GWS Giants vs ‘smug’ Swans — How the Sydney Derby became one of the AFL’s top rivalries

GWS Giants vs ‘smug’ Swans — How the Sydney Derby became one of the AFL’s top rivalries
  • PublishedMay 1, 2024

A discussion around some of the AFL’s best rivalries immediately focuses on contests between clubs that have spanned generations.

Countless spiteful matches over the past 50 years between the likes of Carlton, Collingwood, Richmond and Essendon have resulted in bitter feelings between clubs that sometimes even splits families apart on game day.

More recently, we’ve had Hawthorn and Geelong become one of the league’s great rivalries due to a string of epic clashes in the 2010s. 

Interstate rivalries are also right up there, with Adelaide and Port Adelaide having genuine bad blood, while the Western Derby has seen some of the most violent brawls take place between West Coast and Fremantle players. 

Now, it is the AFL’s youngest interstate rivalry that is beginning to stand out as one that is must-watch football every time — the Sydney Derby between the Swans and Giants. 

This weekend’s AFL fixture features some of the best rivalries the game has to offer.

The South Australian Showdown will open proceedings and is followed by Collingwood and Carlton facing off.

The round will wrap up on Sunday night when the Lions and Suns face off in the QClash. 

Giants defender Sam Taylor hit out at the “smug” Swans this week in further proof that the ‘Battle of the Bridge’ might give Carlton-Collingwood a run for its money this weekend in terms of drama and intrigue.

“I do respect them. They’re a great team, they have great players and I respect how their players go about it, but there is a lot of dislike,” he said.

“Once we get on the field, we want to beat them, we want to smack them and come home with the win.

“They’re young, they’re firing, they’re a bit smug; it comes from a bit of that as well.

“They’re chirpy on the field. It’s fun to play against them when a team’s chirpy, up and about, and winning games.

“It’s exciting and I can’t wait to play them.”

Ahead of the 27th Sydney Derby this weekend, here’s a look at all the moments that have fuelled the animosity between Sydney and GWS.

A Buddy brilliant heist from the Swans

The Swans dominated the early years of the rivalry with their new cross-town rivals, winning the first four contests between the two teams in 2012 and 2013. 

While the Giants showed early progress towards being competitive sooner than the AFL’s other expansion team, the Gold Coast Suns, they were still miles off the Swans, who were premiers in 2012. 

Sydney took the first four match-ups with the Giants by an average of 79 points, with the 129-point win over the Giants in Round 16, 2013, still the record winning margin between the two sides.

But the Giants were about to get the greatest leveller in the game: Lance Franklin … or so they thought. 

Lance Franklin and John Longmire pose with a Sydney jumper
Lance Franklin stunned the Giants and the rest of the AFL world by signing a nine-year deal with the Swans in the summer of 2013.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

The entire league knew the out-of-contract Franklin was more than likely to leave Hawthorn after the 2013 season, even after the Hawks claimed their second premiership in five years.

It was somewhat of an open secret that Franklin would be lured by the Giants on a lucrative deal in a bid to help the growth of the game in New South Wales.

The football world was turned upside down on October 1, 2013, when the Giants announced they had withdrawn a six-year deal worth $1.2 million a year tabled to Franklin on the belief that he was set to sign with the Swans.

Later that day, Swans CEO Andrew Ireland confirmed that Franklin had been offered a nine-year, $10 million deal to join Sydney, with the two sides working on a deal after Franklin’s management had approached the Swans after Sydney had beaten Hawthorn in the 2012 grand final. 

Franklin saw out the remainder of his stellar career in Swans colours, playing 172 games and kicking 486 goals for the club before retiring at the end of 2023.

Giants pay the price as AFL scraps COLA

The ramifications of Sydney, one of the AFL’s genuine premiership contenders, signing Franklin, the best available free agent, were widespread. 

At the time, both Sydney clubs had a 9.8 per cent cost of living allowance (COLA), which they were allowed to use to pay players a little extra due to the rising cost of living in the city.

However, after the Swans signed Franklin and teammate Kurt Tippett on lucrative deals in consecutive years, rival clubs were outraged and the AFL scrapped the allowance in 2014. 

It was something the Giants saw coming.

Tippett flies in Footy Park return
The Swans’ signings of Kurt Tippett and Franklin in consecutive summers led to the AFL scrapping their cost of living allowance.

“We strongly support the 9.8 per cent cost of living allowance for the Sydney clubs as there is no doubt that the cost of living in Sydney is significantly higher,” then-Giants chairman Tony Shepherd said immediately after Franklin’s move to the Swans was made official in 2013.

“We would be extremely disappointed if recent deals offered by the Swans jeopardise the future of COLA and I have personally communicated this to departing Swans chairman Richard Colless.”

In the same statement, the Giants boss hit out at what he deemed to be an irresponsible offer from the Swans to Franklin.

“As the AFL noted, a nine-year contract for a 26-year-old player is an extraordinary risk and one we would never entertain,” he said.

“To do so would be to risk our list management strategy for the sake of one individual and we were simply not prepared to do that.

“It would have put intolerable pressure on our salary cap and jeopardised the culture we are trying to build at our club.”

Sparks fly immediately in first ever Buddy Derby

The Swans and Giants did not have to wait long to face each other after Franklin’s move to the Harbour City, with the two sides pitted against each other in Round 1 the following season. 

With Franklin’s defection to the Swans no doubt a motivating factor, the Giants overran their more fancied opponents in the second half to claim a historic 32-point win over Sydney, their first ever against their rivals.

Franklin found himself in a scuffle in the opening minutes and kicked his first goal in Swans colours in the first quarter, but was held to just seven disposals and four marks in the loss. 

Lining up in the Giants’ forward line that afternoon was a 20-year-old Jeremy Cameron, who kicked four goals in his side’s win. 

Ironically, it was a man who was forced to leave Sydney as a result of Franklin’s arrival, Giants ruckman Shane Mumford, who took home the three Brownlow votes on the day.

Franklin and the Swans got their revenge after the upset result, winning the next four contests against the Giants.

Up until that point, the Sydney Derby ledger read 8-1 the Swans’ way, but the tide was about to take a wicked turn.

A groundbreaking finals clash sparks fireworks

By the time the 2016 finals came around, the Giants had well and truly graduated from easybeats to genuine contenders. 

GWS cruised into the finals after finishing fourth courtesy of a 9-2 run to finish the home and away season, a run that included a convincing 42-point win over Sydney in Round 12 at home. 

The Swans also enjoyed a strong season, finishing as minor premiers, setting up a mouth-watering qualifying final clash against the Giants. 

As is customary for many big Swans finals, the match was moved from the SCG to Stadium Australia and it turned out to be a blockbuster. 

After five seasons in the AFL, the Giants had found an excellent blend of youth and experience on their list with youngsters like Cameron, Stephen Coniglio, Josh Kelly and Toby Greene flanked by seasoned veterans who had played in premierships like Heath Shaw and Steve Johnson. 

Johnson and Shaw were amped up from the first bounce and set the tone for a suddenly aggressive Giants side that were not the slightest bit overawed by playing in their first final. 

A fiery first quarter saw Swans stars Josh Kennedy and Kurt Tippet shaken up after copping heavy blows, while Franklin and Johnson found themselves in the middle of a heated scuffle at quarter-time. 

After a tightly-contested first half saw GWS holding a two-point lead at the main break, the Giants kicked seven goals to two in the second half to run out 36-point winners. 

Unfortunately for the Giants, they were stunned by the eventual premiers in a home preliminary final two weeks later. After knocking off the Giants, the Bulldogs completed one of the most unlikely premiership wins in recent history by toppling the Swans in the grand final. 

While the Giants have since made a grand final, there is a view in AFL circles that 2016 was the club’s best chance at a premiership.

The current state of the rivalry

Due to the lop-sided start of the rivalry, the Swans still hold a 16-10 lead on the Giants, but the gap between the two clubs has been virtually non-existent in recent years. 

The last 10 contests between Sydney and GWS have yielded five wins for either side. You have to go back to 2015 to find a season where one team swept the season series. It has become a genuine 50-50 contest. 

While Sydney has more often been the team with greater experience, the Giants have found a way to win the matches that count the most — they hold a 3-0 lead over the Swans in finals matches after beating the Swans by 49 points in a 2018 elimination final and then by one point in a 2021 elimination final. 

Despite Taylor’s jab at his side, Swans coach John Longmire has so far refused to get into a verbal slinging match.

Sam Taylor reaches for the ball while surrounded by three Swans players
Giants defender Sam Taylor did not mince his words when talking about the Swans earlier this week.(AAP: Brendon Thorne)

“I wasn’t so much focused on (Taylor’s) comments. I did read them, but I’ve been a bit more focused on Toby Greene, Stephen Coniglio and Sam Taylor coming back in the team,” the Swans coach said on Tuesday.

“That’s where my energies have been directed, because this is a team that last week defeated last year’s grand finalist (the Brisbane Lions) by nine goals — and had those three guys out.

“I’ve been looking at their team and those three — if they’re fit, you’d imagine (they) come straight back in — and what that looks like in the team sense and how good they’re playing. They’re playing super footy.”

According to former Swans coach Paul Roos, it is steeped in the club’s culture to not get into a public war of words.

“I think that goes way back,” he told the ABC’s AFL Daily podcast.

Isaac Heeney pumps his fist to celebrate a goal
Swans star Isaac Heeney is likely to have a big say in this week’s Sydney Derby after a blistering start to the 2024 season

“I can only talk to when I started as a player (at Sydney) under Rodney Eade … we were trying to fit into a rugby league and rugby union town, and we were always really respectful of where we sat, respectful of the other codes.

“I think that’s just a spill-over from that generation that taught us that we were going to be really respectful of everyone and we were going to be really competitive.

“When I was coaching we didn’t generally buy into any of the garbage that was spoken, and John Longmire is the same now.

“The game is played on the field and that’s where the rivalry has really lifted, to be honest.

“I don’t care what’s said off the field, but you’ve got to be able to back it up.

“The rivalry has grown because both teams are now really, really good teams, and that’s what I’m excited about.”

Both teams come into this weekend’s clash boasting 6-1 records, with the Swans in second ahead of the third-placed Giants on percentage. 

If the season finished now, both teams would be a red-hot chance of facing each other in the grand final. 

If that happens later this year, then the ‘Battle of the Bridge’ will have truly arrived as one of the AFL’s great rivalries.


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