New season, new game plan and still a lot of motivation to improve

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Thursday night’s match between Collingwood and Carlton marked the AFLW Season 7 opener. A few of us gathered at Cora’s apartment to watch it and take a look at two teams we would meet further down the track.

This AFLW season is historic as it is the first time that all 18 AFL clubs have now had an AFLW program competing in the competition. I remember watching the first round of last season with a knot in my stomach. What had I gotten myself into? Was it the madness that returned after a serious injury? I remember wanting there to be a few more weeks of pre-season because I didn’t feel ready to take the pitch yet. To be honest, I wasn’t totally sure of my role and I felt I still had so many areas to improve.

Many things have changed since then. There has been a new head coach appointed to the AFL and AFLW teams, there is a new game plan, there are new players, there is a new shirt. But above all, I am more confident in my abilities this season. I know exactly what my role is in the game plan, I know what my strengths are, I know what my limitations are. I’m much more comfortable with mistakes and I have 10 games under my belt now.

I watched Thursday night’s game with a little less nervousness and a lot more excitement. The knot in my stomach hasn’t fully undone but that’s a good thing. Nerves are a sign that you care about what you’re doing and a touch of doubt is key to keeping complacency at bay.

On Sunday we will face the Melbourne Western Bulldogs in the first round. It’s the start of 10 consecutive games in the main body of the season followed by four weeks of finals for those in the coveted top eight of the table. We go down on the Saturday before our 12:10 game at Icon Park the next day. We surprisingly faced them two weeks ago for the official practice match.

Let me take you back to last season where we faced the Bulldogs in Round 4. Their team had been hit early in the season by Covid and were just starting to come back to full strength. The week before that game, six members of our starting squad were hit with Covid and that meant we were going to the understaffed Lions den.

We had four rookies that day, whether they were ready or not. What happened was one of the Giants’ greatest displays of selflessness, belief and teamwork and we came away with a 21-point win. Of course, the talk after the game was that the Western Bulldogs weren’t going all out, so we caught them at a vulnerable moment. Many of us remembered that story when we took to the pitch to play them two weeks ago. It was a real chance for us to test our new game plan and build on the good pre-season we had.

With any new game plan, there are teething problems. We started badly but things started to fall into place for us in the third and fourth quarters. It came down to the last play of a game, a ‘Park the Bus’ type situation, and we won 51-50. It was a nice win, but the prevailing mood afterwards was to stay calm and not get carried away with a win in a practice match. This will not count for anything unless we can submit this form until the season opener.

Getting points on the board early is even more important as we face a fresh Sydney Derby in Round 3 against Swans. We faced them in an unofficial practice match three weeks ago at Tramway Oval, next to SCG. A large crowd came to see if there was a fire between the local teams and they were not disappointed. Tramway is a multi-purpose field with poor lights and a very short pitch, so the match was hard fought.

There were plenty of aching bodies when the final whistle sounded and we walked away with the spoils. The Sydney Derby is set to be played at the iconic Sydney Cricket Ground, which will be classy. A huge stadium with a huge history and there is already a lot of talk about it. Like any local home rivalry in club football, these matches can take on a life of their own and add a lot of spice to an early round game.

Therein lies the big test for the Giants. In previous years, they generally played well in the preseason, but didn’t always maintain that form in the regular season. It’s something Cam Bernasconi, our new head coach, and management have been instilling in us since the start of pre-season. The new game plan is to play without fear, but the structure put in place allows everyone to play to their strengths, which is what you want in any team environment.

It would be remiss of me to say that I didn’t miss Alan McConnell as a head coach. Alan gave me this opportunity in the first place, gave me and my family so much attention and friendship when we moved halfway around the world, and he invested so much time in making I do additional craft sessions to get up to speed. He was so encouraging and a wonderful motivator. But it’s a business. And the AFLW, just like the AFL, is about winning. It doesn’t matter if you’re a great trainer, if you’re not getting results, something has to change. A change was therefore made and Cam was appointed in place of Alan.

Luckily I had met Cam during my stay at the Albury hub when we first landed in January last year. He’s a really great guy with huge experience coaching the Giants academy. Being involved with young people means you have to be very concise and specific when giving directions and he brought those qualities to our organization. Cam was a great fit for the team because everyone is so clear about their role.

All this change happened at the end of last season and even before going home there was so much uncertainty in the air. There were a lot of honest conversations about underperformance, about team culture. There has been a lot of talk about player movement. Players were courted by expansion clubs for big numbers. There was no set start date for the next season and no indication of when the new ABC would be announced. So we had to go home, not knowing if we would come back.

Carthach and I had talked about the financial implications for our family and while we would have gladly gone to Australia the first year for nothing but the experience, we were now feeling the pinch of potentially three seasons of career breaks, work self-employed, having a mortgage at home and the high cost of living in Sydney.

If there was no change at the ABC, we were ready to call it quits and return to Ireland for good. The CBA turned out to be a long process, but when it was finally announced, it came with some favorable increases for the benefit of players. We thought it was worth going back.

Finances aside, there was even more motivation in me to improve as a player and that was really the deciding factor. I had taken a liking to the sport and I loved it.

I missed the first two weeks of pre-season due to family and work commitments, but when I landed in early July I had to start racing. Literally. I had a 1 mile time trial in the early days and had to grit my teeth the first few weeks to get through the heavy loading phase. While I was at home I was training with my club St Val’s and playing a share of league games but god it was like being hit by a whirlwind with pre-season three weeks shorter than the previous two seasons.

The S&C coaches were just building on the load we had already done earlier in the year, but the girls were in great shape and I had to try and catch up with the group. I felt that I had. TR, our S&C head coach, told me the other night that I was much stronger and in better shape than I was at the start of pre-season last year. I hadn’t given it too much thought but TR showed me the data to prove it. By God, they love their data, but I now appreciate it myself and the comfort you get from it. ‘Money in the Bank, Stackie’ as TR would say.

Experience is everything, but I definitely feel like I’m a lot more confident going into this campaign. Last year, I really felt that I was touching the unknown. Looking back now, I was probably having a really hard time with confidence. I played pretty well but I was too high and low in games. I felt I was improving over the season, but my big goal now is to look for consistency in all games.

I want my teammates and management to know very well what they are going to get from me every day I go on the pitch. If that means I’m a 7 out of 10 player every day, I’d much rather they know what they’re going to get than being a 9 one day and a 5 a week later.

Trust also expresses itself in many forms. I wouldn’t have any problem now calling out my teammates if I felt they weren’t doing their job well, whereas last year I would have been too scared to open my mouth. Part of that was because I wasn’t entirely sure what I was supposed to be doing in games all the time. I have a better understanding of the game, as well as greater clarity around my role. For a team like the Giants, who aren’t ranked near the top, the game plan has to be very simplistic.

And it is now. It’s all-in-one team attack and defense, which is similar to what I would have been used to back home. Last year we played more in separate lines which I found harder to adapt to, whereas now our setup is more like what any GAA manager at home would preach as your first line of defense is your deepest attacker.

Shortly after meeting Cam, he pulled me aside and asked me directly about my strengths. “What are your weapons?” I answered “run and carry”. He was very firm in his response. “Perfect, let’s use them.” He has now given me a goal to achieve in each game. “If you bring your strengths,” Cam said, “you’ll play better for me.”

It’s exciting, but there’s also pressure after two disappointing seasons, especially last year when we never really took off. A few key injuries derailed us last year and we have already faced challenges again. Despite these setbacks, the group are really keen to make a statement by scoring more goals and being harder to beat. We just want to go there. All out. No regrets. Without fear.

Bring the doggies. I can not wait.

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