Round 11 – GWS v Essendon: A Giant Ascension

 

Now in just their sixth AFL season, the GWS Giants have now assumed top position on the ladder. No one is expecting this to be a once-off occurrence. Last year they were in all likelihood a solitary straight kick away from winning the premiership. There’s a distinct possibility they could be premiers come September 30th. It’s clear not everyone is thrilled at this prospect.

 

In spite of its occasional international aspirations, it should never be overlooked how essentially parochial the roots of the Australian Football League are. Born of the original Victorian Football League, itself born very specifically from Melbourne’s inner suburbs – with Geelong as its exotic outlier – the whole notion of a national league only really took hold as a way for Victorian clubs to avoid bankruptcy. Though the modern AFL now likes to style itself along lines similar to the largest international codes, many interstaters still regard it as a barely disguised Victorian power grab. The AFL’s expansion into western Sydney has brought much which is confronting to these old tribal instincts.

 

As long and painful as the march of the AFL in Queensland has been, at least the code had some historical precedence there. As Bears transformed into Lions, the history of the late, lamented Fitzroy could be invoked, however tenuously. The Gold Coast Suns were to learn, at least notionally, from the Bears’ early Carrara stumbles. But Sydney’s vast west was a genuine Ground Zero for the Australian code. No groundswell demanded an AFL presence in the region. This exercise was predicated on accessing the maximum untapped potential television audience.

 

So the Giants are very much an “if you build it they will come” project. Given past misadventures in football colonisation , the AFL was never going to skimp on the build. The Giants may have started with humble facilities at Blacktown, but they had a gold pass when it came to assembling their playing list. They have used it to build one of the most talented squads in the history of the game. With access to the cream of several years’ drafts, GWS have shown their expansion counterparts on the Gold Coast how it should have been done.  Absorbing the pain of those early seasons now looks well worth it.

 

The AFL’s opinion of the Giants’ progress was confirmed by this season’s Friday night football schedule. Though their supporter base hardly screams ratings bonanza, their quality could no longer be denied football’s prestige timeslot. When they made their Friday debut in round 6 against the Western Bulldogs, it was recognition of what may become the defining rivalry of the next few seasons.

 

But if this proves to be so, the AFL world will need to reassess what is has come to expect of a blockbuster. As compelling as that round 6 cliff-hanger was, it was played in front of a Canberra crowd of 14,000. Whilst that was capacity for the small Manuka Oval, it has been a long time since big AFL games were played at small grounds. When the Giants came to Etihad Stadium to play the Saints the following Friday, their fans contributed little to the modest 21,160 attendance.

 

This confirms that whilst the team has been built, it remains to be seen how many are persuaded to come. Current evidence of progress is mixed. The club has just passed the 20,000 member milestone. That constitutes a healthy 33% jump on last year, with more to follow before season’s end. But average crowd attendances for their six home games this season have actually declined slightly from the previous year. Should they make it to grand final day, their 753 Victorian members should at least be right for a ticket.

 

Victoria’s reluctance hardly ends there. Many haven’t waited for them to succeed before complaining. We have become familiar with the jibes: “Harlem Globetrotters”, “not a real footy club”, and such like. They are resented as the AFL’s own horse in the race. There is truth to this notion, but also much hypocrisy involved. Victorian clubs have happily spent the additional broadcast dollars that a televised game every week in Sydney has meant. And they have shown little reluctance to plunder where possible the abundant talent on the GWS list.

 

Of course, that raiding hasn’t all been one way. GWS have shown themselves canny operators. There’s a certain perversity involved in blaming a club for playing its hand too well. But logic and self-interest are only incidentally reconciled at AFL clubs. That’s why there’s a Commission in the first place.

 

This discontent is a symptom of anxiety. As the big, traditional Melbourne clubs flounder in their various ways through the 21st century, GWS loom as a substantial roadblock on the premiership path for years to come. To point out that they voted the Giants into existence is hardly likely to assuage them now.

 

But there could yet be a tantalising twist in this tale. It was a young team from Melbourne’s west who proved the ultimate undoing of the Giants last September, adding much to the legend that will linger of that Bulldog Spring. With the balance of influence in all things traditionally lying to the east in both Melbourne and Sydney, a rise of the west would be further disruptive. If the next great football rivalry proves to be the AFL’s test tube baby versus the working class battlers of old Footscray, we really will have moved a long way.

 

Whatever offence to old orders they represent, GWS are a football reality to contend with. Whilst revealing their potential last season, they also learnt what it felt like to lose a big final. This year they are grinding their way through a succession of wins. They are finding a way, even when play isn’t on their own terms. With up to ten first choice players to return their line-up, one of the few certainties in this tantalising season is that orange and charcoal are about to become a regular part of September’s colour palette.

 

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has been a Carlton member for more than 30 years.

Comments

  1. Yvette Wroby says:

    Thanks you John for another thoughtful piece. I am one of those who are ambivalent about having a newbie take the cookies before my team does. But we have scored some good GWS players over the last few years so I hope that helps too. Go Saints BEFORE GWS! or at least soon after.

  2. John Butler says:

    Yvette, did the Dogs take advantage of the remaining window of opportunity? Have the Saints missed the boat?

    Nothing is really certain in football. GWS are a long way from winning the flag this year. But they will give it a serious crack. The challenge is there for other clubs trying to lift themselves.

    Cheers

  3. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    JB,
    I admit I like watching them play at the moment. Might be a little more convinced if they were based in Canberra with the occasional game in GWS. They’ll probably win a couple of flags and then what?
    I think of all the talent at GCS and GWS spread across the 16 clubs. Comp would have been stronger and better quality without the expansion teams.

  4. Earl O'Neill says:

    The orange and charcoal appear to be of a deeper, richer hue this year.

  5. Punxsu..and-the-rest-of-it Pete says:

    Superb John. The Giants are one of my second clubs. Partly because i’d admire the way they play their footy, but mostly because they’re doing missionary work for the code. Aussie rules only has to look at nature to validate encroaching into new territories, because soon enough, you’ll find yours will be encroached.

  6. John Butler says:

    Phil, if you just like watching quality football, nothing currently beats watching the Giants or the Doggies (when they’re on).

    That other point you make is the unknown cost of those TV dollars. We’ll probably never get a proper accounting on that.

    Earl, I suspected the prelim loss last year would toughen the Giants up. They keep finding a way to get it done this year, despite the injuries.

  7. John Butler says:

    How very Darwinian of you Pete.

    I have some real reservations about the whole Giants exercise, but those reservations concern the AFL, not the Giants. The Giants have just taken the cards dealt to them and played them well. Couldn’t really ask any more of them than that.

    But I do wonder where we’ll be with this exercise in empire in another 20 years time. Will the code win out in the end? I have no crystal ball there.

  8. I am like most people here. I enjoy watching the Giants play, they have a beautiful style of play and make me want to watch the footy. Jeremy Cameron is a stud and no doubt premierships will come there way shortly.
    As for the next decade or so, it will be a bloody tough ask to overtake NRL. I don’t see it every happening. But the game can continue to grow and find it’s own pocket of support. But as John has pointed out, it’s an AFL issue. After all, they created the monster.

  9. kath presdee says:

    The AFL will not overtake the NRL in Sydney. But I don’t think it ever intended to. It’s a bit like thinking that the NRL or Super Rugby would compete with the AFL in Melbourne. All of the winter football codes want is to have enough of a presence in the other largest city to ensure that they can maximise broadcast and sponsorship dollars.

    That said, the past two rounds at Spotless have drawn bigger crowds than the Rugby League crowds at ANZ Stadium across the road. The GWS v Essendon game drew a bigger crowd than all the other NRL games played in Sydney that weekend. The realistic hope for GWS is to require an increase in the capacity of Spotless stadium within the next 10 years because of crowds consistently at or near 20,000. Yes, that’s small compared to the other teams but only the Sydney Swans would consistently have crowds of that size or more in Sydney and it took them at least a decade to do it..

  10. Luke Reynolds says:

    They were either a kick or a Stevie J non suspension away from the flag last year.

    Will premierships eventually ensure the rusted on long term support of many? Hasn’t exactly happened in Brisbane. Will be at least a generation, probably longer, before we will be able to properly asess.

  11. John Butler says:

    You’re right there Luke. I doubt the other clubs really factored in what was involved here in terms of the commitment required and the multiple disruptions to the competition. The lessons of the Brisbane experience seem only partially absorbed.

    But if the Giants do manage to dominate for a period, we’ll at least have an answer as to whether support can be created solely by success.

  12. Peter_B says:

    Your “kiss of death” worked a treat JB. I look forward to your match report when you come down off Cloud 9. Toby kicked 2 out of his arse in the last quarter against us. Kicked his own arse several times this afternoon. You seem to be ticking off the milestones on the GANTT Chart at Princes Park.

  13. John Butler says:

    Yes PB, this piece did rather seem to do the trick.

    I will pen a few thoughts in due course. And yes, young Toby had a most interesting afternoon.

    Cheers

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