One Giant Family: The recruits

Greater Western Sydney's AFLW team has to do things a bit differently to its counterparts. With a young and still-developing participation base in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, the Giants have had to look outside their natural boundaries to attract players in the short-term. 

The part-time nature of the competition – pre-season runs for around 10 weeks, and the season itself for nine (including finals) – means it can be tricky to convince players to move states, even countries, for a five-month competition. 

The Giants enjoyed a rapid rise up the ladder in 2018. Under new coach Alan McConnell, they went from wooden-spooners to playing for a Grand Final spot in the final round. 

Womens.afl spent three days at the club two weeks before the start of the season. The resulting four-part series, One Giant Family, will explore what makes this AFLW side tick, how it attracts and maintains talent, and the role of McConnell as ringmaster. 

GREATER Western Sydney's forward line has gathered in the club's games room before training for a self-run meeting.

All Australian recruit Christina Bernardi (pictured above), who crossed from Collingwood during the off-season, takes charge, laptop in hand.

She's a third-year AFLW 'veteran', especially in comparison to rookie Taylah Davies, a former member of the Giants' netball team.

Others present include Irish pair Cora Staunton and Yvonne Bonner, draftees Brittany Perry and Delma Gisu, and established players Tait Mackrill, Maddy Collier and Jodie Hicks.

Around them are pool and table tennis tables, and a large wall decal of Australia decorated in the colours of the Aboriginal flag. The club's AFL players dipped their hands in paint and added prints of their hands to the wall, pinpointing the location they are from. A well-worn 'Connect 4' game sits on the shelf.

Fellow key forward Jacinda Barclay is away at work, in another world removed from Western Sydney. Barclay works on an oil rig in the middle of the Indian ocean, where she's a life support technician making sure deep-sea divers come to the surface in a safe manner.

If the job runs over time, she could miss round one. She can't leave her post until her job is done, but she’s doing what she can to stay fit and keeps a footy on hand.

The forwards are listing their strengths, weaknesses and kicking distances. It's a collaborative effort, with teammates chipping in if they feel some have sold themselves short.

"No, back to you. You've got more than one strength," Staunton admonishes a teammate.

Bernardi has taken longer than she thought to settle into a new home and new club. 

Coping with Sydney’s thick, muggy air – conditions that make a simple walk a struggle – has been a challenge. Imagine training in it.

"We had a session two weeks ago and you couldn't breathe," Bernardi said.

"It was a Saturday morning and really hot and humid. That was a real, 'What the ‘eff’ am I doing here moment.’"

A break back home over Christmas helped.

"I probably didn’t train as well as I wanted to before Christmas. I put a lot of pressure on myself, to be honest," she said.

"The break was a bit of a reset and a time to focus on the small things … everything else will fall into place.

"It's been a big challenge and change, which is what I came up here for."

Giants coach Alan McConnell

Bernardi's one of seven Victorians (of 32 players) on the list. The Giants have five South Australians – including draftees Ebony O'Dea, Lisa Whiteley and Brittany Perry – in the squad.

In total, 17 of 32 players come from somewhere other than NSW or ACT, areas with steadily growing – but for now, young and inexperienced – footy participants.

O'Dea, a defender, was one of the first players the Giants drafted who actually supported the club. Well before she was on the recruiting team's radar as a player, O’Dea was such a big fan she managed to arrange a signed jumper from the club.

Victorian Pepa Randall and West Australian Aimee Schmidt have taken up jobs with the club as landscape gardeners, making the club their own by working as groundskeepers at Tom Wills Oval (the club's training ground, complete with three hedges cut into the letters G W and S) and Spotless Stadium (where the AFL team plays its home games).

It's been a learning curve for the two of them, given their previous occupations at home: Randall worked for Cricket Australia and Schmidt is a secondary school phys-ed teacher.

Rebecca Privitelli, who wasn't offered a contract for the 2019 season, loves the club so much she decided against returning to Victoria, instead staying on as the club's merchandise coordinator. She now plays for the UNSW-ES Bulldogs in the AFL Sydney competition.

Not content with exploring all corners of Australia to attract players, Ireland has become a recruiting ground for the club.

Yvonne Bonner, a Gaelic footballer, signed as a rookie for the 2019 season and has impressed during pre-season training. A forward, she is a strong set-shot for goal and instinctively knows where to lead.

But back in late 2017, McConnell roped in his son Ben (an accountant who lives in London) to go to Ireland and film Staunton's kicking skills. She arrived from Ireland the day before the draft, with the club having very little time to decide if it would select her. The Giants’ decision to take a punt on the multi-sports star has proven to be a shrewd one.

Shane Mumford works with the AFLW rucks

A legend in Gaelic football in her home country, Staunton captured the imagination of AFLW fans with her unique set-shot style (an around-the-corner kick that she's worked hard to now develop into a more traditional drop punt), as well as her speed and power.

"As a sportsperson you're trying to improve on everything you can do, so my challenge is to do better than last year," said Staunton, who last year had an Irish film crew follow her around in the first few weeks of the AFLW season.

"The game is a lot more complex than I thought it would be. There's so much more learning than I thought there would be.

"Here, every session I do, is to my max. I want to come off every session absolutely exhausted. I have to fast-track it, I don't have the time to be saying in a year or two I'll be better, because at my age (37), I don't have that. There's extra pressure on me this year to perform."

Despite being on the other side of the world, Staunton has found a familiar place.

"GWS resembles what my own (Gaelic) club is like in Mayo (on Ireland’s west coast). My team has sisters and cousins and neighbours, everyone's grown up with each other and went to school together. It's that kind of family feel.

"I know at home, if anything went wrong, my club was there, and I honestly thought that would never be anywhere else.

"I've played in loads of other teams in different sports (she has also played rugby union and soccer) where that bond hasn't been there, but the minute I walked in the door here, I felt the family. It probably comes down to what the club has done and what Al (McConnell) has built.

"It could be (club CEO) Dave Matthews who says hello or (AFL general manager of football) Wayne Campbell or (AFL forward) Toby Greene, and I didn't know any of these people last year, but everyone has huge respect for everyone.

"The minute you swipe in here, you feel like you're at home."

Irishwoman Cora Staunton made an impact in her first AFLW season