‘This hasn’t happened since he was in primary school!’
Greater Western Sydney may have thwarted the AFL in giving neutral and casual footy fans a glamour match-up for grand final day, but debates still rages as to how the Giants will fare against the Tigers on Saturday at the MCG.
Most people don’t place GWS in the position of lifting the premiership cup.
Arguments often range from, “How long can the Giants keep the game close?” to “Can GWS avoid a ten-goal shellacking?”
This does a great disservice to Leon Cameron’s team, to presume that his charges are nothing but a pack of sacrificial lambs, doomed to an inevitable slaughter on the day.
Three weeks ago, many pundits and writers – including this one, guilty as charged – had written off the Giants’ chances, claiming that after the last few years of finals disappointments, their premiership window was closing.
However, in each of the last three weeks, they have taken out the Western Bulldogs, Brisbane and Collingwood by playing tight, down-and-dirty, contested footy combined with kicking timely goals from Jeremy Cameron and Jeremy Finlayson, among others.
And this is more than another episode of the “if it bleeds, we can kill it” mentality – recalling Leigh Matthews’ channelling of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator – when Brisbane upset a seemingly invincible Essendon in 2001’s premiership decider.
Granted, GWS may be the biggest grand final underdog – bar the Western Bulldogs, a team they knocked out on this path, against Sydney three years ago – in the last 18 years since the Lions started their three-in-a-row championship run with that win over the Bombers.
But what Leon Cameron has instilled in his Giants side is one huge intangible: self belief.
And just like their matches over the last three weeks, they believe that they can win against an all-conquering Richmond side that launched a 40-point second-half turnaround to beat Geelong in the preliminary final after beating Brisbane by 47 points in the qualifying final.
A daunting task lies ahead of the Giants – but it is not an impossible one.
Since losing to Richmond at the MCG in Round 17, GWS won four of their last six games to close out the home-and-away season – some of the wins were close, while the losses came by big margins. But September footy can be a season renewed, and the finals have given the Giants and their fortunes a new lease on life.
Their commitment to fight for each other – and in Toby Greene’s case, that’s taken quite literally – to play hard, determined, tight contested football suits a just reward for Leon Cameron’s tactical intent to get the most out his squad’s strengths, especially with the likes of key players Steven Coniglio and Lachie Whitfield out through long- and short-term injuries, and wayward star Greene suspended last week after back-to-back weeks of tribunal appearances.
Greene and Whitfield are both expected to return for the grand final, but Coniglio admitted on Wednesday that he would not be fit enough from a serious knee injury incurred two months ago – coincidentally enough – against Richmond.
Losing the key midfielder represents a setback at training for Leon Cameron, despite the apparent additions of Greene and Whitfield. Those additions, however, give the Giants an explosive edge over more than just the occasional spurt that they have lacked in recent weeks.
Don’t think GWS are capable of playing anything but tight contested footy, and can get beaten by the best in an open game of footy? Think back to Round 3, and they beat these very Tigers by 49 points in a game where Jeremy Cameron kicked seven goals and Finlayson tacked on five majors of his own. And that was a match where there was no pressure on them… just as this one should be.
No one expects the Giants to win. Maybe they’re just happy to be there, or perhaps they’ll grow richer as a team for their first grand final experience – not bad for a club that is only completing its eighth season. No pressure.
If that’s the case, they can soak in the glory of the moment, such is the experience. But they can revel in it as well.
Which leads us into the analysis of Richmond, winners of 11 games in a row – finals included – since a Round 13 loss to Adelaide back in June.
As much as the ability to play with joy, freedom and carefree abandon may reflect what GWS may do on Saturday, it would seem that only complacency would doom the Tigers from what would seem a foregone conclusion of their second flag in the past three seasons.
Richmond will play as many will expect them to: looking for Dustin Martin, playing in perhaps the best form of his glittering career. Dion Prestia will benefit from the centre hit-outs, Bachar Houli will build attacks off half back, and Jack Riewoldt and Tom Lynch are waiting to take leaping marks inside 50. And Jason Castagna, Daniel Rioli, Dylan Grimes and Trent Cotchin will also play vital supporting roles, especially in attack.
So for the Tigers, it’s the usual cast of characters, doing the usual deeds, and in what is expected to be in the usual manner, with the usual results.
But how many times, especially in the recent past, has an AFL grand final thrown up an unusual result? This match may not actually be a foregone conclusion after all.
The Giants may turn this game on its head if several things happen.
If Shane Mumford gets the better of Ivan Soldo and Toby Nankervis in the ruck.
If Phil Davis can inspire those around him in defense to contend successfully with the opposing forward line partnership of Riewoldt and Lynch.
If Matt de Boer can pull off another supreme tagging effort to stymie Martin’s impact on the game’s affairs.
And if Greene can overcome his recent personal demons to apply himself as the x-factor in the biggest game of his life.
That’s a lot of ifs. However, if one writes off the Giants’ chances, they do so at their own peril.
Don’t count them out, especially with the results Leon Cameron has been able to carve out over the last few weeks. Besides, the Giants have plenty of self belief and the feeling of no pressure.