Home / World News / AFL: GWS Giants co-captain Stephen Coniglio is back to his best but isn’t interested in addressing his critics

AFL: GWS Giants co-captain Stephen Coniglio is back to his best but isn’t interested in addressing his critics

Lesser men than Stephen Coniglio would be tempted to bite back at critics this year.

The Giants’ co-captain was chastised constantly last year for his form struggles despite barely playing because of injuries.

His axing in the penultimate round a season earlier, captured in excruciating detail in Amazon’s Making Their Mark documentary, turned the spotlight on him and his output.

There was even a call to trade Coniglio to save Greater Western Sydney from paying him for the remaining seasons of his seven-year deal signed in 2019, when he was one of the game’s most in-demand free agents.

The 28-year-old’s form spike in 2022 hasn’t created anywhere near the same headlines but one reason stopping him from shouting about his revival from the rooftops is the Giants sit a disappointing 16th on the ladder.

Another? It’s just not the type of person Coniglio is.

1st half
Camera IconStephen Coniglio has overwhelmingly bounced back to form this season after a difficult two years. Michael Klein Credit: News Corp Australia

Before sitting out last week’s heavy defeat to the Swans with foot soreness, the star midfielder hadn’t missed a match this year and boasts per-game averages of 25 disposals, five tackles, five clearances and almost a goal.

“To be honest, at the moment, with the position we’re in, it’s been the furthest thing from my mind,” Coniglio told News Corp.

“I’m happy – I’m not happy being third-last – but I love the club and I love my teammates.

“I always speak to young draftees when they come in and, for me, it doesn’t matter how well or bad you play; it’s how quickly you can come back and reset and be your best self and in the present.

“So even when I’m playing well, and everything’s going well, I’m very sceptical to read into that. I’d rather just stay hungry and be present and try to help those around me.”

Even still, the relentless criticism naturally hurt. Coniglio’s family and friends provided crucial support throughout that period.

Giants - Portraits - Hillyard
Camera IconA fit-again Stephen Coniglio worked hard to return to his best. Phil Hillyard Credit: Supplied

It also frustrated him how long it took to run pain-free again after ankle surgery in April that included his big toe being reconstructed on the same foot.

Coniglio missed 13 matches but still wasn’t right once he made it back, then spent another month out, before limping his way through round 23 and two finals.

Finally, in December last year, there was a breakthrough after he had sought advice from various medical specialists in the months prior.

The old Coniglio resurfaced at training, and coach Leon Cameron saw enough to predict he would be back to his best if he just had some luck with his health. Cameron was right.

“There’s no doubt they were the most challenging times in my career,” Coniglio said.

“But often I’d put into perspective what I was going through in the context of other things going on in the world, or other athletes who have been through the same.

Giants - 8.6.22
Camera IconStephen Coniglio stayed positive throughout a difficult past two years. Phil Hillyard Credit: News Corp Australia

“I knew deep down that my body wasn’t right and I needed to fix that. I still had a lot of confidence and belief in myself – but the main thing for me was the perspective element.”

There was another factor, too, that steeled him to fight through his football-related issues.

Coniglio isn’t just a leader at the Giants but also in the community. He speaks to and serves as somewhat of a mentor for kids in Sydney’s west.

He thought of those same kids while his troubles lingered.

“I kind of just pondered and reflected that if I’m talking to them about adversity, or coming back from challenges and setbacks, and I can’t come back from this, then I shouldn’t be talking to them about it,” Coniglio said.

Coniglio returns to the GWS line-up on Saturday to face Essendon in the club’s final home game of the season, after watching his teammates produce one of their poorest performances in years.

Sydney Derby XXIV - Swans v Giants
Camera IconStephen Coniglio (left) and Sam Taylor debrief after last week’s huge defeat to the Swans. Phil Hillyard Credit: News Corp Australia

He was “filthy” to have to sit out the match but understood the decision to tread cautiously with any foot soreness, given his injury history.

Coniglio doesn’t know why yet but he’s identified they are not playing with the same toughness of years gone by.

That, he said, plus another tardy start to the season, was a far bigger issue than any potential distraction about players potentially moving elsewhere during this year’s trade period.

“We need to get back to being the playing group that we were – that hard, tough style. We probably just haven’t been that of late,” Coniglio said.

“Last week really showed that up, so I think the most important thing now is to put ourselves in a position where we finish these next three games strongly and take some momentum into the pre-season.”

Interim coach Mark McVeigh lashed all bar eight of last week’s players in a post-game assessment laced with honesty rarely seen in that atmosphere.

Criticism flowed from some quarters about those comments but McVeigh, who wants to keep the job for next season, said on Thursday he was able to be so frank because of his strong relationships with the players.

Coniglio hopes for one standout quality from whomever the successful coaching candidate is: “a real winner.”

Whether that person is McVeigh remains to be seen, but Coniglio appears to be in his corner.

“I think Spike (McVeigh)’s doing a wonderful job, and although the result didn’t show it at the weekend, he has been able to galvanise everyone after obviously losing Leon,” Coniglio said.

“It’s obviously a process that’s out of our hands and with the powers that be, and we trust them to make the best decision for us going forward.

“But I think Mark’s done a wonderful job the last couple of months and built up a lot of support and faith.”

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