Excitement is palpable across Western Sydney this week as the Greater Western Sydney Giants prepare to play in the 2019 AFL grand final tomorrow for the first time as a club.
They take on Richmond at the MCG tomorrow (2:30pm) after beating Collingwood in the preliminary final last week with a score of 56-52.
Coming from humble beginnings to enter the code in 2012, GWS struggled through their first two years of competition, winning only three games during those two seasons.
And the club holds a number of foundation players, who will be making their grand final debuts on Saturday.
Their preliminary final win against Collingwood last week was shocking to many.
“Their performance as a whole in the Finals series has been incredible, but their last two weeks has been well and truly backs to the wall, underdog performances,” said Riley Staraj, a Brisbane-based commentator for the NEAFL who saw the launch of GWS in 2012 while living in Richmond, NSW.
A die-hard AFL fan, he was incredibly impressed with GWS’s performance in the preliminary final last weekend.
“There are not too many clubs who could beat Collingwood at the MCG, in a final, without arguably their four best players and the captain virtually on one leg, and this being all in front of the most parochial a crowd you’ll ever see,” said Mr Staraj.
“It’s probably the most even grand final in a long time,” he added when asked about the Giants’ chances against their competitors, the Richmond Tigers.
“It’s going to be a brilliant game of football and if they win, it will go down as one of the greatest finals series that any club has had to win the holy grail.”
Their chances might be slightly affected by the loss of player Stephen Coniglio, who has decided to sit out the grand final due to a knee injury, citing that he did not want to let his team down if he could not perform on the day.
The Giants general manager of football, Wayne Campbell, called it “a selfless decision by Stephen” and added it was “typical of the man he is”.
Despite his decision, Coniglio has high hopes for his team on Saturday.
“The best part of this whole thing? Is that all this year we’ve lost players, plus staff, but we never lost belief. That’s why we’ll win it,” he stated publicly as he walked off the training field on Wednesday.
However, the loss of Coniglio is countered by the return of Toby Greene and Lachie Whitfield.
Greene missed the preliminary final last weekend due to a one-week suspension for charges of making unnecessary contact to the eye region of Brisbane Lions’ Lachie Neal in a recent semi-final.
He failed to overturn the ban, but will play this Saturday.
Despite Saturday’s outcome, the success of GWS in making the final is an inspiring development that points to the dedication of the club in building themselves up from the ground.
Inaugural GWS coach Kevin Sheedy told the Daily Telegraph: “To get there as quick as we could, we had to lose a lot of games. As coach I lost 41 of my 44 games.”
Back then, the team consisted of young men with limited experience, who had often been signed in their final years of high school.
With a lot of work ahead of them, they built strength and momentum over time, with Sheedy saying that in the beginning he only judged his players on the first half of a game.
The team of mostly young men began to catch up with their high-calibre competitors over time.
“I saw this coming, because they built the club properly and created a positive culture within,” said Mr. Staraj regarding the somewhat quick success of GWS.
“You can see that with their involvement at junior and community level and how much the brand has grown since the early days.”
The success of the club has seen a spike in statewide interest in AFL, which is traditionally much more popular in Victoria.
“Sydney is really hard and the Swans have been brilliantly managed and successful over a long period of time but Sydney crowds tail off very quickly if you are not successful,” AFL Commission chairman Richard Goyder told the Australian Financial Review.
However, since the inauguration of GWS, their membership has reached 30,000 and AFL participation rates have more than doubled to 280,000.
This positive outcome might see further expansion of the sport within Australia, with a Tasmanian club being discussed within the AFL.