Jordan De Goey dari Collingwood diskors selama tiga pertandingan karena menabrak Elijah Hewett

Kingsley’s Giants on a path to success, inspired by freewheeling Magpies and Tigers

Ainslie’s Alan Ray Oval in Canberra’s northern suburbs is a beautiful place to catch a game of footy.

The ground once saw the likes of James Hird, Nathan Buckley and Alex Jesaulenko cut their teeth in junior footy, with towering gum trees seemingly overhanging the ground.

On the field on this particular Saturday in late February, a new branch of a quickly growing tree was starting to emerge.

The GWS Giants had decided to open its preseason campaign with an intra-club match at Alan Ray, giving fans a first glimpse of the new era under coach Adam Kingsley.

In these games, the result matters far less than the observations.

Kingsley would occasionally yell out of the box and deliver instructions of his own. He reiterated the instruction to Tom Green — who had 50 disposals on the day — to look to the side and behind for the overlapping handball. Hitting set play with speed is an indication of the pace that Kingsley wanted to walk into the season with.

Last year’s Giants were often stagnant and confused. This year’s model looks more like the Magpies of last year, whose rapid rebuild followed the model of Kingsley and Craig McRae’s former employer, Richmond.

Those watching on that late summer day were taken with the new style. The Giants would use the whole field, and attack with sometimes reckless speed.

Five months later, the Giants rolled back into Canberra, not to play themselves in the suburbs but instead a fellow expansion club, Gold Coast, on the big stage for a spot in the eight.

After a tough first half, the Giants pulled away from the Suns via some airtight defence and high-flying counter attack. The win would seal their spot in the eight at the end of round 19.

The journey of the Giants this year hasn’t been smooth. They got off to a slow start, but have since firmly established their brand of footy, stemming from the tree of Hardwick.

Coaching trees and ideologies have long shaped the league, from Smith to Kennedy and more recently Clarkson. Although he stepped aside at Richmond mid-season, the Damien Hardwick coaching tree is still firmly affecting the 2023 AFL season.

The next branch

Coming into the 2022 season, few were effusive about Collingwood’s potential for the year. New coach Craig McRae had high hopes but preached patience.

For the first two months of the season that balance was clear to observe, as McRae tried to install and fine tune his system. Their eventual preliminary final berth was hard to spot from an initial four wins and five losses.

Then, seemingly overnight, the Pies decided that they would follow the lead of the Sudbury Bulldogs and never lose again. McRae came to the Pies from Hardwick’s Richmond, and seemingly borrowed a lesson or two along the way.

There’s more than just a passing similarity to the Giants’ progress this year as well. Kingsley also comes directly from the Tigers, the latest stop in a long coaching career.

While both sides attack in engaging manners, the real heart of the side is built in defence. Both sides have a generational tall defender anchoring the side, with various often-overlooked pieces performing critical roles.

Both sides have high flying key forwards who have been converted into defenders in Harry Himmelberg and Jeremy Howe. There are rookies, recycled and repurposed players galore, but all buy into the key mission.

All three sides sit near the top of many key defensive metrics. All three defensive units are adept at executing plans and getting the game onto their own terms.

For all the similarities, there are some real differences, especially around ball movement. While the Giants originally set up to move the ball directly like the other two sides, they have increasingly used their pace to stretch the ground out horizontally and utilise the switch.

The Giants make the ground hard to defend for opposition sides.

The Giants have extremely damaging ball users across their entire back group, with talls like Himmelberg and Sam Taylor adept at pulling off tough exit kicks. It allows them to engage with a degree of risk that other sides can’t match.

Early in the season, Kingsley was frustrated by some of the movement.

“At the moment I feel when we have the courage to be able to play the way that we want to play, sometimes we muck it up, but sometimes we get through,” Kingsley told the ABC after their round six loss to the Lions

“You see it with all the great clubs. They typically have started in the position that we’re in. They just keep plugging away and persisting and training and valuing the details, and eventually they’re able to turn it around and I’m hoping we’re the same.”

After their win over the Suns, Kingsley started to indicate that it had mostly clicked.

“We played too straight in the first quarter particularly, and that was Gold Coast’s defence,” Kingsley said after the game.

“We needed to have a bit more courage with the ball and I felt like we did after quarter-time, particularly.

“We’ll get challenged in different manners with our offence. We need to be able to accept what’s happening and then be good enough to continue to play the style of play that we want to play and we learned a lesson today around that.”

That response to the opposition has been a hallmark for the Pies, including their famous late comebacks. It was also a hallmark of those great Tigers sides of recent years.

But the Giants have also excelled in another slightly different area.

Structured up

At that Ainslie preseason game, Kingsley laid out the clear focus for his side.

“Structurally, we were really strong up front, I thought what we’ve been training over the summer was reflected really well out there today, which is pleasing.”

So far this year that’s been a strength for the side, a sentiment echoed after their win over the Suns.

“What we were doing ahead of the ball, we were a little bit more organised, playing our way a little bit better,” Kingsley said.

“So we tidied that up at half time, managed to show some clips around what the issues were, and then our players ahead of the ball, particularly, got to work.”

The Giants have laid the most forward 50 tackles of any side this year. This has hampered the ability for opposition sides to escape.

A big part of modern footy is about dominating territory, and putting opposition sides under pressure close to your goal is one of the surest ways of doing that.

The Giants have used multiple pressure forwards — structure forwards in their parlance — to sit at the feet of aerial contests, crumb and lay physical pressure to prevent the ball from escaping.

This has led to the side being able to generate precious ball ups and throw-ins inside 50, a valuable way to generate scores.

The Giants spread the offensive load well. Players have cycled in and out of the set up, largely fitting in and around Toby Greene. Kingsley’s focus has been around players doing their job, not necessarily starring.

For forwards like Jake Riccardi and Aaron Cadman, the goal is often not to win contests, but to not lose them.

This team will never lose again

Teams always think they’ll never lose again until they do.

The Pies did in fact lose again in 2022 — three times in their last five matches. In response, they evolved again over the last off-season as coach and playing group grew closer together — similar to Hardwick’s time at the Tigers.

The Giants have won their last six in a row, and will need to keep the momentum up just to make finals. Three more wins should be enough, but four or more will place them in a position to do real damage come September.

In what shaped to be a lost year, started in the sleepy suburbs, there’s a chance — at least a small chance — that it ends on the biggest stage of them all.



Author: Russell White