Seemingly always in the premiership window, the GWS Giants are now finally staring down the barrel of irrelevancy.

It’s by no means a fait accompli, but with the side missing the finals, and playing an insipid brand of football at points in 2020, the Giants have their backs against the wall for the first time since their first couple of seasons in the league.

Expectations of sustained premiership success are now no longer on the agenda – at least externally. The talent pool, once so deep and so rich, is starting to become a little thinner – slowly but surely, it is.

Established names have left over the last few years, but none have stung like the recent departure of Jeremy Cameron.

The club has had ready replacements for players like Dylan Shiel, Adam Treloar and Taylor Adams – Tim Taranto, Jacob Hopper and Josh Kelly have eaten up the midfield minutes vacated by that bunch and relished the opportunity to do so. And let’s face it; midfielders can be a dime-a-dozen in this league at the moment. However, the loss of Cameron is a different kettle of fish.

After losing the injury-prone Jonathon Patton after the 2019 season, Cameron’s exit sees the pillars of the projected powerhouse forward line gone. It was always going to be the Patton/Cameron combination. Then it moved to Cameron/Finlayson/Himmelberg.

Now it has shifted again.

With the club also losing the enigmatic Zac Williams and Jye Caldwell (with Jackson Hately’s move to Adelaide in the pre-season draft seemingly a formality), opportunity once again exists at GWS. But who will step into the void left by those who have come and gone?

Where does the improvement come from?

Let’s have a bit of a gander at the 2021 version of the Giants and delve into whether or not this team can turn their fortunes around after a season where they looked as though they’d checked out long before Round 18.

 

STEPHEN CONIGLIO

It was not the ideal start to a captaincy for Stephen Coniglio, was it?

The only captain to be dropped from the senior side in years, Cogs didn’t exactly exude leadership in 2020 – he needs to turn this around in a hurry.

Speaking to some GWS supporters during the season, I got the impression that they weren’t overly impressed with the appointment of Cogs as the number one man. Stories filtered through about him not really being all that willing to share the captaincy, but in hindsight, maybe sharing the load would have been wise.

Coniglio is a worker. He is classy with the ball in hand and his decision to stay with the club instead of heading elsewhere after the 2019 season was the sort of thing that inspires those around a player.

But that’s kind of where the inspiration ended for Cogs. He just played… ordinary. He was still doing some decent things… just not enough. And late in the season, Leon Cameron had seen enough, making Coniglio the first captain to be dropped in over 20 years.

If that isn’t enough to sting Cogs into the biggest pre-season of his life in 2021, I don’t know what is.

The 2018/19 version of Stephen Coniglio had just two games under 20 disposals (discounting the game where he hurt his knee in the opening minute). The 2020 version had five.

Yes, there was reduced game time. Yes, it was a difficult season, but GWS require better from their captain and he should be cherry ripe to deliver in 2021.

 

THE FORWARD TRIO

Let’s put it out there- Jeremy Cameron absolutely stunk it up in 2020. If we’re looking at A-Grade players who didn’t pull their weight, Cameron’s name would be right at the top of the list. He looked lazy, disinterested at times, and a shadow of the player he is capable of being.

I guess we now know why – his heart obviously wasn’t in it.

He was held to one goal or less in nine of the 17 games in 2020 as he meandered about, either not being involved, or half-heartedly being involved.

Enough JC bashing?

Okay…

What the Giants are now confronted with is a three-headed forward monster yet again, only one of the heads has been swapped out. Himmelberg and Finlayson remain, but Jesse Hogan now slots in as the third key tall. He may end up being the number one tall, but he has to earn that mantle in this team – there will be no gifts.

He has an opportunity to resurrect his career after squandering his Fremantle chance, and you’d have to think this would be his last chance to get things right. There is a lot on the line for Jesse, but GWS have the personnel to make him look good. I’m not sure Freo did.

I am sure Hogan will enjoy leading to players like Lachie Whitfield and Josh Kelly if they get clean outside ball. Even as the hit-up target at half forward, a return to the 2018-form of Hogan (18 touches and 2+ goals per game) would see his acquisition look like a masterstroke.

The GWS forward line also boasts Toby Greene – arguably a top five player in the league, and a nifty little unit named Brent Daniels, who does so many things well yet gets very little in the way of credit.

In an open, attacking game, this GWS forward line has the capacity to tear a game open… on paper.

Hogan and the role he is asked to play on this team will be pivotal. He has a great natural tank and if he gets a solid pre-season, his ability to get up the field and back inside 50 could cause headaches.

However, if he resorts to picking up a pay cheque and phoning in performances, there will be a lot of weight on the other two heads to do damage – are they up to the task without an established third?

And could Jake Riccardi make one of the three redundant by half way through 2021, anyway?

 

SAM TAYLOR RETURNING

Whilst the Giants really missed the calming, controlling presence of Phil Davis, the loss of Sam Taylor for basically the entire season really hurt the back half in 2020.

I’ll put this out there and wear the derision – Sam Taylor is one of the best young defenders in the game; right up there with Tom Doedee. He’s 21 years old, already has 34 games under his belt and was an integral part of the Giants’ surge in the 2019 Grand Final. When you’re looking for reasons as to why GWS fell over in such a huge way in 2020, the absence of Taylor should not be understated at all.

So, what does he add in 2021?

As much as I respected what Lachie Keeffe was able to do on the last line, Taylor’s return (and that of Phil Davis) make the GWS tall defence so much better. Where they allowed contested marks in 2020, Taylor and Davis will not in 2021, and their tag-teaming of key forwards will see Nick Haynes released into a true interceptor role. If you thought Haynes was great in 2020, I reckon he plays better footy with more freedom – better warm up a seat for the 2021 AA photo for him again.

 

THE OTHER T GREEN

We didn’t see anywhere near enough of Tom Green in 2020.

The Giants know they have a keeper here and though everyone jumped up and down like their arses were on fire about the exploits of Matt Rowell, Green showed enough to make people stop and think in terms of where these blokes will be ranked in a few years’ time.

Green’s Round 17 performance against Melbourne was the most eye-catching of his six games in 2020. He collected 31 touches and had 21 of those come in the contest. He wins clearances and tackles well and looks to have great vision.

An academy pick, the Giants manoeuvred well to claim both him and Lachie Ash, which was akin to getting two top five picks for the price of one.

The GWS midfield is completely nuts in terms of talent, but I cannot see Green being held out of this team for long in 2021. The raw talent is there and he has already demonstrated that he can stand up where required. With Ash playing off half back, he has to make a spot in the centre rotation his early in the season.

 

THE FORMER CAPTAINS

I covered Coniglio above and though I don’t want to whack the bloke any more, I still see Phil Davis as the leader of this group of players. Fearless and highly capable, Davis is a leader by example, often sitting under a high-ball and taking the hit he knows is coming his way.

I have great memories of the look in his eye when Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dumber on AFL 360 asked him what it’s like to play on Buddy Franklin before the Giants’ clash against the Swans in the 2018 Elimination Final. He answered respectfully, but his eyes spoke volumes. They said “screw Buddy Franklin”… or something pretty similar to that.

And as the Giants whacked the Swans, Davis gave Franklin a complete bath. They were the sorts of moments that imbued faith in this team. They made others walk taller.

Davis is the wrong side of 30 now and his body may not be as reliable as it once was, but a season where he plays 17-20 games and hits the finals with a body in decent nick will see GWS thrive.

But can we say the same for Callan Ward?

Coming back from a knee reconstruction is never easy, but Ward looked as though he was really labouring in 2020. Another on the wrong side of 30, it is hard to see him playing a significant role in the midfield unless he can recapture some of what made him such a respected player for both the Dogs and the Giants.

Could he do what Travis Boak and Shaun Higgins did in their post-30 careers? Both guys have had career-best seasons after the big 3-0. If Ward can pull off something similar, we could be talking about one of the great career renaissances.

 

A FIT TIM TARANTO

Coming off a Best and Fairest season in 2019, plenty was expected from Taranto in 2020. Personally, I thought he was ready to make yet another step and become their midfield leader.

He does a bit of everything, as happy dragging down opponents in tackles as he is collecting the footy, himself. However, in a rather innocuous incident in the Giants’ first pre-season Marsh series game, Taranto injured his shoulder and it set him back quite a way.

Whilst the break after Round One gave him time to get back into the swing of things by Round Seven, the apple cart had been upset and he found himself unable to recapture his 2019 form.

Taranto has all the tools to be a star and makes a great combination with Jacob Hopper in the middle of the ground. The Giants’ use of their young duo will have a huge influence on their season.

 

A SETTLED MIDFIELD

I covered off a couple of players above who will be fighting for a place in the GWS midfield, but let’s run down the complete list for your perusal.

Tim Taranto

Jacob Hopper

Stephen Coniglio

Callan Ward

Josh Kelly

Tom Green

Matt de Boer

Harry Perryman

Quite the squeeze, huh? Here’s how I’d love to see them line up.

Josh Kelly on the wing. He is a fantastic outside player and if he can get fed on the outside, could create absolute havoc. Throw Perryman on the other wing, where he had a blinding start to 2020 before being moved to half back (killing his momentum… ugh!) and you have a great one-two punch on the outside.

Have Lachie Whitfield on the half back flank and bloody leave him there for the whole season! Don’t be tempted to throw him into the middle and toy with things. There is plenty of talent to cover the middle. With Zac Williams gone and Heater Shaw out the door as well, Whitfield’s run will be vital from half back

Coniglio goes in the guts. Combine what he offers with Taranto on Hopper, roving to Preuss who can break-even with most big guys in the league and you have a trio that can cause some damage. Cogs can sneak forward here and there and is a proven scorer on his day, but I don’t want to see him stranded down there out of the action for long stretches.

That leaves de Boer and we know what his role is. Start him on a half forward flank and shift him onto the most dangerous midfielder as soon as the ball is bounced.

Tom Green and Cal Ward are left to contend for the last midfield spot. Where do we put them when they’re not in the middle? Could Ward play as a defensive forward now that Zac Langdon is gone? Is there another place for Tom Green that isn’t in the midfield?

The Giants still have an on-ball brigade that can match it with any team in the league, but it is important to allow them to settle and play together. In 2020, they were so disjointed and looked to never really gel as a team. They cannot fall into the trap of looking for quick fixes again in 2021.

 

So there we go. I guess that last section was a little bit of a crack at Leon Cameron, as he desperately tried to inject some life into his team with positional changes. It didn’t work, and though the Giants seem to have a never-ending stream of young talent coming through, with some departing way too early, this is the time he really earns his money as a coach.

He doesn’t quite have the talent to burn he did two years ago, but there is still plenty of class on this list. A good team will bounce back from the disappointment of 2020. A good coach will guide them as they do so.

A great team would have the kind of season that makes everyone forget about 2020.

Are the Giants capable of making noise again? Or have they had their shot and are now destined to become the next Adelaide Crows after being whacked in the Grand Final?

The Giants have come a long way since their 2012 debut, but this coming season shapes as the most important to date. This is the season they step up, or step aside. This is the season they make more than just a big, big sound and re-establish themselves as contenders.

Or this is the season that players start to lose faith in the vision.

Can this Giants team make Western Sydney great again? Or is it finally time to concede that this run at the top of the league is over?

 

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