I’ve frequently rolled my eyes at media analyses of Greater Western Sydney and their shortcomings as a footy club.
The Giants’ failure to deliver the success expected of them is typically attributed to hackneyed and outworn stereotypes of the club and its players, rinsed and repeated year after year as though there’s almost nothing to differentiate one season from another.
As such, Cameron Rose’s Roar article ‘GWS are broken in every way’, written at the end of the 2020 season, was a breath of fresh air, providing a penetrating analysis that examined the present issues facing the club with clarity and genuine insight. Rose is a great writer and a long-time favourite of mine on The Roar, and I agreed with almost everything in his piece.
However, time flies, and while every sign may have been pointing to the Giants crumbling in 2021, the last month has demonstrated GWS are not so far gone.
This is not to say that Leon Cameron’s match-day tactics remain painfully inflexible, or that losing the 2019 Coleman medallist hasn’t been difficult for the club, or that GWS’ best players are almost never on the field at the same time. The club has significant cultural issues.
However, having previously expected GWS to slide into the bottom six this year, I now believe they are trending upwards again in 2021.
While they’re not a premiership contender, they are a realistic chance of making the top eight and winning finals if they get there. Additionally, the talent drain may have reached its peak last off-season, and may be less of a problem going forward into 2022. But let’s stick with this season for now.
The first reason for my optimism is the form and improvement of their cohort of established young players: Harry Perryman (22), Isaac Cumming (22), Sam Taylor (22), Brent Daniels (22), Tom Green (20) and Lachie Ash (19).
While all these players are still developing, they have shown great talent and already look at home at the level. Bobby Hill (21) and Xavier O’Halloran (20) haven’t quite hit the heights yet, but show promise.
Hill looks primed for a breakout attacking performance any week now, while already contributing the defensive energy and tackling pressure inside forward 50 that the Giants have often lacked in recent seasons.
O’Halloran, though requiring some polish on disposal, looks like a future club captain. He is tough, competitive and building an elite midfield engine.
Let’s not forget that Tim Taranto (23), Harry Himmelberg (23) and Jacob Hopper (24) are also only just entering their prime. Thus, although there has been considerable pruning of the GWS list, the new growth is beginning to shine.
The Giants remain a very talented side. While the 2016 list may never be replicated by an AFL club ever again, the losses of previous off-seasons are beginning to be offset.
Further reasons for optimism have emerged. A few years ago, GWS were arguably a mentally weak side that struggled away from home.
If several famous away victories across 2019 weren’t evidence enough to the contrary, in the last month, they have beaten three (albeit non-elite) sides on the road.
While 2020 was a year to forget and GWS absolutely struggled in the Gold Coast hub, they are a side that can win on the road. Bigger challenges lie ahead though.
Moreover, after going 0-3 to start the year, the wins of the last month have been achieved while most of the club’s senior leaders have been absent: Stephen Coniglio, Phil Davis, Matt de Boer and Lachie Whitfield.
Nick Haynes, coming off a career year in 2020, pulled a hamstring in the opening minutes against a rampant Western Bulldogs side, yet the young Giants were extremely competitive for three quarters. Before Coniglio, Davis and De Boer were all struck down, the Giants raced out to a significant first quarter lead against the undefeated Melbourne Demons.
Further, Lachie Whitfield, liver function no longer in question, casually picked up where he left off last year by chalking up 30 possessions and more importantly providing GWS with dynamism and creative ball movement between the arcs. He’s a bona fide A+ player when in form and a very handy in going forward.
Jesse Hogan has also snuck in somewhat under the radar. While it’s far too soon to offer a meaningful judgement, the early signs were there against Adelaide: four goals, 15 disposals and a committed effort. Perhaps the loss of Jeremy Cameron may not be so disastrous.
Between them, Shane Mumford – could someone please confirm for me with the Fox Footy commentators if he relishes physical contact? – and Matt Flynn have combined to ensure GWS are sufficiently competitive in the ruck contest to allow their inside mids to flourish. The retirement of Sam Jacobs hasn’t hit as hard as some thought, and Braydon Preuss is no slouch either when fit.
Still, these are all somewhat disparate observations. So what, you might think. Melbourne have conceded several early leads this year, many sides have key players out injured (West Coast, for one), and who hasn’t beat Collingwood?
If GWS were so ordinary last year, what are the more significant shifts moving them back up the ladder?
For one, Toby Greene’s influence on GWS’ season thus far has been absolutely enormous. After a relatively quiet 2020, he is commanding the ball again when GWS go forward: a corollary of Cameron’s departure, perhaps?
At any rate, he is arguably the form player of the competition, and is inspiring the side by his example. At his best, he is a complete player. He is aerially superb for a player of his size, competitive around the ground, tough as nails (did anyone else see him barely flinch after Easton Wood nailed him in that marking contest?), and composed under pressure, all while being the cleverest player in the league.
If he had kicked straighter this year he could be leading the Coleman and Brownlow simultaneously. If he can stay both free from injury and away from the tribunal, I am confident he can lead the Giants back to the finals.
Most significant, however, has been the Giants’ increasing consistency in mental toughness and competitiveness within matches. Sure, they rolled over against Fremantle in Round 2 and fell away late against the Dogs, but generally speaking most of the side has demonstrated hunger for the contest and a willingness to energetically engage with the defensive requirements of the modern game.
A quick word of praise for Callan Ward. Is there a better defensive midfielder in the competition? While structural and tactical limitations still exist in this area, the Giants have shown considerable improvement in their appetite for the contest.
Indeed, when compared to the lifeless and pitiable efforts at the end of 2020, the Giants’ recent performances have been very lively. While they are yet to claim any genuine scalps, with senior players to come back in and a favourable draw in the second half of the season, GWS may not be as broken as we thought.