Fall guy … Carlton's Bryce Gibbs tackles GWS's Callan Ward at Etihad Stadium yesterday. The Giants competed well but flagged in the fourth quarter. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
For Greater Western Sydney, this was supposed to be a knee-knocking moment. Their first match in Melbourne against the premiership favourites Carlton. Thrown to the wolves in the lair of one of the competition's true giants.
When the Swans play in Melbourne, there is a sea of red and white in the crowd created by the old South Melbourne faithful. For the Giants, there was only a puddle of orange at the Coventry end, supplemented by the family and friends of the many players returning to their native Victoria.
The team sheet betrayed the Giants' expectations. Young forward Jeremy Cameron and veteran defender Chad Cornes were left out, presumably rested for the unofficial Expansion Cup against Gold Coast in Canberra next Sunday.
Riding high ... after losing in his 1st, 50th and 100th games for Carlton, Eddie Betts makes it a winning 150th. Photo: Getty Images
There had been some pre-game controversy surrounding Carlton's decision to rest their stars Chris Judd, Jarrad Waite and Matthew Kreuzer (later reinstated when his replacement Matthew Warnock was injured on the training track); interpreted by some as a sign of disrespect for lowly opposition. The Giants had reversed the process, resting players because Carlton were too good.
Given that scenario, Carlton's 19-0 lead after 15 minutes was the second-least surprising thing you expected to see on the scoreboard. The least surprising was close-ups of Megan Gale. The model's boyfriend, Shaun Hampson, plays for Carlton. Although, so well did Hampson perform, he might imagine the day when someone refers to Gale as his girlfriend.
Yet the scoreboard did not reflect the unexpectedly tight contest taking place. Without Judd's relentless work at the stoppages, Carlton's remaining midfielders seemed to assume the stadium's airconditioning ducts would blow the ball their way. At the same time, the Giants' combination of callow draftees, high-priced recruits and recycled veterans was belting in, beating the Blues for clearances and contested possession.
The concept of ''winning'' quarters or halves, invented to mitigate the ritual slaughter of the AFL's new franchises, seems spurious. However, that the Giants trailed by just 17 points late in the third quarter - less than they had in the first - was a victory of sorts.
Further accolades for the Giants were that some nervous Carlton fans jeered their team at half-time, and that concerned Blues' coach Brett Ratten blasted his players in the sheds. ''I warned them about it, I told them about it,'' Ratten said when asked if his team had taken the Giants as lightly as the coaches seemed to have done at the selection table.
But it would be churlish to ascribe the Giants' performance entirely to the Blues' lethargy. James McDonald, discarded by Melbourne 18 months ago, was tireless in the midfield. Defender Adam Kennedy kept the Blues' elusive small forward Eddie Betts on a leash. Toby Greene, Stephen Coniglio and Dylan Shiel were others whose careers will be followed respectfully and, you suspect, a touch nervously by those who saw them in the heartland for the first time.
Inevitably, the floodgates opened in the final quarter and the margin blew out from 25 points to 67. Partly the result of Carlton's improved intensity, partly the Giants' tiring young bodies and high rate of attrition.
Ruckman Dean Brogan was lost in the first half to an arm injury. Worse still, forward Setanta O'hAilpin suffered a serious knee injury, having kicked two goals on debut against his former club. The initial diagnosis was a strained anterior cruciate ligament, which would sideline the Irishman for the rest of the season.
On the bright side, the loss of veterans such as Brogan, and soldiers of fortune like O'hAilpin, only brings GWS closer to the day upon which, coach Kevin Sheedy says, GWS will dispense with their experienced recruits and play a team comprised solely of stellar recruits and prized draft picks.
That will not be next week. The chance to beat a Gold Coast team without superstar Gary Ablett, defender Nathan Bock and experienced midfielder Michael Rischitelli is too tempting for that.
Meanwhile, the Carlton fans who chewed fingernails yesterday learnt something about the new team. There will come a time when the Giants are able to play the ''tough, strong, relentless'' football Sheedy believes is the hallmark of an AFL team, for more than just a quarter or two. Then, the Giants will enter the game's heartland as more than just work-experience boys.