AFTER three rounds of this season, Greater Western Sydney was winless, 17th on the ladder, and had just seen three key players including captain Stephen Coniglio go down with long-term injuries.
A midfield that prides itself on winning the contested-ball battle had been crushed in the clearances, winning almost nine fewer stoppages than its rivals each week. The Giants also lost the contested possession count heavily in rounds two and three after getting on top of St Kilda in the opening round loss.
This was looking a lot like an emergency, and the glass had to be broken. Former captain Callan Ward was sent to the midfield and veteran Shane Mumford was recalled to the ruck.
The Giants have since banked two consecutive wins against Collingwood and Sydney, built on a midfield mix that stemmed the bleeding at the stoppages (a combined +3 over the two games) and in contested possessions (+28).
Next up is perhaps the Giants' toughest test so far, when they meet the ladder-leading Western Bulldogs in Canberra on Friday night.
The two clubs have built a bitter rivalry in recent years, and the clash is at its fiercest in the centre of the ground.
This time the Giants will be up against a long list of Bulldog onballers that lead the competition for clearances (averaging 40 a game) and contested possessions (149 a game).
"Every game is so hard and has its own challenges. But this is definitely the big one for the midfield at the moment, because the way the Dogs are playing is going to be really hard to stop," Ward, who played for the Bulldogs in 2008-11, told AFL.com.au.
"They're playing a good brand of footy. For the first four rounds everyone was talking about their offence, their chains from stoppage, their run and gun. Then last week they defended really well, tackled really well, were ferocious around the contest.
"I think it's a good one for us, because we have to be rock solid in the contest, we've got to stop their chains because we know that's their best footy, and hopefully hurt them the other way.
"It'll be good fun. It's always good fun against the Dogs, with the rivalry that we've built with them over the years."
Ward started this season lining up on the wing, with occasional stints at half-forward. He rarely started in his familiar central midfield role, and his centre bounce attendances dropped to as low as 14 per cent in round two.
But the 31-year-old has now joined Jacob Hopper, Tim Taranto and Tom Green to form the Giants' core on-ball group, and has been in 85 per cent of centre bounces in the past two matches.
"To move back into the midfield since 'Cogs' has gone down, and to help out Hopper and Taranto, has been great," Ward said.
"I'll keep working on the wing position, or the half-forward position, even back to being third ruck in. But it's always nice playing on-ball."
The Giants' inaugural best and fairest winner thinks he still plays his best football in the midfield, but admits to recent doubts over whether he could return to the standards he has set across a 229-game career.
The doubts started when Ward tore an ACL just 10 minutes into his first match of 2019 and was out for the rest of the season. He struggled to get going last year too, a strain in his 'good' knee then a severely dislocated finger restricting Ward to only seven games.
"I felt like my knee was good, I rehabbed it really well, it was really strong," he said.
"But when the form isn't coming, and I wasn't playing to the level I knew I could last year, you start to think maybe it's the knee. And then it's 'maybe I am too old', and then you go onto doubting the next thing.
"To come back into the midfield and be slowly building to what I've done in the last couple of weeks has been a lot better. I think I'm on the right track."