The Giant risks of pushing for a premiership

Scoff if you will, but the 2017 AFLW wooden spooners, the GWS Giants, are a serious premiership contender in 2018.

Though the Giants finished the inaugural season at the foot of the ladder with only one win under their belt, a subtle-but-drastic list shuffle over the past six months has helped create what is arguably the most balanced playing list in the competition prior of the second year.

GWS captain Amanda Farrugia (r) leads All-Australian Jess Dal Pos (l) and the Giants out onto the field. Image: AFL Media

But the overhaul is a risky move for the Western Sydney club, with a good chunk of its top tier talent comprised of older, interstate players, meaning a significant down patch in years to come is a looming possibility.

It’s a powerful play in the bid to win an AFLW premiership, but if the plan doesn’t pay off for the Giants, the club could be in serious trouble in the long-term with nothing to show for it.

Looking at 2017, GWS’s ladder position was misleading. Though they only secured the one victory – against a Melbourne outfit seeking a Grand Final berth – five losses and a draw, the Giants were competitive in all but two matches, against the eventual Grand Finalists in Adelaide and Brisbane.

But the Giants backroom staff members have made changes towards not only making them competitive against all seven opposition teams, but becoming genuine flag contenders.

Half the battle was won back in May. The Giants successfully, albeit surprisingly, re-signed most of their interstate talent in All-Australian midfielder Jess Dal Pos, versatile key position players Phoebe McWilliams and Louise Stephenson, half-forward Aimee Schmidt, the marquee duo of Renee Forth and vice-captain Emma Swanson, and Victorian defender Alex Saundry.

The Giants did lose some talent, however, with Alex Williams returning home to WA, but the core of the interstate players was kept together.

Add to that the home grown talent in the likes of Jacinda Barclay, Nicola Barr, Maddy Collier, Amanda Farrugia and Erin McKinnon and you’ve got an excellent platform to build from.

The list grew in strength by the time the Sign/Trade Period concluded.

Collingwood’s most consistent player in Alicia Eva, who finished second in the Magpies’ best and fairest count, was acquired by the Giants in a trade for GWS’s pick one in the AFLW Draft, which is as good as the last pick to anyone outside of Victoria.

On top of Eva, the Giants also secured a genuine key forward option in Madeleine Boyd and a damaging half-forward in Pepa Randall, losing only Ashleigh Guest and unneeded draft selections in the process.

Versatile key position player Rebecca Privitelli was also picked up as a free agent after nonsensically being delisted by Carlton.

Then come draft time, Belconnen midfielder Jodie Hicks, a champion full-back for Diamond Creek in Tanya Hetherington, and South Australian veteran and reigning SANFLW best and fairest Courtney Gum – all comfortably selections for GWS’s first 22 come round one – were added to the fray.

Throw into the mix a change at the helm, with GWS’s Director of Coaching Alan McConnell taking over from Tim Schmidt as senior coach, and the Giants have both a talented list and the right person in charge ahead of 2018.

When you break down the list, it is stacked.

Phoebe McWilliams found her home up forward for the Giants and will be joined by a tall, high-marking goal kicker in Maddie Boyd. Aimee Schmidt is a small, quick-strike option, and Jacinda Barclay proved a surprise lead-up avenue to goal despite her unique set-shot technique.

A midfield quartet of Emma Swanson, Jess Dal Pos, Alicia Eva and the returning Renee Forth is up there with the best on paper, and the Giants have a heap of talent to rotate through the middle, most notably Rebecca Beeson, Maddy Collier, Nicola Barr and Courtney Gum.

Though the defence is unlikely to experience as much pressure as in 2017 thanks to the improved midfield, it’s exciting for Giants fans to know that they have key backs in Renee Tomkins, Alex Saundry, Louise Stephenson, Tanya Hetherington and Rebecca Privitelli, who can all get the job done in a key position, as well as arguably the competition’s best small defender in captain Amanda Farrugia.

The Giants also have the comp’s most exciting ruck prospect in Erin McKinnon, who was second in hit-outs only to All-Australian ruck Emma King in 2017 as an 18-year-old.

And if any midfielders happen to go down with a season-ending injury, pick one in the AFLW Rookie Draft Haneen Zreika, who is already deserving of a primary list spot in her own right, is waiting in the wings to be elevated.

It is a team that is primed for a tilt at the premiership, but one can’t help but wonder if the Giants don’t win a flag in 2018 or 2019, the club could languish at the bottom of the league for nothing.

With so much interstate talent, the current team is not sustainable. We can already assume that Boyd will be a key inclusion for Geelong’s AFLW team in 2019, Courtney Gum is 36 years old despite her strong on-field efforts, and Hetherington is expected to only have a short AFLW playing career before moving into a coaching role.

Though it was a great sign that the likes of Dal Pos, Forth, Swanson, McWilliams and Stephenson recommitted for 2018, it would be devastating to lose even one of those players given their impact on matches. Two or more would be a disaster.

To make matters worse, there isn’t a heap of identified future talent coming up through the ranks in NSW/ACT, particularly compared to other states’ youth pathways.

Short of midfielder Alyce Parker and key forward Jordyn Joliffe, who are both sure-fire draft picks next year, there is no telling where the talent will come from.

And if we’re being honest, building your identity on interstate players is not a good look for GWS, particularly considering the successes of Brisbane and Adelaide in 2017 (Brisbane had two notable interstate players, Adelaide had one), and the expected success of the all-WA Fremantle side in 2018.

It’s not a matter of the NSW academy system being poor, but rather a lack of interested talent in general, something that needs to be addressed immediately. That comes part and parcel with being in a state dominated by another code, but something needs to change.

The current Giants list is exciting, no doubt, but having a great list in paper and converting it to results is no easy feat in a competition where every team will be a bit better than expected; just ask the 2017 flag-favourite Dockers.

GWS’s bold attempt to push for a premiership rather than coast in the middle of the pack can only be admired. Rightfully, GWS will be in the premiership conversation in 2018, but there is a whole lot at stake.

With six new teams to enter the AFLW by the 2020 season, GWS could realistically be at the bottom of the competition for the foreseeable future when the interstate players either retire or relocate.

But for the immediate future, they are in the picture. They will be up there in 2018, and if all doesn’t go to plan, perhaps 2019 is the Giants’ best chance at winning a flag, as the introduction of North Melbourne and Geelong to the AFLW will further dilute the Victorian talent pool.

Considering they keep the team together, that is.

Part of being a premiership contender is dealing with the pressure that comes with the tagline.

You are a contender, GWS. Welcome to Pressure City.

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