Will GWS Giants or Gold Coast taste success first?
GWS Giants coach Kevin Sheedy (Slattery Images)
The Gold Coast Suns have had two years in the AFL to perform, the Greater Western Sydney Giants just one. Both won the wooden spoon in their first years, 2011 and 2012, respectively.
No surprise really given the lack of senior experience spread across the two clubs.
Looking at the last two years, I can’t see either club achieving success in the short term just yet.
Combined, the two clubs have won just eight out of a possible 66 AFL matches since the Gold Coast Suns were admitted into the AFL in 2011. The Suns won three matches in both 2011 and 2012, and the Giants just two last year.
Fans of both clubs need to learn that success will not come in an instant. The Fremantle Dockers are a strong example of this.
They entered the competition in 1995 but it wasn’t until 2003 when they first came to prominence with their first finals appearance that year.
Before that breakthrough year, the Dockers endured some tough years, including a wooden spoon in 2001 and a 17-match losing streak to start that season (18 if you include a final round loss in the 2000 season).
The coach at the time, Damian Drum, was sacked in the middle of this losing streak and replaced with Ben Allan.
The team was struggling to put anything together but it wasn’t until the final five rounds of the season that they would really start to click.
Exciting victories over Hawthorn in round 17 and Adelaide in Round 22 (both clubs eventually reached the finals) saw the end to one of the darkest periods in the club’s history.
The Dockers have enjoyed finals in four of the eleven completed seasons since, but there was also a dark period between 2008 and 2009 as well.
This proves that to gain long-term success, a team must endure long-term pain. Other teams like the West Coast Eagles and Carlton have also endured tough periods at the bottom before becoming the teams that they are now.
This is the task facing both the Gold Coast Suns and the GWS Giants. Looking at the two teams very closely, I think GWS have the more experienced management, and a well-planned future, with Kevin Sheedy, a four-time premiership coach with Essendon, to relinquish his role as coach and hand the clipboard to Leon Cameron, a former Hawthorn assistant coach, in 2014.
The Giants have planned their future well, whereas the Gold Coast Suns have been clouded by speculation involving its head coach Guy McKenna and the certain criteria he needs to meet (such as number of wins in a season) in order to survive at the club.
First, I’ll look at the Gold Coast Suns. When they were approved as an official AFL team in 2008, the Suns already set about targeting certain players, which included St Kilda’s Gold Coast-raised captain Nick Riewoldt, Hawthorn superstar Lance Franklin, now-Sydney Swan Kurt Tippett and Geelong’s Gary Ablett.
Of these players, only Ablett was successful in being lured to the holiday strip. Other names to join the Suns included NRL convert Karmichael Hunt, Jared Brennan, Michael Rischitelli, David Swallow and Campbell Brown, among others.
It was a very impressive recruitment raid by the Suns, but whether they could perform in the one team remained to be seen.
Guy McKenna was appointed the club’s inaugural head coach. McKenna was previously a captain at the West Coast Eagles (coached by Mick Malthouse at the time) and was an assistant coach at Collingwood under Malthouse.
McKenna had never previously coached at the highest level so the Suns’ decision to appoint him as head coach was a bit of a gamble.
He spent two years preparing the Suns for the vigours of AFL in the TAC Cup (2009) and the VFL (2010), and by 2011 it appeared as if the Suns were ready. Or were they?
Their debut match was in round two, 2011 against Carlton. Unfortunately, it also happened to be the same match in which its captain Chris Judd would celebrate his 200th AFL match.
The Suns had no answers to the experience of the Blues and were walloped by 20 goals. But it didn’t take them long to win their first AFL match, against Port Adelaide in round five.
It almost didn’t happen after the Suns had their big lead cut down and only a failed post-siren shot for goal from Port’s Justin Westhoff saved the Suns and they were triumphant in an AFL match for the first time.
Success, as expected, was limited for the Suns in 2011, but the superstar status of Gary Ablett did not diminish and the Suns won three matches for the year; their two other wins were against the Brisbane Lions in round seven and against Richmond in round 18.
Blowout losses were also suffered, none more so than 139 and 150-point losses to Essendon and Geelong respectively.
Despite that, the 2011 season was still considered a success, given the Suns were able to win three matches and Gary Ablett continued to carve up teams.
Their 2012 season didn’t start well and by the middle of the season they were without a victory in fourteen starts.
That was until they travelled up to Cairns, the venue of their last victory, against Richmond.
They were down by 10 points with 30 seconds remaining, until some tactical and smart decision making saw them pull off a miraculous victory which was capped off by a post-siren goal from league convert Karmichael Hunt.
Again, they won three matches in the year and again Gary Ablett continued to dominate against teams, to the point where he won three votes in many matches which the Suns lost, most of them by heavy margins.
Ablett has stated this off-season that the Suns aim to win a premiership within the next five years.
I don’t mean to criticise the club and its long-term plans, but I can’t see that happening anytime soon, given the lack of experience in most of this team.
However as the years progress the Suns will soon become a genuine premiership team, and it might not be long until we see them playing in September.
Now, I’ll assess the Greater Western Sydney Giants. The AFL’s foray into Sydney’s western suburbs was being considered as a great risk, given the NRL clubs that are based there (Parramatta, Penrith and the Wests Tigers).
The idea of a second Sydney team was raised in the wake of the Sydney Swans’ 2005 premiership success, which ended the longest premiership drought (72 years) in Australian sporting history.
Following several delays, including the 2008 economic crisis, the Giants were formally accepted in 2009 to enter the AFL in 2012.
The first big appointment they made was that of head coach Kevin Sheedy, a man who coached Essendon for 27 years and won four premierships in that period.
His experience would later prove valuable to the young players he would eventually recruit in the later years.
Among the big names they chased included Tom Scully, Callan Ward, Taylor Walker, Jimmy Bartel and Rhys Palmer, among others.
Scully, Ward and Palmer were successfully pursued by the club, and more experience was added with the arrivals of Port Adelaide pair Chad Cornes and Dean Brogan, as well as former Carlton forward Setanta O’ hAilpin.
Additionally, they signed Israel Folau from the NRL, an experiment which would later backfire as he is now back in rugby (union, that is). Again, whether they could perform in the same team remained to be seen.
I attended their first ever AFL match last year, against the Sydney Swans at ANZ Stadium. To this day, I still think the AFL were wrong to debut the Giants against their bigger brothers, as it almost certainly guaranteed a victory for the Bloods (they had not won a first round match since 2005).
Although the Giants put up a competitive effort, they lost by 63 points and it showed that they still had a very long way to go.
But their next match delivered a massive reality check – a 129-point defeat to North Melbourne, who were way experienced and way too good on that Sunday afternoon in Hobart.
However, the Giants would not have to wait long until their first AFL victory – and it was against fellow infants the Gold Coast Suns in Canberra.
Heavy losses were frequent during the season, but most of them were expected especially against AFL powerhouses Hawthorn, Collingwood, Adelaide and the Sydney Swans (all of whom finished in the top four in 2012).
Their only other victory during the season was against Port Adelaide in round 19, and it was that match that cost Matthew Primus his job.
The Giants’ victory was made all the more special given it was Kevin Sheedy’s 1,000th AFL match in any capacity and it was their first ever win at Skoda Stadium.
Eventually, as the Gold Coast Suns did in their first year, the Giants picked up the wooden spoon.
Again, not a surprising outcome given the lack of experience in the Giants’ team which will start to become much stronger and more experienced as the years advance by.
They have planned for the future very well, with Kevin Sheedy about to gear up for what could be his final season of AFL coaching before he hands it all over to Leon Cameron in 2014.
We have now seen first hand how tough AFL life can be for both the Gold Coast Suns and GWS Giants.
But as the years pass by, the two teams will be much more experienced and competitive and blowout losses like those we saw in the last two years will become less frequent.
Which of the two teams appear to be closer to more success? Could any of them even win the flag in the next decade? Only time will tell.