The Gold Coast and surrounding area has long been the promised land of VFL/AFL expansion, producing such players as Michael Voss* and Nick Riewoldt**.
But it hasn’t really been an overly abundant nursery, given almost all players from the area drafted into the national competition were originally from somewhere else entirely and their ambition to play the game did not come from local inspiration.
While there’s no doubting the Brisbane Bears substantially raised the profile of Australian rules football in Queensland, there has always been a strong network of leagues throughout the Sunshine State given its net interstate migration numbers.
The success of the Brisbane Lions in their dynastic years came in part from having a core of homegrown players, even if not many of them were born and bred. However, enough of the squad called Queensland home for the club to finally have a culture of settled permanence.
This planted the seed for a second Queensland franchise because the state was finally producing enough players for the AFL to viably plan expansion throughout the whole non-traditional Aussie rules region, with a similar plan for New South Wales.
GC17 was born out of a coalition of interests, ranging from those who had originally supported the launch of the Bears at Carrara who were disenfranchised when the club shifted to the Gabba, to those behind the rise of the Southport Sharks Australian Football Club, who were and still are the most successful second-tier club in the state.
But they weren’t the only ones, with the Gold Coast’s population exploding with expats from traditional footy states pouring across the border at a rate of dozens per day, albeit with existing loyalties to established teams.
Southport’s domination of the QAFL made them hated by the other emerging Gold Coast based clubs, like Broadbeach Cats, Labrador Tigers and Palm Beach Currumbin Lions.
And so, with some sparkling light towers courtesy of Christopher Skase’s chicanery, $10 million from the Sharks, and a stadium deal that involved the Gold Coast City Council, Queensland State Government and Federal Government, GC17 franchise was granted and Gillon McLachlan became AFL CEO in waiting.
It was soon evident that the Gold Coast was barely even going to supply a modicum of players for the new team, so the Suns Talent Academy was established, the smallest such program after Sydney Swans, Brisbane Lions and GWS Giants.
Cue the growing cries and lamentations from the Eddie McGuires and Jeff Kennetts of the world until the Next Generation Academies were established, which also gave the Suns an actual roadmap for player recruitment in their zone. Literally.
The AFL carved up the map of Australia by Local Government Areas and gave two of the biggest chunks to the Suns, with one containing the largest populated urban area outside of the mainland state capital cities and the other literally bigger than Texas.
The smaller, more population-dense zone consists of the Greater Gold Coast area, down to the Northern Rivers of NSW, past Byron and Ballina to Evans Head, west to Tenterfield and the Dumaresq Valley, up to the Border Ranges and the Scenic Rim through Boonah and Beaudesert and up to the mighty Logan River, then back down through Jumpinpin, encompassing some of the most beautiful natural treasures the country has to offer with an urban and rural population of over a million.
The larger part takes up well over half the state from Baffle Creek near Seventeen Seventy – the start of crocodile country – South of Gladstone, then up through the Central Highlands, out west to Emerald, Barcaldine, Longreach, Cloncurry and Mount Isa, then up to the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Cape York Peninsula, to the Torres Strait Islands and back down through Cairns, the Cassowary Coast, Townsville, the Whitsundays, Mackay and Rockhampton, with the rural cities along the Great Barrier Reef coastline and sparsely spread population on the other side of the Gread Dividing Ranges also exceeding a million.
Sunsland is a wholly new-minted term invented by yours truly to describe the AFL’s vision to convert large tracts of virgin territory in rugby league mad regions into recruiting grounds for the indigenous game under the banner of the Gold Coast Suns brand.
So, how is it going? Well, as they say, from little things, big things grow. The Suns Academy has blossomed in recent drafts, but it took quite some time for this to really start to show results.
Many Queenslnaders started out on the Suns inaugural list, with some still remaining, including Rory Thompson, whose father won two flags with the Southport Sharks, Zac Smith, who was a soccer convert, and Jarrod Harbrow and early trailblazer from North Queensland.
Early Suns Academy graduates were Andrew Boston and Jarred Ellis, with only the former playing AFL footy, yet he has enjoyed a successful career at the Southport Sharks.
Lachie Weller came through the Suns Academy, but although his family had relocated to the Gold Coast due to the drafting of his older brother, Mav Weller, he didn’t qualify for bid matching due to not living in the zone long enough and was drafted by Fremantle.
Even when the Academy looked to have produced a promising clutch of AFL standard graduates in 2016, the Suns could only claim Jack Bowes and Brad Scheer, with North Melbourne taking Josh Williams and Braydon Preuss.
Jesse Joyce, Jacob Heron and Jacob Dawson were until recently on the list, but joined Max Spencer, Connor Nutting and Brayden Crossley as delisted Academy graduates.
Bowes and Weller have been joined by Caleb Graham, Connor Budarick, Matt Conroy, Alex Davies, “Ace” Hewago Paul Oea, Aiden Fyfe and Rhys Nicholls on the Suns extended list, while Malcolm Rosas Junior and Joel Jeffrey have joined from the Suns Darwin Academy.
Every year, the Suns recruit young players from open days in Rockhampton, Mackay, Townsville, Cairns and the Northern Rivers for boys and girls, with the academy running teams from under 12s to under 19s that play in regional competitions and will compete in the NAB League under 17s and 19s in 2021.
The logistical challenges are immense, yet in the case of Caleb Graham, when he was selected to join the academy fulltime as a 16-year-old, his whole family decided to relocate from Cairns to the Gold Coast to support him and four years later he’s playing at AFL level about to enter his third year on the list.
Hewago Paul Oea, AKA “Ace”, had an even tougher transition, moving from his home in Papua New Guinea, to board and go to school on the Gold Coast, with English not being his first language.
However, he has graduated from school and played at the highest level, including Suns Academy, Queensland under 16s and Allies under 18s, while being a feature for the Suns reserves team in the NEAFL and 2020 scratch matches against AFL listed opponents for three years.
For Suns Academy prospect, Austin Harris, he made the move from Cairns to the Gold Coast at 15, completing his final two years of school while boarding with a host family.
Now, after regular visits homes to visits friends and family, as well as them racking up the frequent flyer points to see him on the Gold Coast, he going into his draft year with school done with and selection in the elite AFL Academy to prepare him for life in the AFL.
Sunsland is producing a conveyor belt of excellent talent – it will take a whole article to cover the AFLW pathway, but it is coming – with some overflow already occurring with Braydon Preuss and Bailey Scott, who chose to nominate for his father’s club in the draft after coming up through the Suns Academy, bringing the numbers of AFL listed players from the region to levels that justify the AFL’s investment in the area.
Participation in AFL programs in Queensland has surpassed Tasmania and South Australia, now behind only Victoria and Western Australia, with a silver lining from the Covid season being that the code received tremendous exposure in the Sunshine State and the Gold Coast in particular, but also in Darwin and Cairns where actual AFL games were played and Mackay for the AFLW.
Ten years into the AFL’s mission to convert talent in the most non-traditional Aussie rules state has been a resounding success.
Certainly, the Brisbane Lions have done much of the heavy lifting in terms of putting the AFL on the map, especially in South East Queensland, but the work done by the Suns in distant regions of Far North Queensland, Darwin and even as far as the South Pacific Islands has set up the foundations for talent pathways to men’s and women’s football at all levels.
Welcome to Sunsland!
*Michael Voss was born in Victoria, and his junior team was Morningside Panthers in Brisbane, however, he joined the Brisbane Bears when they were still based in Cararra and he lived in Eagleby, which is in the current Gold Coast zone.
**Nick Riewoldt was born in Tasmania, yet it was with Southport Sharks that he rose to pick number one, famously after the AFL rezoned Brisbane’s catchment area from 100km radius from the Gabba to just 50km (Southport is 77km away).