Rise and shine! Why the best teams take it easy until August

Tim Lane Columnist

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    It’s one of those perennial, cute clichés that in many-a-season is dusted off at about this time. Usually, it’s employed as a Hawthorn-type, or maybe Sydney, begins to give the impression of smelling some early spring blossom in the air towards the end of a sluggish mid-winter.

    It’s noticeable, as great teams age, how giants are inclined to sleep a little longer and deeper.

    Early on in their reign of terror, they can’t get enough of winning footy matches. They gorge on inferior opposition. They seek and destroy.

    Then they grow older… and a lot smarter.

    Think Geelong from the start of their streak of domination early in the second month of the 2007 season until sometime in 2009. Problem was, the Cats tripped up in the last game of what was their best year: 2008.

    The 23 wins and 161.8 percentage racked up through that unparalleled season meant nothing on grand final day. This was the most bitter pill swallowed by any club, at least since Melbourne fell over against Collingwood in 1958.

    But the Cats learnt from it and won smart against a better team in 2009. After 19 rounds that year they were three games behind St Kilda, but the old heads had come to realise there was only one month, and one game, that really mattered.

    Another sleeping giant? Think Hawthorn in 2015, the third year of the three-peat.

    The Hawks were unable to gain a home final on the first week of that September and, when they lost to West Coast in Perth, were condemned to a second trans-Nullarbor trip on Week 3.

    They looked cooked. Yet the job was eventually done so easily you wondered why there had ever been a scintilla of doubt.

    Hawthorn Hawks 2015 AFL Grand Final Premiership Flag

    AAP Image/Julian Smith

    Of course, even giants eventually become vulnerable. The Cats and Hawks are currently trying to recapture the glory of bygone times and it isn’t easy. It’s all part of the cycle of football life. Meanwhile, other teams are forging a path to greatness the way these two did in their time.

    There are those who have done a lot of hard yards and are still there with a chance, and there are those who have been round the block once or twice.

    Look at them. This year, contenders must tread warily for there are giants slumbering, almost invisibly, under every second beanstalk. What had previously been a once-every-couple-of-season phenomenon has, in 2017, become a pattern.

    There is, of course, Sydney which wasn’t so much dozing as lying totally anaesthetised through the first six weeks of the season. This was a giant which appeared to have been enjoying a dream just a little too much and slept through the alarm.

    Suddenly the awakening came, though, and with renewed consciousness came urgency. The 2017 season may be viewed, when it’s all done and dusted, as the year of the startled Swan.

    Then there’s the Western Bulldogs. Last year, Luke Beveridge nursed his crew into a lowly spot in the finals’ mix before unleashing them in September. Is it about to happen again? For weeks they’d been fading away, but suddenly they’ve strung together four wins. You can’t rule it out.

    Then there’s the other team of sleeping giants. Correction: sleeping Giants.

    Through three months and 13 matches, Greater Western Sydney had won only one game by more than 16 points. Of those 13, they lost four and drew two. It was the sort of consistently underwhelming form, notwithstanding injuries, to suggest Leon Cameron’s team had regressed.

    And still, the jury remains out.

    Yet, last week’s sudden reversal against Melbourne gave the first hint the young giant may be awakening. Without their three leading scorers – no one in Saturday’s team has more than 16 goals for the season – and after conceding the first three goals of the game, suddenly the Giants rose and roared.

    Has the emphasis given by shrewd coaches to the April-to-August phase, relative to the September change-up, been re-evaluated? Or is it simply that the concept of being a sleeping giant has suddenly gained popularity? They’re good questions.

    Whatever, if you like seeing giants really go for each other – with everything they can muster – Etihad Stadium this Friday night is the place to be. The Dogs and the Giants just might be the most instructive game of the season so far.

    Tim Lane
    Tim Lane

    Tim Lane is one of the most respected voices in Australian sport, having gained a strong following for his weekly AFL column in The Age. Tim has also called 32 AFL/VFL grand finals and was behind the microphone for Cathy Freeman's memorable gold medal at the Sydney Olympics. You can catch him on Twitter @TimLaneSport.