The Gold Coast Suns face the West Coast Eagles in the first match of their 2021 season in the cauldron of Perth’s Optus Stadium.
Coming off a stunning win at home just nine months ago, Gold Coast will have the belief that they can ransack West Coast’s eyrie in Sunday’s fascinating clash.
Adam Simpson was being honest with his players during Episode 2 of Making their Mark when he said “We’re bigger than they are”, except he forgot that at the selection table he had omitted former Sun Tom Hickey and brought in undersized ruck/forward, Oscar Allen, and the Eagles realised they were only a bit bigger, but also slow and underdone as the Suns beat them at their own game.
It wasn’t so much that Allen was ineffective – he kicked a couple of goals, took four marks, laid three tackles, chopped out for seven hit-outs – but that he only spent 60 per cent time on ground, which along with Nic Naitanui’s 67 per cent managed game time meant that the Suns were able to halve the clearances (especially the stoppages) with Jarrod Witts (89 per cent) and Sam Day (82 per cent, three goal-assists, five marks) able to influence the game for longer periods.
What was so refreshing and thought-provoking about Simmo’s revelation was that he obviously does think about his team having a height and strength advantage over the opposition, which couch commentators and fans often obsess over, yet clubs are usually reticent to expose that kind of subjective analysis.
West Coast has a wealth of ruck and key position depth, so much so that Jarrod Brander can often not get a game despite being a former first-round draft pick and entering his fourth season, although he was picked for the Eagles that day with selectors opting for a pair of young talls on the bench than the second ruck option of Hickey.
However, that option is now off the table with Hickey being traded to the Swans and it appears that ruck/forward greenhorn Bailey Williams will be out injured, so the question remains as to whether Nathan Vardy can reclaim a starting spot as the backup ruck or if Josh Kennedy’s return to the line-up either makes them too tall or just tall enough.
As for the Suns, their talls remain the same with Ben King and Sam Day up front, while Sam Collins, Charlie Ballard and Jack Lukosius form the key defensive zone at Jarrod Witts goes into the middle. At times last season, Caleb Graham joined the back three, with Josh Corbett joining the key forwards, but neither tactic brought much success and the preseason games have featured mostly a six-tall strategy.
The question remains over what the Suns will do to counter the Eagles opting for a seven or possibly eight-tall scheme. This is exactly what the Lions did in the two scratch matches, to which the Suns’ most effective answer was to throw Chris Burgess into the fray. As unconventional as it sounds, the undersized chop-out option neutralised the opponents’ advantage when their first-choice ruck was off and the Suns’ forward line didn’t lose its shape once Sam Day could stay at home during stoppages.
The dual-ruck strategy may work out for West Coast, however, as this article predicted the Suns have been exposed for ruck depth, with experienced back-up Zac Smith going down for 12 weeks and now second-year greenhorn Matt Conroy facing time on the sidelines after he suffered an ACL injury from Saturday’s practice.
Another wrinkle in the Suns’ selection strategy is that they appear to want to let Lukosius out onto a wing, which may necessitate putting Crab Graham in as the third tall defender to cover the Eagles’ ruck/forward. In fact, that could lead to Brander and Luko having an interesting wing battle, with Andrew Gaff and Brandon Ellis likely to resume hostilities on the opposing wing.
The Suns’ midfield has been reconfigured in order to allow more players to roll through and remain fresher for the longer quarters. Matt Rowell, Noah Anderson, Lachie Weller, Touk Miller and David Swallow will be rotating with Will Brodie, Hugh Greenwood and Darcy Macpherson, who are keeping out the hard-working Sam Flanders and pre-listed draftee Alex Davies.
Brodie floated forward to take a few shots on goal last week, which is what Greenwood, Swallow and Macpherson need to do, while Anderson, Weller and Miller have the ability to play minutes in defence as needed.
If Chris Burgess onto the bench is a left-field call, then predicting who gets to tag Liam Ryan and what that might mean for selection balance is an even harder task. Oleg Markov has played himself straight into the starting team, while Connor Budarick deserves his spot. However, Jarrod Harbrow and Wil Powell aren’t up to marking Flyin’ Ryan, whose four behinds in last year’s corresponding game were an anomaly that could have turned the game had he been more accurate.
Sean Lemmens spent time on Charlie Cameron in the scratch match, but played with the VFL side in the preseason game, so he remains unlikely to play unless his form in the reserves merited his promotion at the likely expense of Jarrod Harbrow. In fact, Lemmens moving into defence in Harbs’ likely final year is no coincidence, with the Suns needing to replace their foundation year back pocket and the pair sharing a bond through Harbrow’s mentorship of indigenous players.
Nonetheless, the best player on the Suns’ list who can tag Liam Ryan is Touk Miller and if it happens it will be a ding dong battle all day. However, his claims on an inside mid spot are very strong due to his speed and pressure, so that’s where he’ll almost certainly start.
The AFL this week came out to immediately implement the ‘medical sub rule’ allowing activation of the 23rd player in the case of an injured or concussed player being assessed as likely to be missing 12 days or more.
For the Suns, this could open the door for everyman, Nick Holman, who is Stuart Dew’s favourite role-player and can play on every line if called upon. This rule might actually be a career saver for the recycled revelation, who previously washed out of a poor Carlton list and was recently elevated to the senior list after taking the tough route of working off the rookie list.
For the Eagles will go into Round 1 without both Elliott Yeo and Luke Shuey, putting massive pressure on Tim Kelly and the Eagles engine room, and are rumoured to be naming several inexperienced players due to a rising injury list, including three to four of Jamaine Jones, Xavier O’Neill, Jarrod Brander and/or Josh Rotham.
Early speculation is that undrafted mid Zane Trew could debut in what would be an incredible inclusion after spending only a quarter of footy on the field in the preseason game, while Xavier O’Neill and Isiah Winder will also be considered after putting in strong performances.
In a final twist, the naming of the 23rd player doesn’t have to take place until before the game, so we simply won’t know final teams until gameday one hour before play begins.
I see some excruciating decisions at both selection tables, but I’ll only speculate further on the Suns as I’m not claiming to know as much about another team. I suspect that Chris Burgess will be brought in as a swingman to even up the numbers, with the Eagles looking to choose seven or eight talls while the Suns only have six in the likely side.
Oleg Markov will debut off the left half-back flank with his former Tigers teammate Brandon Ellis. Will Brodie looks to have beaten out Darcy Macpherson, who could also be a prime candidate for the medical sub spot, while Brayden Fiorini just can’t make his way into the team despite strong form and fitness.
B: Connor Budarick, Sam Collins, Wil Powell
HB: Chris Burgess, Charlie Ballard, Oleg Markov
C: Jack Lukosius, Hugh Greenwood, Brandon Ellis
HF: David Swallow, Sam Day, Ben Ainsworth
F: Izak Rankine, Ben King, Alex Sexton
Foll: Jarrod Witts, Matt Rowell, Touk Miller
I/C: Jack Bowes, Lachie Weller, Noah Anderson, Will Brodie
Emergency: Caleb Graham, Darcy Macpherson, Jarrod Harbrow, Nick Holman
Suns by 18.
To hear more about my predictions for the Suns in 2021, tune into the latest Lace Out podcast season preview.