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A hellish May has the Giants staring at a lost AFL season, or worse

Leon Cameron, Senior Coach of the Giants looks on during the 2017 AFL Second Preliminary Final match between the Richmond Tigers and the GWS Giants at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on September 23, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)
Expert
27th May, 2018
100
2026 Reads

They’ve been wrecked by injuries. But that’s not the whole story. The GWS Giants aren’t the team we expected they would be, and their season is rapidly slipping away.

The pressure will come the way of Greater Western Sydney this week, because that’s just how this caper works. The pundits will look at where we were, where we thought we’d be, and where we are now, and wonder how it could come to this. They are questions that the Giants will need to answer – my two cents are above.

Leon Cameron re-signed as GWS’ head coach last year, extending a previous contract end date of 2018 to 2020. At the time, GWS were sitting third on the ladder, despite being in the midst of a more significant injury crisis than the one which has plagued them this year. We knew what the Giants were then. Now, with ten rounds of evidence under our belt, we cannot be so sure.

Make no mistake, the Giants displayed some of the worst form in the competition over the month of May. They went 0-4 with a percentage of 57.5 per cent, numbers which harken back to the days of Folau and Cornes and Palmer and McDonald.

Leon Cameron

(Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

For any other team on four wins (and a draw) through ten games, this might be a eulogy. But it isn’t for the Giants, because we know what they are capable of. Two successive preliminary finals, beaten by the eventual premier in both, and a list profile suggestive of a more traditional team’s apex. This isn’t how it was supposed to go.

And for the Giants, the worst bit of it is their malaise goes beyond the availability of key players, and gets to a loss of their football identity.

That’s not to underplay player availability. The injuries hurt, and for GWS perhaps moreso than for any team other than Adelaide and Carlton. The Giants have been without two of their most important ball movers, Zac Williams and Tom Scully, for all but 30 minutes of the 2018 season. They’re also missing Nathan Wilson from their renowned slice-and-dice unit. The Giants haven’t really been able to replace them.

Heath Shaw hasn’t been able to pick up the slack, and rightly so perhaps given he’s 32 years old. Lachie Whitfield has been shifted back to help out, but it has come at the cost of reducing his influence in the forward half. Otherwise it has been left to the tall defenders to create some drive coming out of defensive 50; GWS can do that because their tall defenders are among the most skilful with the ball in hand in the game.

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Defence isn’t the Giants’ issue. They’re sixth for points conceded per game through ten rounds, and are conceding scores on fewer than 40 per cent of opposition inside 50 entries – the best mark in the league.

It isn’t their midfield either. GWS has maintained their edge around the clinches, and have a very healthy +9.1 adjusted contested possession differential on the year. They’re dead even on clearances (through nine games, pending a data update) too. Here, player availability has been far less of an issue: Stephen Coniglio, Callan Ward, Dylan Shiel and 2016 Pick Two Tim Taranto have played every game.

2017 All Australian Josh Kelly has missed more than half of the season and has looked far from healthy for much of the time he has played. That certainly hurts, but it’s like taking the dessert off of a five-course meal: it should still be enough.

We cannot say the same about the forward half, of course. Injuries and absence have played their part here too. Toby Greene has played three games due to injury. Jonathon Patton has barely spent time as the focal point forward due to form. Rory Lobb has been injured, and shouldered more of the ruck burden following the retirement of Shane Mumford. There’s been lack of continuity, too. It has manifested in the Giants collapsing from 95 points per game scoring in 2017 to 76.9 in 2018.

Jonathon Patton

Jonathon Patton (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

The Giants’ forward half woes are both a symptom and underlying cause of their confused football identity. Gone is the daring corridor-centric play of 2016 and 2017 – the overlap run, the long kicks to leading forwards, the side steps and shimmies by the star-laden midfield. It has been replaced by tentative shorter kicks and a tendency to handball when confronted with some frontal pressure.

In losing about 20 points per game of offensive potency, GWS has lost its way altogether. I’d fancy Champion Data statistics would probably say the Giants are scoring less frequently from both stoppages and possession chains which begin in their defensive half – both the hallmarks of a team with precision skills and a clear game plan.

They are breaking down around centre and in the forward half, and it is leading to a near-total discombobulation.

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There is time to patch things up. The Giants have been slowly piecing together their best 22 as the season has progressed, but it remains some way off being fully formed. That was the case last season too; the Giants fell at the penultimate hurdle after they overcame their injury challenges in the final rounds of the year.

The Giants have the third toughest fixture to come, according to my strength of schedule calculations. In their favour are four games against the current bottom four. Out of their favour are two trips to Adelaide, a trip to Perth to play West Coast, a date with the reigning premier and a Round 23 away game against Melbourne at the MCG. Boy that’s tough, and it’s not as though the Giants have had it all their way fixture wise so far in 2018.

We cannot write the GWS Giants’ 2018 season off the books. We know what the team is capable of when it gets its act together. But time is rapidly running out for that to take place.