Womens.afl spent three days with Greater Western Sydney's AFLW side two weeks before the start of the season. The resulting four-part series, One Giant Family, explores what makes this AFLW side tick, how it attracts and maintains talent, and the role of coach Alan McConnell as ringmaster.
HEADING into season three of the AFL Women's competition, we've seen the make-up of teams change significantly from season to season. But Greater Western Sydney appears to have a centre-square combination that could make an impact for the next 10 years.
Ruck Erin McKinnon, who already has AFLW All Australian honours under her belt at just 20, taps it down to hard-bodied midfielder Alyce Parker, who is just 18 but already adept at the 'don't argue' and clearing kick across her body.
The pair rose through the junior ranks of NSW/ACT football together over the past four years, first playing in tandem at a schoolgirls' under-16 tournament in Sydney in 2014.
Although Parker might currently have a few players ahead of her in the Giants' pecking order (including Courtney Gum, Alicia Eva and Jess Dal Pos), she shapes as an excellent long-term prospect for the club.
The duo are living together in an apartment just a seven-minute walk from the club's training base at the WestConnex Centre at the Olympic Park precinct.
"I was extremely lucky in juniors and at state level playing with Erin, who was so dominant," Parker said.
"Every year I played with her, not to pump up her tyres, she helped me develop. We would get so much of the ball, because we knew if 'Ez' was in the ruck, she'd win 80 per cent of the time."
McKinnon is excited by the prospect of bringing that bond to AFLW grounds in 2019.
"We had a very good connection. I knew where she was running, and I was able to tap it to her. With her contested body work, she'd use her big left foot to snap it into the forward line," McKinnon said.
"We have a bit of a joke going that she's the reason I got three (under-18) All Australian nominations," Parker said, not entirely joking.
Parker grew up on a family farm (the Parkers run sheep and grow canola) in Holbrook, five hours south-west of Sydney.
A highly talented junior athlete, at one point in time Parker was doing seven sports: swimming, tennis, netball, cricket, football, soccer and athletics.
Aside from football, she was most successful at swimming, competing for NSW as a sprint freestyler.
Swimming has helped her physical strength in football; the girl who grew up a Richmond fan has a Dustin Martin-esque 'don't argue'. She also chose the No.3 guernsey at the Giants as a nod to former Tiger and current Giant Brett Deledio (who, coincidentally, is now a Giants AFLW development coach).
Parker's move to the city has been a big one, but McKinnon has helped make the transition easier.
"It worked quite well. We're both pretty new to the whole 'adulting' thing, so we're learning on the go. Gail (Wykes, welfare manager) has been running some cooking classes for us," McKinnon said.
"We're doing really well so far … haven't killed each other or burnt the house down yet," McKinnon said.
They did, however, kill the family goldfish Curtis, despite their best "co-parenting" efforts.
"(Forward) Tait Mackrill gave me Curtis as a 'Secret Santa' present just before we left for the Christmas break. It couldn't have been a more perfect choice," Parker said.
"He had a good life, but unfortunately he died just before training one Saturday.
"People were putting bets on (about how long he'd live), and we outlasted all the bets. Don't think we'll be getting a dog anytime soon though," McKinnon chimed in.
"That was our test and we failed."
Parker had trained with the Giants as a junior as part of the NSW/ACT talent pathway program (and played for them in last year's Winter Series), but was naturally hesitant coming in as an officially listed player.
"At the first session we (Parker and her fellow draftees) were the newbies, but we weren't treated like that. We were just part of the team," she said.
"It's that inclusive nature the girls have. I'm the only 18-year-old here, but you feel part of the family straight away."
McKinnon is entering her third year at the club and has sensed a change in the air.
"That first season, we were just happy to be part of it and be drafted. It was just a dream.
"Coming into the second season with Al (coach Alan McConnell), we knew we could go one better. We didn't know how far that would be, and we surprised ourselves," McKinnon said.
"At the same time, we were extremely disappointed because we felt we could have gone all the way had we won that last game against Brisbane (in round seven, a 40-point thumping).
"We felt we'd let down ourselves, Al and the club. This year, we're determined to go all the way. We think we have what it takes, but we have to make sure we stand up to the pressure."
Part of the furniture
Maddy Collier was the first local player to be selected by the Giants when she was signed as a priority pick in late 2016.
Growing up in Nowra, south of Wollongong, Collier now lives in Sydney. She works two days a week as a receptionist at the club, does a few shifts flipping burgers at a Grill'd restaurant and studies nutrition online.
On this particular Tuesday, Collier was stationed at the reception desk in a relatively small room that doubles as a merchandise store, the walls covered in decals of club captains Phil Davis, Callan Ward and Amanda Farrugia.
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The artwork is another example of the integration of all the club's teams. The AFLW fixture has even been placed on the back of the toilet cubicle doors.
Next to Collier sits coach Alan McConnell. In between dealing with deliveries, people coming in for meetings, answering the phone and greeting fans who are browsing merchandise, the pair are going over video footage from a training session the night before.
After spending the past two seasons as a midfielder, the conscientious Collier is making the transition to half-forward. She's taking notes in a small book while McConnell critiques the vision, showing her positioning and decision-making in a match-simulation drill.
"That parcel is for (AFL player) Tim Taranto? OK, just leave it there, please," Collier says.
"Now," she says, turning back to McConnell: "I should have gone A2 (a term refencing the second attacking player in the chain, who may receive the ball) there instead of tackling?"
Only the bruises on her shoulder from training might give people from outside the club an indication they are talking to a not-so-conventional receptionist.
"It's interesting, I never really realised how much it takes to win a premiership," Collier said later.
"It's not just the players. There are so many people who work long, long hours. The admin side of the club is so invested as well.
"It hit me when it was (the AFL) preliminary final in 2017 and we were a chance to make the Grand Final," she said.
"Everyone was so wrecked, but everyone was putting in everything. It's pretty cool to be part of that. Everyone here has the same goals."
It's hard to walk through the club – part of which was a former golf driving range (now the oval) – without noticing the orange that has become synonymous with the club.
It's everywhere. Carpet tiles in a meeting room are grey with the occasional orange stripe; parts of walls have orange blocks of colour, and the locker doors are orange. Even a quote from the AFL team's first coach, Kevin Sheedy – "Never let a club or player dominate you" – is printed in orange above the strapping tables.
Even the administrative part of the building has orange wall decals featuring players. It all adds up to make the club feel an interconnected place.
When asked about it, Collier has a wry smile.
"It's such a bright colour. You have to embrace the orange."