THE GOOD, BAD AND UGLY – GWS GIANTS 2020 SEASON PREVIEW

 

So, we’re making this an annual tradition now – extensive season previews for all 18 teams in this format because… well, people seem to like the Good, Bad, Ugly format for game reviews and I thought why not? Also, I really like Clint Eastwood.

With the benefit of hindsight, we’re all experts. And now that we’re all experts, were we a bit silly to think the GWS Giants would win the Grand Final last season? Don’t take offence, Giants fans – when we take a look back at the season as a whole, the difference between the best the Giants had to offer and the worst was marked.

This was the season that saw them travel to Kardinia Park and record their first-ever win on Geelong’s home soil, and the only blemish on the Cats’ record through their first ten games.

Sadly, the very next week they fell at home to a Fremantle side destined to wallow in the bottom half of the eight. It was a story repeated later in the season – a 47-point win over the Magpies, and close victories over the Power and Swans were followed with a horrid performances against Hawthorn and their rivals – the Western Bulldogs.

The season was so up-and-down, and after being up for three straight finals, perhaps we should have expected a “down”.

Boy… we got one.

The big, big sound was silenced in front of 100K at the MCG, with the Giants slamming back to Earth with a thud. Can they recover after such a belting? Have they got the mental capacity to put a hiding like that behind them? Or are they the modern version of Melbourne in 1988, or a more recent version of Adelaide in 2017?

Let’s explore the 2020 Giants, and their chances with a little bit of the old good, bad and ugly, Mongrel-style.

 

THE GOOD

 

THE EXTRA STEP

There is an old saying in footy – you have to lose a Grand Final to win one.

Of course, that has proven to be complete bullshit, with teams like the Western Bulldogs and Richmond coming from nowhere in recent seasons to claim the flag, but old timers will tell you that the experience of being in the big game, irrespective of the result, is valuable.

I’ve heard Dermott Brereton talk about walking up the race on Grand Final day and being hit with a wall of noise – he speaks about it as though you cannot know unless you feel it yourself, as though it is a physical wall of force. The Giants have now felt that; they have experienced the butterflies, the anxiousness, the nerves, and SHOULD be better off for it.

They have made the step teams like Geelong have been unable to take in recent seasons, and they have shown that they are a force to be reckoned with in the finals simply by making the Grand Final.

But teams don’t build legacies on making the Grand Final. Getting there is just part of the job, particularly after an apprenticeship like GWS have served, with Prelims in both 2016 and 2017.

Now – there is one more step to take, and the Giants will have to dig even deeper to get back to the last Saturday in September, and vanquish whatever demons the day holds for them.

They know what to expect now, and despite the horrific results of their first tilt at it all, they should be better off for it.

 

A KILLER INSTINCT ON DISPLAY

We saw something in the Elimination Final that people had long speculated about with the Giants.

The Bulldogs had touched them up several weeks before, and looked to be the favourites going into the encounter given their recent form, but it’s funny what juuuust the right amount of aggression can do, isn’t it?

The Dogs were missing a few of their tougher nuts – Dale Morris was completely done, and both Tom Liberatore and Mitch Wallis were unable to get up for the game. it left them a little short-handed in the physical department and it was as though the Giants sensed it.

Right from the outset, GWS smelled blood, and like ravenous sharks, they started to frenzy. The Dogs wilted under the physical attack of the Giants, as their captain was given some pointed physical attention… and no one did anything about it.

The GWS players looked as though they knew they had the Dogs’ number in that game. They looked like a pride of lions stalking a herd of lame gazelle. The kill was imminent, and the final siren was merciful.

The Dogs left the area beaten, and beaten up, and though there had been bigger wins in the history of the Giants, there are few that will be remembered the way this win is. It was like a group of boys realising they were now men, and acting like it.

 

THE MOST TALENTED MIDFIELD IN THE GAME?

If you’ve listened to the media over the past couple of seasons you would’ve heard them bleating like sheep about the power of the Collingwood midfield, and this season there is something similar around the West Coast mids with the addition of Tim Kelly to the fold.

But how quickly they forget the firepower possessed by the Giants.

So potent is the midfield arsenal of Greater Western Sydney that players who would walk into the midfield of a dozen other teams are forced to fight for a place, and others are pushed into other spots on the field to bide their time.

Get a load of this bunch of coconuts – Callan Ward, Stephen Coniglio, Tim Taranto, Lachie Whitfield, Jacob Hopper, Josh Kelly, Matt de Boer and Zac Williams.

No wonder Aidan Bonar opted to head to North Melbourne in a bid to get a game, huh?

With Jye Caldwell and Jackson Hately waiting in the wings, and Tom Green joining the club, the squeeze is on in Western Sydney, and it makes me wonder how they’re going to fit all this talent into one midfield.

Whitfield is an easy fix – he heads to the wing where he has the capacity to tear games apart with his elite run and carry. The return of Callan Ward results in a log jam in the middle, with Tim Taranto really establishing himself as a midfield bull in 2019, and Jacob Hopper not far behind him.

The former captain’s return to the fold may create pressure for spots, but could the pressure be most on him?

New captain, Stephen Coniglio is a lock in the middle, but I have really appreciated his ability to drift forward and become a thorn in the opposition’s side with his penchant for hitting the scoreboard.

Zac Williams will most likely drift to half back where his rebound ability is still in high demand, whilst de Boer’s role in the middle will continue to be vital to the team in shutting down the opposition’s best player, and that leaves just one man.

Josh Kelly.

Too injury prone over the last couple of seasons, Kelly is in need of a big season, but with this much talent vying for limited places, could he find himself squeezed out to play on the wing? He is a polished performer, and as little as a year ago, he was viewed as the best young option in the GWS midfield.

However, with the emergence of Taranto and Hopper, is he still regarded as such?

Kelly’s role will be one of the talking points of 2020. No longer a kid (he turns 25 in two weeks), Kelly is at the point of his career where he should be entering his peak. He is no longer the kid with potential – he is now the man who should be delivering.

We saw a peak into what he was capable of in 2017 when he made the All-Australian team, but since then, he has been disappointing. Whilst any other team would take him and slot him into a top two midfield role, GWS are not just any other team. They are stacked with talent and no one on this team should be gifted a spot in the middle on name alone.

Kelly is no exception. He will have to earn his place in this team, and with kids nipping at his heels, perhaps it will be the impetus for him to have a big season.

It could be the difference between being a runner up and a premiership.

 

A LEADER IN MORE THAN NAME

With Stephen Coniglio being named captain of the Giants heading into 2020, it would be easy to forget about Phil Davis… just as the All-Australian selectors have since, well… forever.

Up until he hobbled out to lead his team into the 2019 Grand Final, and was quickly exposed due to carrying an injury, I’m not sure you could fault the way Davis led his Giants. In preparation for this article I went back and watched the last quarter of the GWS v Brisbane final – wow! Davis and Nick Haynes put on an absolute clinic.

Standing tall in defence they repeatedly repelled the frantic Brisbane attack, refusing to allow their team to slip, and when Brent Daniels ran forward to kick the goal and put the Giants in front, I felt like leaping through the screen, grabbing those two defenders in a hug and shouting “your goal!” to them.

It was a quarter owned by the GWS defence, and they repeated the dose in the Preliminary Final as well. Collingwood bombed it long, time after time, and it was Davis, and Haynes, and Sam Taylor standing up time and time again to repel attacks.

Here’s a tip for prospective GWS opponents, who at this stage of the year is everyone – don’t go long and high into your forward line if Phil Davis is the centrepiece of the defence. You’re asking for trouble. He was second in the league in total in total intercepts and fourth in one percenters in 2019 – that is a lethal defensive combination.

I fondly remember the look on Davis’ face when the Giants were to take on the Swans in the 2018 Elimination Final. Appearing on AFL 360, he was asked what it was like to be the man to stand Buddy Franklin, and you could tell it pissed him off. No one was asking Buddy what it is like to have Phil Davis play on him.

Davis went out and gave Franklin a complete hiding as the little Western Sydney team that could huffed, puffed and blew the Swans house down.

He may no longer have the title of captain, but Phil Davis is no less a leader at the Giants. As long as they have him patrolling the defensive 50, and as long as teams think it is a good idea to kick long and high, Davis will remain a pillar of strength back there.

 

ADDRESSING THE ISSUE (RUCK)

There are some teams who have been made aware – painfully aware in some cases – that they are lacking a particular kind of player, and they haven’t addressed the issue. The Western Bulldogs desperately needed help in the ruck to support Tim English. Did they do anything about it?

Nup.

How about Essendon? They have been screaming out for a legitimate inside midfielder in order to prevent players adopt the role at the expense of what they’re actually good at. Did they go out and recruit someone to fill the hole?

Nup again.

But GWS did, and their action on this front should be applauded.

I like Shane Mumford. I like his awkward clumsiness that morphs quickly into a form of ‘accidental’ punishment for an opponent. I like that he throws his weight around, and in a strange way, the fact that he was by far the worst offender for giving away free kicks endeared him further to me.

But he wasn’t the number one ruck the Giants needed. A wonderful back up ruckman at this stage in his career, yes, but no longer able to mix it with the new big boys in the league.

The GWS Giants realised this as well, and though I am sure Mumford will have meaningful periods in the game this season (hopefully a few people are accidentally fallen on or something), the bulk of the lifting should move to the newly arrived Sam Jacobs.

Jacobs made a mistake in Adelaide – he got hurt. When you’ve got someone very capable waiting in the wings, sometimes all that is required is an opportunity, and Reilly O’Brien seized his with both hands when Jacobs went down with injury. Jacobs, to his credit, saw the writing on the wall and opted to find somewhere where his talents would be best put to use, and he found that quickly in the GWS Giants.

There is no screwing around with GWS. They see a need, they do their homework and they address it.

Yes, Sam Jacobs is 31 years old, but rucks have a good lifespan in this game – big guys just refuse to get smaller. 2019 was the first time he’d played under 20 games in eight years, and had it not been for the form of O’Brien, Jacobs could have played many more than the five he managed last season.

Even returning from injury, Jacobs still managed over 35 hit outs per game last season, which was good enough for the fourth highest average in the league.

GWS were monstered in the ruck at times in 2019. As physical as Shane Mumford was, and will be again in 2020, those legs just couldn’t get him off the ground late in games. It was a problem.

GWS addressed it, and if this is the difference between playing well in a Grand Final, or falling away… it’ll be looked at as a decisive masterstroke.

 

THE TAGGING KING

I’m doing this from memory – let’s see how we go.

Here is a list of players. Tell me what they have in common.

Dustin Martin

Jaeger O’Meara

Lachie Neale

Patrick Cripps

Zach Merrett

Tim Kelly

Clayton Oliver

Ben Cunnington

If you’re a GWS supporter, you know what the common denominator is here. If you’re not, I’ll give you the answer. They all got towelled up by Matt de Boer in 2019.

It took an act of frustration from Ben Cunnington to dump de Boer on his shoulder, fracturing it, for the tagger’s reign of brilliant terror to conclude. It would recommence later in the year, but in the biggest game of the season, a hobbled Matt de Boer was unable to contain the influence of Dustin Martin again. The biggest finals player in the game smelled blood in the water, and the shark in yellow and black feasted.

In hindsight, it is very questionable as to whether de Boer should have played at all.

But that was then, and 2020 is a new ball game.

Matt de Boer has proven himself to be an integral part of the Giants’ midfield structure. With him, you get a 90% assurance that the best midfielder on the opposition will have a dirty day – that kind of result is invaluable.

The mantle of best tagger in the game has switched around a bit in recent years. Ben Jacobs wore it with pride in 2017 before Mark Hutchings of West Coast claimed it in 2018. In 2019, it was all Matt de Boer and it wasn’t even close, and as we head into 2020, there may be some who feel they can nip at his heels, but for mine, de  Boer is a fair way out in front and is a very good chance to go back to back as the best stopper in the game.

 

PLAYER RETENTION

There was a point when both GWS and Gold Coast were looked at as a glorified farm system for the established clubs. They both were gifted large amounts of draft selections (and rightfully so) and though there may have been some grumbling from the teams already in the competition, you can kind of see what was going through their heads.

“Yeah, you guys take them, teach them and get them prepared for AFL life… then we’ll swoop in and take them.”

We saw Adam Treloar, Taylor Adams, Josh Bruce, Jack Steele, Will Hoskin-Elliott and Dylan Shiel all fly to the GWS coop, but along the way, something has clicked at this club, and the players have started to connect.

They are no longer just a farm system dressed up as an expansion club. This is now a real team.

As the vultures circled, the Giants re-signed Toby Greene. Then Josh Kelly. Then Lachie Whitfield. Then Stephen Coniglio. Soon enough they will re-sign Jeremy Cameron and keep the wolves from the door again. Yes, they lose a couple along the way, like Dylan Shiel, but in the wash up, was it really that big a loss? There was a reason they were okay with him going – a few actually. His kicking would be one, and the kids coming through in that midfield would be the other.

Whilst the success of the group is one thing keeping them all together, it is the fabric of the club that ties them to each other as well. Yes, football is a business, but it is so much more to so many people. To many, it is an extended family. It is a home away from home they gravitate to and feel part of. It’s not just the players – it’s the others around the club that make it feel special.

Clubs either have that feeling, or they don’t. GWS obviously does, and the results see superstars of the competition opting to stay loyal to THEIR club.

I also follow the NBA in my small amounts of spare time, and one thing that has always pissed me off about it is the marquee players’ reluctance to embrace what their managers call a “small market” team. Already, we hear murmurs from hot-take manufacturers on whether Giannis Antetokounmpo needs to be in a “big market” to truly flourish. What a load of shit.

Sometimes it is about the people at a club that make it feel big, and with the re-signings in recent times at GWS, I have the feeling that those at the club don’t feel the pull of the “big market” teams at all. They’d rather success, with each other, and to me that is absolutely brilliant.

 

THEY FINALLY SAT UP AND TOOK NOTICE

Hello mainstream media – so nice of you to join us.

I almost got writer’s cramp last year listing superlatives about Nick Haynes and his role at the Giants, and as the finals series rolled around it seemed as though the penny finally dropped for the experts on the tube.

Words like “markologist” started to get bandied around to describe the feats of Nick Haynes in defence. He made the All-Australian squad of 40 and finally… finally started getting the recognition he deserves, and he didn’t shrink once it came.

In the four 2019 finals, Haynes averaged 21.5 disposals, 8.5 marks,7.25 intercept possessions and  6.75 rebound 50s. To put that in context, had he averaged those numbers over the season, it would have had him ranked as follows

1st in the league in marks

3rd in the league in rebound 50s

13th in the league in intercepts

Nick Haynes elevated his game during the finals series – it is what good players do, and it is a pathway for good players to become great. He will be chomping at the bit to have another crack at finals footy in 2020, and given what we saw from him on footy’s  biggest stage, the Giants know they can rely on him to deliver.

 

THE EVOLUTION OF ZAC WILLIAMS

Just when the Giants starting looking a little thin in the midfield, in stepped Zac Williams and played at the level that made everyone sit up and take notice.

Topping ten clearances twice, and adding double figures in other categories such as rebound 50s and tackles, Z-Will became one of yet another midfield finds for the Giants – how many is enough?

It’s a semi-serious question – teams would kill for the kind of talent GWS continues to unearth in the middle and with the squeeze well and truly on in that position this season, we’ll see Williams most likely slot into his traditional half back role.

But will that be enough for him?

In 2019, Zac Williams got a lick of the ice cream, and now he is having it pulled away?

Williams is out of contract at the end of 2020, and whilst GWS have re-signed plenty of top tier talent, this is the one I am most worried about.

It is not that I believe Williams would want out of GWS – it is that I believe he is good enough to walk into the midfield anywhere else in the league. Here, he is contending with Kelly, Coniglio, Taranto, Hopper, de Boer and now there is a kid called Tom Green emerging – are the opportunities for Williams elsewhere?

He is 25 years old – entering his absolute peak years, and he knows that his time is now. Does he cement himself in the GWS midfield this season? If not, I am afraid he may start thinking his future is elsewhere.

 

LEGITIMATE X-FACTOR

Forget the negativity in the press. Forget the witch hunt that saw him suspended for the Preliminary Final, and forget the hatred spewed forth by those who would have him as part of their team in a second if he were available – Toby Greene is bordering on becoming a genuine superstar of our game.

Imagine that – the bloke who reversed the trend and re-signed with the Giants becoming one of the biggest stars in the sport? It’s happening, and it almost all came together in 2019. Maybe 2020 is the year Greene really takes off. Maybe he trades in genuine fame and trades out infamy.

I have always been partial to players who walk a fine line between what is fair, and what could be construed as a little over the top. There is something about a player who stares down an opponent, an umpire, or an entire system and dares them to do something about it that just appeals to me. Sure, it could have been costly to the Giants had they fallen in the Preliminary Final. Sure, his actions against Marcus Bontempelli weren’t the actions that Mrs Johnson wants little Billy copying when he goes to Auskick on Saturday morning, but far out… the vitriol aimed at Toby Greene in the aftermath of his finals efforts was close to being unprecedented.

If you believe he was suspended solely for the “eye gouge” on Lachie Neale, you need your head read. He was suspended as a warning – it was the AFL protecting the interests of their soccer mum audience once again, and finding a reason to suspend Greene even though the evidence could have been described as “flimsy” and the testimony of Lachie Neale indicated that there was nothing really untoward.

Okay, rant over.

The main reason Greene has not become a genuine superstar of the game isn’t his questionable tactics – it has been his body. He hasn’t played 20 games in a season since 2016, and needs a solid run at it where he is present and reliable each and every week. He started to put that together in the latter half of 2019.

Check these numbers out.

From Round 17 onwards, Greene compiled averages of 28.88 disposals, 13.22 contested touches, 5.11 clearances, 5.22 inside 50 deliveries and 1.33 goals. Those are elite numbers over a nine game period. His numbers dipped in the context of the whole season, but with players out and the Giants in need of someone to step up, it was Greene putting his hands up. Still, his overall numbers in 2019 were excellent.

Here’s a list of players who were able to average 23+ disposals and 1.4 goals per game in 2019.

Toby Greene.

That’s it.

Dusty clocks in at 1.39 goals per game. Sorry Dusty.

In 2020, Greene could become the star he is destined to be. He may exchange infamy for stardom, and in the process, he may be the variant that pushes GWS over the edge and onward to a flag.

 

THE BAD

 

THE GOOD AND THE BAD OF JEREMY FINLAYSON

Jeremy Finlayson was one of the season’s great stories.

On the trade block after the 2018 season, Finlayson had no takers. For the record, I really wanted the Hawks to put their hand up for him, but I was thinking of him more as a pretty good defensive option in fairness. I’m not sure anyone saw what was coming in terms of his impact up forward.

Finlayson had a breakout season, averaging 1.91 goals per game in a performance that shocked me, and I am certain it did the same to many others. He and Jeremy Cameron kicked 12 between them against the Tigers in an important win for the Giants early in the season, and the remainder of his year was littered with six bags of three goals.

But there was a sulkiness to Finlayson at points. You could almost see him pout when things didn’t go his way. He was demonstrative, and if he wasn’t considered as an option going forward, he wasn’t backward in letting his teammates know.

It was not lost on those who watch closely.

It’s fair to say that when Finlayson was good, he was very, very good. The way he gave the Giants another avenue to goal kept defenders honest and prevented them from collapsing on Jeremy Cameron, but it is also fair to say that when he was bad… he was terrible.

And his worst moments came in the biggest game of the season.

Jeremy Finlayson may never live down his disastrous Grand Final performance. A unanimous selection for worst on ground, Finlayson troubled the statisticians for one disposal for the game.

Just one.

It is the kind of performance that a player would wake up in the middle of the night, having had a nightmare about, and Finlayson lived every single moment of it.

Can he redeem himself, or is this the performance that will now define him as a player? The 2020 season becomes just as important as the 2019 season was for Jeremy Finlayson. Last season he came from the clouds and flew higher than anyone thought he could, only to crash back to Earth in front of the entire footy world. That has to leave a mental scar.

It will be interesting to see whether Finlayson can shrug it off and once again provide GWS with a great forward option. Or whether this becomes a monkey on his back he just cannot shake.

 

WILL THE SCARS HEAL?

Well, Jeremy Finlayson was so bad that he had his own section, but the collective scars of that Grand Final defeat… they would be deep, and still pretty painful.

The display on the grandest stage of all was insipid – more akin to their performance against Hawthorn in the snow than the previous weeks against the Bulldogs, Lions and Magpies. They were flying high right up until the first bounce – the big, big sound meme taking on a life of its own and making the GWS Giants something of an international hit.

But right before quarter time a long Richmond goal gave the Tigers momentum, and they would never lose it.

Few players could have held their head high after that debacle. Taranto, Shaw, Greene, Haynes, perhaps Perryman. The rest, it is a day they will struggle to let go of.

I am sure they have done what they can to put that day behind them. I am sure they have reflected both privately and as a group as to what that day meant then, and what it means going forward. I am sure the club has worked their sports psychologists overtime to ensure the players are able to get past what will have been the worst day in their footballing lives.

But it is how they respond on the field that will define them – how they get up; not how they were knocked down.

 

THE UGLY

 

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE GOOD GWS AND THE ATROCIOUS GWS

Good teams have something about them. You know what you’re going to get from them. They bring the same style, the same effort and the difference between their best and worst is minimal.

And we didn’t get that in 2019 from the Giants.

You could argue that they brought their best, most resilient efforts when the game was at its toughest – in finals, but that chasm between best and worst was in full effect in the last game of the year.

The Giants whacked the Bulldogs – absolutely beat the hell out of them in the Elimination Final, before showing some tremendous fight and guts against both Brisbane and Collingwood. It was a fairy tale run to the Grand Final, but as we’ve learnt with several teams over the last couple of years – fairy tales sometimes lack the ending you usually get books.

Reality doesn’t afford happy endings all the time.

The Grand Final tore the tough exterior of the Giants, exposing a vulnerable team underneath. They were challenged, and they failed to respond… initially at least. They can still make something good of this, but it will take sustained effort, and redemption borne of a relentless determination to bring their best every single week.

This team has been anointed for a long while now. A premiership is expected and is now overdue, but as long as they have lapses like they did against Hawthorn in Round 21, the Western Bulldogs in Round 22, and Richmond in the Grand Final, this team will struggle to get there.

The gap between their best and worst must be reduced, and it must happen quickly, lest this window – this ever-open window – start to close.

 

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