Back in 2013, my friend Amber‘s then-boyfriend (now husband) got a job at the GWS Giants, the AFL’s newest team and Sydney’s second in the league, after South Melbourne became the Sydney Swans in 1982. It was an exciting gig for Leigh, and he was keen to get more people out to Olympic Park to watch their games. The team was struggling, getting spanked by 100+ points in a lot of games over their first few seasons, but the club had faith they could turn it around.
From memory, it took until 2015 for us to get our asses out there. Leigh slung us free tickets and we dutifully bought orange beanies and pies and ciders and sat down at the almost-empty stadium. We’d all been NRL followers in our youth, but were currently unattached to any kind of sporting code, almost as if we were waiting for something new to come along and sweep us off our feet.
I can’t even remember who won, but I remember it was actually a really good time. A nice sunny day watching hot blokes run around in tiny shorts and sleeveless tops — what’s not to love? (I’m sure my heterosexual friend George had his own reasons to enjoy it.) So we kept coming. And maybe we were good luck charms, because the Giants actually won a couple of games that season. After landing at 18th spot (the bottom of the ladder) in 2012 and 2013, and at 16th in 2014, they ended 2015 at 11th spot.
In 2016, we decided footy was our New Thing. So the four of us, and sometimes other mates, caught a bus and two trains out to Olympic Park from Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs — most of us ironically lived right in Sydney Swans territory — to watch all the Giants home games, which they were winning at an almost alarming rate. It was Leon Cameron‘s third season as coach and things finally seemed to be coming together for the team. And somehow, in just their fifth season as a team, the Giants finished in the top 4.
The Giants got agonisingly close to the Grand Final that year, losing by just 6 points to the Western Bulldogs in a home preliminary final that was overrun by Bulldogs supporters and saw the Giants getting booed as they ran out at their own home game. Cop a look at my mate Al on the way home:
It was one of the worst days ever. Who knew we cared so much about sport? But all of a sudden we did, and it was this team, the GWS Giants, who created that.
Once you’ve come that close to tasting Grand Final glory, you’re hooked. We all became members in 2017, scoring our own assigned seats right near the bench and rarely missing a home game. That season, we came close again only to crash out in a second-straight prelim. Last season, it was the semi-final that would be our downfall.
But as each season came, more fans also jumped on board. In 2019, we clocked over 30k members for the first time. From nearly-empty home games and finals where we got booed, we’ve seen the orange-clad crowd growing each week. Hell, I even went to that cursed “snow game” in Canberra with my brother in August and there were thousands of fans toughing it out, even though it was a) actually fucken snowing and b) the Giants got belted. The crowds at our games may be small compared to the 80,000+ Richmond and Collingwood fans who show up for them, but we’re pretty bloody committed.
At the GWS Giants v Western Bulldogs elimination final this year, we weren’t in our usual members seats because it was a final, and instead we were unlucky enough to have some truly vile Bulldogs fans behind us. Because the team lost, quite convincingly at that, these people decided to hurl abuse at the Giants instead of just fucking off and leaving, which to be honest would have been a blessing to us all.
One of the insults they called out was calling the team “plastics”, which a lot of true blue footy fans call the Giants. It’s because the team was created by the AFL who wanted to build the sport in NSW, just like they did with the Gold Coast Suns in QLD. That particular team hasn’t copped the backlash because they’re still sitting at 18th spot on the ladder, so they’re a threat to no-one. It’s just because the Giants are now flourishing that haters want to hate — it’s that transparent.
Sure, unlike some of the other heritage AFL teams, the GWS Giants were not started from the ground up by a group of, like, poverty-stricken but plucky chimney sweeps in 1880. Is that a crime? I think one thing all footy fans can agree on, no matter where they’re from, is that footy absolutely rules. So why wouldn’t we want to game to grow in states that aren’t Victoria? (Tassie, let’s do this.)
Obviously, the Giants (like the Gold Coast Suns) were helped at the start with first-round draft picks, a bigger salary cap and some already-established talent. Then, when they finished 18th for a couple of years, the Giants got more #1 draft picks because that’s how the system works. While we have some high-ranking draft picks still in the team — like Josh Kelly, Lachie Whitfield, Stephen Coniglio and Tim Taranto — many big names have departed, like Dylan Shiel, Adam Treloar, Tom Boyd and Tom Scully. And the players who have stayed have stayed because they want to, because they’re committed to the team and to winning an AFL premiership.
Because of the salary cap, the club has also had to be creative with their recruiting which is why I bristled when I heard another shithouse Bulldogs fan say the Giants are only good because they take all the top Victorian players. I wanted to turn around and tell her the frankly heartwarming story of Daniel Lloyd, the mature-age rookie recruit who was working as a carpenter in Killarney Vale on NSW’s Central Coast when he was picked up by the GWS Giants — he’s now played 36 AFL games and scored 30 goals.
Or Zac Williams, another rookie draft recruit who is from the small country town of Narrandera in NSW and was arguably best on ground in the nail-biting win over Collingwood last weekend, playing in a position he doesn’t usually play in, no less. Or Matt De Boer, who was delisted by WA team Fremantle in 2016 — meaning, they no longer wanted him. The Giants snapped him up and refined his game style to turn him into one of the best taggers in the AFL and a crucial part of the team’s midfield.
And one of my favourite stories is that of Jeremy Finlayson, who hails from the tiny NSW country town of Culcairn and came to the GWS Giants through their academy program. Last season, he played 14 AFL games in defence but often found himself pushed back to the 2nd grade NEAFL team.
At the end of the season, the Giants had to ease some salary cap pressure, so they reluctantly put him on the trade table. But none of the other clubs wanted him, so Jeremy stayed at the Giants and flipped to a forward position where he has flourished, only missing one game this season and kicking 44 goals along the way. This post-goal celebration of his is my all-time fave, and kind of sums up everything I’m saying.
I’ve made the mistake of reading a lot of troll comments this finals season, mostly written by disgruntled Collingwood and Western Bulldogs fans. One of the things that makes me laugh the most is when people say there is “no culture” at the Giants. It’s actually the opposite — if you follow any of the team on social media (I follow all of them because hot blokes in tiny shorts, remember) you’ll see they’re always together, a lot of them are housemates and most of them are as close as brothers. They have to band together, because they’ve been up against it for so long. And I reckon the reactions from the sidelined players when the GWS Giants made it into their first ever Grand Final on Saturday night shows that the culture is very, very real.
The club is working hard to grow the sport in Western Sydney, going out to schools and getting involved with the local community. But there’s only so much the actual football club can do, the rest is up to the punters. Sydney is apparently an “NRL city” but I know scores of people who don’t particularly follow any sport at all — just like me and my mates back in 2015. You don’t have to become a member. You don’t even have to go to any games. But on Saturday when the GWS Giants play in their first ever AFL Grand Final, find something orange to put on, tune in to Channel 7 at 2.30pm and give them your support, because the Giants even being there is a huge moment for sport and a huge moment for NSW.
And, just quietly, it’s a huge bloody moment for me.
Image: Instagram / @josieroze