OPINION

One giant leap needed to lift Greater Western Sydney's season

VITAL: A Greater Western Sydney victory against Melbourne this weekend is critical for building the team's confidence in preparation for the season ahead. Photo: Will Russell/AFL Photos via Getty Images
VITAL: A Greater Western Sydney victory against Melbourne this weekend is critical for building the team's confidence in preparation for the season ahead. Photo: Will Russell/AFL Photos via Getty Images

Three games. Three victories which, at a superficial level, appeared to have announced, with some fanfare, the definitive arrival of the AFL's newest club Greater Western Sydney as a bona fide heavyweight.

We're talking about the Giants' spectacular run through the 2019 finals series, a period when they first bowled over (literally and metaphorically) the Western Bulldogs in emphatic fashion, then outlasted Brisbane in a thriller, then hung on to deny Collingwood by a squeak in a preliminary final.

It all came to a grinding halt on grand final day, of course, when GWS was swept away by Richmond. But notwithstanding an 89-point belting and just three goals for the game, this appeared to be an outfit whose time would come. And perhaps it has, too. Just not in the sense we anticipated.

Limping through the COVID-impacted 2020 season and missing out on finals with a finish of 10th and a strike rate of less than 50 per cent, GWS was capable enough in its first outing of the new season at home against St Kilda, only narrowly failing to take the points. Its follow-up in Perth last Sunday against Fremantle, however, was abysmal.

This was a team that looked flat as a tack, short on ideas, enthusiasm and manpower. The Giants managed just one goal for the entire first half, and their final losing margin of 31 points, if anything, flattered them. Their clash with Melbourne in Canberra on Sunday is already of the "must-win" nature if another season isn't to fall into disrepair.

This was a team that looked flat as a tack, short on ideas, enthusiasm and manpower.

It's been some downturn. Or has it?

I've felt for some time that those three games in September two years ago, which propelled GWS to its first grand final, may have been something of a mirage, a short period where everything seemed to click, but not reflective of what would come after, nor, more significantly, what preceded it.

Perhaps the Giants both before and after that little month-long window are far more representative of what this side is likely to serve up on a longer-term basis.

The mid-season bye of 2019, three months before that grand final appearance, was, in fact, the moment it started to go sour for the Giants. Despite a stack of injuries to important players, they had battled hard to get to the break with a handy 9-4 win-loss record. But by the time finals began, post-bye GWS had gone 4-5. Moreover, it had not only been belted by around 10 goals by first Hawthorn then Western Bulldogs in its third and second-last games, it had failed to kick a single goal in the second half of each.

There's no denying the response to that from Leon Cameron's team was emphatic. It dined out on a struggling Gold Coast before completely reversing that defeat at the hands of the Dogs, then upsetting the Lions and Magpies in two undoubtedly brave wins. But even those were built on different qualities from those in which GWS had traded back in 2016, when the "Orange Tsunami" had swept all before it before heartbreakingly losing a home preliminary final to the Bulldogs by six points.

That was a line-up which oozed class, pace and forward potency. It was propelled in no small part by the midfield riches of Tom Scully at his best, Dylan Shiel, Devon Smith and Ryan Griffen.

It had the sweeping run of rebound defenders Nathan Wilson and Zac Williams, and dangerous forward targets like Jeremy Cameron, Jonathon Patton and Rory Lobb to complement the ground-level smarts of Toby Greene, the only survivor from that group.

There's far more talent departed than just those above who played in that preliminary final, too. Jack Steele, for example, now St Kilda's captain, along with Will Hoskin-Elliott, Aidan Corr, Adam Tomlinson, Caleb Marchbank and James Stewart.

That's a huge swag of talent to have walked out the doors. And what's replaced it overall has been far more blue collar than blue chip.

That was OK for those three weeks in September 2019, when the Giants were trading more on aggression and grit than they were pure football ability. But the ease with which that veneer was pulled apart, first by Richmond on grand final day, then by the various stresses and strains of life in a hub during the COVID-affected season of 2020, hasn't augured well for this year.

In my view, the Giants have been a little further off the pace each year since 2016, which was their best chance. They lost a preliminary final again in 2017 to eventual premier Richmond, this time by six goals rather than six points. And they fell in week two in 2018 to Collingwood.

Yes, the 2019 version went further. But would even the Giants consider that team to have the capabilities its 2016 model did? I very much doubt it.

Those three weeks a couple of years ago might well have served only to muddy the waters, not just for the football public, but perhaps even the club itself.

Had that sequence of wins and improved form taken place mid-season and not at the end, would Cameron and co. then have taken a harsher view of what the immediate future should look like?

Perhaps. But either way, what is becoming increasingly obvious is that while the realisation may have been slower to dawn as a result of 2019, the message is still the same. And for the Giants, it isn't that pleasant.