AFTER a long and amiable conversation, you rise from the restaurant table. Suddenly, Kevin Sheedy takes your hand in a firm grip, fixes you with a steely glare and demands, rather than asks: “So you think we are going to fail?”
And, just like that, Sheedy has you where he wants you. Like a batsman who had been pushing forward comfortably, you are suddenly on the back foot trying to fend off a rearing delivery. Surprised, reactive, disarmed.
At the hotel in Canberra where the Giants are staying before their final NAB Cup match, you have asked the veteran coach, in a dozen different ways, why this mad enterprise will succeed. How a foreign game will gain even a toehold in rugby league heartland. How even he, the great AFL salesman, can convince a city that loves winners to adopt a team that will almost certainly get pummelled most weeks — starting tonight at ANZ Stadium against the Swans.
Yet, after filling your notebook with the customary mixture of homespun philosophy and potted history, Sheedy's old-school aggression has made a brief appearance. Forget about why GWS will succeed. Sheedy challenges you to tell him why it will not.
This is why Sheedy was plucked from semi-retirement as the AFL's international ambassador to head a lavish, far-fetched enterprise. Like few others, the 64-year-old can stop you in your tracks and make you second-guess yourself. And, by the time you've regained your senses, he has probably slipped a Giants ticket in your top pocket.
“I think the most important word is 'hello',” says Sheedy of his ability to talk about his game with anyone in Sydney from corporate heavyweights to the first bloke he sees in a pub. “If you are genuine they will speak to you. If you are not? They will know.”
Of course, once Sheedy's verbal spell is broken, there remains a cold reality for the Giants — starting tonight. If GWS is thrashed, those who underestimate the AFL's resolve, the size of its war chest, will laugh and mock. For the league diehards and sceptics, a belting will provide the first evidence the Giants are destined to fail. Even for the true believers, it will demonstrate the difficulty of selling a long-term vision to a public that, for a time, will see only ritual defeat.
Typically, Sheedy's response to this unusual challenge goes via the cape. To the new AFL clubrooms he recently opened in Bathurst. To the Concord Cats, who boast record junior participation this season. To some future time, when he expects the Giants' captain to hail from Campbelltown and the vice-captain from Parramatta. And, by the time Sheedy's mind is back at the table, you have to check your pocket to see if he's slipped in another ticket.
But if Sheedy's vision can seem dreamy and romantic, he does not underestimate the challenge. He listens intently when you talk about the regeneration of the NRL. “I just work and watch and listen,” he says of his time spent familiarising himself with the ways, and the people, of Sydney.
After Sheedy caused ripples in Sydney by saying that he had never heard of Parramatta NRL star Nathan Hindmarsh, he went to a game at Parramatta Stadium. “I like the game because I think it's tough, hard-hitting. When you go along and see [Darren] Lockyer, he's just a fantastic player. He could have played AFL like that. You look at people in other sports and say, 'wow, I wouldn't mind one of those. What about Muhammad Ali at centre half-back'? It just spreads your thinking.”
After two years of spruiking, Sheedy has made a name for himself in Sydney. Those who have never heard of the Giants' dynamic young midfielder Dom Tyson are accustomed to the coach's eccentric charm and wily nature. But, for all Sheedy's personal appeal, and the AFL's massive investment, it will be what happens when the potential converts clap eyes on the team that determines the Giants' success. Sheedy believes there must be a chemistry between the fans and his players.
“You choose a team, and a player, and you just get to like them,” he says. “As a kid, I don't know why I liked Richie Benaud, but I did. I just thought he had a calmness, he had a presence about him. I knew why I liked Herb Elliott. He had a killer instinct and he would beat the crap out of the others. He took no prisoners at all.”
What will the kids from the west like about his Giants? “We'll have a couple of real giants, big ruckmen,” he says. “You'll see a group of kids and you'll grow with them. Obviously [Israel] Folau has been an attraction because he is from NRL. He might drag some in. You go to the lolly shop and you want a liquorice strap, but all of a sudden you also want buddies, a freckle and you'll have a sherbet bomb. I think we'll have that for people.”
The initial GWS team is a mixed bag. Veterans such as James McDonald, Chad Cornes, Dean Brogan and Luke Power plucked from the scrapheap. These 30-plus players provide some backbone, but will also be disposed of when a talent-laden list reaches its prime, thus helping alleviate potential salary-cap problems.
More significantly, there is two years' worth of prime talent from across Australia. “Pretty good, yeah, pretty good,” says Sheedy of his budding stars. “Looking at players selected and pre-selected [in 2010], we had [Curtly] Hampton, [Adam] Treloar, [Dylan] Shiel, [Jeremy] Cameron last year, they would be first-round picks. Then we've got the batch from the last draft we haven't seen too much of. We'll get a fair indication about their dedication and whether they will fulfil their talent.”
There were glimmers of early promise throughout the pre-season. Narrow losses to Collingwood and the Western Bulldogs. Victory over the fellow trailblazer Gold Coast. Yet Sheedy is honest about the tough road ahead. Victory will be a goal, but the focus will be on “getting something out of every match”. “We might have a very good year and not win a game,” he says. “We might have very good quarter-by-quarter results but just not be able to hold onto it for 120 minutes. We'll measure that.”
Sheedy says he will not let his young team be beaten up physically during the establishment years. “We won't make them run the Melbourne Cup every week. Bart Cummings wouldn't do that to a two year-old.”
Assuming the heavy defeats pile up, how does the club maintain the morale of young players plucked from the football heartland and plonked in an AFL wasteland? Sheedy says it is all about keeping the eye on the prize. “You can win and win and never win a premiership,” he says. “Some of these clubs have had 30 or 40 years without winning a premiership. They are just going around in circles. We are trying to get to a goal, which is to win a premiership.”
If Sheedy is in Sydney to sell that dream, his coaching role is intriguing. There is a strong perception his main assistant, Port Adelaide premiership coach Mark Williams, is the “real coach”. However, while Sheedy acknowledges his role is 70-30 coaching and marketing, he insists the Giants have the same model being used at other clubs where experienced assistants are playing important roles.
Although his contract expires at the end of the season, Sheedy certainly gives no impression he will stand aside at the end of the first season. At 64, he looks fit and eager. On the table are the notes about the Giants' next two opponents he has studied in his room for the previous two hours.
“I don't want to live in a comfort zone,” he says. “If I ever retire, I'll retire in my 70s, or some time later.”
You ask how Sheedy thinks his contribution this season will be measured. “Common sense will give you the answer,” he says. “If we are very competitive on the field, and we market ourselves intelligently, this group will eventually make its way.”
A new rivalry
MOST expect the AFL's Sydney rivalry to be mercilessly one-sided — at least in the initial stages. Naturally, Kevin Sheedy disagrees.
The Greater Western Sydney coach draws from his amusing collection of historical analogies to provide some hope for his young team in tonight's debut against the impressive Swans. “The Americans thought they were going to spank the Vietnamese once,” says Sheedy. “But they didn't.”
The North Vietnamese triumph over the Americans was partly the consequence of an elaborate series of tunnels in which they hid from the enemy. However, unless the ANZ Stadium surface has deteriorated rapidly in the past few weeks, it remains uncertain how even the old war horse Sheedy and his experienced lieutenant Mark Williams could plan a similar ambush.
Particularly given the Swans will be eager to mark their territory. That the Giants have hogged the media spotlight during the off-season, at the cost of the Swans, has not gone unnoticed at the SCG. So Sheedy is well aware the Swans will be keen to put his newly unwrapped team back in its box.
“I think they will be,” says Sheedy, when asked if the Swans will be heavily motivated to humiliate his team. “But I don't think they are going to. We are not here to take a beating. We are not going to be a doormat.”
The way the relationship between GWS and the Swans develops is intriguing. There is mutual benefit for the clubs to co-operate in promotion and development, a relationship you would think mitigates against real acrimony. Yet, Sheedy insists, a fierce on-field rivalry will develop.
“There is no love between any club in any area in Melbourne,” he says. “Why should there be in Sydney? I will be looking to the Swans the way I used to look at Collingwood and Carlton. Why shouldn't I?”
Given some bookies have set tonight's line at 99.5 points, what does Sheedy think constitutes a par performance by his callow outfit? “A respectable result would be a kick either way,” he says.
What is a realistic result? “I don't know,” he concedes. “See how we go. I will be eager to see how we get up to play a side that has missed the finals maybe once in 10 years.”