Each week during the AFL shutdown period, aflplayers.com.au will bring to light the perspective of someone at the heart of a memorable moment from a game played between two sides that would have been fixtured to play in the upcoming round. This week, we look at the GWS Giants’ first ever finals win against cross-town rivals the Sydney Swans in 2016.
For the AFL’s youngest team they’ve experienced significant ‘firsts’ in their early years in the competition.
From first game, to first win, to first interstate win, two years after their inception, and to first finals win it had been a whirlwind journey over the years.
After a steady rise up the ladder from their first season, in 2012, to their first finals campaign in 2016, the GWS Giants have become a tough and quick opponent to play against with insurmountable talent.
Finishing the 2016 season in fourth position on the ladder, the Giants faced cross-town rivals Sydney in their first final.
For former No. 1 draft pick Lachie Whitfield it was a monumental milestone in his football journey.
“At that young age we were doing a whole lot of firsts… it was about riding the enjoyment and experience of it all,” he told aflplayers.com.au.
Having only played at ANZ Stadium (Stadium Australia) twice in his short career – his debut AFL game in Round 1, 2013 and the 2016 Qualifying Final – it was a unique experience.
Despite the nerves, which Whitfield said were rare, he was one of the Giants’ best players, gathering 27 touches and kicking a goal.
The rivalry between the two sides had been growing, as the Giants were no longer bullied by their older brother and certainly no ‘easy-beats’ as they had been previously with so many young and inexperienced players in the side.
But, with Sydney boasting a strong midfield of Kieren Jack, Josh Kennedy, Jarrad McVeigh, Dan Hannebery and Luke Parker, they remained wary games for the Giants.
“Tactically we always had to play a bit differently but we knew we had to play our way with flair as much as we could and have some fun at the same time,” Whitfield said.
The Swans got the jump early on the Giants, taking a two-goal lead midway through the first term, but the Giants clawed their way back to take a one-point lead at the first change.
From there, the game remained a tight tussle until what Whitfield described as a “pivotal” moment in the third term.
“There are a few key moments that have stayed with me, but a big one was Jeremy Cameron taking an intercept in the forward line and kicking a goal that changed the momentum in the third quarter,” he said.
It sparked a chain of play that would help secure the Giants’ first-ever finals win.
Cameron kicked three goals in the third quarter, and four for the day, to help ignite the Giants.
“(Cameron’s) third quarter really changed the whole game off his own boot for us,” Whitfield said.
“The momentum swung our way and we were able to ride it through the last quarter and hold on.”
For Whitfield, one of they key elements to the Giants win was the way their more senior players – the likes of Callan Ward, Stephen Coniglio, Jeremy Cameron, Steve ‘Stevie J’ Johnson, and Shane ‘Mummy’ Mumford – stood up.
Still being a young team at the time, Whitfield said it was important they showed they were going to take the game on their way.
“For Stevie J and Mummy to do the dirty work for us on the field really changed the game,” he said.
It was clear that the rivalry was fierce between the two sides, with Johnson and Mumford focusing their attention on ensuring the Giants were no longer seen as competition newcomers.
in making an on-field statement, Johnson sized up Sydney’s Kennedy and earned himself a one-match suspension for a head-high bump.
Johnson, who won three premierships with Geelong, knew the grunt required to win finals and despite kicking five behinds and no goals, was crucial to his side’s win, despite the moment where he overstepped the mark.
When then-GWS Giants co-captain Callan Ward kicked a goal at the 20-minute mark of the final quarter, giving the Giants an almost unassailable lead, Whitfield knew the victory was sealed.
With the knowledge that his team was going to progress to the next stage and the pressure valve released, he relished the last 10 minutes.
“It kind of felt like we had almost won a Grand Final for a bit,” Whitfield said.
“We went down into the rooms, soaking it all up, but then it was back to reality knowing we had more games to play.”
Although it wasn’t to be that year for the Giants, going down by six points to eventual premiers the Western Bulldogs in the preliminary final, Whitfield said the win was a game that changed the course for the Giants.
“That win was a big statement but there’s always that feeling that we have missed a couple of opportunities since,” he said.
“We’ve won finals regularly over the last four seasons – at least one in every campaign we’ve played in – so we’re going to keep giving ourselves every opportunity to win a Grand Final.”