Greater Western Sydney’s season was on the line against reigning premier Richmond last week.
The 39-point victory may have been their best of the season – and they did it all without their best player.
Unfortunately for the Giants, Toby Greene is no stranger to the sideline.
Despite his regular absences, the Giants’ rise has largely been tied to the growth of their biggest star.
Greene is part of the furniture at GWS, one of only eight of their inaugural players still at the club. During their transformation from the league’s strugglers to regular finals contenders, he has blossomed into a genuine match-winner.
But he’s also an acquired taste. Before the age of no-crowd stadiums, he was the player most likely to cop it from opposing fans. But he’s divisive: there might be just as many who’d name him as their favourite player from another club.
With the competition as even as it has been at any time in recent memory, Greene’s availability and performance might be what pushes GWS into premiership contention.
Many moving parts
Toby Greene is a footballing chameleon.
He came into the league as an inside accumulator. He had a rare knack to win the ball from tight contests and deliver it to his teammates. While representing Vic Metro as a junior, he could often be found at the bottom of packs. He occupied a similar role during his first three seasons at senior level for GWS.
He finished runner-up in the Giants’ best and fairest award in his first year, and might have won the AFL’s Rising Star Award if not for suspension.
As the Giants’ young list developed, there was a squeeze for inside midfield positions. Despite his prowess, the Giants sought to use him elsewhere to solve their midfield crunch. First up was a brief stint as a defender, before he switched roles again to become a smaller, crafty forward. For a player who missed his first six AFL shots on goal, it was a bold move.
Mentored by former Geelong great Steve Johnson, Greene worked on his forward craft. His flexibility, manoeuvrability and skill at reading the play held him in good stead.
After some early stumbles, by 2016 Greene had earned his first All-Australian selection and Giants club champion award. But beyond the honours, he’d truly transformed into a more complete player. Having once been something of a liability, his kicking had improved out of sight.
This year, he seems to have taken another leap. Early in the season he was alternating between being a smaller connecting forward and a genuine key position target: no mean feat for someone who is just 1.81 metres tall.
As the season has progressed, the Giants’ ongoing injury woes have forced Greene to pinch-hit in other roles. Against North Melbourne, he was pressed into the centre bounce rotation, helping salvage the draw that might yet seal their place in the finals.
Greene played further up the ground when the Giants were loading up their side with tall forward options, and dropped deeper when these options fell out of form or became injured. He’s even been an occasional ruck option inside 50 — registering his first hit out in five years.
When used in attack, Greene presents one of the hardest match-ups for opposing sides, with an uncanny ability to turn half chances into scores.
Greene finds his way into prime position better than almost anyone else, and uses his deceptive strength to win contests that he probably shouldn’t. The tallest of opponents can usually defuse high balls against him, but he also has the ability to fly for marks.
When teams shift talls onto Greene, it’s usually a cue for him to start leading hard and into space. Given his work rate, and the Giants’ plethora of creative ball users, he can usually beat most defenders to the punch.
Greene is the only player in the league with ten goals sourced from both contested marks and ground ball gets. This combination demonstrates how he might be the hardest forward to match up on in 2021.
Sometimes, the best option for defences is to force Greene away from goal. He might not be among the best ball users in the competition, but he is still more than capable of creating opportunities for taller teammates such as Jesse Hogan and Harry Himmelberg.
Judged only on raw counting statistics, his impact is probably undersold, considering the unique flexibility he offers the Giants. Aside from deep defence, Greene can reliably fill any role he’s asked to play.
The other side
It would be remiss to not mention Toby Greene’s other side: both on the field and off.
In past eras it might have been shrugged off as “white line fever”: mindless aggression in the pursuit of success. Greene plays on the edge, but his transgressions don’t tend to come as calculated late hits. Greene has mentioned in the past that he is more likely to get into trouble in big games, and when he is getting beaten by an opponent — when his heart is racing and blood pumping.
However, the end result is often the same, regardless of his intent. He’s also one of the few players with a rule named after him — the studs up rule.
There’s also off the field issues to consider. The most serious incident was his assault of a bodyguard at Zagame’s hotel while he was injured and away from the Giants in 2014. Greene was fined $2,500, and later faced civil action. The Giants also suspended him for five games, and fined him a further $5,000.
That’s more than enough for many to condemn him. For crowds looking for a pantomime villain, Greene is an obvious target.
Greene opened up about the effect of this to his teammate Phil Davis on an ABC Sport podcast last year.
In the lead-up to the 2019 Grand Final, Greene was booed and heckled for an hour and a half during the Grand Final Parade. Combined with the arrest of his father at the game, Greene told Davis that the aftermath became overwhelming.
Few professions involve long-term exposure to vocal abuse and jeering. For better and worse, it’s still very much a part of football.
It by no means excuses all of his misdeeds. But life is rarely black and white, and it is possible that Greene has evolved as much off the field as he has on it, despite the behaviour of the crowd towards him. When Greene first came to GWS, he hadn’t lived out of home, and by his own admission didn’t know how to make his own bed or cook for himself.
Greene has previously recognised that his behaviour has needed to improve, and he has taken steps towards making that happen, including seeing a psychologist. To round out his life outside footy, he’s completing a commerce degree and took to surfing during the 2020 lockdown.
Like any other footballer, Greene isn’t just the player we see on the field and in news snippets.
The Giants path to finals
Greene’s latest suspension only lasted one match, and his return this weekend is vital given the stakes. A win against Carlton in the final round will guarantee the Giants a spot in the finals, where they’d be likely to meet cross-town rivals the Sydney Swans.
A loss would mean relying on two of Essendon, Fremantle or West Coast losing. With the Bombers and Dockers facing somewhat favourable match-ups against Collingwood and St Kilda respectively, the Giants will want to control their own fate. And that will be far easier with Greene on the field rather than the sideline.