AFL Grand Final Insights: A Giant Force Awakens
For many, the GWS Giants' decade-long AFL existence has been akin to an unwanted stepchild.
From the moment they were shoehorned into the league, they’ve faced great hostility from an often unwelcoming football public.
Built in a part of the world with little to no existing AFL footprint - nor legacy - and given a truckload of salary cap and draft concessions, the Greater Western Sydney franchise have faced industry ridicule and scorn from the outset.
In their first three seasons, they won just nine of 66 games, suffering twelve 100-point losses while claiming two wooden spoons in the process.
Over the last five years, however, the Giants have evolved into a formidable, talented unit, with a maiden Grand Final appearance in 2019 heralding the arrival of a bonafide force with a bright future.
AFL GRAND FINAL PREDICTIONS: Richmond v GWS Match Predictions
While many will continue to bemoan the role concessions have played in the Giants' arrival on the big stage - as well as their increasing penchant for ‘unsociable football ’- the fact remains the Giants have created a living, breathing, legitimate football club out of thin air that has now been good enough to contest three Preliminary Finals in four years, with this week’s Grand Final the culmination of a decade of hard work.
With 2019 acting as the GWS debutante ball of sorts, it’s well worth examining how the Giants have arrived at the brink of taking the AFL Premiership all the way down Parramatta Road for the very first time.
The Giants defensive unit has established themselves as the sponge of the competition, such is their incredible ability to absorb opposition forward surges.
Over their last four games, the Giants have conceded just one goal for every 6.25 opposition forward 50 entries which is a miserly mark and easily the best among the 2019 AFL Finals teams
In many respects, the Giants defence functions as a counter-attacking unit prepared to absorb countless opposition forays, comfortable in their ability to withstand pressure and hit their opposition on the break.
It’s a game plan that requires highly-considered preparation and absolute buy-in from the players.
Despite being ranked tenth in the competition for 'inside 50’s conceded' at 51.8 per game, the Giants are ranked fourth-best for conceding marks once inside 50.
While many argued the wisdom of Nick Haynes’ nomination in last month’s initial 40-man All Australian squad, they were forgetting the role he played in the Giants' backline, leading the team with 1.36 contested marks per game, often bravely coming in as the third man in contests.
Haynes was assisted greatly by his captain Phil Davis who registered a career-high seven marks per game, while often pitted against the opposition’s premier forward. Davis also led the team in intercept possessions and ‘one per cent’ acts in 2019.
However, equally important to GWS’ counter-attack defence was the role played by its small defenders.
After more than 300 games, Heath Shaw is still an integral part of the unit, leading the team for time spent on the ground at 92.36%, while setting up so much of the Giants' drive from defence. He’s received excellent assistance all season from Zac Williams, who returned in 2019 from a serious knee injury and has played a crucial part in the Giants' backline, leading the team with 478 metres gained per match, while also providing 68 inside 50’s up forward, which is a phenomenal number for a defender.
If the Giants can once again absorb Richmond’s penetration in Saturday’s Grand Final, while curtailing the towering influence of both Tom Lynch and Jack Riewoldt, it may well be the difference between them claiming their first club premiership, or going home empty-handed.
The crown jewel of the Giants’ 2019 season lies in its midfield, which played the biggest role in the team qualifying for its first Grand Final. What’s most remarkable however is that the midfield they’ve employed mostly for 2019 was essentially a plan B or C.
Over the last few seasons, the GWS midfield has been driven by the likes of Dylan Shiel, Callan Ward and Stephen Coniglio. While Shiel found a new home at Essendon in 2019, Ward blew out his knee in Round 4, while Coniglio has been limited to just 15 games this season and will miss the decider.
In has stepped Jacob Hopper and Tim Taranto who have been exceptional, aided by the re-emergence of Matthew DeBoer as one the league’s most effective taggers.
At just 21 and 22 years old respectively, Taranto and Hopper have made the GWS midfield their own which has enabled coach, Leon Cameron, and his staff to deploy the likes of the more celebrated Lachie Whitfield and Josh Kelly in different, more flexible roles without having the pressure of coalface minutes.
Hopper and Taranto are both ranked in the top five for disposals and tackles at the club with Hopper ranked #10 in the league for clearances, averaging 6.32 per match.
Having Taranto and Hopper absorb so much of the midfield pressure has allowed Kelly and Whitfield to float between half back and half forward, creating matchup nightmares for opposition coaches.
While Whitfield has averaged a career-high 27.8 disposals this season, he’s also kicked a goal in four of his last six games played, while it’s a similar story with the exceptionally-skilled Kelly, who has kicked six goals in his last four matches.
In many respects, the Giants’ midfield is the polar opposite of Richmond’s in that they are a high disposal outfit that places a premium on winning clearances.
The Giants are second in the league for per game disposal differential at +32.5, while their ability to work just as hard on the outside has them leading the competition at +29.2 uncontested possession differential per match - a number that’s been driven by their league-leading 42.3 clearances per game.
Over the course of the season, the Giants are averaging an extra eight clearances per week than Richmond which is a factor that may well play a huge role in Saturday’s Grand Final decider.
There’s no use masking the fact that not only is Jeremy Cameron the most important part of the Giants' forward line, but he’s the most integral part of their whole team structure.
At just 26-years old, Cameron has already kicked more than 400 career goals, with this year’s 75 home and away majors accompanied by his first-ever Coleman Medal and second All-Australian selection.
Cameron also led the league for marks inside-50 (75), while his 62 marks on the lead was quite easily the competition's best return.
Stats Insider's shot-charting explorer paints an even stronger picture of Cameron’s influence in 2019, with the star forward having 92 set shots on goal this season while converting at 55% accuracy.
For the sake of context, Richmond’s Tom Lynch - perhaps the game’s very best key forward - managed 83 set shots this season while converting at 54% accuracy.
If there is, however, a criticism of Jeremy Cameron, its how much of a lone-wolf role he’s played from the perspective of supplying GWS' goals.
In 2019, Cameron has provided 75 of the Giant’s 319 majors, which translates to a massive 23.51% slice of the Giants' goalkicking pie.
For a team who has come this close to the brink of a premiership, you have to go back to 2008 to find another such player who’s had such a significant impact on a team’s scoreboard output, to the figure of Lance Franklin who booted 113 of Hawthorn’s 397 goals which constituted a 28.46% contribution.
While Richmond - owners of the league’s pre-eminent defence - will rightly be conscious of the threat Cameron provides, they’ll also feel that should they be able to stop him, the Giants lack of elite secondary scoring options might provide them with a fast-track to their second premiership in three years.
The GWS Giants have challenged the fabric of traditional fans insofar as how a club should look, and how a competition should be comprised.
AFL GRAND FINAL PREDICTIONS: Richmond v GWS Match Predictions
While there can be no doubting the role concessions have played in the Giants getting to this point, they haven’t been alone in benefitting from AFL assistance, while it’s testament to their young franchise that they’ve been able to make maximum use of the help afforded them, while creating a rock-solid culture that all and sundry appear to have bought into.
While many fans will continue to dislike the Giant’s presence, their anger will only be magnified seeing them on football’s biggest stage this Saturday.
It is, however, a sight they may well have to get used to.