Greater Western Sydney has had few wins in its short history more important than Sunday evening’s triumph in Adelaide. But in a broader context, it was a victory the AFL will have been cheering just as loudly.
No, this isn’t another conspiracy theory about the league’s investment in its newest club. It’s more about a season which over recent weeks has been in serious danger of losing steam before even the halfway mark.
Round 11 was a classic example. Sure, Sir Douglas Nicholls Round was a fitting celebration of the contribution of Indigenous people to the game. And yes, we did get 81,046 to the MCG on Saturday night for “Dreamtime at the G”.
But the games themselves? Well, before the Giants finally found their mojo in the nick of time, perhaps the less said the better.
In a week when every team in the top half of the ladder took on a team from the bottom half, there was not only a predictability about the results, but a lopsidedness of scores which would have had the AFL’s money men rightly concerned at any time, but perhaps especially so when we are supposed to have the most even competition ever.
That’s a premise few if any of us have disputed, yet until the final game of the round, with the exception of Hawthorn’s three-point win over Port Adelaide, it didn’t sit comfortably at all with the results.
This was a weekend in which sixth (Geelong) beat 15th (Gold Coast) by 85 points. In which second-placed Richmond beat 12th-placed Essendon by 71, eighth (Collingwood) bowled over 13th (Fremantle) by 61, fifth (North Melbourne) beat 17th (Brisbane) by 54, third (Melbourne) beat 14th (Western Bulldogs) by 49 and fourth (Sydney) beat bottom-placed Carlton by 30.
Add the three comparatively close games and you still had an average winning margin of more than seven goals. And the Giants’ win over the Crows was the only game in which the official favourite didn’t emerge with the points.
At the halfway point of the season we have no fewer than three teams, Carlton, Brisbane and St Kilda, with just one win each. Last year after 11 games the bottom side had at least two, and the two teams above them four.
Two of the current bottom three, the Blues and Saints, turned in two of their better performances of the season over the weekend, St Kilda in particular about as good as the Saints have been all year in going down to West Coast in Perth by just 13 points. Yet the bottom line remains abject.
It’s only the halfway point of the 2018 season, but you can almost certainly forget about at least seven teams as far as finals are concerned, Gold Coast, the Bulldogs, Fremantle and Essendon along with the bottom three perhaps better off now turning their attentions to next year.
And had GWS not saved its season with a win over the Crows, even the Giants, preliminary finalists both of the past two seasons, would have been left a game-and-a-half outside the top eight and as good as gone.
This critical victory was founded on an intensity strangely absent to date, even allowing for injuries to keys to the equation. The Giants, second on the tackle differentials last year, were an ordinary 10th going into the game. But by half-time against the Crows, they led the count by 20, and not coincidentally, held a three-goal lead.
Stephen Coniglio, Lachie Whitfield and co-captain Callan Ward have too often been left with all the responsibility this season. Against Adelaide, with Josh Kelly good again in his second game since a long layoff and Dylan Shiel rediscovering his best, they got enough help. And with Jeremy Cameron and Jonathon Patton back in decent touch, this week they had some targets with which to work.
The result leaves GWS with an eminently winnable home game against Gold Coast before its bye. By their next assignment, not only will Phil Davis and Matt de Boer be back in the mix, but potentially All-Australian forward Toby Greene.
Talent alone should dictate that the Giants remain a finals player. An attitude matching that taken into Sunday’s win over the Crows and they’re still on track to be a serious chance. Which can’t be said for the sides beneath them.
The Western Bulldogs’ premiership hangover has clearly extended to a second year, the Dogs’ four wins having all come against fellow stragglers and again against Melbourne being found out by a team higher on the ladder.
Fremantle doesn’t even look particularly interested in being competitive, let alone winning anywhere but in the comfy surrounds of home. And if Essendon harboured hopes of making a charge on the back of two good wins over Geelong and GWS, it had a very rude awakening against a fired-up Richmond on Saturday night.
The Tigers do pressure better than anyone. And faced with a swarm of yellow guernseys and a brilliantly-structured defensive wall, the Bombers were very quickly forced back into the hesitant, panicked disposal and turnovers that marked their earlier losses.
So much so that of Richmond’s 17.12, no less than 14.5 came via opposition turnovers. That 89 points was a lot more than even the Tigers’ season average of 72, and light years ahead of the competition average 51.
You need physical strength and plenty of composure to have a chance against Richmond these days. Essendon doesn’t have enough of either quality to trouble the likes of its conqueror on Saturday night, another indication that this even competition of which we speak may be a mirage.
It’s not that there haven’t been surprises in 2018. West Coast, after all, a side few expected to make finals, is still top of the ladder having just won its 10th game on end. North Melbourne, a pre-season fancy for wooden spooner, is 7-4, has a handy run home, and unless things go seriously awry, will be there in September.
But so well have the Eagles and Roos gone about it this season that they seem just as superior to the bottom half of the competition as those teams we had expected to be at the top end.
It may not be the status quo we were anticipating. But it’s going to take something pretty dramatic from here this season for the order of things right now to look much different come round 23.