Flag favorites Sydney ready for AFL rivals’ best

AFL ladder leaders Sydney are prepared to carry a target on their backs for the rest of the season as they eye off a prime-time clash with the Western Bulldogs.

John Longmire’s Swans (9-1) have taken all before them this year, dropping just one game so far and emerging six points clear of their nearest rivals ahead of next week’s mid-season bye.

But they face a difficult assignment against the unpredictable Bulldogs (5-5) at Marvel Stadium on Thursday night, fully aware they have become the hunted in the AFL flag race.

“The nature of the beast is that teams are going to figure out what we’re doing now and keep coming after us,” Swans defender Dane Rampe said.

“If we don’t look for ways to get better and improve, then we’re going to get caught out pretty quickly.”

Sydney have won six straight games by an average margin of almost eight goals and destroyed flag hopefuls Carlton on home soil last week.

Michael O’Loughlin (right) congratulates Dane Rampe after the Swans’ big win over Carlton. (Dean Lewins/AAP PHOTOS)

They are wary of a Bulldogs outfit that have won their past two matches in convincing fashion – against Richmond and final contenders GWS – after dropping their previous two.

“As of last week they’re in some great form… their best players can be really damaging if you let them be,” Rampe said.

“We’re preparing for a red-hot Western Bulldogs at the end of a really good block that we’ve had.”

Sydney were able to keep Carlton’s tall forwards under wraps last week, restricting Charlie Curnow, Harry McKay and Tom De Koning to just three goals between them, despite still being without key defender Tom McCartin (concussion).

It has given the Swans’ back-line confidence they will be able to blunt a Bulldogs offensive unit led by tall threats Aaron Naughton, Jamarra Ugle-Hagan and emerging star Sam Darcy.

“The strength of our group has been that we’ve been able to bring players in to play a role,” Rampe said.

“Aaron Francis came in and did an exceptional job, and Lewis Melican’s starting to really get the reward of consistency in his body and show his professionalism and what he’s capable of.

“We’re seeing the benefits of all that now and (the Bulldogs) do have a big forward line, but we feel like we can match them.”

He said Swans teammate Luke Parker was feeling “flat” after being handed a six-week suspension for the heavy bump that left VFL opponent Josh Smith with facial injuries.

The ban means Parker won’t play again until at least mid-July, having missed the start of the season with a broken arm.

The 31-year-old was unable to break into the Swans’ red-hot midfield during a month-long VFL stint on return from injury, but Rampe warned against writing off his former co-captain.

“I’m still very confident Luke Parker has a role to play in our season,” he said.

“He knows that and I think we all know that.

“It’s obviously going to be a bit later than what we’d hoped, but the story hasn’t ended, if that’s what you’re asking.”