ALMOST all the key storylines at Greater Western Sydney met at Killarney Vale Football Club on the NSW Central Coast, early in the pre-season. Smack bang in between Newcastle and Sydney, this was the perfect spot, a world away from AFL heartland. The Giants had made the decision to revert to a co-captaincy model, removing further speculation around what they were going to do. And they were all here for a two-day leadership camp.
Toby Greene and Josh Kelly had just been appointed co-captains – becoming the fifth and sixth permanent skippers of the Giants – joining Stephen Coniglio as leaders of the Giants after a tumultuous two years for the West Australian. The rest of the leadership group was inside the local footy club on Tuggerah Lake, including former captains Phil Davis and Callan Ward.
Senior coach Leon Cameron and head of football Jason McCartney watched on from afar but weren't central to proceedings. The Giants hierarchy were in Mark McVeigh's neck of the woods, working inside his junior football club. The senior assistant runs the leadership program at Greater Western Sydney alongside his former teammate James Hird, who had just accepted a part-time role as a leadership advisor at the Giants.
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Greene is one of the biggest box-office stars in the game right now. But in front of the Essendon legend, Greene is simply the kid who wore the famous No.5 on his back. Cameron and McCartney grin when they watch the modern-day superstar and the superstar from yesteryear interact, especially in NSW where no one recognises either of them, including a security guard at Giants Stadium who didn't realise who Greene was when he tried to enter ahead of the AAMI Community Series game against Collingwood.
Everyone who was on the Central Coast will have a major say in how far Greater Western Sydney progresses in 2022. Some on-field, others off-field. Will the Giants return to a sixth finals series in the space of seven years? Can Cameron drag the game's youngest franchise back to the big dance? Time will tell.
AFL.com.au spent a few days in and around Greater Western Sydney ahead of the club's 11th season in the AFL. These are the major talking points to emerge from the club since the Giants' 2021 campaign ended in a semi-final loss to Geelong last September, building into the season-opener against crosstown rival Sydney on Saturday night in the first game at Accor Stadium since the 2016 qualifying final between the two sides.
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THE RETURN OF JAMES HIRD
The Giants don't attract too much attention during the pre-season, but the appointment of James Hird at the start of the year made a splash in Melbourne, given his standing in the game and the tumultuous series of events that saw him exit the game.
The Brownlow Medal winner spoke to the club last year when the Giants had to relocate to Melbourne due to the lockdown in Sydney, via his relationship with Mark McVeigh and his business connection to Matt de Boer. The plan right now is for Hird to spend time physically inside the club every two or three weeks and on as many game days as possible, but he will also have a presence every week virtually, running leadership group meetings from afar.
When three coaches went down with COVID-19 in January an opportunity presented to use Hird's expertise in a different way. Before long, Hird was up at GIANTS HQ for the week coaching main training sessions alongside McVeigh. It didn't attract any attention at Accor Stadium, but imagine if this happened on Punt Road or Olympic Boulevard?
Hird isn't expected to have a whistle in his mouth again anytime soon. The Giants want to tap into the wealth of knowledge that saw him rise from pick No.79 in 1990 to Essendon's Team of the Century, navigating around a navicular stress fracture and a horrific facial injury when he collided with McVeigh at Subiaco, as well as his shrewd business mind and his ability to rebound after the adversity that engulfed him in the wake of the 2013 supplements saga at the Bombers.
The 49-year-old isn't a cookie-cutter leadership consultant. His life experience is what attracted the Giants in the first place. There is a belief that the leadership group is almost too nice. They are all good friends, but can they have confronting conversations? The club wants to challenge the status quo. And it is part of the reason why Hird is back in clubland, drawing on past experiences to help take the Giants to another level.
"James has always had a bit of an aura and I think the players have felt that right from the very start. He just brought an aura and a different take on leadership. You can go and get a leadership consultant in and it's very structured, but he just comes from not just a football background but a really good business background, so he's seen all facets of leadership," McVeigh told AFL.com.au.
"He's really tested their minds about leadership, he's wanting to hear more from them; he's demanding more from them; he's challenging them on developing themselves away from the game. He talks about world-class performance and how does that look on a day-to-day basis, which is pretty amazing. I think he challenges them about elite preparation, elite training, how do you achieve that every day? There are things around that for them to challenge themselves every day."
FROM TWO TO ONE, AND BACK TO THREE
Greater Western Sydney returned to the co-captaincy model after two years with Coniglio at the helm. But rather than replace Coniglio with Greene – or someone else – the Giants chose to add rather than deduct.
The club admires what Sydney has done in this space. No one ever questions the Swans culture and their leadership. While some dismiss co-captains almost as the soft approach, Sydney has had more than one leader every year since Stuart Maxfield in 2005, except for 2017 and 2018 when Josh Kennedy led on his own.
The Giants went through a leadership process early in the pre-season, surveying not only the players but the football department to select a way forward. The results were resounding. There were three clear names and then daylight. They went with it early, beat any further speculation surrounding what to do and how to do it and moved on. Now Hird is there to make sure this trio, who are all highly regarded human beings, find ways to fervently challenge one another to drag the entire group along.
"These are three guys who have invested long-term contracts into our football club. They want to be here for life. We thought if the indicators are all that there is no one person, then clearly we start to look at joint captains and then we came up with three. Not everyone is going to agree on it, but that's not going to worry me at all because you've got to be brave. The end result is what's best for your footy club at any particular time. Three captains in 2022 and beyond is exactly what we think we needed," Cameron said last week.
"We've had co-captains before and clearly we had three co-captains in our first year in Phil, Wardy and Luke Power, so it's not unusual for us as a footy club. People probably raise their eyebrows because of the circumstances around it, but if you look at the history of our footy club, we've had three captains before and we've had two captains for eight years. Choosing our leadership group isn't just the coach and the footy manager, we value at the top our player input on captains."
CAN CONIGLIO RETURN TO HIS PEAK?
Premiership points and Brownlow votes aren't on offer in the pre-season, especially when games are held in Lavington. But if they were, Stephen Coniglio would have a few on the board already in 2022. When you consider what's transpired since the 28-year-old signed that mega seven-year contract extension at the end of 2019 and became captain shortly after, the sight of Coniglio gliding around the park is a reason many inside the Giants are bullish right now.
Not much has gone right for Coniglio in the past two years. His first season as captain coincided with his worst in the AFL, resulting in his dramatic omission from the side late in the season, which was captured on camera for the world to see in the Amazon documentary series Making Their Mark. Last year wasn't much better due to another ankle syndesmosis injury, and most significantly a toe injury that prevented him from generating any power or ability to train consistently.
Coniglio is almost like a new recruit ahead of 2022 and the timing of his return to full fitness couldn't be much better for the Giants, with Toby Greene missing the first five rounds due to suspension. Those inside the club couldn't tell the difference in demeanour between the pre-2020 Coniglio and the post, but the difference on Tom Wills Oval across the summer has been profound. He is ready to go again.
"The main difference is he's fit and healthy. Whether you're a sportsman or a non-sportsman, when you are feeling better about yourself, clearly life's a bit better. That's no different to any sportsman," Cameron said.
"He's fit and healthy, he hasn't missed any sessions, we haven't had to manage any of his time, he hasn't had any soft tissues, his toe which caused him an enormous amount of grief last year has been great and he's got the miles in his legs and the strength in the gym. That allows him to get his step back, his fast feet – his strengths to be able to do what he wants to do. He's confident and looking forward to playing some really good strong football as one of our captains."
THE PLAN WITH TOBY
The Giants have had the best part of six months to plan for life without Toby Greene across the first five rounds, after the dual AFL All-Australian had his initial three-game suspension for making intentional contact with an umpire doubled to six games.
Leon Cameron had hoped to use young guns Brent Daniels and Conor Stone in a role across half-forward but injuries have ruled the pair out, meaning star midfielder Tim Taranto is expected to play as a near-permanent forward in the absence of Greene.
The other challenge for the Giants is preparing a player who is 100 per cent fit for a return that is weeks away without the ability to get some match practice into him. Greene has completed the pre-season program and is ready to rock and roll, but will have to build match fitness in training sessions between now and his return against St Kilda under the Friday night lights of round six.
"There is no ideal way (to prepare Greene without games); that's the short answer. His load will be fine, it's the dynamic training and the decision-making that's going to be tough for the last four weeks," Cameron said.
"There will be no issue in terms of his motor and his hardness and everything like that, it's just the dynamic training he's not going to get for a month. We need to keep challenging ourselves as a club to come up with ways to involve him in that sort of training every weekend when we're playing games."
TRADE DENIED, DELAYED RETURN
One player who the Giants hope will carry some of the burden in the absence of Toby Greene is Bobby Hill, who returned to the club in January after having his trade request to Essendon denied by McCartney and national recruiting manager Adrian Caruso during the Trade Period.
The Giants wanted to improve their small forward stocks, not weaken them on the back of Greene's brain fade. It is why the club was attracted to taking Hawthorn veteran Luke Breust during the Trade Period when that option was put on the table very late in the piece, before being removed. And it is why they even considered delisted Saint Jack Lonie via the NAB AFL Rookie Draft. Both would be handy right now given the situation inside the Giants' forward line; some in the football department even think Lonie would be playing for the Giants this weekend instead of Old Haileybury in the VAFA.
But without Greene, Daniels or Stone, Greater Western Sydney hopes Hill can continue his pre-season form and start the season strong, after kicking three goals against Collingwood in the AAMI Community Series.
Like many West Australians, Hill remained home until after Christmas due to the border status at the time and trained with Claremont a few nights a week alongside teammate Matt de Boer. That was always the plan, even before the trade drama. Since overcoming the anxiety of turning back up at the club he asked to leave, Hill has ticked the boxes over the summer. He didn't get the move he wanted and might still request a move at the end of this season when his contract expires, but right now, he is important to helping the Giants cover the loss of Greene.
"It doesn't surprise us that he has been able to deal with it because he is a great young person, Bobby. He stayed in Perth, his partner was giving birth in December and that discussion came up halfway through the Trade Period so we didn't see that coming at all," McCartney told AFL.com.au while sitting on the bench ahead of the AAMI Community Series game at Giants Stadium.
"For us, the trade was never something we were going to contemplate. We also knew that he would be fine and it wouldn't be an issue coming back, so that's the business side of it. I never get too concerned by all that. The way we're set up we'd have to be the closest club to an American sporting franchise with player movement, in comparison to the other clubs, apart from the Gold Coast. That's our lot and we just deal with it. We've retained a good chunk, but we weren't able to retain them all because the fact is there a thing called the salary cap which is an impediment for retaining them all."
THE SIGNATURE THAT MATTERS IN 2022
Every young gun Greater Western Sydney has drafted and developed into stars of the competition has been in the position Tim Taranto now finds himself in, as he sits in front of AFL.com.au at GIANTS HQ discussing his future. The reality is he can return home if he wants to, more than likely on better money.
While some have been lured to Victoria – Jeremy Cameron, Adam Treloar, Dylan Shiel and Zac Williams among others – on more lucrative terms, others have stayed, like the trio who now lead the club. Many inside the club are confident Taranto will stay the course, and won't jump ship.
The Victorian is settled in Sydney and is a key part of Leon Cameron's plans. But he is the Giants' most important signature this year and the longer he takes to put pen to paper, the more nervous some will be in western Sydney.
"I'm not in a rush. I want to get this first part of the season underway and then reassess after the first five weeks," Taranto said ahead of the AAMI Community Series.
"I love this club so much; I love everyone here and I love Sydney; I prefer it to Melbourne. Hopefully it works out that I can be a one-club player and stay up in Sydney for the rest of my life."
THE NEXT CAB OFF THE RANK
Whether they like it or not, the way Greater Western Sydney has been established has created a system where the club loses top-end talent to rival clubs on an almost yearly basis, receiving high-end picks back in return. Rinse and repeat, year on year. It is why the club has explored ways to send a package of picks to rival clubs in exchange for established talent, often to no avail.
Greater Western Sydney ended up with pick No.2 last year, which became No.3 after the Western Bulldogs matched the bid for Sam Darcy, after Collingwood traded its 2021 first-round pick to the Giants on draft night a year earlier in exchange for picks No. 24, 30 and a future fourth-round selection.
Now that pick – Finn Callaghan – is the next boom kid to move to western Sydney. But unfortunately for the precocious midfielder from the Sandringham Dragons, Callaghan arrived at the club with an injury that has taken some time to heal, ruling the underage star out of the early part of the season at a time when some of his contemporaries are about to burst onto the scene. Think Jason Horne-Francis and Nick Daicos, who were taken either side of him.
"He had the foot issue. We were aware of that before we drafted him. We've been pretty cautious and taken it slowly. He is short of a gallop and has some work to do to get that match hardening and fitness," McCartney said.
"We've been pretty consistent with him, his management and his family. It's great kids come in and target round one, but our conversations have been when we call your name out in the draft, playing one is a bonus. We call your name and want you to be a 14-year player at the Giants. I'm sure he will figure at some stage throughout the year at senior level."