GWS aren’t the first team to suffer a grand final humiliation and not play finals the next year.
Adelaide haven’t recovered from losing to Richmond by 48 points as warm favourites in 2017. Port lost to Geelong by 119 points in 2007 and didn’t finish higher than tenth in the next five years, sacking two coaches along the way. Collingwood finished 13th and 15th after Brisbane gave them a ten-goal hiding in 2003. Melbourne tumbled to 11th after Essendon did a demolition job on them in 2000.
But none of that previous AFL history should hide that the Giants have been shown up as a broken and barely functioning football club in 2020.
Their performance against St Kilda on Friday was an insipid way to the end the season – three goals for an entire game and none after halftime. They had the chance to come out and show some spirit in the third quarter, trailing by only nine points, yet could score only one behind off their own boot for the entire term.
In truth GWS weren’t a worthy grand finalist last year. A mediocre 13-win home-and-away season was obscured by three finals wins, two of them by less than a goal where the opposition had more scoring shots.
They weren’t a great deal better in 2017 and 2018 either, 14 and 13 wins in each year respectively. While plenty of teams would take that, principally Essendon, better things were expected from the Giants.
GWS are judged on their 2016 season when they finally matured in their fifth year since inception, having steadily improved along the way.
Think back to how alive they felt that year when running on pure talent.
It was 16 wins and a percentage of 143. A thumping qualifying final win over top side and premiership favourites Sydney before going down swinging to eventual premiers Western Bulldogs in one of the great preliminary finals. They averaged 108 points for in the home-and-away games that year, conceding only 76.
The Giants were high-octane. Dazzling. Brilliant. But with a steel too. At least they had an identity then.
Now they just feel stale. Tired. Turgid. The life has been coached out of them.
Since earning 64 premiership points in 2016, they have since recorded 60, 54, 52 and 32. Their slide has been steady, and each season along the way they have become more unwatchable than the last.
Is it too simplistic to say that great talent drove GWS to their peak and poor coaching has seen them slide ever since? It may well be, but it’s also hard to deny. The Ferrari has turned into a Datsun 180B.
Some senior coaches exude footy knowledge and charisma. They are articulate and possess gravitas. You learn something when listening to them, and they make you think about the game a different way when they speak.
Leon Cameron is not one of them and never has been.
Others of the same ilk that come to mind from recent times are Alan Richardson, Mark Neeld and Scott Watters. The difference between Cameron and these former coaches is he is on track to coach more games than they did combined. He keeps getting re-signed as if he’s Norm Smith rather than the most banal coach in the game.
The Giants are like Geelong at the end of 2010 but with none of the success. They feel like a team that is just tired of each other, with their core having been together for many years. At the Cats, Mark Thompson moved on and Chris Scott came in to deliver another flag.
It’s still stunning that more moderately successful teams haven’t followed this blueprint and got the new coach spike from near the top of the ladder rather than from the cellar to mid-table.
The absolute no-brainer move for GWS was to get a new coach in there, put everyone on edge, get them out of their comfort zone. Instead the board sees fit to extend Leon Cameron for another two years.
No-one was knocking on the door to steal him away, which isn’t the worst measure to use when wondering whether to extend the contract of a coach.
After re-signing Cameron, the Giants played four games, beating Carlton despite kicking only two goals to three-quarter time, losing to wooden spooners Adelaide, coughing up a must-win game against Melbourne and not giving a yelp against St Kilda.
Not exactly a team playing for their coach, so in love with him that they were bursting to produce their best football upon the news that he was there for another two years.
This is where we tie in the dropping of captain Stephen Coniglio before the must-win Round 17 game against Melbourne. It was an unfathomably stupid decision, and any spin to the contrary is simply taking the piss.
There are several points to be made here.
Making a big statement is fine, but you do it weeks earlier, before you get to the must-win game, not on the eve of it. Leon Cameron bungled that one badly.
In the two games before being dropped Coniglio had a combined 35 touches and ten tackles, and one game before that he had got coaches votes in the AFLCA award. Just how badly could he have been going? He has been a shadow of his previous best, when he was a top-ten player in the league, but surely 70 per cent of his best is better than whoever is replacing him.
Another option was to drop Coniglio, which gives the playing group a shake-up, then bring him in as a late replacement just before the game. This has been done in the past and allows you have your cake and eat it too.
This was amateur hour, unworthy of someone in their seventh year in charge. And it will have hurt Coniglio badly, a break of trust that will be hard to recover.
The entire episode spoke very clearly to a disconnect between the coach and playing group, and there is more evidence to pile on top.
Lachie Whitfield was interviewed by AFL.com.au last week and provided some illuminating quotes for those looking to delve into the psychology of how the Giants have ended up where they are.
“I thought, probably like a lot of the draftees getting sent up here, that it’s the two years then back to Melbourne type of set-up,” he said.
“I thought once I get to the end of four years I’ll reassess, and if we’re not where I think we should be by then I’ll probably go.”
He was just being frank, and good on him for that. But his attitude is no doubt common among a lot of high draft picks who have ended up at GWS and doesn’t exactly have the ring of ‘bleed for the club’. What it does do is fill in a few gaps.
The Giants have had high-end talent like Whitfield coming through ever since they were manufactured. Year after year we’ve seen them lose star players and get high draft picks in return, and we’ve been waiting for all this talent to come together as a team. It’s not going to happen.
A big ego goes out, another big ego comes in. All of them used to dominating junior football for years, all of them with one eye on the exit, waiting for the right offer to come along. Individuals all the way. Solo operators.
No wonder it’s been rare for them to gel together as unit, picking and choosing when to buy in.
As a further example, let’s have a look at ‘roaming’ Phil Davis after GWS beat Richmond earlier this year.
This was after their best win of the year. They had been under fire, backs were to the wall, and they had just taken some measure of revenge over the team that destroyed them in the grand final the year before.
The lack of camaraderie is frankly stunning. There’s no energy in the rooms at all, no closeness. They’re completely disjointed. A few little cliques here and there. Players sitting solo on their phones. Plenty of them with no rapport at all with their captain, just a series of awkward exchanges.
No-one is watching this and thinking ‘team’ in the truest sense of the word. Just a series of fly-in, fly-out subcontractors who happen to wear the same uniform.
There was another quote from Whitfield that relates to Leon Cameron’s coaching and how the club sees itself: “Our best got us to a grand final last year, and I don’t think our form has been too much different in terms of our best this year compared to last. We’re don’t feel like we’re doing a whole lot different to previous years”.
The Giants were terrible for long periods in 2019. They got beaten by ten goals in both Round 21 and Round 22 last year by middle-of-the-road sides. They weren’t much better for large patches of 2018 either.
They should have been desperately wanting to do things differently this year. It’s hard to be filled with confidence over Leon Cameron’s ability to turn it all around if the players have no idea what’s wrong and they’re trying to do the same things over and over, meanwhile having slipped into utter mediocrity. It doesn’t exactly scream ‘piercing analysis’ from the man at the helm.
We saw more of this disconnect on the field on Friday night against the Saints.
Early in the piece the Giants had Jeremy Cameron, Toby Greene and Jeremy Finlayson up forward, two of them rated in the top 20 or so players in the league. Yet it was fifth-gamer Jake Riccardi who the ball kept being directed at, who was the most dangerous inside 50. The others were notably absent.
One of the problems with the GWS forward line is that Greene plays more like a marking target than a player of his size. Alongside him are three talls like Cameron, Finlayson, Riccardi or Harry Himmelberg, also all ostensibly target players.
Yet there’s only one football, so they are all condemned to quiet patches, especially in a team that has too often been treacle-slow with their ball movement.
They’re all great when the going is good, but only Greene has shown a propensity to get dirty and turn a game by doing things the hard way. Even then, he has a lot of nothing games for a player of his reputation and is selective about when he brings his best effort.
GWS are on a dangerous precipice. The jungle drums are beating about a player exodus.
Jeremy Cameron and Zac Williams might already have one foot out the door. Rumours about Josh Kelly persist. Shane Mumford has played his last game. Has Heath Shaw? Aidan Corr is the opposite of a star but is already gone. How many others are thinking the same?
As Whitfield has alluded to, many of them only stayed for success, and if they don’t see that anymore, do they beat a path out of there?
Every sign is pointing to the Giants crumbling this off-season. The future with Leon Cameron as senior coach is bleak and a tough sell to supporters.
Losing a grand final by 89 points is catastrophic enough. Where they are now is worse.