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With the whole of New South Wales currently enduring a prolonged COVID-19 lockdown as it continues to tackle the Delta variant of the virus, two Sydney derbies with a lot at stake in two different sports next week will provide some much needed joy to the state’s residents.
In the AFL, the Sydney Swans and GWS Giants will face each other in a finals match for the third time, but it will have to be played on neutral territory after both sides evacuated the state in June due to the evolving coronavirus outbreak in the Harbour City.
It was an amazing feat for either or both to qualify for this year’s AFL finals series considering the circumstances they have been faced with over the past two months, as well as the fact both sides endured a poor second half of season 2020 on the road.
It is even more so for the GWS Giants, who started this season poorly with coach Leon Cameron copping the blame for some of his team’s poor performances, most notably the Round 2 loss to Fremantle in Perth.
Many feared another long season for the club after they lost Phil Davis, Matt de Boer and captain Stephen Coniglio to long-term injuries in the Round 3 loss to Melbourne, but somehow the team managed to turn their fortunes around for the better.
Coniglio’s prolonged absence this season due to injury saw Toby Greene assume captaincy duties for the balance of the season, and he would lead the side to a five-goal victory over Collingwood at the MCG in Round 4.
The win was described by Fox Footy commentator and St Kilda legend Nick Riewoldt as “a win full of character”, considering the horror injury toll the club was faced with, and the fact they were faced with the possibility of starting a season 0-4 for the first time since 2013.
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— GWS GIANTS (@GWSGIANTS) April 11, 2021
That was followed by a come-from-behind win over the Sydney Swans in the 20th Sydney derby at the SCG, in which Josh Kelly booted the match-winning goal, Nick Davis-style, with a minute remaining.
From there on in, amid a continuing injury crisis which also saw Greene sidelined midway through the season, the Giants would somehow stay afloat throughout the rest of the season and their reward for persistence is a fifth finals series in their past six years.
Going into the final round, all they needed to do was beat Carlton at Marvel Stadium and they’d be guaranteed a finals berth, and that’s exactly what they did, winning by 14 points despite the Blues wanting to send Levi Casboult and Eddie Betts into retirement as winners.
The club’s younger players have been exposed to AFL football sooner than anticipated, but they have managed to play their hand in their return to September, which comes after they crashed and burned in the final three rounds of last season.
Sam Taylor displayed maturity beyond his years to shut down reigning Coleman Medallist Tom Hawkins in Round 21, while Tom Green received a Rising Star nomination for his performance against Richmond in Round 9 and is one of the favourites to take out the gong.
Meanwhile, not much was expected of the Sydney Swans going into the season after the club had finished in the bottom four in the previous two seasons, but at least three things in particular saw them return to the upper part of the ladder this year.
The first was the acquisition of former Adelaide Crows coach Don Pyke, who revolutionised the side’s attack to the point where they booted the highest score in each of the opening two rounds.
The other was the much-anticipated return of Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin, after he’d been sidelined for the entire 2020 season due to a hamstring injury.
Despite being rested at times this season, the 34-year-old did well to boot 48 regular season majors, including a haul of six against the Gold Coast Suns in the final round where the Swans kicked their highest score for the season, 21.10 (136).
Upon booting his fourth goal against the Suns, Fox Footy commentator Kelli Underwood joked that he had entered “the nervous (9)90s” – a term that is frequently used in cricket.
He now sits on 992 career goals, and will probably need to play at least two finals if he is to crack the 1000-goal milestone before the year is out.
But most important of all was the nature of some of the Swans’ victories, with two early-season results in particular that I want to focus on.
The first was the Round 1 upset win over the Brisbane Lions at the Gabba, in which the Swans caught the premiership favourites by surprise in the second half, after scores were tied 8.4 (52) at halftime.
In that match, the Swans booted nine goals in the third quarter to leave the Lions embarrassed and sending their fans home unhappy; it turned out to be the northerners’ only loss at the Gabba for the regular season.
Two weeks later, John Longmire’s side unexpectedly ambushed Richmond at the MCG, winning by 45 points and sending a statement to the rest of the competition that after two years in the wilderness, they were back with a bang.
Sure, the Tigers had dominated proceedings in the league since their most recent meeting at the G, which saw the Swans come from six goals down in the second quarter to win by nine points, so the defeat that they suffered came as a major surprise at the time.
Unknowingly, however, it indirectly marked the beginning of the end of the club’s premiership era, and after an inconsistent season plagued by injuries Damien Hardwick’s champion side will sit out September for the first time since 2016, and just the second time since 2012.
The Swans spent the entire season inside the top eight, despite some commentators and experts suggesting that their early-season success wore them out in the end.
It was after Round 14 when both the Swans and Giants suddenly had their seasons turned upside down, with both sides sent packing from Sydney as a massive wave of coronavirus cases, this one associated with the so-called Delta variant, started to smother the Harbour City.
It was the second consecutive year both clubs could not finish the season at home, after they were forced out of the state after Round 8 last year due to another wave of coronavirus cases in Sydney.
But unlike the ten Victorian clubs which fled that state, neither the Swans or Giants were permitted to have their families or partners with them in the Perth or Queensland hubs, and it proved to be a factor in both sides performing poorly for the rest of the 2020 season.
Despite the prolonged period away from home, the Giants regularly copped plenty of criticism for their poor performances in the second half of the season, including booting just three goals in a loss to the Swans in Perth and losing to eventual wooden spooners the Adelaide Crows at the Oval in Round 16.
The Swans, meanwhile, won just five matches for the season to finish 16th, making this their lowest ever finish on the ladder after previously claiming a hat-trick of wooden spoons in the then-15-team competition between 1992-94.
The fact that both sides failed to make the finals after being forced out of their home state last year was, put simply, inexcusable.
The difference between this year and last was that, this time, their families and partners were allowed to join them in Victoria earlier this month, after both clubs escaped the since-lifted south-east Queensland lockdown in Round 20.
Despite this year’s major distractions, both sides continued to perform well under the circumstances, with the Swans winning seven of their final eight matches to finish sixth, and the Giants won four of their last five to finish seventh and thus set up a third Sydney derby final.
The Swans go in to the finals on the back of an 87-point thrashing of the Gold Coast Suns, while the Giants enter having won their past three matches, including victories over the Geelong Cats at Kardinia Park and Richmond at Marvel Stadium.
In the two derbies this year it is one apiece, with the Giants stealing victory at the death at the SCG in Round 5 before the Swans returned serve with a convincing win on the Gold Coast in Round 18.
Crucially, the Giants have won both Sydney derby finals, including a coming-of-age qualifying final win at Stadium Australia in 2016 as well as a decisive KO win in the elimination final at the SCG in 2018.
However, as the Swans finished the higher of the two sides this season, they will have the right to select the venue for their clash, with Tasmania, where John Longmire’s side is unbeaten from four appearances, chosen.
The match will take place on a Saturday afternoon, meaning it will be played concurrently with the Super Netball grand final, which is to be contested between the NSW Swifts and Giants Netball in Brisbane.
A full preview of the first round of the AFL finals series, including dates and venues, will be provided later this week.
The Super Netball decider is the other all-Sydney finals affair to look forward to this weekend, with television viewing and online streaming services expected to be in high demand among locked-down Sydney sporting fans this Saturday.
Like all of the Sydney-based professional sporting clubs, both the Swifts and Giants were also forced out of the city two months ago, at which point both the Swifts and Giants had 5-3 win-loss records.
It was the second consecutive year their home schedules were interrupted by COVID-19, after neither side was able to grace the newly-refurbished Ken Rosewall Arena last year as they had hoped to due to Queensland shutting its borders to New South Wales last August.
The Giants and Swifts embraced life on the road in the second half of the season, and finished one-two on the ladder with identical 9-5 records, though the former club finished top with a slightly superior percentage (107.03 to the Swifts’ 105.57).
Though the West Coast Fever won more games than both sides, the Perth-based club started the Super Netball season with a 12-premiership-point deficit due to salary cap breaches uncovered in the previous few years.
The major semi-final between the Giants and Swifts saw the latter team win a thriller 62-61, sending them directly to the grand final while the Giants had to take the long way around, beating the Fever 64-61 in the preliminary final to take their place in the decider.
The stakes could not be higher for either club, with the Swifts going for their second championship in three years, after beating the Sunshine Coast Lightning to win the 2019 title, and the Giants shooting for the first major piece of silverware in the franchise’s history.
The Giants had previously reached the grand final in the first season of the revamped Super Netball league in 2017, only to lose to fellow first-year franchise the Lightning (an affiliate of NRL club the Melbourne Storm) by 65-48.
It guarantees that the 2021 Super Netball championship will have a residency in Sydney, though whether it’s at Giants HQ or Swifts HQ will be determined by the result of Saturday’s grand final in Brisbane.
Just like the Melbourne Vixens when they dedicated their title to the residents of Victoria which endured a 112-day lockdown last year, whoever wins will provide a huge mental boost to the state of New South Wales, which has been locked down for nearly two months.
And whoever wins the AFL Sydney derby elimination final between the Sydney Swans and GWS Giants, also on Saturday afternoon, will be left to fly the flag for the state for the remainder of the AFL finals series.
If either side can, somehow, go all the way, then it would be the most remarkable flag ever won in their club’s history.
It makes for what should be a compelling battle for television ratings (Seven with the AFL, and Nine with the netball) in the Harbour City, as Sydneysiders seek some much-needed distraction from the current COVID-19 crisis in New South Wales.
Oh, and let’s also not forget the Tokyo Paralympics start this Tuesday, and with the friendly time zone, television ratings for that will also be expected to be high.