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666 – The numbers of a beastly dilemma for GWS Giants


The GWS Giants leave the MCG after Saturday night’s defeat against Collingwood, this time a week before the preliminary final. Photo: AFL MEDIA

666 – The numbers of a beastly dilemma for GWS Giants

Rohan Connolly    

Only older AFL fans with a penchant for heavy metal music might remember English thrashers Iron Maiden.

But there’s a classic song of theirs which has been reverberating around my brain since Greater Western Sydney’s 10-point loss to Collingwood and early exit from this year’s finals series last Saturday night.

It’s “The Number Of The Beast”, and in the case of the Giants, yes, it’s also 666, three figures which describe the still-fledgling club’s very slight downward trajectory over the past three seasons.

Six points was the margin by which GWS lost that classic 2016 preliminary final to eventual premier the Western Bulldogs. Last year, the Giants fell at the same hurdle against Richmond, this time by six goals. And the position in which they will officially finish 2018? Yep, sixth.

Seven completed seasons into their AFL life, the Giants can hardly be considered failures. And yet a careful building of a senior list, development and progression towards the top hasn’t yielded one, let alone the several premierships many learned football people expected.

It’s not as though GWS has now categorically missed its opportunity. Though it did have the third-oldest AFL list this season, it had only three players 30 or older, and one of them, Ryan Griffen, has now retired.

In terms of games experience, the Giants were ranked fifth in 2018, and finished the season with 15 100-gamers, another five players potentially joining that group next year. They’re good numbers in terms of premiership demographics.

But it still hasn’t quite all come together for coach Leon Cameron’s team, and how the Giants go about addressing that over the off-season will be a fascinating study. And one complicated, not for the first time, by injuries, of which the Giants again had a truckload this year.

They began pre-season with the loss of Zac Williams’ run off half-back. Were compounded by the loss of another valuable runner in Tom Scully in round two. And the Giants continued to lose key players at the wrong times, most notably Heath Shaw on the eve of the finals and Josh Kelly during them.

Jonathon Patton left a big hole up forward, made larger after the suspension to Jeremy Cameron, Rory Lobb stuck trying to make a fist of ruck duties for too long instead of lending a hand closer to goal because of injury to ruckman Dawson Simpson. Toby Greene, Brett Deledio and Adam Kennedy missed large chunks of games, etc, etc.

That catalogue of medical woes would leave any side struggling for the sort of cohesion and continuity required to mount a serious tilt at a premiership. And yet neither can the Giants’ 2018 be entirely attributed to them.

The “orange tsunami” that swept a path through opponents two years ago is barely a trickle these days, GWS this season scoring nearly four goals per game less than two years ago, ranked only 10th for scoring compared to second then.

In 2016, the Giants had Cameron, Greene, Steve Johnson and Patton all kick around 40 goals or more. This season, only Cameron topped 40.

The efficiency of their forward set-up has also declined markedly over the same period. Two seasons ago, the Giants averaged goals from 27.3 per cent of their inside 50 entries for a ranking of third. This year, it was only 22.7 per cent for a far less impressive ranking of 12th.

The quick, outside running game that defined the Giants in 2016 has also evaporated, their uncontested possession differential ranking sliding from fourth then to 10th. The numbers that have stayed relatively sound relate to contested possession and clearances, both categories in which GWS still ranked third this season.

But you can’t help but wonder whether in their determination to improve further as a hard-to-play-against defensively strong finals-type team, the Giants may have over-corrected and perhaps traded in a little too much of the attacking flair which was clearly their strongest suit when they came so close to a grand final appearance in 2016.

Of course, there’s institutionalised factors which will continue to work against the club for some time yet, its relative newness remaining one, its glut of talented players around the same age bracket and who perhaps are being denied opportunity they may find elsewhere another.

There’s a long roll call now of potential stars who have left the club. Indeed, two of them, Adam Treloar and Taylor Adams, played key roles in the Giants’ demise on Saturday night. Now, there’s plenty of mail to suggest Dylan Shiel could be the latest key player to depart.

That level of player turnover at the top end of the list makes it that much harder for GWS to establish a consistent senior group of leaders.

There were only 14 players left this year on the list of 44 who were there for the Giants’ first season in 2012. Shiel was one of them, and his departure, aside from the obvious loss of talent, would drain the reserves of “franchise players”, those who will lead the way in maintaining the cultural values the club has tried to develop.

Would those factors loom as large had the Giants been able to kick another seven points in that first preliminary final? I doubt it.

But having just missed that boat, the one after, and this time pulling up shorter still, perhaps for the first time since it negotiated those first couple of years, GWS has some issues to ponder about how it plays along with usual matters of just who plays.

*This article first appeared at SPORTING NEWS.

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