GREATER Western Sydney coach Alan McConnell has been handed an early Christmas gift, with star forward Cora Staunton set to make a stunning return from a broken leg and be ready to start the NAB AFL Women's season in round one next year.
Staunton had surgery in May to repair breaks of the tibia and fibula bones in her right leg after she was tackled awkwardly while playing in the AFL Sydney competition.
The serious injury not only left question marks about her availability for the 2020 AFLW season, but left many thinking her storied sporting career might be over.
A legend of Gaelic football in her native Ireland, Staunton has been impressive for the Giants in two AFLW seasons playing as a forward and has been just as influential with her leadership off the field.
McConnell told womens.afl that much to his delight Staunton only has a small amount of rehabilitation work to do and will be ready for the club's trial games early next year.
He said the veteran was determined to prove the doubters wrong when they questioned her ability to get back.
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"I dare you to say that to her, she's in really good shape," he said with a laugh.
"There's a few demons to exorcise in terms of getting out onto the track and doing it, but physically she's way ahead of what anybody had expected.
"I crossed all my fingers and toes and I knew that she'd leave no stone unturned, but she was probably doing six hours of rehab, six days a week, from the day she got out of hospital.
"That part of it I never had any doubts about.
"She even said to me, 'You doubted me', but I told her I was just being realistic.
I've seen this kind of injury before and you're playing Russian roulette with the rest of your career
"She's a great role model for the rest of our team, as to what it takes to be a special athlete.
"The good thing is that because she did the rehab here in Australia, and this year all of our girls stayed around over winter, so they got to see what makes her the champion that she is."
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The likelihood of Staunton taking her spot in the season opener against Gold Coast is a massive boost for the Giants, who managed just two wins last year, after playing in the 2018 finals.
Part of the team's struggles revolved around their lack of scoring.
McConnell said having a fit Staunton inside 50, alongside fellow Irish standout Yvonne Bonner, will make the Giants more dangerous forward of centre in 2020.
He also expects to get more impact from Jacinda Barclay, the returning Aimee Schmidt (dislocated elbow) and said the club's top draft pick Maggie Gorham could also be handy.
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"Schmidt broke her arm five minutes into round one on the back of a really, really good pre-season, and Jacinda had an interrupted preparation because of work, so there was a lot of disruption to our forward line," he said.
"I've said it every year, we want to kick more goals, it's part of what most excites you about the game.
"Maggie Gorham will play a role, I think she's a natural forward.
"There's no doubt she's going to play for a long time, but whether she's ready for round one, I think it's too early to tell."