Story of the Summer

What didn’t the Giants do in the off-season? Once again they were a major player, shipping around big names, young talents and high draft picks like it was nobody’s business. Former top two picks in Tom Boyd and Jono O’Rourke made their way to the Western Bulldogs and Hawthorn respectively, while Kristian Jaksch, Mark Whiley, Sam Frost and Jonathan Giles all found a home elsewhere. In return they ended up with the disgruntled Ryan Griffen and the under-appreciated Joel Patfull, as well as picks four, six and seven in the AFL draft.

Griffen and Patfull each won two best and fairests at the Western Bulldogs and Brisbane respectively and are a significant boost to the best 22. Griffen’s 2014 was hampered by a back injury in the pre-season but there were still glimpses of his best. From round 16 on he averaged 28 disposals, six clearances, five tackles and five inside 50s a game, including one of the best individual games of the season in round 23 – coincidentally against his new club. Patfull had been Brisbane’s most valuable defender for a while, and his flexibility and ability to read and intercept play as a key position player will certainly strengthen the GWS back six.

High draft picks were used on Caleb Marchbank, a versatile tall defender, as well as Paul Ahern and Jarrod Pickett, two midfielder/forwards, adding to the many dynamic offensive players and flexible defenders on the Giants’ list. Jack Steele and Jeremy Finlayson, two academy players, were also added, while they also took a punt on Patrick McKenna, who switched from cricket.

It was a rapid trade window in which the Giants added plenty of immediate quality and spread the talent and age of the list even further. This gives them plenty of scope to improve on their finish to the 2014 season.

Where They Excel

Let’s split 2014 in half. After round 10, GWS sat 17th. Two victories were on the board in the first three rounds but consecutive 100-point losses were demoralising. Fears arose of a club possibly in regression, with their form pedestrian and an upcoming match with reigning premiers Hawthorn fearsome. This was the point when their season really kicked off.

The Giants pushed the Hawks all the way, only losing by seven points in a performance that earned them league-wide commendation. Four wins in these last 13 games – a ladder from rounds 11 to 23 would place them 13th – was enough to suggest this Giants side was beginning to control games more. From round 11 on they retained much more of the ball, averaging 85.7 uncontested marks per game (#2 in the competition), up from 72.1 in their first nine games (#16), and began to break even in possession for the first time in their short history. Despite this, they were ferocious around the ball, recording 9.9 more tackles per game than their opponent in 2014, the most in the competition.

This shift in approach didn’t make them more potent – they averaged a tick over 80 points a game across the entire season – but it certainly settled them down. More time with ball in hand meant a side more organised and better prepared to defend. It was telling, with their points conceded dropping from 118.2 to 96.6.

The Giants are already known for their attacking flair – through the middle of the ground they possess an enormity of talent. Shane Mumford in the ruck feeds proven midfielders in Griffen, Callan Ward, Adam Treloar and Toby Greene. Stephen Coniglio and Dylan Shiel are both genuinely damaging accumulators and outside midfielders in Josh Kelly and Lachie Whitfield add class and polish.

Jeremy Cameron and Devon Smith lead the way in the forward line and are both All-Australian calibre. Assisted by Will Hoskin-Elliott, Jon Patton (pending fitness, at least) and Rhys Palmer, it is a multi-dimensional forward line capable of posting winning scores. All five of these Giants kicked more than 20 goals in 2014 – GWS was one of just four teams to feature so many – and they should continue to cause plenty of headaches.

And the scary thing? 10 of the previously mentioned 14 are between the ages of 20 and 22. Ward is in his prime at 25. Not one of them is under 30.

They’re only getting better.

Where They Struggle

Continuity must be an aim for GWS in 2015. Last year the Giants used 44 players, the most in the competition, with only one player registering more than 20 games (Devon Smith with 21). Boosting squad depth and game time across the board for a young side is important – crucial, in fact – but the Giants are well and truly at the stage where they need to establish a best 22, and it has to happen sooner rather than later for them to progress.

Contested ball was still a concern at times. Failing to win it often set the tone for the rest of the contest – only St Kilda recorded a worse record than GWS’s 2-12 when winning less contested possessions than their opponent. But this is no doubt an area in which improvement can be expected – the on-ball division is still so young. Once the Giants improve to the stage where they at least break even in the contest most weeks, the rest of their game will improve with it.

Despite a decent finish to the year, defence was still a concern. The Giants in 2014 still ranked 17th in opposition transition, 18th in opposition accuracy and conceded the second-most points behind St Kilda. As always the status of their list has to be respected – they’re still kids – as well as injuries to Phil Davis, Nick Haynes and Tim Mohr but the ease in which teams managed to score against them is something that will need work, and the midfield shoulders responsibility for this.

Even conceding 96.6 points per game in the second half of the season, though a notable improvement, is too many. A strong team is built on a strong backline and the evidence of the Giants possessing one, or appearing as if they will in the immediate future, isn’t there yet.

Playing a brand of football that looks to put points on the board certainly has worked for them in the past, but a defence needs to be cherished, especially once this young brigade starts talking finals – which won’t be long.

Thankfully the Giants looked to achieve this to some extent in the NAB Challenge. Gold Coast and Sydney together delivered the ball inside 50 88 times against GWS for only 30 shots on goal. We’ve been fooled by pre-season form before and a conversion rate that low is unsustainable, but two strong performances like that deserve praise. It is a step in the right direction.

The Year Ahead

GWS won six games in 2014 – up from one in 2013 and two in 2012. The expectation will be to continue that trend and push for 10 wins, which is certainly achievable, especially when you consider they lost four games by two goals or less last year.

GWS chairman Tony Shepherd was clear on wanting the Giants to play finals football by the end of 2016. While the prospect of shaking the higher reaches of the ladder seems unlikely, there’s no reason why they can’t make it wobble. They will likely leave round two undefeated, and could realistically sit 7-5 by the bye with home games against St Kilda, Essendon and Carlton and a trip to play Melbourne ahead. Add a reasonable record against the better sides and the Giants will be backing themselves in every week.

So, could they play finals? One would be unwise to write it off.

Nonetheless, 10 wins is certainly within reach. It sets up a perfect platform to launch into finals football in 2016.

Predicted finish: 9-13

Best 22

B: Heath Shaw, Phil Davis, Nick Haynes

HB: Curtly Hampton, Joel Patfull, Tomas Bugg

C: Adam Treloar, Dylan Shiel, Stephen Coniglio

HF: Devon Smith, Adam Tomlinson, Lachie Whitfield

F: Rhys Palmer, Jeremy Cameron, Cam McCarthy

Foll: Shane Mumford, Callan Ward, Ryan Griffen

Int: Toby Greene, Will Hoskin-Elliott, Josh Kelly

Sub: Tom Scully

(Note: Tim Mohr and Jonathon Patton not considered due to injury)

You can follow Ethan on Twitter at @ethan_meldrum.