The first coaching domino of season 2022 has fallen, with GWS Giants coach Leon Cameron announcing his resignation to be effective after the club’s Round 9 home game against Carlton.
He will finish up just seven games short of what would’ve been his 200th game in charge of the club, when the Giants are fixtured to play Port Adelaide at the Adelaide Oval, after deciding to step down in the wake of their poor start to the season.
Cameron’s exit puts an end to weeks of speculation surrounding his future, after he had initially revealed that his coaching future would not be discussed until the end of the season, following their Round 3 win over the Gold Coast Suns at home.
That, and their impressive Round 7 win over the Adelaide Crows at the Adelaide Oval, are their only two victories so far for the season, with all six of their defeats being against sides currently in the eight.
Things do not get any easier for the Giants, who must also play the other two clubs in the eight – Carlton and the Brisbane Lions – on either side of a home clash against the struggling West Coast Eagles in the next three weeks.
The game against the Blues, which will be televised on Channel Seven in Sydney and Melbourne this Sunday afternoon, will be Cameron’s swan song, giving the club’s supporters the final opportunity to say goodbye to a man who gave his all for the club for nearly a decade.
He first joined the Giants as a senior assistant to then-coach Kevin Sheedy in 2013, a year when the club, then in its infancy, won only one game for the season against Melbourne at home in Round 19.
After Sheedy retired from AFL coaching at the end of that season, Cameron took the reins and while the club suffered two defeats by more than 100 points in the first half of 2014, he turned them into a competitive force for the years to come.
In his first match in charge, the Giants caused a major upset against the Sydney Swans, who were unveiling Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin for the first time, with a 32-point victory at Giants Stadium.
After an even first three quarters, the men from the west of the town finished all over the top of their cross-town rivals, booting the only six goals of the final quarter to make the competition take notice that the Giants had finally awoken.
In Cameron’s first season, the club finished with two wins from their final three matches, their first wins at the MCG and Marvel Stadium against Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs respectively on either side of an eight-point loss to Collingwood.
The club’s progression up the ladder continued in 2015. After ten rounds, the club won seven of their first ten matches, including upsetting reigning premiers Hawthorn at home, and were well on track to qualify for the finals for the first time.
That was until a day of carnage against Collingwood at the MCG. In that game, their most important player, Shane Mumford, suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the season.
Ultimately, the club lost eight of their final 12 matches to finish 11th on the ladder, but there was reason to believe that the AFL’s Western Sydney project, conceived by then-AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou in 2008, was finally starting to pay dividends.
2016 started poorly for the Giants as they lost two of their first three games, and were without forward Jeremy Cameron due to suspension. But as soon as he returned, the club clicked into gear, rocketing up the ladder to finish fourth with a record of 16-6.
The Giants repeated the dose on three-time reigning premiers Hawthorn with a devastating 75-point win, which made the rest of the competition take note that, as far as heavy defeats were concerned, enough was enough, and that it was their turn to regularly inflict the damage.
They qualified for the finals for the first time, and caused another major upset when they defeated minor premiers the Sydney Swans by six goals to earn themselves a week off and a home preliminary final berth.
But it came at a cost, with veteran forward Steve Johnson suspended for rough conduct on Josh Kennedy, which meant he wouldn’t play again in 2016 unless the Giants qualified for the grand final.
His absence ultimately proved costly as the Giants suffered a heartbreaking six-point loss to the Western Bulldogs in a preliminary final for the ages at Giants Stadium. That result prevented what would’ve been a historic all-Sydney AFL grand final.
Again the Giants finished fourth in 2017. That season, Tim Taranto and Harry Perryman made their AFL debuts, and again they fell short at the preliminary final stage, this time going down to Richmond by six goals at the MCG.
In the 2018 season, the club started poorly, with four wins and a draw from their first ten matches, before a season-turning win over the Adelaide Crows at the Adelaide Oval. That was the scene of two horrific defeats the previous season. It proved the catalyst for a seventh-place finish.
They repeated the dose on the Swans in an elimination final at the SCG before bowing out to Collingwood in the semi-final at the MCG the following week.
In the 2019 season, Leon Cameron had his crowning moment as he led an injury-ravaged side past the critics and into the grand final courtesy of against-the-odds finals wins over the Western Bulldogs, Brisbane Lions and Collingwood.
Excitement built around the Giants’ grand final appearance, which came in only their eighth season of existence, with the club’s supporters celebrating what their club had achieved in such a short space of time during the week.
But the dream quickly turned into a nightmare as a machine led by Trent Cotchin, Dustin Martin and Jack Riewoldt and called the Richmond Football Club romped their way to an embarrassingly easy 89-point win, leaving the Giants exhausted, shattered and disappointed.
After just one season, senior assistant coach Matthew Nicks departed to take up the senior coaching role at the Adelaide Crows, becoming the first assistant coach under Cameron to become an AFL head coach.
Despite high hopes for the 2020 season, a global pandemic was declared on the eve of the 2020 season and after being forced out of their home city after Round 8, the Giants crashed and burn on their way to a tenth-place finish.
A 0-3 start the following year had many forecasting another difficult season for the Giants, but to Cameron’s credit he led them out of trouble and to the second week of the finals where they lost to the Geelong Cats by 35 points in Perth.
For these efforts, he finished third in the voting for the Allan Jeans Coach of the Year award, finishing only behind grand final coaches Simon Goodwin and Luke Beveridge.
This is what brings us to this season, which the Giants have started poorly, winning only two of their first eight matches. Both of those wins were against sides currently outside the eight.
Prior to the start of the season, ex-AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou – who as mentioned above was the architect behind the AFL’s Western Sydney project – declared the Giants had the potential to be “powerhouses”.
Last Saturday night, Cameron branded the Giants as “boring” after they kicked only four goals in a 53-point loss to the Geelong Cats, which ultimately proved to be the tipping point as far as his coaching future was concerned.
The week before that, they appeared to turn a corner after running riot against the Adelaide Crows at the Adelaide Oval, as they also did in the corresponding match last year, winning by 59 points.
But after the dismal start to season 2022, it has become clear that the successes enjoyed in the preceding few years have finally caught up to them, and that the club’s flag window might be just about to shut for now.
The 49-year-old will bow out out with his head held high, having turned the club from easy-beats into a finals force, winning at least one final in every September campaign they’ve taken part in (2016-19 and 2021).
(Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)
This includes three wins against the Sydney Swans from as many finals Sydney derbies as well as the famous preliminary final win over Collingwood in 2019, which not only silenced the black-and-white army, but also their cheerleader ‘Joffa’ Corfe and president Eddie McGuire.
He also leaves with the respect and trust of his peers for the tireless work he did in transitioning the club out of its infant years and into one of the genuine forces in the competition, as evidenced by their unexpected run to the grand final in 2019.
The end of his coaching career – for now – is similar to how he ended his 256-game playing career in 2003. Cameron played for the Western Bulldogs and Richmond. In 2003, he conceded that the evolving speed of the game had caught up to him.
It therefore promises to be an emotional afternoon at Giants Stadium in Sydney on Sunday and there is no doubt the Giants would love to send him out a winner against a Carlton side that has vastly improved this season under reborn coach Michael Voss.
Leon Cameron will have one less opposition player to worry about in his final game day preparation, with reigning Coleman Medallist Harry McKay ruled out for up to six weeks due to a knee injury he suffered in his side’s win over the Crows at Marvel Stadium last Sunday.
Assistant coach Mark McVeigh will then step in on a caretaker basis, becoming the second ex-Essendon identity after Kevin Sheedy to be thrust into the hot seat at the Giants.
He is, of course, the brother of Swans premiership-winning captain Jarrad McVeigh. Both hail from Pennant Hills, the same suburb where St Kilda legend, 2010 Norm Smith Medallist and ex-Giants assistant coach Lenny Hayes grew up.
The race to become GWS’ next coach will then begin in earnest, and will be followed with much intrigue throughout the remainder of the season.
Alastair Clarkson remains at the top of their hit list, though according to ex-Hawthorn premiership defender Campbell Brown, he might be a better fit at the Gold Coast Suns. Suns coach Stuart Dew is under increasing pressure to keep his job.
There is also speculation surrounding whether James Hird might return to the AFL coaching caper for the first time since the supplements fallout that led to his departure from Essendon in 2015, while Ross Lyon and Nathan Buckley are also right in the mix.
As far as the untried are concerned, Adam Kingsley (Richmond), Adem Yze (Melbourne) and Scott Burns (Adelaide Crows) could all be considered the next cab off the rank, with two of them recently experiencing what it’s like to be in the hot seat on game day.
Yze and Burns filled in for Simon Goodwin and Matthew Nicks in Rounds 7 and 8 respectively when both of those senior coaches were ruled out due to COVID protocols.
Both also served time as assistant coaches under Clarkson at Hawthorn and if either (or even both) land an AFL senior coaching role next year, they will become the next graduate of the Clarkson coaching academy.
Whatever the case, whoever becomes the next head coach of the GWS Giants will have some pretty huge shoes to fill as they build on Leon Cameron’s legacy, attempt to unlock the club’s potential and bring an unlikely premiership right into the heart of rugby league territory.