With eight-straight goals through the first and second quarters, the GWS Giants advanced to week two of the 2023 AFL Finals, giving the rest of the footy world a glimpse of what this club has been able to build, or rebuild under new coach, Adam Kingsley.
After the Saints hit the scoreboard early, GWS hit top gear and started their running game through the middle of the ground. Their pressure was elite and their run was relentless. Plenty of Saints found the going tough in the first half. Jack Sinclair had his game curtailed by a solid team effort from the Giants in the back half, whilst Brad Crouch really struggled to get into the game.
There was a period where the Saints looked up for the fight, with Max King coming to life for 15 minutes to kick two goals against Sam Taylor, but the Giants always seemed ready, willing, and able to right the ship. Their ability to answer took the wind out of the sails of the Saints, as they hovered between four and five goals in front
The power of Tom Green in the contest, the run of Josh Kelly on the outside, and the rebound of Lachie Whitfield gave the Saints fits and left Ross Lyon with a lot more questions than he had answers.
Despite some inspired footy from Jack Steele, Rowan Marshall, and Brad Hill, the Saints found the Giants just a little too much, as GWS ran out four-goal winners.
Here’s The Mongrel’s Talking Points.
WHAT DO WE MAKE OF TOM GREEN V JACK STEELE IN THE GUTS?
It’s an interesting one to assess. Some will look at the stats sheet and declare it a draw. It’s an easy assessment to make when you use that as your basis, but when you look at the game of Jack Steele opposed to Tom Green, I am not sure it stacks up as well as numbers will tell you.
Green is a monster – the way he takes contact, holds his ground, and either wins the footy himself, or carves a path for teammates has to be seen to be believed. At just 22, he already looks like a man amongst boys at points, and his ability to take the ball cleanly is right up there with the best in the game.
With Steele, he did find plenty of it, and his work rate is sky-high, but I am not sure his disposals hurt the Giants the way Green’s hurt the Saints.
Not only did Green gather 36 touches, he averaged 19.6 metres per touch. For a player so adept in the art of clearances (he had five) to gather over 700 metres for the game emphasised just how direct he was going, creating issues for the Saints as he did.
On the other hand, Steele had 38 touches, but managed just 261 metres gained. That’s an average of 6.9 metres per possession.
You see the difference?
Green is a weapon that can carry a midfield. He doesn’t have to, but he can. Steele is an excellent player – hell, he is an All-Australian and gave the Brownlow a shake, but he is not a matchwinner. He is likely better suited to playing the workhorse on a team that has a couple of other thoroughbreds on it.
Unfortunately, the remainder of the St Kilda mids (Crouch – 21 touches, Ross – 24 touches, Gresham when he’s in there – 15 touches) played like old nags and left too much up to Steele.
Two fewer disposals for Green, but a hell of a lot more influence means he takes home the chocolates in this one.
AND HOW DO WE ASSESS THE RUCK CONTEST?
Rowan Marshall had a monster game – he jumped out of the blocks and put 11 touches to his name in the first quarter on his way to 31 touches for the game. It was evident that he was under instructions to use his mobility to hurt the Giants, and it did.
However, when you have that advantage over a bloke, chances are he has an advantage on you., and the big body of Kieren Briggs started presenting a big issue for the Saints in the middle of the ground.
Briggs got his hands to way more taps (+9) and followed up his own work with eight clearances, as he displayed his industrious side in the clinches. Marshall was no slouch in that regard, either, notching nine clearances (three in the last quarter), but Briggs’ work was a hell of a lot better than the stats sheet will indicate.
It’s difficult to go past Marshall’s contribution – 30 disposals and 20 hit-out games don’t happen along that often (I might look into it), but with Briggs breaking even with him in ruck contests, it probably took a little of the sheen of Marshall’s game.
Between them, these blokes had 37 contested possessions, with Marshall having a mammoth 22 to his name. They were both beasts, even if the St Kilda beast was that little bit bigger, badder, and more potent on the day.
ONE YOUNG FORWARD TOO MANY IN FINALS?
Firstly, all the best to Tim Membrey, who evidently has some stuff to deal with, causing him to miss this game. You know it has to be something pretty dramatic for such an important player to miss a final, so we wish him all the best.
However, in terms of this particular game, his absence set the cat amongst the pigeons at the MCG. It forced Ross Lyon to change up his forward structure dramatically and bring Anthony Caminiti into the lineup to replace his marking forward.
Whilst Caminiti was very good early in the year, it was a huge ask for him to come in and stand up in this game, just as it was a huge ask for Mattaes Phillipou and Cooper Sharman.
Of them, only Sharman – the one with the most experience in the league, was able to adjust to the tempo of finals footy, and whilst I don’t want to say that the absence of Membrey was a decisive factor (you don’t want that type of pressure), what I will say is that the lack of an experienced marking target was a real issue for the Saints.
But I suppose that has been something they dealt with all season – no crash and bash forward.
Caminiti was subbed out at halftime after having minimal influence. Phillipou struggled to get near it, and it was only the contested marking of Cooper Sharman that prevented the first half from being a complete blowout.
Of course, marking forwards don’t grow on trees, and whilst we all wish Tim Membrey the best and cross our fingers that he’ll be up and about in 2024, the club will need one of those young blokes to really refine their game, add some muscle and establish themselves as a viable target over the next 12 months.
Thanks to The Squinters GWS podcast for the nickname – I give credit when I steal.
I’ll tell anyone willing to listen that Brent Daniels has the potential to be one of the best small forwards in the game. Injuries aside, his best is good enough to give the All-Australian selectors something to think about, and I reckon anyone who watched this game would find it difficult to dispute that.
With 18 touches, a goal, and two direct goal assists, Daniels was a thorn in the side of the Saints all afternoon, consistently bobbing up in the right spots and hitting the footy at pace. His wins around the half-forward line gave the Giants a reliable avenue to deliver the footy inside 50, and his telepathy with Toby Greene at points was something that you’d miss if you weren’t looking for it. Those two combine like pasta and Parmesan.
My hope, aside from how the remainder of this season plays out, is that Daniels gets a full pre-season under his belt and is able to get a couple of years running around at his optimum. I can see what he is capable of, and I am sure Adam Kingsley and the Giants are aware as well. If he gets a good run at it, he could be the factor that puts this team right back up the pointy end of the ladder.
And he might be that and a little bit more over the next three weeks.
THE UNSUNG DEFENDER
Whilst there was a heap of focus in the Max King v Sam Taylor battle, I found my eye drawn toward Jack Buckley and the role he played for the Giants in this game.
With Taylor out for an extended period in 2023, Buckley was given a mountain of responsibility as the number one defender, and he grasped it with both hands, at one point entering the top ten in our Defensive Player of the Year Award (he finished 14th). Of course, he was always going to be relegated to second banana, or even third (behind Harry Himmelberg) when Taylor re-emerged but Buckley has been able to continue a run of form that has been quite remarkable.
He hit the contests in this game hard and with stats informing us he had six intercepts and six spoils, he more than held up his end of the bargain for the Giants.
With players like Buckley, as well as Connor Idun, who was tremendous in this one, running around the defensive fifty in support of Taylor and Himmelberg, it is almost as though the Giants have an embarrassment of riches in defence. They run Lachie Whitfield off half-back, have Lachie Ash rebounding the ball from defensive footy with monotonous regularity (he had 22 touches in the first half), and have the luxury of using Isaac Cumming in defence where required. Hell, he wasn’t that far off being an All-Australian player in 2022.
There would be many who would walk past Jack Buckley on the street and not recognise him, but I reckon that won’t last too much longer. His return from his ACL injury has been remarkable and his efforts have been so good this season, I have genuinely found myself barracking for him to do well.
Not that he needs my barracking – he does just fine on his merits.
YOU CANNOT BE EVERYTHING TO EVERYONE WHEN YOU PLAY ON TOBY GREEN
There will be some who sit back, think about this game, see Toby Greene kicked one goal and surmise that Callum Wilkie did a bloody good on him. I mean, that is how the AFL Media operates – some of you may have seen a graphic pop up before the game with a list of players Wilkie had “shut down” recently.
Given the criteria they were using, you could have added Toby Greene’s name to that list after this week… but it’d be wrong.
Greene played Wilkie masterfully in the first half, allowing the All-Australian defender to attack the footy in flight, only to prey on the ground ball that followed when Wilkie failed to impact the contest.
It was a strange matchup, actually, as it seemed to transfer the responsibility of being the intercept marker to Josh Battle. Not that he did poorly, but he is no Cal Wilkie.
Greene got out for 19 touches, consistently providing a threat around the 50 metre arc to collect nine score involvements, including a goal and a direct assist. His creativity and hard work at ground level often left Wilkie flat-footed, and he was unlucky not to finish with a couple more goals to his name.
Far be it from me to question the coaching of Ross Lyon, but whilst Wilkie is their best defender, and Greene the best forward (the matchup seems natural when you look at it like that) I would have preferred having Wilkie playing on a lesser player, able to zone off more successfully without arguably the cluey-est player in the league capitalising on any error he made. But that’s why I write about footy and Ross Lyon lives it, I guess.
WORTH THE FIGHT
During the week, the GWS Giants flat-out refused to accept that Toby Bedford was guilty of an offence last week against the Blues. And thank the lord they did!
That the league went after Bedford, and seemed hell-bent on him sitting out this game is indicative of the ass-backwards way the administration is governing this game. I was rapt to see Bedford able to suit up to play the Saints, and he seemed pretty bloody happy with it, as well.
Early in the season, I was pretty buoyant about the prospects of Bedford as part of… the orange team. He had been stuck behind Kysaiah Pickett at Melbourne and was starved for opportunity. With Bobby Hill leaving and Brent Daniels battling injury a little too often, this was the perfect move for Bedford, and as the season continues, we are seeing more and more why he is so important to this club.
It is not just kicking goals, although they are nice. No, it is his pressure, his ability to get right up the ground and become part of the “tsunami” through the middle, and his skill with the ball in hand that make such a difference. He blitzed the GWS time trials early this season, so his tank is no issue, and the longer this game went, the more Bedford seemed to enjoy himself.
This is a bloke making the most of his second chance at AFL footy and I love what I see from him. And well done to the Giants for backing their man, going into bat for him and refusing to accept that idiotic suspension for bumping Zac Fisher. Someone has to stick up for the game.
HILL OR WHITFIELD?
This wasn’t a direct matchup, so I know it is a little unfair to lump them in together, but they are both running men, and when they find space, these blokes can cut a team to ribbons.
First, Brad Hill.
I was well and truly off his bandwagon up until the commencement of this year. He looked like a player happy to take St Kilda’s many without the effort of earning it. Allergic to a contested footy, he was going through the motions. The only coaches to get good footy out of him were Alastair Clarkson and Ross Lyon.
And the latter did it again this season. He must push the right buttons for Hill, as the running man responds brilliantly to him. Maybe he kidnaps his family and threatens him? Nah, that was old Ross… this is new cuddly Ross. He wouldn’t do that, right?
Hill’s 29 touches and two goals had him as one of the Saints’ best perhaps their overall best. He created, ran hard, was thrown all over the park, and kicked a big goal late in the game to keep the Saints in touch – a brilliant effort from him.
And running the other way, Lachie Whitfield.
What a luxury to take this bloke, plonk him on a half-back flank and allow him to start exploring space wherever he can find it. Already with a couple of B&F awards to his name, he was fantastic in this one, bursting from defence to be one of the best inside 50 players on the park (Tom Green and Josh Kelly had more).
Whitfield has matured into a star, after seeming to be a little off his game after a lung injury a couple of years back (that’ll do it, right?). The way he took the game on, took hits when they came his way, and dared those chasing him to keep running as he put distance between himself and his would-be tacklers, demoralised some of the Saints. He is truly a freak when it comes to aerobic capacity, and the great thing is he has a skill set that complements that run brilliantly.
After Tom Mitchell did it on Thursday night, Dan Butler lowered himself to the level of diving to get a free kick in this game. Mate… I hate this crap so much. What I hate more is umpires falling for it and being too eager to penalise players for what is really a nothing incident.
The whole situation with players going to ground easily in a physical confrontation is absolutely embarrassing. I’d like to see umpires state it blatantly at players – “no, you dived.” Loud and clear for all the people at home to hear – that would be just about the only benefit of having them mic’ed up out there.
Unless, of course, you live hearing them yell ‘stand” every 20 seconds?
You know how some people have a second team? For a long while, many had the Western Bulldogs as their second team. The Bulldogs hated it – it was like getting a pity-like on social media. They like teams that pose no threat, and that should genuinely piss teams off when people state “Oh the whatevers are my second team”.
No one says that about the Giants. They have something those pitied teams wish they had.
They have respect.
The way this Giants team plays the game commands respect from their opponents and opposition supporters. Sure, it may compel some people t hate them, as well, but deep down, the way this team has picked itself up off the canvas and re-emerged as a power in the league demands that they be given the plaudits they deserve.
But just earning the respect of the league… that’s bullshit. It’s not enough, and I reckon you can see it’s not enough in the faces of this team.
In 2019, they rampaged into the Grand Final. They were the big story as they made all sorts of BIG BIG SOUNDS.
And then Richmond ended that music. Suddenly, the GWS novelty was over and the footy world moved onto something else. The Giants took their lumps, experienced two seasons on the outer and have now reloaded. Far out, there are some teams that have been reloading for ten years! These blokes did it in two.
They play an undeniably attractive brand of footy. They take the game on and screw the consequences. And you know what… with six teams remaining, there is not one side that will look at the GWS Giants and think “Yeah, I wouldn’t mind playing them next week.”
They will get Stephen Coniglio back next week – stronger again as a former captain rejoins the fray, and to their fans, I have only one other thing to say.
Dare to dream.
This team has it where it counts. They have heart, in addition to the amazing players on the list.
Dare to dream, indeed.
And so, a promising season for the Saints ends. I am not sure Ross Lyon will be too disappointed – I can see him thinking that this group was ahead of where he thought they’d be this season. Like a racehorse, they’ll be better for this run, and the time they gave to their kids will reap big benefits.
They do not limp into the off-season. They can walk with their heads held high. They’ve earned it in this 2023 season.
As for the Giants, a trip to either the Gabba or Adelaide awaits. For the best road team in the AFL – the Mongrel Punt 2023 Road Warriors – they will welcome the challenge. Another win and people will be absolutely shitting themselves at the prospect of playing this mob.
Hell, they may already be packing the adult diapers, just in case.
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