The sleeping Giants are waking up, just in time to ruin everything

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By , Ryan Buckland is a Roar Expert

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    Vale, the most even season in living memory. We hardly knew you. The Greater Western Sydney Giants, this year’s flag fancy from the minute last season was a wrap, have awoken from their winter slumber.

    For the Giants, the last 20 weeks of football mean nothing. For the Giants, the last 20 weeks of football mean everything.

    You would be forgiven for thinking a team which mustered a win and two draws over a six-week stretch was out of form and struggling to hold its place in the top eight. Said team also had a six-week stretch immediately prior to this one where it went 4-0 in close games and managed one additional win.

    Neither of these form lines scream premiership contender. Yet here we are, with three rounds to go, and the GWS Giants sit comfortably on the second line of premiership betting, only overtaken by the team which sits a comfy game-and-a-half plus 26 percentage points above them.

    And even then, the gap is not enormous, perhaps reflecting that once you’re in the top two it doesn’t really matter which spot you’re in.

    Is it respect? Fear? Or acknowledgement of the frankly bonkers path the league’s newest club has traversed in 2017? From the clubs, it is surely the former; the fans, probably Option B; for everyone, it should be the latter.

    The Giants have endured injury, absence, and a tough, travel-heavy fixture, only to emerge from the first 20 rounds of the season with the equivalent of 13 wins and the league’s third-best percentage. The first two of those elements of their year look set to almost fully correct themselves from this weekend, while their remaining three games appear a little less menacing than they did six weeks ago, on account of how the year has unfolded.

    Devon Smith GWS Giants AFL 2017 tall

    (AAP Image/Craig Golding)

    Their name is pencilled into a double chance, and a win over the weekend will go a long way to locking the Giants into the top two and home-field advantage – whatever that means in the context of a league which seems to be growing dangerously comfortable with the idea of sacrificing competition integrity to the altar of gate revenue.

    How do we mash these two incongruent pieces together? On one hand, the Giants have won in circumstances which should have led to their demise. On the other, they are about to reach the crest of a wave that will carry them through the next eight weeks of football.

    Chopping and changing
    Everyone knows about Greater Western Sydney’s challenges with injury and absenteeism this season. For all the talk of the quality of the team’s list at the top end, coach Leon Cameron and his crew have had to plumb the depths of their talent pool to make it to where they are now.

    The Giants have used 37 players this season, the most of any team inside the top eight (albeit only by one or two over most teams). Just four players (Dylan Shiel, Callan Ward, Heath Shaw and Adam Tomlinson) have played all 19 games, second only to the Cats (three) and less than half of the charmed Port Adelaide Power (11).

    What’s more, the Giants have turned to plenty of new talent, with nine of their 37 players making their club debut in 2017 – and five of these making their AFL debuts. GWS has also made at least one change to its line up every round this season, including four changes in Round 19 and five in Round 20. There will be at least one change this round, with Shane Mumford missing due to suspension.

    Champion Data calculated the Giants had lost 145 games to injury in the first 17 rounds of the season (the most in the competition), and had the highest points per game lost (a calculation that presumably takes the calculated output of a lost player and subtracts it from the worst player who played in a game that the injured player would have otherwise played in).

    These are the marks of a team rolling from crisis to crisis, not a team sitting on the second line of premiership betting. Even then, as the old adage goes, through crisis comes opportunity.

    The Giants’ first pick in last year’s draft, Tim Taranto, missed one game from Round 1 through to an injury in Round 14, looking at home on the half forward line as one of GWS’s plethora of plug-and-play link-up men.

    The additions of Tendai Mzungu and Matt de Boer look more astute by the month, both adding reliability and endurance. Aidan Corr, who has held his spot in the team since it was discovered Matt Buntine had an undiagnosed ACL tear after Round 2, has surely given Giants HQ comfort that the weakest spot on their list has some depth.

    Zac Williams has played further up the ground and looked a likely pinch hitting midfielder – although the more time he spends down back hitting guys on lateral leads with 50-metre bombs, the better as far as I’m concerned.

    However, the days of fill-ins and role players are almost at an end.

    In Round 10, the Giants had just ten of what I would have considered their pre-season best 22 in the lineup. In the round just past, that hit a joint season-high of 18 (the other two times it happened were Round 2 and Round 5), and came despite the absence of key forwards Jeremy Cameron and Jonathon Patton.

    Also missing were Toby Greene, who returns this week from a two-week suspension, and Matt Buntine, who is out for the year with a knee injury. As above, Mumford misses this week, but with Greene to return and Patton listed as a test, it is likely the Giants will face the Western Bulldogs with their strongest line up of the year.

    Toby Greene GWS Giants Greater Western Sydney Giants AFL 2016

    (AAP Image/David Moir)

    A timely reminder
    The Dogs are the second stop of what loomed as a four-week road trip through football hell at the start of the season. GWS hosted the Dees in Canberra over the weekend just past, travel to the Dogs this weekend, host West Coast in Western Sydney in Round 22, and finish their year with a trip to Kardinia Park.

    It was intended, I’m sure (or speculating) to be the capstone on a remarkably difficult on-paper schedule. The Giants have travelled to Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, Hobart, Launceston, and Kardinia Park – indeed, the only regular AFL ground the Giants will not have visited by the end of the season is Metricon Stadium on the Gold Coast.

    GWS was also scheduled to double up on Sydney, Geelong, West Coast, the Dogs and Richmond, which loomed as the toughest run of double ups in the league.

    We say ‘on paper’ because ultimately the Giants’ fixture has largely been a wash. GWS has played the seventh strongest fixture to date, worth just 0.7 points of handicap a week (or about one percentage point of percentage). The league’s apparent attempt to throw a roadblock in front of their runaway freight train via their most powerful regulatory instrument failed.

    Not that it looks like it will matter in the end. Against Melbourne, the Giants reminded the competition just how potent, threatening and dangerous they are when everything falls into place.

    After conceding the first three goals of the game, the Giants went on a tear, scoring 11 times and conceding a rushed behind in 18 minutes from the 12-minute mark of the first quarter to bury the Demons before they had a chance to respond. It was football played the way we had come to expect from the league’s newest club.

    The Giants had the wind, but that only amplified their already blistering outside ball movement. They set up with spare man behind the play and, absent their two key forwards, played a full game of small ball.

    Rory Lobb played as a decoy, taking no marks inside 50 and kicking no direct scores. It was a streaky start, with a handful of flying shots at goal which broke truly, but even then the Giants’ ball movement to move from the middle of the ground to their attacking zone was as fluid as it has been since the start of the season.

    GWS were relentless when they were without the ball, as they had been all year. The Giants are sixth in the league for tackles laid per minute of opposition possession (1.39, or 70.8 per 50 minutes), and are a clear number one on adjusted tackle differential (+9.3 per 50 minutes). Against the Dees, they laid a phenomenal 121.8 tackles per 50 minutes of opposition possession, out-tackling their opponents by more than 30 on this basis.

    By quarter time, it was done. And the rest of the competition perked up, reached for the bottle of booze, and realised that the Giants had awoken.

    Ironing out the kinks
    It was one quarter, but it was the third straight week where the Giants have looked like we expected they would look coming into the year. There was the first quarter against Richmond in Round 18, a game the Giants ultimately lost once the Tigers were able to put them through the meat grinder and the rain started falling.

    There was the final quarter against a young Fremantle, where GWS had 14 scoring shots to two (nine of them behinds). And there was the first quarter against Melbourne.

    What’s gone wrong? It’s hard to go past the continuity issues as an explanation. The Giants are at their best when running in waves and creating overlap opportunities; their slingshot football complements their strong work at clearances and spoil-happy defence. With absenteeism hitting their forward line particularly hard, that flow would have been much harder to build.

    The loss of Stephen Coniglio to two bouts of an ankle injury has undoubtedly had an outsize impact on the midfield. A flexible inside-outside midfielder, Coniglio is comfortable playing almost every role bar the key positions; his foot skills are suited to both attack and defence, and his body work at stoppages is among the best in the competition.

    Coniglio is quick of foot and mind, and has a hair-trigger handball that creates time and space for his teammates. His return allows Dylan Shiel, Josh Kelly and Lachie Whitfield to spend more time on the outside of the play, and takes the heat off Callan Ward to win the bulk of clearances. In Round 19 and 20, Coniglio led the Giants’ clearance count with nine in each game.

    Jeremy Cameron GWS Giants AFL 2017

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    The Giants have scrambled well down back, making up for the loss of critical piece Matt Buntine (from my perspective) and the loss for a significant chunk of the season of Nick Haynes. The aforementioned Corr has made good on his draft pedigree after finding himself stuck behind the rest of the Giants’ defensive set.

    Adam Tomlinson has quietly emerged as one of the best young key defenders in the game, after starting his career as a utility forward-wingman, learning the art of the spoil from Picasso himself, Phil Davis. Their small defenders, Nathan Wilson and Zac Williams, are two of the most incisive and threatening attacking kickers in the game, which the rest of the competition has cottoned on to after the duo were able to slip under the radar for much of the past 18 months.

    Continuity takes time to build, but fortunately for the Giants, they have three more games to work their first choice team into form. With the impending return of their remaining pieces, they look to be reaching full power at the pointy end of the year.

    Where will it take them? We will have a firm idea after Friday night. The Dogs have played themselves into some form, but the Giants have the game to match them in tight; neither side would put their forward lines up in lights as a strength, while the Giants settled back line is in stark contrast to the very raw unit of last year’s premiers.

    GWS should make good on their favouritism, particularly on the flashes of peak form we’ve seen in the past three weeks. From there a win against a fast-fading West Coast will follow, and the Cats might cease to exist as a football club by Round 23 if we believe recent media reports.

    A top-four spot looks a certainty, and a top two spot well within reach. From there, the Giants – this year’s premiership certainty that suddenly wasn’t – could run the slate and win it all anyway.

    For all the consternation about how stacked GWS looked coming in, which gave way to relief at fleeting signs of mortality around the middle of the year, here we are, with three rounds remaining in the most even of seasons, with the team everyone thought would win it all in a position to do just that.

    Football is a funny game.

    Ryan Buckland
    Ryan Buckland

    As an economist, Ryan seeks to fix the world's economic troubles one graph at a time. As a sports fan, he's always looking one or two layers beneath the surface to search for meaning, on and off the field. You can follow Ryan here.