Of the 10 young Swans aged 23 or under that took to the finals stage with aplomb on Friday night, James Rowbottom was arguably the most eye-catching and influential.
In just his second AFL final, Rowbottom played with maturity and toughness beyond his years, finishing the game as the second-highest rated Swan on the ground – and third-highest overall – as Sydney stormed into a preliminary final.
Rowbottom booted one goal from 24 disposals, 15 contested possessions, eight tackles, six clearances, seven intercepts, five inside 50s and a game-high 642m gained as he showed off incredible workrate.
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“He plays with power and hardness,” Swans coach John Longmire said post-game.
“He just gets from contest to contest really quickly.
“He knows what works for him, he knows what his strengths are … he competes hard and keeps it simple.”
Rowbottom played like a leader – and spoke like a leader post-game as he lauded the Bloods culture, which he typifies in a similar way Brett Kirk did for many years. While captaining the Swans might be a stretch too far at this stage, Rowbottom surely will one day be part of Sydney’s leadership group.
Asked if the thought of leading the Swans in the future appealed to him, Rowbottom told foxfooty.com.au on Friday night: “I’d love to be. To be a leader of the Bloods would be a pretty big honour, I guess.
“At the moment, it’s just about playing my role and if that entails me to a leadership position, that’d be great.”
It was the latest strong Rowbottom performance in his best patch of AFL form yet, which has seen him amass 22-plus disposals and nine-plus contested possessions in each of his past six consecutive games.
The 21-year-old, who was the Swans’ second selection (Pick 25) in the 2018 national draft, become an integral member of a Sydney on-ball brigade that has improved significantly as the 2022 season has progressed.
The Swans finished the home and away season ranked seventh for clearances and fourth for post-clearance contested possessions. Even better, they were second for contested possession differential across the final six weeks.
“We‘ve been pretty balanced the last eight weeks or so, which has been good,” Rowbottom said.
“Then we’ve got the boys on the outside like Justin McInerney and ‘Heens’ (Isaac Heeney) up on the wing.
“Tom Hickey has been massive for us. He had a pretty interrupted start to the season with some injuries and to put in a performance like that (against Melbourne) was pretty impressive.”
Rowbottom lauded forward Tom Papley for helping spark the team during the second quarter against Melbourne, saying his energy is “unmatched” and his offensive output stems from elite defensive pressure.
For Rowbottom and the Swans, their attention now turns to a home preliminary final at the SCG against the winner of the Collingwood-Fremantle match-up.
And if they bring the same heat like they did against the Demons, the Swans will be tough to beat on their home deck.
“We touched on it during the week a bit that the challenge doesn‘t get much bigger than that: The reigning premier on their home deck in front of nearly 80,000 people – that’s a pretty massive win. Now in two weeks’ time to get a home prelim, it’s pretty important,” Rowbottom said.
“What we’ve been doing the last two months has held us in good stead. Our pressure and intensity around the ball – that’s at the forefront of our game. If we can get that right, we put ourselves in pretty good positions each week.”