THERE WEREN'T TOO many football fans or media pundits who had Greater Western Sydney playing finals this year. There were even fewer -- if any -- who had them reaching the final four. And while Friday night's heartbreaking one-point preliminary final loss to Collingwood will sting through the off-season, there's enough evidence to suggest the club is perfectly positioned for another premiership tilt.
It's a staggering turnaround from a 2022 season which had been utterly shambolic for the Giants. A 2-7 start to the year forced the curtain to be drawn on Leon Cameron's coaching tenure, thrusting assistant Mark McVeigh into the interim head coach role. The remainder of the season yielded just four more wins - the season win total of six being half of what was achieved in 2021, and the equal-worst since the club's second season in existence.
With McVeigh unable to seize the opportunity presented to him, the door for a fresh face to lead the team into the next chapter was swung open. A shortlist of candidates included four-time premiership coach Alastair Clarkson and the highly touted Adem Yze -- who on Thursday inked a deal to coach Richmond in 2024 -- but the Giants ultimately settled on Adam Kingsley, who had played an integral part as an assistant at the Tigers during the club's recent golden run.
One of Kingsley's first assignments with the Giants was granting the off-season departure requests of midfield staples Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper -- which yielded picks 12, 19 and 36, plus a future first-round selection -- as well as Bobby Hill and Tanner Bruhn. Unsurprisingly, many surmised the club had conceded it was heading into rebuild territory.
But what transpired in the following 11 months has resembled anything but a rebuild, with the Giants rising from the bottom four to win 15 games -- including cutthroat finals against St Kilda at the MCG and Port Adelaide at Adelaide Oval -- a feat only bettered by the Magpies, Lions, Power and Demons. They've also typified the age-old sporting mantra of 'any time, anywhere,' winning at an AFL-record 11 different venues this campaign.
On another night, the Giants prevail over the Magpies and win through to the Grand Final. They won the disposal, contested possession and uncontested possession counts, had fewer turnovers and generated more marks inside 50 in an epic preliminary final played in front of 97,665 fans at the MCG. Some wasteful moments early in the game will haunt them, as will a series of late flashpoints, but the season should be considered an overwhelming success.
It was evident early in the year Kingsley wanted to introduce the run-and-gun game style which had proved so fruitful during his stint at the Tigers. He revived the 'Orange Tsunami', which had previously propelled the club to the 2019 Grand Final, with the hard-running, handball-heavy style of play making the Giants not just one of the most exciting teams in the competition, but one of the most devastating.
It's a stark contrast to last season when GWS was beaten in all three phases of the game and were one of just two sides (along with North Melbourne) which failed to rank top six in any of Champion Data's 32 key Premiership Standards. It suggested the club was a mile away from contending for football's greatest prize.
They ranked bottom three in just about every offensive metric -- including points for and scores per inside 50 -- while defensively, they were one of four sides to rank bottom six in both scores conceded from turnover and scores conceded from stoppage. The midfield was beaten up week after week, with only the Kangaroos and Eagles finishing the year as worse territory teams.
This year, GWS' transition from the back half to forward half was as good as any. They have become a top three territory team, points for has risen by 14 per game and scores conceded dropping by seven. And since the 12-point loss to St Kilda in Round 10, the Giants check 23 of those 32 Premiership Standard metrics.
Contrary to the perception surrounding the Giants heading into Round 1, the future of the club is bright. There's more evidence to suggest they are set up for success -- two picks in the top 13 of this year's draft will help -- than this season being any sort of a flash in the pan.
Pound-for-pound, they have a genuine argument to lay claims to the best defender (Sam Taylor), forward (Toby Greene), inside midfielder (Tom Green) and ruck in the sport (Kieren Briggs). Champion Data certainly wouldn't scoff at that claim, and the average age of that quartet heading into next season will only be 25 years.
It's that emergence of Green which has been so pivotal to the immediate turnaround. Green has seamlessly filled the void of both Taranto and Hopper, averaging more disposals per game than any player in the league, as well as 15 contested possessions, six clearances and five tackles per game. His growth has had a domino effect on the midfield, freeing up veterans Stephen Coniglio and Josh Kelly to be the class on the outside; the pair combining for their most metres gained and second-most uncontested possessions in a season.
The resurgence of both Lachie Whitfield and Jesse Hogan has also been key to the club's success. This year, Whitfield averaged more disposals than at any point in his career, while Hogan's 49 goals was his best return on a season. There's the shrewd acquisition of Toby Bedford, with the out of favour Demon excelling in his first season as a Giant, developing into one of the elite pressure forwards in the competition.
And then there's Greene. The heartbeat of the Giants. His season began with the honour of receiving club captaincy and it finished with a career-best 66 goals, the prestigious All-Australian captaincy and a genuine claim to being the best player in the sport.
The loss to Collingwood doesn't take the shine off one of the more stunning turnarounds in recent AFL memory. The Giants not only avoided a full-blown bottom out and rebuild, but, under Kingsley, are primed for another flag tilt in 2024.