AS THE playing group filters into the new auditorium at Greater Western Sydney's freshly refurbished Olympic Park headquarters, there is a different feel to this particular Wednesday morning meeting.
Yes, the normal edits and training vision from the previous Monday's drills are still shown and broken down. Yes, the big-ticket items for that day's upcoming session are all explained in their regular meticulous detail. But there remains something unusual about the proceedings.
When first-year coach Adam Kingsley asks if the players can spot what's different, a couple of the club's fresh-faced youngsters find the answer. For the first time all summer, they have been asked to wear their playing guernseys to training.
"That's right," Kingsley replies. "It's time to sharpen the axe. From now on, we train like we play."
For the entirety of last week, AFL.com.au was granted exclusive behind-the-scenes access to the GIANTS’ facilities as the rebuilding club ramped up its exhaustive pre-season preparations under Kingsley and an almost entirely new-look coaching group.
The GIANTS have found their new leader, and now have a fresh outlook on the season ahead.
THE MAIN MAN
A STERN looking Adam Kingsley points to the clock in the GIANTS HQ auditorium.
It might only be 23 seconds past the scheduled start time of 8.00am when the final GIANTS player takes his seat for the team's daily morning meeting, but timeliness is important to Kingsley's philosophy. "Value the details," he repeats.
Kingsley, just four months after being appointed a first-time senior coach, has already come to respect the delicate balance within football. The 'yin and yang', as he frequently cites throughout the week. The side that perfects that balance, or goes as close as possible to doing so, will more often than not enjoy success.
It was that balance within Kingsley's personal and professional side that most endeared him to the GIANTS’ coaching selection committee as the club entered a transitional phase following the departure of long-time senior coach Leon Cameron midway through last year.
Kingsley is admittedly dry, but he is also genuinely funny. He has a hard-edge, but he is not old school in the way he treats his players. He delegates well between his experienced group of assistant coaches, but he is also firmly in control of any given training session or meeting. He lives his 'yin and yang' mantra.
"He's very strong in his philosophy, but he encourages us to challenge him. He doesn't want us to sit back and just go, 'this is my game plan'," the club's new forwards coach, Jeremy Laidler, tells AFL.com.au.
"He wants us to challenge him to get better. He understands that if you sit back and wait, there's no room for improvement. It's exciting and I think it's going to grow us, as well as growing him and the team."
It was that balance, captured in his scrupulous attention to detail, that saw the 47-year-old Kingsley overcome stiff competition from the club's 2022 interim coach Mark McVeigh and the current Melbourne assistant Adem Yze to win the GIANTS job on a full-time basis last August.
Another appealing factor to the club's coaching selection committee was the success Kingsley had enjoyed in a host of different programs, both as a player and as a coach, during his near-three-decade-long football career.
Here was a candidate who had won a premiership with Port Adelaide as a player in 2004, spending 170 games across 10 years learning from a coaching team that included greats like Mark 'Choco' Williams, Phil Walsh, Dean Bailey and Alastair Clarkson. He then served a further 16 seasons working as an assistant under Williams at Port Adelaide, Ross Lyon at St Kilda and finally Damien Hardwick at Richmond. Two more premierships were added during that time, both with the Tigers in 2019 and 2020.
"If you spent time with 'Choco', if you spent time with Ross, if you spent time with 'Dimma' Hardwick, you'd know that's where I've got a lot of it from. I'm almost regurgitating the learnings from all of those guys, combining them and picking the best parts. At times, I laugh at myself thinking I sound like one of them," Kingsley says.
For all of the success Kingsley has generated, rebuilding the GIANTS is likely his toughest challenge yet. The club won just six games last season, finishing in its lowest ladder position since its second year in the competition back in 2013, before losing star midfield duo Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper to Richmond during the Trade Period.
A condensed summer schedule, combined with a fundamental and drastic change in game plan, has meant for an off-season of learning. Whether you're a player who spent nine years under Cameron, or whether you're in your first months as a footballer, the tactics being rolled out are completely new.
"We'd built habits over 10 years," the club's co-captain, Stephen Coniglio, says.
"Now, we're learning to play in a different way. So, in terms of knowledge and in terms of teaching, you need to be on all of the time. You're learning as much as a first or second-year player. Before, you might have already known what we were trying to implement. Now, it's a lot different. It's a lot more listening."
CHAMPIONS AND GENTLEMEN
"OKAY, Jack. You're up…"
The playing group have barely caught their breath, having spent close to three hours on the track in muggy Sydney conditions where temperatures have soared above 30 degrees for much of the morning. In just a couple of hours, they will separate once again to complete yet more gruelling rotations consisting of cross-training and weights in the gym. But, in the midst of one of the summer's toughest days yet, there's a change of pace.
Wednesday is when the club now holds its weekly 'GIANTS Man' meetings. They are a Kingsley initiative, deriving more than just their name from Hardwick's famous 'Richmond Man' philosophy. Inspired by Shane McCurry, who worked with Kingsley at his former club as a culture and leadership consultant, they present the playing group with a chance to build strong emotional connections. Today is Jack Buckley's turn to do just that.
Kingsley calls Buckley to the front of the group and watches as the former Category B rookie collects a small shopping bag from under his chair and strides out before his teammates. Buckley, in turn, asks if Adam Kennedy will join him before the group.
Every week since arriving at the club, as part of the 'GIANTS Man' meetings, three players are asked to express their love, gratitude and appreciation for a teammate of their choice. They are then asked to bring along a gift as a way of showing their thanks.
On this occasion, Buckley recognises the countless examples throughout their time as teammates when Kennedy has proved himself as a friend both on and off the field. "You are one of one, mate," Buckley says, before pulling a pot plant from his shopping bag and handing it over.
"It's been one of the biggest shifts in the game over the last five years, that vulnerability piece and the ability to share your emotions without being ridiculed. That's the foundation of it," Kingsley says.
"If you think about what we're trying to become here, in terms of the relationships and the connections, it's a big country footy club. You think about country footy, they have all of those connections. Everyone goes back to the clubhouse and has a beer or a wine or a soft drink together. Football brings everyone together, you've got all walks of life coming together."
The country footy vibe is a cultural element the GIANTS had embraced, even before Kingsley's arrival. Over the weekend, the club continued its yearly tradition of hosting the families of its recent draftees – in addition to trade recruit Toby Bedford and last season's mid-season arrival Wade Derksen – and toured their loved ones through its state-of-the-art facilities.
There were induction presentations hosted by Kingsley and head of football Jason McCartney, as well as chief executive Dave Matthews and player welfare manager Dylan Addison, before the families were joined by senior players and coaches for lunch in Rose Bay afterwards.
"If you look at us, a lot of us are away from home," Kingsley says. "A lot of our players have moved up here away from their families, some of our coaches have as well. To be quite frank, we're just trying to be one big family. We have to be."
Kingsley's hope for the 'GIANTS Man' meetings is that it will help foster "champions on the field and gentlemen off the field". On Wednesday's evidence, the bonds that have been either formed or strengthened as a result of the initiative are becoming clear.
After Kennedy receives his pot plant – he recently moved into a new house, commenting that he needed the décor – veteran defender Lachie Keeffe asks Coniglio to join him in front of the group and hands over a bottle of champagne. Jake Riccardi is the final player asked to give thanks, doing so before young teammate Brent Daniels. "I love you, mate," Riccardi says, concluding the day's meeting.
ORANGE TSUNAMI 2.0
THERE is so much to the GIANTS under Kingsley that feels fresh and new.
The first-year coach has had his say on putting more colour and motivational slogans on the walls of GIANTS HQ, on ensuring there are always different tunes playing on the gym's speakers, on designing fresh presentations for team meetings, and even for re-arranging a couple of pieces of furniture within the office areas.
And yet, for as much of the vibe under Kingsley has been described as 'reinvigorating' and 're-energising' within the building, arguably the most significant aspect of his arrival – that being how the team will play their football in 2023 and beyond – has taken inspiration from something long synonymous with the football club.
The 'Orange Tsunami' is back, and back in a big way. It is front and centre to everything Kingsley is trying to teach his players, be it verbally in discussions, visually in the classroom, or physically on the training track.
"Clearly, it was a label that was attached to this team and this group for a long period of time," Kingsley says. "But I reckon the fans probably found it quite exciting, and I reckon the opposition probably found it a little intimidating. It's as simple as that. It's a label that we want to stick, and it's a label that we want to grow."
Under Kingsley, the GIANTS want to be a modern, thrill-seeking team offensively and a dynamic, flexible outfit defensively. In essence, they want to go back to their roots as they strive to return to being the competitive, combative and feared side that gripped the League on their way to the 2019 Grand Final.
The 'Orange Tsunami' is therefore a pivotal building block for Kingsley as he preaches the way he wants his side to play. But it's not the only one. The new GIANTS coach designs, compiles and delivers all of his own presentations to the playing group, drawing on aspects from a host of sports, philosophies and mantras that intrigue him.
"I have to have a really clear direction around what I want our players and staff to be able to walk out knowing, that they potentially didn't know before or had forgotten. It's as simple as that," Kingsley says.
"It's identifying the best way that I'm going to be able to do that. Is it tape? Is it vision? Is it a clip of something else? Is it me just talking, which isn't often the case. I'm pretty boring. Is it someone else presenting it? Do we walk through it? Do I show it on vision? Am I pointing? Am I cuddly and nice? What's my demeanour? All of that thought goes into how our players and staff are going to best walk out with a reminder of how we do it."
Throughout the week, Kingsley's wide scope of inspirations are evident. There is a clip shown of retired Miami Heat player Shane Battier glowing in his praise of NBA star LeBron James' training standards, while there are constant references to the GIANTS being 'The Edgers' – a term coined by the all-conquering New England Patriots and their star quarterback Tom Brady, describing their desire to always have a physical and mental edge over their opposition – among their team meetings.
These drawcards flow to line meetings, as well. Throughout the week, midfield assistant Ben Hart uses clips and press conferences from UFC events to get his message across, while offence coach Craig Jennings uses phrases and visual references to Japanese swordsman and philosopher Miyamoto Musashi to stimulate the thinking of his players.
But whether it relates to the 'Orange Tsunami' or 'The Edgers', the underlying message is clear. The GIANTS under Kingsley are a team based around "system over talent", with all components blended together to make one cohesive unit.
"We're dealing with roughly 45 players on a list," Kingsley says. "They've all come from different backgrounds, they've all got different levels of understanding, they all learn differently, they all concentrate at different levels, and the stories that they'll create are all different.
"There are so many layers to each person, that's why we try to mix up the way that we educate and the way that we train as much as possible. It's so we can catch the greater amount of people to try and improve them and educate them differently."
THE MAGNETS are shuffled, flipped, moved, and placed out carefully. Again.
Hart and Jennings are standing over a table shaped like a football oval, planning out next week's midfield session as GIANTS analyst Aiden Russell scribbles notes and small diagrams in his notebook.
The detail within every aspect of each session is meticulous. Often, throughout the week's coach meetings, even the time spent deciding the names of drills and positions within that drill can be long and demanding, with each coach searching for the answer to how their players will best absorb every bit of information possible.
Whether you're calling a position on the ground something mundane or something exciting might not seem important on the surface, but to the coaches the question is always the same. In the heat of battle – when the pressure is on – will the players remember it?
"You can have broad brush strokes of your philosophy in how you want to play, but the detail does matter," Hart says. "Our ability as coaches, which is on the assistants a lot, is to blend all of that. The detail makes the bigger philosophy work.
"That's probably the trick for a young group in understanding that everything you're doing actually matters when your offence and defence is so well aligned. It's a great balance to have, but you've got to be teaching those details."
The coach meetings are thorough and exacting. It might be an entirely new group – led by a first-year senior coach and filled with assistants starting their first summer at the club – but it is among the most experienced in the League.
Kingsley has been in the game for 26 years. Hart, a two-time premiership player with Adelaide, has been around in a host of roles for 31 years. Laidler is 14 years into his football journey, while new backline coach Brett Montgomery, a premiership teammate of Kingsley's, has also been in the game for 26 years. Jennings, the only member of the coaching group who also spent the 2022 season with the GIANTS, has more than 20 years' worth of football experience in a variety of roles.
"It's been completely different, to be honest," the club's co-captain, Toby Greene, says of the changes. "We've got four or five new coaches as well, it's not just the head coach. It's been a huge change. The way we play, the way we train, the drills we do, it's all different. We'd been doing similar stuff for eight or nine years, the older boys. It's been bloody solid, but the game plan demands that. It's been really refreshing."
There is tight alignment everywhere. Each coaching drill is drawn up by the line leaders, designed into presentations by the analysts, tweaked by the remaining coaches, and then carefully considered by the high-performance team, before it is finally delivered to the players some days later.
Given everything within this process is so new, education is therefore crucial. Jennings and Montgomery, for example, both have teaching backgrounds. It shows in their sessions, when the football club is momentarily turned into a classroom for a couple of hours each day.
All of the coaches have tools to stimulate learning. They often turn to their players to create the dialogue, encouraging everyone – not just the senior members of the group – to become involved. Discussion creates everyone dialling in, with criticism seen not as a negative but as a development opportunity.
In this week's midfield meetings, Harry Perryman implored his inside midfielders to reward their wingmen for staying disciplined, Xavier O'Halloran asked for more communication between positions, while Tom Green challenged the subtle movement of a teammate at a stoppage with his new line coach.
The cogs are moving exactly how Kingsley and McCartney envisaged when they put the coaching group together. Yes, it has taken months of planning to reach this point. But the results are beginning to play out on the training track. It's right in the nick of time, as well, given there is just under two months before the side's round one clash with Adelaide.
"There's no agenda, there's no going out on a limb, there's no throwing something forward as a personal opinion. It's all been said and done before we go into those meetings," Montgomery says.
"When Adam and Jason put the group together – and I think we're all pretty stoked about the type of group we've got – there was a lot of time spent together with us in rooms banging through edit after edit. It wasn't just about how we wanted it played, it was about how we felt about it and what it could do for us in offence and defence. We all got on the same page. There were some long days in meetings, but it was really important to find out what we valued. There were never going to be any cracks after that."
EVERY line group has something different.
The defenders, arguably the most experienced collection of players at the GIANTS, start team meetings with a quiz run by Phil Davis. The forwards, arguably the youngest, finish by shaking the hands of every single teammate on their way out.
As for the midfielders, every Monday during this pre-season one player has been asked to bring in three items that are important to them as a means of finding out something new about their teammates. It's on this particular week that the GIANTS onballers learn the startling revelation that first-year rookie Jason Gillbee replaced all of his water intake with milk three years ago. "Mel (the club's dietician) wasn't happy when she found out," he says to the stunned faces around him.
Gillbee is one of seven draftees to have been introduced to a relatively new-look playing group this summer. It was a batch led by No.1 pick Aaron Cadman, and complemented by the arrival of exciting small forward Bedford in a trade from Melbourne.
Cadman is constantly developing his craft, with the GIANTS confident the 195cm key forward can play significant senior football early in the season. After a promising stint in the backline, Harry Himmelberg has returned to the attack this summer to aid the youngster's progress.
Bedford is considered a lock for round one, having provided an injection of speed and class to the small forward stocks. He's also given the team additional running power, recently returning from his Christmas break by smashing the six-minute barrier in the club's final 2km time trial.
But he's not the only zippy young forward hoping to bring about more chaos inside 50m, helping Kingsley introduce an element of what Richmond did so well during his time at the club. Daniels has returned from an injury-plagued 2022 season to impress on the track, while the diminutive Darcy Jones – claimed with pick No.21 during last November's NAB AFL Draft – is also firming as a round one bolter, having excelled this summer.
Other, more senior players, have also been settled into roles both familiar and new during Kingsley's time with the club. Perryman is spending more time as a pure midfielder, both Lachie Whitfield and Lachie Ash have been training across half-back, Kennedy is being trialled forward, while veteran Callan Ward has also been shifted into the attack.
Green has relished the additional midfield responsibility vacated by Taranto and Hopper's departure, while former top-three pick Finn Callaghan was highlighted throughout the week for a side-step out of trouble and a long left-footed goal having burst out of a stoppage at training.
Then there's the ever-reliable stars. Sam Taylor was hardly out-marked throughout the side's three main training sessions, while Connor Idun – a recent graduate to the leadership group – continues to flourish down back. Greene's smarts and skills up forward remain a constant.
Does it result in an immediate return to finals for Kingsley, much like it did his former Richmond colleague Craig McRae when he took the reins at Collingwood last season? That's still to be determined. But for those young and old at the GIANTS, the reset has been as refreshing as it has been timely.
"If you can get your structures right and get your belief right within the group and build those habits, then anything can happen," the club's co-captain and midfield star, Josh Kelly, says.
"'Kingers' is really big on that. It's structure over talent. You keep showing up and you learn your role. If we can go out and produce that on game day over and over again and stick to that, then anything can happen. That's the way we're feeling at the moment. It just feels like a fresh new place and a place that's pretty exciting to be."
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