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From grand finalists to flag favourites to also-rans: the sad story behind the Giant downfall in 2020

Roar Guru
19th September, 2020
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Roar Guru
19th September, 2020
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It happened to the Adelaide Crows in 2018, and now it’s happened to the GWS Giants in 2020.

A season that had promised so much at the start of the year has instead ended in disappointment, with the GWS Giants failing to make the finals for the first time since 2015.

The Giants went into the year among one of the favourites for the flag after their miraculous run to the grand final last year, which ended in humiliation as they were put on the wrong end of a Dustin Martin and Jack Riewoldt masterclass from the Richmond Football Club.

The 89-point defeat, their heaviest in a finals match, led many to suggest that they would fall down the ladder this season, and that’s exactly what has happened.

But it appeared at first that the Giants would buck the trend when they so impressively defeated the Geelong Cats at an empty Giants Stadium in the opening round, which doubled as Stephen Coniglio’s first match as the club’s newest full-time captain.

That came on the back of an impressive preseason in which they defeated the Sydney Swans by nearly a hundred points before turning the tables on Richmond with a 14-point win in Wagga Wagga.

Then came the bombshell announcement from AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan that the season would be suspended for at least ten weeks as the coronavirus pandemic began to peak in Australia.

When the season eventually resumed, the Giants were slow to get going, suffering defeats to North Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs before putting their season back into the black with victories over Collingwood and Hawthorn, both at home.

However, inconsistency proved to be their Achilles’ heel for the remainder of the season, failing to win more than two consecutive matches and ultimately losing five of their last seven after their Round 11 bye to finish tenth on the ladder.

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Again, a crippling injury toll plagued the Giants’ fortunes, but so too have the extraordinary circumstances that affected the season as a whole, with the club forced out of Sydney after Round 8 when a second wave of coronavirus cases swept through the Harbour City.

They were forced to relocate to south-east Queensland to complete the season, and also had a three-match stint in Perth which ended with two disappointing losses to the Sydney Swans and West Coast Eagles before they defeated Fremantle in Round 14.

After the Round 12 loss to the Swans, in which they equalled their lowest-ever score of 3.7 (25), former St Kilda captain Nick Riewoldt, in commentary for Fox Footy, struck a line through the Giants saying they wouldn’t win the premiership in 2020.

Upon returning to the sunshine state, the Giants appeared to turn a corner when they defeated Carlton by nine points, but then came a frustrating two-goal loss to the Adelaide Crows which had many questioning the club’s mindset, attitude and commitment.

Captain Stephen Coniglio was dropped for the game against Melbourne, in which the Giants fought to the death but were ultimately pipped when Demon Trent Rivers slotted what proved to be the winning goal in the final quarter.

Stephen Coniglio

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

The club’s season from hell finally came to an end on Friday night when they failed to fire a shot after halftime in their match against St Kilda, being kept to only three goals, all in the first half, as they surrendered meekly by 52 points.

Unlike the Victorian clubs, the Giants (and Sydney Swans for that matter) were not granted the luxury of having their partners and families join them in the hubs, not least in Western Australia where the state’s hard border and strict quarantine protocols made it impossible.

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Still, having to spend two months away from home, not being able to play in front of their supporters in Sydney after Round 8, as well as having to do a long return cross of the country from Queensland to Perth, should not be accepted as excuses for the club’s failures in 2020.

Coach Leon Cameron said after the loss to the Saints that the club “rolled over” when their season was on the line, while also saying they failed to fire so much a shot all season, despite some impressive victories against the Geelong Cats, Collingwood and Richmond.

But you also have to question how they could’ve lost to the likes of North Melbourne (in Round 2), the Sydney Swans (in Round 12) and the Adelaide Crows (in Round 16) – teams that have finished in the bottom four on the ladder.

It must also be asked what the players really got up to during the COVID-19-enforced season lockdown, in which players could only train individually in their home states as strict restrictions on social gatherings were put in place by the state governments.

Chances are, if Cameron hadn’t officially signed a two-year contract extension at the start of the month, then the season-ending loss to the Saints could’ve been his final game as coach and that they’d be on the lookout for a new mentor.

The 48-year-old has now been at the helm for seven seasons, during which he built on the foundations laid by inaugural coach Kevin Sheedy and took them to their maiden finals series in 2016, falling a kick short of the Western Bulldogs in that epic preliminary final.

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But while they have remained up there among the contenders in subsequent years, and even made the grand final last year, the fact of the matter is that the club has actually regressed as the concessions afforded to them were gradually taken away from them.

Yes, they did finish in fourth, seventh and sixth in 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively, after finishing fourth in 2016, but their continually erratic performances on occasions, such as the two losses to Hawthorn last year and a ten-goal loss to Geelong in 2018, made cause for concern.

The club also severely missed the presence of assistant coach Matthew Nicks, who spent only one year as Cameron’s right-hand man before assuming the top job at the Adelaide Crows at the end of last season.

And worse will come with assistant coaches Lenny Hayes and Brad Miller to also depart the club as the economic impact of COVID-19 continues to bite in the AFL.

The Giants have now suffered the same fate as the Adelaide Crows (2017-18), Port Adelaide (2007-08) and Melbourne (2000-01) in the manner that they have fallen down the ladder and missed the finals in the season immediately following a heavy grand final loss.

The Crows, having been the best team of the 2017 season by a country mile, suffered embarrassment on the biggest stage when they were beaten by Richmond, while the Power suffered a record 119-point grand final defeat against the Geelong Cats in 2007.

We have seen what has happened at West Lakes following their grand final disappointment, with the Crows missing the finals for three consecutive seasons and coach Don Pyke stepping down as coach at the end of the 2019 season.

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Under first-year coach Nicks, the Crows struggled in the first half of the season for varying reasons including being relocated to the Gold Coast in the early part of the season before winning three consecutive matches after their Round 14 bye.

It also took several years for Port to psychologically and mentally recover from their 2007 grand final mauling, and it wasn’t until 2013 that they returned to the finals.

This year, however, they have been on top of the ladder for nearly the entire season and will be a team to watch in October as they shoot for their first premiership flag since 2004.

In the intervention, the club lurched from one crisis to another, being the first club to be beaten by the fledgeling Gold Coast Suns, suffering consecutive defeats of more than 138 points late in the 2011 season and only avoiding the wooden spoon in the final round.

It was a 34-point loss to the fledgeling Giants in late 2012 that prompted an overhaul in the top office, with Matthew Primus and Brett Duncanson losing their jobs and being succeeded by Ken Hinkley and David Koch, with both men remaining in their positions today.

Melbourne, on the other hand, dropped to 11th in 2001 – 12 months after they copped a ten-goal hiding from Essendon in the 2000 grand final in what remains their most recent appearance in the season’s summit match to date.

Back on topic, and already the fallout has begun at the GWS Giants, with ruckman Sam Jacobs announcing his immediate retirement from the AFL, while there are also clouds hanging over the futures of Shane Mumford and Heath Shaw, with neither likely to play on next year.

Dustin Martin Heath Shaw Richmond Tigers GWS Giants AFL 2017

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

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If Shaw does call time, then he will bow out having played 325 AFL games, and leave a massive gaping hole in the Giants’ defence, which has been for the better of his presence in orange and charcoal after having joined the club from Collingwood in 2014.

Many have argued that he played on for one season too many, having said he would retire immediately had the Giants been victorious on grand final day last year.

Mumford would pull stumps for a second time after having been brought out of retirement in 2019 when the club were short on ruck stocks, which now has Kieren Briggs and Matthew Flynn, neither of whom have yet to play an AFL game.

The other major talking point is whether full-forward Jeremy Cameron will re-sign with the club, with reports that he could be on the way out, possibly heading to the Geelong Cats as a replacement for the ageing Tom Hawkins.

Aidan Corr has exercised his free-agency rights and walked out on the club before the season-ending loss to St Kilda, while Zac Williams is also on the way out too with Carlton and North Melbourne chasing his services.

Their departures would continue the massive culling of the GWS playing list, which in recent years has lost Taylor Adams, Adam Treloar, Will Hoskin-Elliott, Jack Steele, Dylan Shiel and Tom Scully, among others, as the club sought to get under the salary cap.

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As part of the club’s entry into the AFL, it was expected that by last year, all draft concessions granted to the club would be removed and that they operate just like every other club in the league.

It will now remain to be seen how the Giants fare going forward; with the expectation that things will return to normal or near-normal in 2021 (i.e. no need to hub elsewhere, a return to 20-minute quarters, etc.), the time for excuses will be well and truly over.

Another season without finals and surely Leon Cameron could be on the way out at the end of next year, and a rebuild similar to the Adelaide Crows almost certain.

Meantime, the club’s Suncorp Super Netball side has failed to make the finals for the second year running, having not been able to play a single game at their refurbished new home venue, Ken Rosewall Arena, this season, instead hubbing in Brisbane, Adelaide and Cairns.

Their narrow loss to West Coast Fever means they’ll finish no higher than fifth with one round to play in the netball season.

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