While co-captains as a concept has been criticised, with many believing in the old tradition of one, standout captain and his vice captains following him, one club has managed to get the best out of their co-captains: GWS.
Phil Davis and Callan Ward have impacted the AFL’s youngest club in few ways that many could imagine. The two were inaugural co-captains of the club alongside Luke Power in 2012, but once Power retired at the end of that season, the mantle fell on Ward and Davis to lead the club through their formative years – and have they ever.
Originally drafted by the Western Bulldogs in 2007, Ward enjoyed four fruitful seasons in the West of Melbourne, cementing himself as hard-nosed ball winner, always willing to put his body on the line and do whatever it took to get a win. With the Bulldogs, Ward nabbed a Rising Star nomination in 2009 and took part in the Preliminary Finals of 2009 and 2010, where the Doggies came so close to a Grand Final birth.
Following a 2011 season which saw Ward have what was his best season in Bulldogs colours, his team only finished 10th on the ladder and with key retirees in the previous year, it was evident that a rebuild was imminent. Thus, Ward put his hand up to commit to the AFL’s latest expansion club: the GWS Giants.
From the outset he took on the co-captaincy of the club and led by example, upping his play to new heights for his new club as he was given the keys to the car to go hard for the team. While he enjoyed his best season yet, winning a spot in the ’22 under 22′ side and the club’s first ever Best and Fairest, the Giants won only two matches all season and won the wooden spoon. Still, the play of their young captain on top of other young stars showed the future was bright in Western Sydney.
Following another disappointing year for the Giants in 2013, but another good year for Ward, the club slowly climbed up the ladder in 2014 and 2015, as the club under Ward’s leadership began to show the AFL that they were coming, and everything that was being built was coming to fruition.
In 2016, Ward arguably had his best year yet. While he kept similar statistics to his previous seasons, he added goals to his game, kicking a career high of sixteen. Most importantly, the Giants finished 4th, and stormed their way into a preliminary final. The only thing that stopped them from providing us with a Sydney Derby in the Grand Final was Ward’s former team, the Bulldogs, who finished their rebuild and miraculously charged at the flag. In what was one of the greatest and most hotly contested finals of all time, Ward started strongly for his club, before copping a knee to the head in the second quarter and being concussed as a result. The Giants fought on bravely, but without their inspirational leader they couldn’t get over the line. It was an example of Ward’s courage that gave the Giants hope, and allowed them to use this season as a springboard for further cracks at the ultimate prize. Though Ward went on to witness his former club win a flag, he kept soldiering on in his efforts to see GWS win their first flag, whatever the cost.
At the start of 2019, following a disappointing semi-final defeat to Collingwood in the previous year, the Giants and Ward looked to bounce back strong and have another crack at the flag. Unfortunately for Ward, he suffered a knee injury during the pre-season and missed the first few matches of the year, returning to face Geelong in Round 4. Unfortunately still for Ward, five minutes into this match, he tore his ACL, ruling him out for the remainder of the year.
The Giants fought on and won the match, exemplifying the style and grit that has since defined their season thus far: tough and gritty, no longer solely relying on pretty football, but smash-mouth, brave football that their co-captain has exemplified in his time there. Though Ward could’ve felt sorry for himself following his knee injury, he stood by Leon Cameron’s side all season, assisting him in coaching the team and providing a mentoring figure to the players, particularly to a team littered with young stars, all growing as players to get to the next level. Now that GWS have defied the odds to make it to their first ever Grand Final, they have Ward to thank for being the example that they needed.
As instrumental as Ward is for the Giants, Phil Davis’ efforts cannot be understated. With Ward gone for practically the entire season, it has been up to Davis to carry the load of leadership and get his team over the line, pushing them as far as humanly possible.
Having already established himself as one of the better key defenders in the competition, Davis took his game to a new level as the leader of the backline and the team, proving to be as imperious as ever. Though he saw a lot of players around him suffer from injuries, with stars like Josh Kelly, Stephen Coniglio, Lachie Whitfield and Toby Greene all miss time throughout the season, Davis didn’t let it deter him or his club, as they weathered the storm to finish 6th and secure a chance at a flag.
It was in the finals where Davis has surely cemented his legend at the club. In the Elimination Final against the Bulldogs, Davis led a defence that did not let anything get past them, holding the then in-form Bulldogs to a paltry score of 8.7. Against the Lions the next week, in a hard fought classic, Davis and the Giants held on strong, with the captain and his defence turning it up in particular in the 4th Quarter. Davis hismself had 12 Intercept Possessions for the match, as everything the Lions threw at him and his defenders was sent back – no one could score on GWS.
Against Collingwood a week later, Davis had a small effect on the match – it was not one of his best performances per se. That had nothing to do with him, however. In the warm-up, Davis dislocated his finger before popping it back in pre-match. In the first quarter he limped off with a calf injury, and in the second quarter he damaged his shoulder during a tackle. Yet, he wasn’t about to lie down, not when his team needed him the most. Whitfield was already out with appendicitis. Coniglio was out with a knee injury. Greene was suspended. And Ward was among the coaches. Davis wasn’t about to let up, not when his team were this close to a shot at the ultimate prize. The defender played on and saw his team over the line in a heart-stopper. Now, GWS are in the Grand Final, words we never thought we’d be able to say.
We can often wax lyrical about the talented on-ballers that the Giants have, or the goal-kicking prowess of Jeremy Cameron, but make no mistake when we say that Callan Ward and Phil Davis may be the two biggest reasons they are now where they are. Both of them took on the leadership responsibilities of the club from the get-go, and both stuck with the team through thick and thin, injury and suspension, to see them where they are today.
Against all the odds, GWS are one win away from a flag. Can they make it four from four? If they do, we can all look back at the moment that Phil Davis and Callan Ward led the club together for the first time, and say that was when it all started, seven years of hard work, perseverance and sacrifice, to get them here.
Let’s just hope for a cracking contest on Saturday.