I’ve frequently rolled my eyes at media analyses of Greater Western Sydney and their shortcomings as a footy club.
When Amanda Farrugia announced her retirement from the AFLW in November last year, it left many fans shocked.
Farrugia, or ‘Fridge’ as she is more affectionately known, had become synonymous with the growth of women’s footy in New South Wales.
When people think of Greater Western Sydney, they think of Fridge. This is partly due to her fierce and competitive nature, but also the leadership she has shown, demonstrating to young women across the state that AFL is a sport they can aspire to play.
But the retirement didn’t come as a shock just to fans.
Alicia Eva, who has since been appointed skipper for 2020, only learned of the news a couple of days before the rest of the squad.
“Towards the end of last year, I knew she was thinking about whether she would continue, but she backed up her performance in the AFLW with a best and fairest award for the Sydney competition,” says Eva.
“She was playing high-quality footy and I think that’s why it came as quite a shock to a number of us.
“I found out a couple of days before she announced it to the rest of the group. In those couple of days I tried to talk her out of it or give her another option but when she made up her mind she was pretty relieved. It was something she had been thinking about for several weeks so it was a real weight off her shoulders.”
But with the departure of Farrugia, that has given Eva the opportunity to captain the club. Eva concedes that Farrugia has left big shoes to fill but hopes to take some of the learnings from Farrugia’s leadership and create her own unique style.
“She is the most eloquent and well-spoken leader I have ever come across and she really commands a room when she speaks. This is something I want to develop in a footy sense but also in other areas of my life,” says Eva.
“Fridge also taught me a lot about resilience. I come from Victoria, which is the mecca of AFL. Everyone embraces the game there. Then I came to Sydney and realised how much harder it is. Fridge has led from the front in terms of growing the game across NSW and has helped create a really strong brand for our club.”
As a club, the GWS Giants have faced some challenges, but have also had some real success since the club entered the AFL back in 2012. The men’s team made their first grand final last year, the club was the first in NSW to be awarded a license in the AFLW, they have added a netball team into the fold and last year broke their all-time membership record, passing 25,000 members for the second consecutive year.
But given the newness of AFL to many people in NSW, there have been some challenges that the Giants have had to overcome, including the number of players that have joined the club from interstate or even overseas.
Despite the AFLW pre-season being quite long in comparison to the length of the season itself, with that many players coming to the club from all over the country it means that the team didn’t have very long to connect. This is a real area of focus for the team this year.
“After last season we reflected on what we did right and what didn’t go so well. The big piece was connection,” says Eva.
“Fifty per cent of our list comes from interstate and that gives us a real challenge. How do we get women together for such a short space of time and educate them, up-skill them and bring them together on game day? We probably didn’t get that connection piece right last year, purely because there aren’t enough hours in the day.”
To combat this challenge, the Giants made the decision to field a VFL team in the 2019 competition. This team didn’t play for premiership points, but instead were an invitational team and played five games against Victorian clubs last year.
The decision to introduce this team has already made a difference for the Giants, with players like Emily Goodsir and Lisa Steane stepping up from that side and being drafted by the Giants.
For Eva, this pathway is crucial.
“For clubs that have always had a VFL affiliate team, they could continue their player education across 12 months,” she says.
“Prior to our team being introduced, we only had our players together for four to five months. Your list can change dramatically as a result of player movement and the draft so it was almost like we were starting again every year.
“With our VFL affiliate team in place last year, we could continue that education year-round and make sure that we were connected as a team at a much earlier stage.”
The Giants have lofty goals for season 2020. The goal for each club will of course be to win the premiership but for Eva and her squad there are some other key focuses for the upcoming season.
“We have had two practice games so far and what we’ve taken from them is that we thing we are further ahead in terms of our fitness and how we are moving the ball compared to this time last year,” says Eva.
“But in saying that, there are still some areas we need to refine and some areas we are looking forward to getting right this weekend. It has been a long pre-season, as is the nature of the AFLW when you have such a short season, but we can’t wait to get into it.”
The GWS Giants commence their 2020 AFLW campaign against the Gold Coast Suns on Saturday at 1.10pm at Blacktown International Sports Park.