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Giant baby steps: A decade of the GWS Giants

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Roar Rookie
25th April, 2022
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The year 2012 had us bear witness to several important events. London hosted the Olympics, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her golden jubilee and Barack Obama won a second presidential term, to name but a few milestones.

On a local level, though, and no less significant, we welcomed the Greater Western Sydney Giants to the AFL as the league’s 18th franchise.

The move was not without criticism then and now, with declining attendance and memberships for the Sydney Swans, the global financial crisis as well as the ever-present Tasmanian bid as argued reasons they should not be admitted.

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Nevertheless, in March 2008 the decision was made, and work was set about getting the AFL’s newest baby ready to enter the world.

This is not the first and will definitely not be the last look at where the Giants are now, what they got right, what they got wrong and, more importantly, what the future holds.

So I’m going to keep this tight and look at the following areas: coaching, recruitment and on and off-field success.

Coaching

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Rightly or wrongly the Giants are often compared to their expansion counterparts, the Gold Coast Suns, and it’s fair to say the Giants are comfortably winning this battle. Coaching is one of the areas you must get right for a team to be successful, and the Giants got this 100 per cent right.

The decision to appoint Kevin Sheedy as their inaugural AFL coach was a masterstroke the Suns wish they’d thought of. Sheedy’s decades of experience in developing young talent, combined with his wry sense of humour when dealing with the press and, most importantly, his success at the highest level ensured that the young, raw draftees were in good hands despite being at the receiving end of what felt like weekly 100-point thrashings.

Sheedy wasn’t there to win them flags or even games. He was there to help inspire the youngsters as well as the playing assistants under his charge. To that end he succeeded, and it helped lay the foundation for the sustained on-field success they experienced under his successor, Leon Cameron.

Leon Cameron

(Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

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Recruitment

Like the Suns, the acquisitions made by the Giants in preparation for their debut season would be debated vigorously. However, this is another area in which GWS got things right. Draftees aside, they saw success with their key acquisitions of Callan Ward and Phil Davis, both of whom would be anointed as inaugural co-captains, as well as Rhys Palmer, Sam Reid and Tom Scully. The latter three weren’t superstars by any means, but they were all solid role players and were key in helping to protect their young teammates during those rough early days.

GWS would also hit the nail on the head with some of their later acquisitions, like Heath Shaw, Shane Mumford, Ryan Griffen and Brett Deledio.

Unlike the Suns, the Giants took the decision to utilise senior players as playing assistants in Luke Power, Chad Cornes and James McDonald. These players knew they were at the end of their careers but had ambitions to go down the coaching path, and they stayed at the club after they retired and are still working as assistants, albeit having moved on to other clubs since.

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Less successful was their signing of NRL convert and future Wallaby Israel Folau. Try as he did, Folau just never looked comfortable at AFL level. Whether things might’ve changed had he stuck it out will forever remain a mystery.

It has to be said that the club’s recruiting was much better than the Suns, who spent big on mediocre talent in Jared Brennan, Daniel Harris and Campbell Brown, to name a few. Luckily Jarrod Harbrow and Michael Rischitelli worked out for them.

Toby Greene

(Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

On and off the field

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One area both the Giants and Suns are often criticised for is their lower crowds and membership numbers. I think this criticism is unfair for a number of reasons. I remember watching Caroline Wilson on Footy Classified criticise the Giants and Suns by comparing their crowds to the Adelaide Crows and West Coast Eagles in their formative years. This was a completely unfair comparison – the Crows and Eagles were teams set up in states with a strong Australian rules culture. Even comparing to their New South Wales and Queensland counterparts is tricky given the Brisbane Lions are the result of a merger between the Brisbane Bears and the Fitzroy Lions and the Sydney Swans were the result of South Melbourne’s relocation in 1982.

So where do the Giants sit crowds and membership wise? Their membership has ticked upwards year on year from 10,824 in 2012 to 30,841 in 2020. Crowds, on the other hand, have been somewhat harder to gauge given the last two years have been affected by the pandemic. Their best average attendance figures were 13,196 in 2017 and 12,267 in 2019, the year they played in the grand final.

GWS Giants fans cheer at an AFL match.

(Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Those crowds may look terrible for the AFL, but you need to put crowds in the context in which the team operates. Sydney is not the sporting city Melbourne is and has a lot of competing teams to fragment audiences compared to Adelaide or Perth. For context, compared to the NRL, their average attendance in 2019 was better than for St George Illawarra, Gold Coast and Cronulla, and it was nipping at the heels of Penrith, North Queensland and Manly. Granted, NRL is somewhat more a TV game, and this attendance would be bolstered by games played at Manuka Oval in Canberra as well as Battle of the Bridge matches against the Swans, but still those are respectable figures.

Where to from here?

Well, overall it’s fair to say the Giants have been successful in their first decade. Yes, ideally their crowds would be higher and, yes, there is still plenty of work to do. But to make it to three preliminary finals as well as a grand final – yes, they got smashed, but whoever Richmond played was going to end up that way – in their first decade in a somewhat foreign market suggests they are doing plenty right.

While they have stagnated in 2022 and it looks like it’s time for a fresh start coaching wise, it’s also fair to acknowledge that they have been an icon of stability in a part of the AFL landscape that also includes the numerous follies of the Brisbane Bears, Gold Coast Suns and the Geoffrey Edelsten-era Sydney Swans.

What does the future hold?

Well, at this stage it looks like it’s a period of renewal as veterans in Phil Davis and Callan Ward are eased into retirement and the next generation begins to make its mark.

The Giants as well as the wider AFL community need to stay the course – after all, it took the Swans nearly two decades to become the stable New South Wales footballing force we know them as today.

While I’m a diehard Pies fan, I actually want the Giants as well as the Suns to do well. If the game is going to evolve and continue to be the strongest game in Australia, it needs to embrace the Giants and the expansion into Western Sydney and to look beyond the raw numbers.

As the AFL keeps reminding us, this is a 20-plus-year journey. Whether the giant baby steps become full-blown giant strides, time will tell.

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