The Weekend Preview is a blog that aims to provide a different angle on the narrative of an upcoming sporting event.

AFL Round 17: GWS Giants vs. Sydney Swans

AFL Round 17: GWS Giants vs. Sydney Swans

Saturday Night, 15th July 2017 at Spotless Stadium

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I don't think anyone knows the formula to win a premiership. I still don't believe there is a formula. If going to the bottom of the ladder was proven, everyone would do it, which would be disastrous for the competition.

Paul Roos [1]

2017 was supposed to be the year when the AFL’s Frankenstein team, the GWS Giants, conquered all before them and started their era of domination. Before the 2016 season had even come to its conclusion, the Giants were already the short priced favourites to take the flag in 2017. But it hasn’t quite turned out that way, with the 2017 season becoming one of the most even in recent memory. And the complexion of the current Top 8 comprises of teams with varying player list-building philosophies. There are the perennial contenders that refuse to bottom out (Geelong, Sydney and to a lesser extent Adelaide); the teams that have completely bottomed out and placed faith in the draft and youth (Melbourne and St Kilda); and the teams that fall somewhere in the middle – teams that heading into any season you are never sure what you are going to get (Port Adelaide and Richmond). And of course, there is also the Greater Western Sydney Giants.

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GWS is a team that has been built from the very start for future domination with the full support of the AFL. Their generous draft concessions and their willingness to accept early hard lessons from consistent and significant losses will be rewarded in the long term. But through those early seasons with the team brimming with raw young talent, the competition was fully aware of what was coming. Kevin Sheedy, their inaugural coach acknowledged as much [2]:

I was the highest-paid under-19s coach in the history of the game.

With the backing of the AFL, the Giants hierarchy knew very well that they wouldn’t be allowed to fail, and could adopt a strategy that most sporting clubs in competitive sporting markets could not do – accept losing. In contrast to GWS, the Sydney Swans under the guidance of firstly Paul Roos and latterly John Longmire have followed a very different path. Paul Roos acknowledged the reality of coaching an AFL team in rugby league mad Sydney and maintaining the necessary traction within the fickle Sydney sports media [1]:

We can’t afford to go down for three or four years and that sits well with us as a footy club, to try to buck the system if you like… It’s easy to lose.

Indeed the Swans have been phenomenal in bucking the system – achieving consistent success and refusing to bottom out. Since Paul Roos took over the Swans coaching reigns full-time at the start of the 2003 season, the Swans have missed the finals only once (2009 in 12th position) and achieved premiership success in 2005 and 2012 and have been runners-up in 2006, 2014 and 2016.

But whilst they have slowly built this legacy of success, their little brother has been slowly creeping up on them. But each time there has seemed to be a defining moment in the rivalry, it has proven to be a false dawn.

After comfortably accounting for the Giants in their first 2 seasons (2012-13), the Swans were shocked by their youthful opponents in Round 1 of 2014 (see video below). Had the Giants arrived? Not quite, Sydney would go on to finish minor premiers and lose a Grand Final against Hawthorn that year, whilst GWS managed only 5 more wins for the season on their way to finishing 16th.

The Giants would have to wait until Round 12 of 2016 to once again taste success over their more experienced rival. But this was at home at Spotless Stadium and the Swans would still go on to finish minor premiers. However, with the Giants sneaking into the Top 4 in the final round, the AFL had the dream draw of a Sydney Derby Qualifying Final at Stadium Australia. After a tense first half, GWS comfortably controlled the remainder of the game and booked themselves their first preliminary final. Premiership success earlier than expected was on the cards and the Swans seemed to have no way of stopping them.

However, the Swans showed their experience in winning back-to-back finals against Adelaide and Geelong on their way to their 3rd Grand Final in 5 years. GWS on the other hand fell to the whirlwind that was the Bulldogs in their home preliminary final. Despite the Swans also falling to the Bulldogs in the Grand Final, they were still a step ahead of Giants.

The Round 5 2017 encounter then appeared to be the final epitaph of the Swans premiership window, with the Swans slumping to 0-5 after their loss to the Giants and their season hopes in tatters. But the Swans would not die. After starting 0-6, they have now won 8 from 9 and incredibly are not only a probable finalist; they are a Top 4 contender. Whilst the Giants have been stringing regular wins together and sit safely in the Top 4, they are struggling to maintain continuity in their 22 due to their long injury list and hence there is still much to be anxious about for the remainder of their season.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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    Figure-1: Historical Battle of the Bridge (Sydney vs. the GWS Giants) Results

Figure-1: Historical Battle of the Bridge (Sydney vs. the GWS Giants) Results

Rewinding to the start of the 2017 season, there was a lot to be optimistic about for both the NSW teams; with Champion Data rating the quality of their playing lists the best in the AFL. Table-1 presents the 2017 Champion Data AFL player list rankings [3]. The Giants position at the top of the list would not surprise many. Of their 38 primary list players, 14 of them are Top 10 Draft Picks, and this does not include certain Top 10 picks like Jeremy Cameron and Dylan Shiel who were cherry picked as 17 year olds a year before they joined the competition. And GWS have played it smart by replenishing their list each year with further early Draft Pick talent (acquired by trading the players on the fringes of their best 22), in the process ensuring their premiership window will last long into the future. Of the other teams considered to have highly rated playing lists, they were mainly the experienced teams with quality found mostly in their older players, such as Sydney, West Coast and Hawthorn. The latter two teams of which have fallen away in 2017 with the drop-off in form and injury of their older players. But it is interesting to compare the number of Top 10 Draft Picks on each playing list, as is also presented in Table-1 (the presented number includes high draft picks that have been acquired from other teams). GWS’s biggest rival at the top of the current ladder, Adelaide, has remarkably not one Top 10 Draft Pick on their list. The Adelaide recruitment and player development team deserve a big pat on the back to be in the position they are currently in.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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    Table-1: Champion Data AFL List Ratings

Table-1: Champion Data AFL List Ratings

But the Swans deserve a special mention. Figure-1 presents the primary player list breakdown between GWS [4] and the Swans. The breakdown considers how each player on each primary list was originally drafted, regardless if they arrived at the club through a trade or free agency, e.g. Lance Franklin is considered a Top 10 pick for Sydney. Whilst GWS has 14 Top 10 Draft Picks on their list, the Swans have 14 Rookie Elevations. And these players are not just list fillers, they are playing regular games for the club. The Swans have named 10 rookie list elevated players for the team this weekend (Sam Naismith, Kieren Jack, Jake Lloyd, Dan Rampe, Nic Newman, Heath Grundy, Nick Smith, Lewis Melican, Tom Papley and Daniel Robinson). Undoubtedly the Free Agency recruitment of Lance Franklin has helped the Swans since his arrival in 2014, but Sydney’s ability to develop players from within the club is proof that there is more than one way to build a premiership contending team than through the draft.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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  Figure-2: GWS and Sydney 2017 Primary Player Lists – How each players was originally drafted

Figure-2: GWS and Sydney 2017 Primary Player Lists – How each players was originally drafted

GWS have dominated this fixture over the last 3 meetings but Sydney's current form is irrepressible. And despite the presence of returning stars for the Giants (Steve Johnson, Toby Greene and Zac Williams), the momentum the Swans have built may be hard to stop. A well-coached disciplined team can still beat the most talented team in the league.

Sydney to win by 12 points

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Post Match Comments:

Final Score: GWS 12.11.83, Sydney 14.12.96

After taking the lead late in the first quarter, the Swans never relinquished it. However the game remained tight until the very end, with the Swans not able to get more than 4 goals in front. With Franklin hitting top form, he and his band of rookies can now set their sights on the Top 4. Whilst GWS still have much to prove if they want to win the premiership this year with more than just talent.

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[1] “Steady as he goes”, Greg Baum, The Sydney Morning Herald, 11th September 2010:

http://www.smh.com.au/afl/afl-news/steady-as-he-goes-20100910-1550e.html

[2] “Kevin Sheedy, GWS Giants’ first coach, talks about his legacy in Sydney”, Neil Cordy, The Daily Telegraph, 9th September 2016:

http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/sport/afl/teams/gws/kevin-sheedy-gws-giants-first-coach-talks-about-his-legacy-in-sydney/news-story/250c9159c6d7c53da13b5800caf7155e

[3] Champion Data. (2017). “AFL Prospectus 2017”, Glen Luff, Victoria, Australia

[4] “GWS 17YO” refers to the players that were selected via a concession that enabled Greater Western Sydney to list 12 junior players that were born between January 1-April 30 1993, prior to the 2010 AFL Draft. “GWS PN” refers to the players that were selected via a concession that enabled Greater Western Sydney to list players that had nominated for the National Draft in any of the three previous seasons, but were not selected by an AFL club.

AFL Round 18: Brisbane vs. Carlton

AFL Round 18: Brisbane vs. Carlton

AFL Round 16: Adelaide Crows vs. Western Bulldogs

AFL Round 16: Adelaide Crows vs. Western Bulldogs