The "Ifs", "Buts" and Other Stuff - GWS Giants

After disposing of the Swans with a bang, the GWS Giants bowed out of the 2018 finals series with a whimper against Collingwood. I suppose it was to be expected.

Things didn’t really click for the Giants all year. Late starts to the year for Josh Kelly and Toby Greene put them behind the eight ball and they ended up playing catch-up for most of the season.

Buoyed by first-time All-Australian, Lachie Whitfield, and two genuine leaders sharing the captaincy, the Giants looked like a threat at times, but the weight of their injury toll was too much to overcome.

With a couple of best-22 players departing, many have speculated whether the Giants have the resources to cover the shortfall. We have a bit of a look in ours “ifs” and “buts” and see what we can come up with.

 

IF…

… the rumours of their demise have been greatly exaggerated, the Giants will scare the hell out of teams this season.

People have such short memories. They see Tom Scully leave to alleviate salary cap pressure, and they panic. They hear Dylan Shiel wanting out, and they start to write off a team that is still a contender, even when losing two quality players like those listed above.

I don’t think the Giants will miss Shiel’s atrocious kicking at goal (20.7% in 2018), and as a matter of fact, I don’t think they’ll miss most of what he brought to the table in 2018. Shiel was fifth at the club in disposals (25.9), equal fourth in contested touches (9.3), third in clearances (4.5) and 11th in tackles (3.4) but the Giants bat deep in the midfield, and they have young players ready to step into the void.

Tim Taranto has been screaming out for more midfield opportunity, and the departure of Shiel is just what the doctor ordered. With Josh Kelly, Cal Ward and Stephen Coniglio already entrenched in the Giants’ midfield, and Lachie Whitfield streaming by on the outside, youngsters like Taranto and Jacob Hopper were just waiting for their opportunity to present.

Well, opportunity is knocking right now.

The Giants’ list is still stacked with talent. Phil Davis and Nick Haynes are absolute quality in defence, and the knee injury to Heath Shaw in the finals left a sizeable gap to fill in his absence. Pencil those three in as your key backline stars, and already the Giants look set to be a solid defensive unit. When a guy who looks as good as Jeremy Finlayson is struggling to get a run, you know you have plenty of top-tier talent.

Jeremy Cameron, Toby Greene and Harry Himmelberg have the talent to tear games open – it’s as though many in the AFL community have simply forgotten about this. Cameron was a Coleman medal threat before his elbow found the chin of Harris Andrews. With Jon Patton working back from another knee reconstruction (poor bloke – he could be such a star), the GWS forward line (health-permitting, as with any other team) is all set for another tilt at finals.

So where does all the negativity come from in the press? Why are people considering GWS a non-factor this season? Pundits have them falling out of the eight as though Dylan Shiel was some kind of superman carrying the team on his shoulders (I’d be thanking Coniglio for some heavy lifting last year, personally), and Rory Lobb was actually showing up as a key forward/ruck – he wasn’t! He averaged 0.58 goals per game in 2018, which put him way outside the top 100 for goal kicking averages. Lachlan Murphy in Adelaide averaged more. Brennan Cox and Cam McCarthy in Freo averaged more. As a matter of fact, Lobb was 14th on the GWS list alone. In terms of his ruck work, he was ranked 28th in the league in regard to average hit outs per game, so in his dual role, he was doing neither of them particularly well. I think GWS fans can rest easy in regards to his loss.

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Look! Mongrel Punt Stubby Holders. Buy one and be cooler than all your friends! It also helps the site out.

 

… Toby Greene is right to go, we should see him enter his peak years.

It was such a strange year for Greene in 2018. Smashed by injury for the most part, he played but a cameo in the story of the Giants’ season, whereas he is destined to be the star.

He averaged 15.78 touches (-2.43) and 1.78 goals (-0.59) for the year and fluctuated wildly between looking like an absolute star of the competition, and a regular, run-of-the-mill player, which he surely is not.

Full disclosure – I am an unabashed Toby Greene fan. Whether he is antagonizing opposition players, or simply booting them in the midsection as he takes a mark, he can’t really do a lot wrong in my eyes, except for not getting his body right. His value to the Giants, at a time when others have jumped ship, and the threat of others doing the same is looming, is vital to their success. To have him sitting on the sidelines, unable to influence games at all, was a huge factor in GWS’ slow start to the season.

There is a confidence to Greene many players simply do not possess. Whether or not that borders on arrogance is a matter of opinion, but in the game against Richmond – possibly the Giants’ best win of the season, the way he went back from a tight angle, gestured to his teammates that he had the situation under control, and calmly slotted a steadying goal home spoke volumes about the faith he has in himself.

And the faith his teammates should have in him.

Whilst many will make a big deal out of the looming contract situations at GWS, and the possibility of others eyeing opportunity elsewhere, Greene is locked in as a Giant. He has committed to this team, and he sees himself as a cornerstone of their first premiership. His influence on a contest is arguably greater than any other player in that team. His record in 2018 was seven wins, one loss and a draw. Overall, the Giants were 7-8 without him.

So what are the marks Greene has to hit in 2019 to deem his season a success? 18-20 games is a must, as are 2+ goals per game. A return to the All-Australian team would be nice, but a high place in the club’s best and fairest award would be just as rewarding. The Toby Greene of 2018 was a flash in the pan – a quick burst of brilliant light in what was a pretty dark season overall. He burned brightly, but could not sustain it. The Toby Greene of 2019 needs to light the way for the Giants as they make their way through the year. He can walk the fine line between acceptable and unacceptable all he likes as long as he doesn’t tip over the edge.

He’s just too valuable to be sidelined, and 2019 should be the year he stamps (with stops down) his authority on the competition.

 

… Phil Davis is not recognised as one of the best leaders and defenders in the game, the AFL media needs a kick in the ass.

There was a look about Phil Davis in the days before the Giants gave the Swans a hiding in the 2018 Elimination Final. Interviewed on AFL 360 by Gerard Whateley and his mate, Robbo, he was asked about Lance Franklin and how he’d combat the man who has been the best forward in the game for years.

He didn’t have to say anything – the look in his eyes spoke volumes. You see, Davis is well aware that it really doesn’t matter what you say about Buddy Franklin. It matters what you do when the time comes, and what Davis went out and did against Franklin, was lead his team to a resounding victory with one of the best defensive performances of the year.

He was angry that Franklin had basically got out of what was a deliberate act to push Davis into harm’s way, and almost caused significant injury, the last time they met. That Franklin tried to do it again, and that Davis did not put one on his chin, indicates that Davis is a man who understands his value to the team not just in the moment, but in the grand scheme of things.

I’ve read a few pieces over the journey that suggested GWS lacked leadership, and on face value, I can understand why they wrote what they did. Leaders take time to develop, and it’s difficult to cultivate leadership when the team is still in its infancy. Well, we’re not talking about a team full of kids anymore. This is a team aligned behind the strong leadership of two unsung stars.

Cal Ward is a maniac who’ll throw himself in front of a bus if it means winning the footy first, but Phil Davis, at 28 years old, has developed into the kind of leader others will follow. The way he put his hand up to stifle Franklin, and then went out and did just that, to the extent that Buddy looked completely ineffective, was the perfect case of a captain who leads by example. He is a leader of men.

Davis was shunned by All-Australian selectors, but his value to the Giants is growing every year. He recorded career-best numbers in 2018, averaging 15.18 touches (+2.47) and 5.82 marks (+1.32) and is the kind of player I can see not only being an All-Australian defender, but the All-Australian captain (come on, it’s time to re-introduce actual leaders as AA captains again – Rance and Franklin as AA captains in the last two years… no good).

 

BUT IF…

… the injury bug is anywhere near as bad as it was in 2018, do the Giants have the depth to cover it?

The answer in 2018 was “no”. The Giants struggled with injuries to key players last season, and in such a balanced competition, it afforded teams the opportunity to strike hard at the Giants whilst they were wounded.

The injury/suspension list was huge, and not just in length – it was the quality contained on that list that hurt.

We touched on Greene, but Jeremy Cameron, Jon Patton, Josh Kelly, Heath Shaw, Tom Scully and Brett Deledio all missed significant time throughout the year. Irrespective of age, that is an all-star injury cast, right there. Teams simply cannot sustain high performance whilst covering that kind of talent missing so many games. Adelaide couldn’t cover their rash of injuries, and GWS was only able to do it marginally better.

Suffice to say, if the Giants cannot keep their best players on the park in 2019, perhaps some of the negativity around the team might start ringing true. Potential becomes a dirty word when it remains unfulfilled.

The loss of Heath Shaw on the eve on the finals last year was huge. Often taking one of the most dangerous forwards, his rebound, desperation and willingness to attack the ball were missed when the chips were down against his old team.

The Giants have every opportunity to win the flag in 2019. The competition is so even that all it takes is a team hitting form at the right time and the premiership is there for the taking. West Coast, Richmond and the Bulldogs have all demonstrated this in recent years. The pieces are definitely in place for the Giants. They just need to be ready to move when the time is right.

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 … the Giants tumble down the ladder, how big will the temptation be for Josh Kelly to explore his options?

This has got to be playing on the mind of those running the GWS show. At the end of the 2017 season, North Melbourne were making strong overtures towards Josh Kelly, and despite the big dollars being thrown around, Kelly recommitted to the Giants. Some saw it as a loyal and noble gesture, but in truth, there was a fair amount of pragmatism involved as well.

He knew what the Giants had in terms of talent on the list. He knew that they were poised for a run at the flag. And he knew the team’s chances were much better with him in the side. He stayed, committing for a further two years in pursuit of a premiership.

However, with another failed run, and with the Kangaroos starting to build a contender (I said starting), will the feeling be a little different at the conclusion of the 2019 season? Will there be the same faith, the same good will, the same commitment? Or will pragmatism play a larger part this time?

Personally, I think North Melbourne played above themselves in 2018. I haven’t said it til now, but they are the team I think will not live up to expectations in 2019. As such, looking from afar, Kelly may be dissuaded from joining them at the end of this season if they don’t make the next step and land in the top eight. That said, the Giants need to compel him to stay, again. And what do they have to do in order to do just that?

A top four finish would be one box they need to tick. Tangible improvement from the younger players is another. Retention of players like Stephen Coniglio is another (yes, the rumours have started, with many people floating Hawthorn as a possible landing spot for him), and I actually think the Giants need to make the Grand Final to give Kelly a crystal-clear indication that they are right there and poised to go all the way.

Whether they make, and/or win a Grand Final in 2019 is not the be-all and end-all of whether Kelly stays, but if he is wavering, the chance of extended success has to factor in. So, for the sake of drama, let’s put it plainly. If GWS want to hang on to Kelly, team success is the way to do it. Win the damn flag!

 

OTHER STUFF

 

The feel good story of 2018 was the return to the team of Zac Williams late in the year. With a pre-season under his belt, and an improved fitness base, Williams is the perfect replacement for Heath Shaw when the time finally comes. Hopefully it won’t be for a while yet, as Shaw’s presence in the back half is an asset currently.

The return of the Big Mummy, assuming he is able to stay on the park, is a boon for the Giants, particularly with the absence of Lobb, and the injury to Patton. If Mumford’s injury has completely healed, he will be a hard-hitting, big-bodied asset in the middle of the ground. With the ruck rules changing to enable the big guys to pluck the ball from stoppages, Mumford’s bulk will provide a huge asset around the ground.

Interesting to read Tom Sheridan won one of the GWS early time trials. With 81 games under his belt, he is a valuable addition for a club that lost a little bit of depth. Of course, critics have failed to even mention his addition to the team.

So where does the organic improvement come from? A bit would be expected from the pair of hilariously juvenile names, in I Cumming and A Bonar (sorry… I just couldn’t help it. My missus will be ashamed of me – more for making the obvious jokes, sadly) this season. They have six games between them currently, and you’d think they’ll add to that this year. Daniel Lloyd made the jump last season and had 14 games to his name in 2018. If he plays forward, 20 goals becomes the minimum expectation.

Harry Himmelberg is a tough matchup. In the games I watched last season, his ability to move once the ball hit the ground was quite impressive, and an aspect of his game I hadn’t really rated. If you make the mistake of matching up on him with a bigger defender, you run the risk of being turned around. There were times when he looked like a prospective #1 forward. Hopefully he doesn’t think that as well, but having him as the second option is another aspect that makes the loss of Lobb a little easier to handle.

I touched on Taranto earlier. He had 20.8 touches per game in 2018 (+5.4) and could make a similar jump in 2019. Without Shiel, his value in the midfield multiplies. Plus, I really like some of his movies.

After being overlooked for the AA squad, Stephen Coniglio has a bit of a point to prove. Probably GWS’ most consistent midfielder in 2018, his 28 touches per game were an equal career-high, and with quality still around him, the opportunity to flourish in an A-Grade midfield should see him become even more of a force. Ditto for Nick Haynes – one of the most underrated defenders in the game (not at The Mongrel, though – we love what he brings to the table!). He could be ome who comes under consideration for an AA berth as well.

So how does the draw look for GWS? They get a gift with two engagements against Gold Coast, but also have to contend with double-headers against Richmond, Essendon, Hawthorn and Sydney – all of which should test them. Their first four weeks are tough, with the Bomber and Tigers at home, and the Eagles and Cats on the road. In fairness, a 2-2 record after four rounds is in play and completely acceptable. In the following five weeks, the Giants play three sides not expected to contend, in Carlton, Fremantle and St Kilda. Therein lays the opportunity to set their season up with solid victories.

The Giants finish with 2/3 home games, their last three weeks seeing them face the Hawks, the Bulldogs and the Suns – all winnable if we’re talking sheer talent as the decisive factor.

Where do I see the Giants finishing? As always, it’ll come down to health, which is why I hate making blanket predictions. Also… I really hate being wrong. GWS are a potential top four team again. Their losses are nowhere near as bad as some have made them out to be and their gains have been understated. Whether Shiel was in their top three midfielders is debatable. Whether Lobb was a good forward/ruck… I believe I already stated my opinion, and what they lose in Scully, they didn’t actually have all last year anyway.

This is a team that beat Collingwood on the MCG last season. They knocked over Richmond, and completely exposed Sydney in a final. They are a force to be reckoned with, irrespective of whether the Melbourne media want to portray them as such or not. You write them off at your peril.

If forced, I think anywhere from third to seventh on the ladder is a likely return, however if key players go down, it might be another long season, with a very stressful off-season incoming.

 

 

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