GREATER Western Sydney coach Leon Cameron didn't mince his words when he outlined the challenge ahead of his team at the end of a failed 2020 campaign.
"We clearly have to regain the respect of the footy public because we've lost it in six months," the coach said after the year ended with a 52-point loss to St Kilda.
Two rounds into the new season and the 2019 Grand finalists still have that challenge ahead of them having lost the two weapons that defined their 2016-19 period.
The Giants are 0-2 and face a season-defining month with clashes against Melbourne (Manuka Oval), Collingwood (MCG), Sydney (SCG) and arch-rivals the Western Bulldogs (Manuka Oval).
They need to rediscover their defensive strengths, which went missing in 2020, and find a way to move the ball that stacks up under the 2021 rule changes.
The priority identified by Cameron after the Fremantle loss, however, was to regain the contested ball edge that has been a constant in the Giants' armoury since their first finals campaign in 2016.
They ranked No.3 in the AFL for overall contested possessions in 2016 and hovered between fifth and ninth over the following three years before falling to 12th in 2020.
This year they rank last in the AFL for contested ball differential after losing the count by 32 against the Dockers.
The first step to reviving their season is to correct this area, and they are clearly capable of doing it after winning the contested ball count 170-140 against St Kilda in round one.
"It's probably the one part of the game that in review hurts the most," former skipper Phil Davis said this week.
"I've got no doubt all my teammates tried really hard, but unfortunately for a multitude of reasons we were poor at contested ball, which got shown up in the review. Then we looked very reactive and slow."
The loss to Fremantle laid bare other midfield woes, with the Dockers also winning the clearances (+8) and inside 50s (+16), with youngsters Andrew Brayshaw, Adam Cerra and Caleb Serong outshining star Giants Josh Kelly, Tim Taranto and Stephen Coniglio.
When the Dockers made their big move in the third quarter, that young Freo trio combined for 22 disposals, compared to eight from Kelly, Taranto and Coniglio, with the game over by three-quarter time.
Kelly, who Cameron this week revealed played against Freo despite being "a little crook", had one possession in the crucial third term, with the coach unequivocal post-match that his leaders needed to stand up when the game was on the line.
"Sitting there in discussion after the game, they'd be saying when Freo had a three-goal run-on we didn’t stand up, whether it's contest, using the ball in the right manner or defending in the right manner, all three facets of the game we got beaten up," he said.
Cameron's reference to using the ball "in the right manner" highlights another former strength that has gone missing.
Once feared for the attacking, clinical style in which they moved the ball, the Giants lacked dare against the Dockers and turned the ball over 71 times, compared to Freo's 63.
They blazed away when they shouldn't have, Cameron said, and lowered their eyes and kicked short at the wrong times too. "We handed it back and then we got cut up on turnovers."
The 'Orange Tsunami' of 2016 was a team known for its clinical, attacking ball movement as young stars Kelly, Stephen Coniglio, Lachie Whitfield and Toby Greene became elite players.
That was a long time ago, but it was a team you would tip to thrive in a 2021 season that has seen rivals adapt to recent rule changes and move the ball with purpose and dare.
"I think people get fixated a lot, there's always talk about 2016. We as a team, as individuals, and a whole competition have changed so much," Davis said.
"The game looks completely different, so you have to adapt and evolve. This year, we're still trying to work out what it looks like but it's evolved again.
"Are we playing how we want? Not at the moment … Do I believe we can get a system and process that gets us to where we need to go? 100 per cent."
Defence became the cornerstone of the Giants' game style in 2019, ranking No.1 for scores conceded per inside 50 and launching their attacks on the back of intercepting stars like Nick Haynes.
Last year they ranked No.11 for scores conceded per inside 50 and on Sunday they conceded 32 scores to a wayward Fremantle, with Harry Perryman, Matt Flynn and Isaac Cumming doing the majority of their intercepting in the opening two rounds.
A fair assessment of why the Giants are 0-2 must highlight the talent missing from their team, most significantly key playmaker and equal 2020 club champion Whitfield.
In defence, there is clearly an adjustment happening after the losses of Aidan Corr (North Melbourne), Zac Williams (Carlton) and retired veteran Heath Shaw.
The Giants' leading goalkicker for the past nine years, Jeremy Cameron, left for Geelong as a free agent.
Player retention is a constant challenge for the Giants, and their progress has been interrupted by the departures of at least two players of value every off-season since 2013.
It has led to long-term contracts, which are not uncommon across the AFL. But when those players on significant deals are not performing, such as Kelly in the opening two rounds this season, the tactic is questioned.
Cameron said he would be disappointed if the security of long-term contracts was leading to complacency from his best players.
The Giants have faith they can rebound against the Demons and get their season on track, pointing to their pre-season form and the fact they were in winning positions against the Saints in round one.
The manner of their round two defeat has brought stinging criticism and pressure on Cameron that Davis says he takes personally.
The coach "gets blamed for everything bad and gets no credit for anything good", Davis said, with pressure and accountability not spread as evenly as it should be.
For their part, the players will be doing everything possible to rectify their round two performance, with the next month presenting an opportunity to get their season back on track and, as Cameron put it last year, regain the respect of the footy public.
"A lot of players at the club were really, really hurt by the weekend and you want that opportunity for vengeance," Davis said. "That's what we're looking for this weekend."
- with Martin Pegan