Gold Coast Suns coach Stuart Dew has warned his floundering team that another sloppy performance like the display against Carlton would struggle to beat any AFL team, let alone a red-hot Western Bulldogs squad.
Ask any ardent Gold Coast Suns fan which player is indispensable and invariably they will say that the team’s co-captain and elite ruckman, Jarrod Witts, is the player the side can’t win without.
Well, in the weekend’s scratch matches, Suns foundation player and back-up ruckman, Zac Smith, sustained a posterior cruciate ligament injury that could keep him out of action until June, raising the very real possibility of the Suns’ ruck division being exposed should the unthinkable occur.
It actually happened in the 2020 preseason, with Wittsy succumbing to a foot injury in January that made him miss the preseason and saw him turn out in Round 1 significantly underdone by his lofty standards, considering he posted the highest average hit outs per game in a regular season in VFL/AFL history in 2019.
Much as Suns fans hate to even contemplate injuries, after a cursed decade punctuated by shoulder reconstructions from Gary Ablett Jr to Matt Rowell AKA Buzz Lightyear, this article explores the Suns’ ruck division of 2021 and offers a left-field solution.
Jarrod Witts is a massive human, measuring 209cm and 111kg, being the third tallest in AFL history after retired Fremantle trailblazer, Aaron Sandilands, and the American convert, Mason Cox.
Zac Smith is also top ten for height and weight, coming in at 206cm and 105kg, so when the Suns brought back their inaugural ruckman from their 2009 TAC Cup side, fans felt comfortable because surely having a pair of man-mountains should be enough for any club. Right?
Next in line for the Gold Coast is greenhorn rookie, Matt Conroy, known affectionately as Sauce, who played the 2020 season for the Suns in the hub scratch matches as a ruck-forward, with the 201cm prospect turning out in several performances for the Suns reserves as the first choice starting ruck, but he is still regarded as a developing prospect at only 21.
Sam Day is the game day chop out for the senior side, yet with so much of the Suns game plan relying on the rucks at least halving the hit outs, he’s a roaming 197cm ruck-forward who can’t be expected to shoulder the full responsibilities unless foisted upon in him during an actual game and even then he is pretty much just a warm body.
Ben King might well have the height and leap to make a good ruckman, at 202cm, but he is a thoroughbred racehorse and the steeplechase is not a risk the club appears willing to take, rather unlike St Kilda throwing the ACL-recovered Max King into the ruck in the forward stoppages.
After that, the ruck stocks thin out rather alarmingly, with Suns coaches opting to throw the 191cm Chris Burgess in to chop-out in the ruck in the first team after quarter-time on the weekend, where he did surprisingly well to hold his own against taller opponents, although there’s just no chance he could carry the load all game against the league’s premier rucks.
Right at the bottom of the ruck department is developmental rookie, Patrick Murtagh, whose Papua New Guinean heritage from his mother’s side has contributed to his athletic 196cm, 106kg physique – his nickname at the club is simply “the Specimen” – with the decathlete recruited front he Suns Academy to be groomed into a ruck-forward.
Failing those options, the Suns are in a hole of their own making, having traded ruck-forward, Peter Wright, and in 2019 delisted their home-grown ruckman and emerging club icon, Brayden “Goober” Crossley, whose debut year for the club in 2018 followed his 2017 selection as U18 All Australian ruckman.
While Two-Metre Peter has flown to the Hangar, Goober remains the Suns’ “Break Glass in case of Emergency” option, with the big man having spent the latter part of 2020 playing QAFL for preliminary finalists, Palm Beach Currumbin Lions, training over the Summer for newly minted VFL entrants, Southport Sharks, the club his father Troy played a pair of premierships with and was inducted into their hall of fame.
Yet for all his early promise, with comparisons to Shane Mumford, Goober disappeared from the club in mid-2019, having returned a positive drug test with ASADA on game day after turning out for the NEAFL, with an indicator for a metabolite found in cocaine.
To many, this guilty without presumption of innocence charge put paid to a 20-year-old’s career before it had left the ground and with a four-year suspension hanging over his head, the Gold Coast Suns cut him loose at the close of the season.
But to those more open-minded about the situation, when a rabid organisation like ASADA turns around and slashes the suspension to time served with the acknowledgement that the player did not knowingly ingest the substance which caused the (*false) positive, they are basically saying “this is not a drug cheat”.
Two salient facts show that Crossley was hard done by being dumped from a 53-man list the was never fully populated: ASADA no longer classifies the cocaine metabolite as a banned performance-enhancing substance and the AFL drug-testing regime would have only ever given him a strike without the public ever finding out he’d returned a positive test.
Whether or not the relationship between the Crossley family and the Suns football club can be ameliorated remains to be seen after brother Ashton chose to leave the Suns Academy without taking up his 19th-year rookie option, also playing for PBC and Southport.
For now, the Suns have a ruck dilemma and in their own backyard, they could have the answer training up the road in Brayden Crossley.
Currently, the Suns don’t have a Supplementary Selection Period spot available, but their predicament is still playing out with Zac Smith no certainty to return by midseason, which is when they (and other clubs) may be looking to add the Southport ruckman through the midseason draft should he impress in the Tier 2 VFL competition starting in April.