It would be hard to think of a hurdle the GIANTS didn’t have to overcome in its debut VFL season.
From having to dash out of Sydney at short notice to playing a game with players from crosstown rivals the Swans but without coach Luke Kelly, the GIANTS did it all.
And they were the only team to defeat Southport and the first to roll the Casey Demons with a one-point upset at Casey Fields.
Kelly said the GIANTS couldn’t be happier with its first season in the competition and the exposure it provided.
"We've loved being involved with the VFL – the NEAFL was definitely good and we blooded some local talent across the board, but the level of competition the VFL brings has been massive," Kelly said.
"We've always been working side by side with local clubs to help develop the local talent and getting to showcase it at a higher level and play Friday night footy on Kayo against Footscray has been massive."
Kelly revealed he was one of the nine GIANTS players and staff famously forced into quarantine in Queensland after attending the Wallabies rugby union Test at AAMI Park in July.
It affected the club's VFL game against Brisbane the following week, with Kieren Briggs and Jake Stein also in isolation, leaving assistant coach Mark McVeigh to take the reins as nine Swans suited up in orange for a win that sealed the GIANTS a top eight finish.
"It was definitely one of the weirdest weeks because I was in quarantine and tuned in over Zoom talking to the coaches," Kelly said.
"But you couldn't really tell there were two different teams playing with each other. I think everyone's mindset was the opportunity to play footy overrides everything.
"When you play with other teams you see they are doing some things slightly different, but in the end footy's footy and they came together and it was a good result – it helped heal a few wounds between the Swans and the GIANTS (which) opened up again in the first week of the finals."
Kelly said being able to take Josh Green and four Academy players when they rushed out of Sydney was a bonus, with Sam Frost, Harry Grintell, Max Monaghan and Fraser Kelly all playing key roles in the Casey upset, along with Josh Fahey who travelled down from Canberra. It was a win that also opened the AFL door for some senior-listed young guns.
"You look at that game in isolation and for those young blokes it was an unbelievable level of footy for them to play at," he said.
"And our AFL boys, Xavier O’Halloran played the rest of the year in the AFL before he got injured, Jake Stein got in a week or two later and held his spot, Briggs went in when 'Mummy' (Shane Mumford) wasn't there and had a great game against Geelong."
Kelly rated the Sharks victory alongside the Demons as a highlight, while he was also proud of how an undermanned team stood up against Footscray in round two.
"They were two wins and two different contests – for an AFL program that win against Casey was huge and as good a development game and stepping stone as you can get.
"Against the Dogs we only had six AFL-listed players and we were a goal or two down at half-time, so to basically expose a lot of guys who hadn't played at that level and compete against a team who ended up being undefeated was great.
"The following week we might have only had eight or nine listed players against Southport, who ended up second on the ladder, so for a VFL program that win was huge as well.
"We were sitting there waiting to play Footscray in the first week of the finals, it would have been a nice first week, but it wasn’t to be."
Kelly said the best example of the VFL players' workrate was James Peatling, who put in the hard yards and was rewarded in the mid-season draft, going on to play four AFL games including the semi-final.
"The reality is all you're trying to do is put a structure and a program around them and it's up to them to take it, and that's what he did.
"We had a coffee in mid-November (2020) to talk about whether he was going to come back and play VFL and he was adamant he wanted to give it another red hot go, and from that moment on he did everything to knock the door down.
"He trained hard and took every opportunity that came and that's all you ask for from these young blokes – it was so pleasing to see him being successful at the next level because he did all the hard work to get himself there.
"Xavier O’Halloran in the midfield, Jake Stein in the backline and Zach Sproule up forward are (AFL-listed) guys who had to do their apprenticeship at VFL level – their energy and enthusiasm was massive.
"They're the guys who were able to bring the intensity and the level each week, whether it was four AFL guys around them or six VFL guys, they were really keen and they got the reward at the back end.
"Then you've got other guys like Cam Fleeton and Ryan Angwin who did a genuine apprenticeship all year with Jacob Wehr – they haven't quite seen AFL action but they've improved and brought a level of consistency for the other guys and that's what you love as a coach, knowing what you're going to get from them."
Kelly praised everyone involved in football for keeping the season going as long as it did but was looking forward to bringing back the simple things.
"You'd love at the start of the year to just roll your program out and develop it without any interruptions, but every time a door closes another one opens – we were able to bring in some local NAB League talent," he said.
"The coaches being willing to have their boys play for VFL teams, loaning players to make it work (has been great) – as long as we're playing 18 v 18 we'll make it work, and the VFL has been awesome along the way.
"Their lines of communication in keeping us up to date with what we can and can't do and helping us through it all definitely made it a lot easier.
"It doesn’t matter the environment or why or how, just being able to get there and play footy for 120 minutes is not something you can take for granted any more.
"(I ask myself) 'Did I communicate enough at the right times about the changes to try to keep guys involved who weren't around as much as we would have liked?' – all those things we wish we'd been able to do to bring the togetherness more.
"That's probably the lowlight, especially with the VFL boys who we weren't able to just get in a room and have a beer and get to know each other a bit more.
"Hopefully going forward we can integrate more and really round out what we think is a strong club, but that's on me to drive and that will be the main point going forward."
7-4 win-loss, 8th
What went right: Being the only team to defeat Southport and one of only two to knock off the Casey Demons franked the GIANTS' season. Winning seven out of 11 games despite being away from home for half the season and having James Peatling promoted in the mid-season draft are other ticks for the club.
What went wrong: Having to hit the road in June meant their Academy players missed out on vital development opportunities, but apart from that it was a season to be proud of.
VFL Development Award: It is likely to be a close count, with Peatling, Nick Shipley and Tanner Bruhn being the favourites, while Zach Sproule is another that could bob up in the count.
Best young players: Peatling obviously leads this list as well, while Angus Baker looked good for both Essendon and the GIANTS. A host of Academy boys showed promise, including Josh Green, Fraser Kelly, Zach Youlten and Sam Frost.
Coach status: Luke Kelly is contracted for a second season next year after an extremely interesting debut in charge. "We're already starting to put the wheels in motion about what it looks like in 2022, and hopefully we can round out a full season next time," he said.