident Franklin still has much to offer the Swans despite having reservations after last year’s grand final.

“I remember James Hird saying to me, there’s not many players who can kick 40 or 50 goals in a season. I still think he’s capable of kicking 40-50 goals a year which is a massive return for a player that age,” Lloyd, who retired aged 31 after a 35-goal season, said.

“That’s still going to be better than your 23rd best player in my opinion.”

Franklin’s interrupted preseason points to a slower start to the year, but King is not worried by his interrupted pre-season, if it gives him more chance of being fresh in September. The Swans have already flagged breaks for Franklin, who played 23 of a possible 26 games last year.

Regardless of Franklin’s output in 2023, he will be remembered for his achievements in his previous 18 years.

“We haven’t seen a specimen like Lance: 1000 goals, year on year giving us highlights,” King said. “Everything is at high speed, everything’s full crash and bash, full noise.

“I don’t think we over-assess the next 12 months. I love what Buddy has done for our competition. Let’s just appreciate what this guy has been.”

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