Two GWS Giants have signalled their intentions to move to new AFL clubs for 2021 and, given their position, it would be a surprise if that number does not increase – possibly significantly – before this year’s trade period comes to an end.
Aidan Corr exited the Giants hub last week after advising the club he would be moving via free agency to a Victorian team. That team will, by all reports, be North Melbourne on a deal that may be as long as five years.
But the far bigger name is Zac Williams, who on Monday confirmed that he too would leave via free agency. Shortly afterwards it was reported that he has settled on signing with Carlton.
Before we get into the Giants and their list, it must be acknowledged this is an impressive coup for the Blues, who have shown over the last two years that – despite not yet cracking a finals berth – they can be an attractive destination for players on the move.
Jack Martin and Tom Papley both wanted to join them in last year’s offseason, and while only Martin ultimately got his wish, the fact they – and Williams – were convinced to pick Carlton as a destination shows the club can land A-grade talent.
They are picking the right kind of players to go after too: Martin and Williams are both dynamic and exciting talents who have a hard edge, and the thought of them working in tandem next year should be incredibly exciting for Blues fans.
Papley too would’ve been brilliant and filled one of Carlton’s biggest list gaps, but that appears to be off the table for good now after the potential All Australian confirmed he would be staying at the Swans in 2021. A significant missed opportunity, albeit perhaps one the Blues didn’t have much control over.
But enough talking about the Blues: let’s get on to GWS, who have had a remarkably disappointing year.
Many theories have been floated to explain the Giants’ awful form in 2020. Perhaps it is a mental hangover from the grand final loss, perhaps Leon Cameron is a poor senior coach, perhaps something is amiss with Stephen Coniglio as captain. And who knows, there may be some truth to any or all of them.
But it’s often said that they have the best playing list in the league. And while they have some of the competition’s best talent, this is not true. There are some significant gaps and imbalances on their list, and that is hurting them as much as anything.
The simplest way to build an AFL premiership list is this: obtain a strong core of A-grade talent – say, four or five undeniably elite players – and then find quality role players to fill in the side around them.
The Giants have been emphatically successful at the former. Stephen Coniglio, Josh Kelly, Lachie Whitfield, Toby Greene and Jeremy Cameron is as talented a top five as you could ask for, even if some of them haven’t necessarily had great years in 2020.
But the cost of keeping those players at the club – each of who could demand $1 million per year or close to it on the open market – and the persistent raids from clubs in the traditional footy states have made it nearly impossible to do the latter.
In total 21 former Giants have played a game for rival AFL teams in 2020, the most of any side in the competition – for more than half the league the number of ex-players getting a game in 2020 was ten or lower, which is less than half of the Giants’ tally.
No ex-Giant has ever been awarded All Australian status (though Jack Steele likely to break that tomorrow night), but it’s the solid role players, the ‘jobbers’ as our own Cam Rose would say, who GWS are missing.
I’m talking about players like Lachie Plowman, Will Hoskin-Elliott, Devon Smith, Rory Lobb, Nathan Wilson, Sam Frost or Adam Tomlinson, who may all be only B-grade or C-grade talent but are mature bodies who either play their role in the best 22 or would provide solid depth.
Ideally GWS would still have most of them on the list and they’d have spent five-plus years playing alongside that A-grade core, developing the kind of cohesion and structure that has proven to be a launching pad for many of the competition’s most recent premiers.
Instead the Giants regularly lose this type of player, and they’re forced to fill the spot with the cheapest talent they can scrape together to fit under their salary cap.
The end result is a side that only really seems to win well when it’s on the back of those top-tier players showcasing their superstar talent. As former Giant Brett Deledio put it earlier this year, “When things start to go bad, they all try to use their own ability to win the game versus trying to do it together”.
This hasn’t been helped in 2020 by the fact that too many of the Giants’ best talents are competing for the same spot in the team.
Coniglio and Kelly but also Tim Taranto, Jacob Hopper, Callan Ward and Williams too are all at their best when they play on the ball as inside midfielders, and the same is true of four of the Giants’ last five first-round draftees: Tom Green, Jye Caldwell, Jackson Hately and Xavier O’Halloran.
It simply doesn’t work, and paying big bucks to keep all of these players on the list while losing the jobbers and role players is hurting the Giants.
The departure of Williams, as much as it is unfortunate to lose him, may help to ease that logjam. And before the trade period ends I suspect you will see Caldwell, Hately and O’Halloran all sporting new colours, with Caldwell linked to the Saints and Hately to the Crows.
But perhaps GWS should also give some serious consideration to encouraging someone like Hopper to find a new home, which would allow someone like Kelly to spend more time as a dedicated on-baller and give the Giants cap space and trade currency with which to hunt some honest role players.
One last thought is this: it has often been said that the premiership eras of teams like Geelong and Hawthorn were built on players who took less than they could get on the open market in order to help keep a talented team together.
In the last two years GWS have signed Stephen Coniglio and Lachie Whitfield to seven-year contracts and Josh Kelly to a deal that may run as long as ten years if he chooses to exercise triggers. Kelly and Coniglio are both said to be on around $1 million per year and Whitfield is presumably not far off that. Jeremy Cameron is probably negotiating something simillar right now.
Maybe it is too late with those deals already inked, but perhaps some of the same selflessness and sacrifice that elevated previous talented teams to premiership dynasty level is needed from the top-tier talent at the Giants.