IN A cleverly executed diversion this week, Kevin Sheedy thrust a rear vision mirror in the face of footballer-turned-football critic Cameron Mooney in a bid to shed a more positive light on the struggling code-hopper Israel Folau and his disappointing rookie AFL season.
Mooney was reminded just how tough it was for his teenaged self back in those early days at North Melbourne before he became the ”big hairy Cat”. On paper, his early efforts flattered Folau. Mooney took it well and with good humour and for a few football moments the mammoth task facing Folau and his fledgling football club was forgotten.
The Greater Western Sydney coach’s tactic was classic Sheedy. He has done everything expected of him in his return to the big show this season and in the coming days or maybe weeks will be rewarded with a new senior coaching contract.
Selling the Giants was always going to prove the AFL’s toughest ongoing task, which is why Sheedy was recruited. There is a strong substance to the four-time premiership coach, but sometimes it is hard to find beneath the spin and, where Folau is concerned, the search is proving even more elusive. Certainly in terms of his credentials as an Australian rules footballer.
From the outset, Folau’s role was more about symbolism than reality and the reason he earns the same million-dollar wage as Chris Judd escapes no one.
That’s the nature of manufactured football clubs. Commercial decisions that seem to betray pure football are made without the slightest raising of an eyebrow and particularly so in Sydney where, according to the AFL and the Giants, the market dictates it.
But it takes years to build a brand and, interestingly, the Swans have refused to play that game. Their president, Richard Colless, made it clear when the two clubs met mid-season that his club would talk of a cross-city rivalry when one truly existed. The Giants were unimpressed.
It seems beyond doubt when you examine the promise of its brilliant young midfielders and key forwards, Jeremy Cameron and Jonathon Patton, that the rivalry will have arrived come the final year of the current AFL broadcast agreement, maybe sooner. But right now the club has major issues to review and Folau reflects them. Like the Gold Coast before them, the Giants have acknowledged they need to increase player development resources.
The player welfare work carried out behind the scenes by Craig Lambert and his wife, Melissa, has been remarkable but well-placed sources have GWS comfortably in the bottom four of the AFL where the ratio of development coach to player is concerned. Not ideal when the majority of your list is under 21.
The question of Folau’s football education – both quality and quantity – is a matter of major concern given his significance to the club and the code.
In what seemed another piece of marketing spin earlier this season, AFL great Dermott Brereton was recruited to work one-on-one with the 23-year-old former Broncos and Storm player whom NRL experts predict will end up at Canterbury or Parramatta before too long.
It has been a popular if cynical view that Brereton has enjoyed only a handful of sessions with Folau when the club proclaimed that the work would take place weekly. In fact, according to Brereton this week, he has worked with the Giants and Folau once a fortnight.
The club pointed out, too, that Peter Dean, who acts as club runner and something of an on-field mentor during games for Folau, also works with him weekly, quite apart from the intensive attention he receives from Mark Williams and forward coach Stewart Edge.
”I’m aware it’s not without its element of publicity appeal,” was Brereton’s honest assessment of his much-heralded first session with Folau, whose struggles last week led to him being lambasted on the AFL website and likened by Mooney to a statue watching seagulls fly past.
”But the origins of the job came from ‘Gubby’ [Graeme] Allan, who had me working with Jonathan Brown in the early days of his career, and Sav Rocca before that. But I’m not silly enough to say it wasn’t about marketing as well.
”I’m not going to say he’s a champion or he will be one, because he won’t. If you hold his performances and potential up to the money he receives then, no, he doesn’t justify it.
”But I do believe Israel has unique physical talents and a build that, if correctly harnessed and pushed in the right way, will make him a very valuable competitor in a team at the sharp end of the ladder.”
Brereton believed Folau sometimes hedged his bets playing forward, refusing to run flat out towards a contest, fearing a misjudgment could cost his team too heavily. He said he was trying to encourage him to take more risks.
The former champion Hawk hinted at Folau’s emotional make-up, which has provoked some doubts in the Giants camp. There is a view at the club that he may not possess the hunger and desire required to rebuild his football knowledge and improve his fitness to the point of succeeding in the AFL.
”He’s a very proud athlete,” said Brereton, ”but he’s not the type who strikes me as being completely shattered if he did finish up back in the NRL and not making a true success of this in the way someone like Wayne Carey would be if he had been recruited into rugby league.”
The coaching set-up at GWS remains intriguing. Sheedy is a glass half-full man and seems to have taken his sales skills to a new level at a club that has some work to do to become a truly united group. Williams, his deputy, has handled the bulk of traditional senior coaching duties and has struggled with some of his off-field relationships because of his tendency to see his glass as half-empty.
As good a teacher as Williams is, he has proved a negative figure at the club at times this season. His contract includes scope for a seamless succession plan, but that is far from a fait accompli. The job remains Williams’ to lose and he has some work to do to reclaim his role as Sheedy’s natural successor.
The Giants say they won’t change much where their coaching structure is concerned next year. That is, with the obvious exceptions of James McDonald, Luke Power and, potentially, Dean Brogan becoming full-time assistants. Surely they will also ramp up their investment in development.
It’s all very well launching a football revolution with some of the game’s most experienced and clever campaigners at the helm but the goal posts continue to change.
This week that change was seismic with the NRL becoming a much bigger player, leading one of the country’s most senior media bosses to declare war right back at the AFL and its invasion of southern Queensland and western Sydney.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.