A tale of two Sydneys: Swans soar, Giants a sore point

The tale of two cities that will unfold at the SCG when Sydney take on Collingwood, marking the Swans’ eighth preliminary final in two decades, underlines again one of the great pioneering success stories of AFL expansion.

It masks for this spring at least a much grimmer scenario unfolding in the west of town – although not far west enough if you listen to the municipal forefathers and mothers of Blacktown and Parramatta – where Greater Western Sydney are still being forced to shed players as they tackle the daunting task of attracting off-field talent to relaunch their football club with a new and unproven coach.

With Alastair Clarkson leading North Melbourne towards an Indian summer, and Gold Coast out of intensive care, the Giants have firmly grasped the mantle of the AFL’s elephant in the room.

Having executed the last great win of the Leon Cameron era when they defeated Sydney by a point in last year’s elimination final in Launceston, GWS (surely the club should ditch this clumsy moniker and stick with Giants) hosted the Swans in round one at Homebush’s Accor Stadium. It was a dismal event that underlined not only the 2022 fates of the two so-called crosstown rivals but also the challenge facing the AFL in its battle for Sydney’s west.

Not to mention the failure by head office and its Sydney HQ to adequately promote the game in foreign territory at a time when four codes are fighting for air as international blockbuster events loom large.

Lance Franklin is surrounded by fans after his 1000th goal.Credit:Getty Images

The start of this season was a soft period for attendances generally, but only 25,000 turned up despite the prospect of Lance Franklin’s milestone. The AFL blundered in staging the Hoodoo Gurus to perform at half-time when the money would have been better spent on TV promotion and a half-decent pre-event marketing campaign. Fox Footy didn’t even travel to the Olympic Stadium and called the game from its Melbourne studio.

It was quite literally a tale of two cities – or municipalities – the following weekend when those famous scenes unfolded at the SCG after Franklin’s 1000th goal. Not everyone at the Swans approved when the club turned its back on Homebush and those occasional 70,000-plus crowds some years ago, but rarely has a handball to another club been so swiftly and cynically executed as the Swans watched the Giants try to lure supporters to that stadium.

NSW STATE-OF-ORIGIN TEAM 2022

Back line: Isaac Cumming (North Broken Hill), Dougal Howard (Wagga Tigers), Dane Rampe (UNSW-Eastern Suburbs)

Half-back line: Harry Perryman (Collingullie), Harry Himmelberg (Mangoplah CUE), Nick Blakey (UNSW-Eastern Suburbs)

Centre line: Errol Gulden (UNSW-Eastern Suburbs), Callum Mills (Mosman Swans, VC), Isaac Smith (Cootamundra)

Half-forward line: Charlie Spargo (Albury), Taylor Walker (North Broken Hill), Luke Breust (Temora)

Forward line: Isaac Heeney (Cardiff), Tom Hawkins (Finley, C), Todd Marshall (Deniliquin)

Followers: Jarrod Witts (Sydney University), Jacob Hopper (Leeton-Whitton), Matthew Kennedy (Collingullie)

Interchange: Jeremy Finlayson (Culcairn), Nick Murray (Henty), Lachie Schultz (Moama), Will Setterfield (Albury)

As selected by Richard Colless, Mark Maclure, Wayne Carey, Mike Sheahan and Gerard Healy.

It seems unfair to single out the Giants in a football sense after one poor season – they have missed finals only twice since their near miss in 2016 – but their lack of penetration and dreadful attendances has come in a season where Parramatta and Penrith have dominated against the expanding infrastructure backdrop of the NRL.

In football terms you can argue whether the Giants under-achieved under Cameron, but for a new club born into a cultural Australian rules wilderness they have been an on-field success, particularly in comparison with Gold Coast, which haven’t looked like making finals. But in terms of TV ratings and column inches and participation, southern Queensland is flying and on good days even matching the NRL.

This at a time the Giants are struggling to lure assistant coaches largely due to the cost of living and geographical challenges, and are paying the price of crippling long-term contracts. The latter is a problem of their making, but the former was imposed on them by the AFL’s soft cap. Not to mention the failure of the code in Canberra to yet live up to the prospect of any significant Giants-led resurgence.

New GWS coach Adam Kingsley with club CEO Dave Matthews.Credit:Phill Hillyard

It’s all very well for head office to roll its collective eyes at the Giants’ pugnacious club chief Dave Matthews, who holds the AFL to account on a weekly basis, and furrow their brows at the prospect of founding chairman Tony Shepherd’s looming departure, but the fact remains that the league has continually struggled to adequately and regularly market and fixture attractive matches.

Long-serving Sydney chairman Richard Colless, who one-quarter of a century ago oversaw the taskforce set with the job of reviewing and improving football’s fortunes in NSW and the ACT, believes that the time has come to reinstate a taskforce. That job came with some personal angst for the then Swans chairman given accusations of conflict of interest. Now there are calls for greater collaboration between the two clubs to attract talent, which seems a tricky prospect.

The call for a review has been echoed by Colless’ successor at the Swans Andrew Pridham. “I’m talking about the game here in terms of promotion, grassroots and country footy,” said Pridham. “We’re seeing a significant reduction in numbers in NSW predominantly in the western suburbs and Canberra’s going backwards.”

Colless controversially addressed the issue in The Australian in May shortly after Cameron’s departure – a line-in-the-sand moment for the club. Cameron has since taken on a new role running the Swans’ football academy. The Australian report cited a City of Parramatta survey where Australian rules football was listed 27th among the region’s preferred sports.

John Longmire’s Swans are in the middle of another successful season, but the Giants are struggling – and not just on the field.Credit:Phil Hillyard

This year’s NSW state-of-origin Australian rules team – selected by Colless, Mark Maclure, Gerard Healy, Wayne Carey and Mike Sheahan – would challenge any top-eight team, according to the selectors, but as Colless pointed, out they would struggle to fill a second team. And 15 of the 22 hail from around the Riverina with just five from the Sydney region including John Blakey’s son Nick along with Callum Mills, Jarrod Witts, Errol Gulden and Dane Rampe.

“Our west has a disturbing deficit of players, and they struggle to fill teams,” summed up Colless. “And on the eastern side we are getting better numbers, but there are far too few resources.”

The shortage of football grounds is a major issue across the country but worse in Sydney as women’s teams continue to expand the code. Just over 4000 turned up to watch the first AFLW Sydney derby at the SCG last weekend in a game that attracted front-page coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald. The Swans attracted closer to 8000 in their first-round AFLW debut against St Kilda the previous weekend at North Sydney Oval.

The AFL has already turned its mind to round one of the men’s competition and whether to stage a grand final rematch with the prevailing view that the Wednesday night season-opener between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs was not a smashing success.

Should the Swans emerge as premiers – a win against Collingwood would take the club to its sixth grand final in 20 years and John Longmire’s fourth – the prospect of another motorcade along George Street is one thing but the opportunity of a heavily hyped first-round rematch pitched against the NRL to kick off the season is one the cashed-up new-look AFL executive team cannot squander.

That would be the easy part of a dream scenario for the Swans. The bigger task looming from the west for now seems a bridge too far, but it should be remembered the AFL talks in decades – not years – where its hopes for the Giants and a true presence in the west of Sydney is concerned. So far away that right now league chiefs – admittedly in casual conversations – have even entertained the short-term scenario of shifting some GWS games to the SCG.

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