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Are Gold Coast's high draft picks really behind their rise?

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Roar Guru
28th March, 2021
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The Gold Coast Suns are finally rising, and after 11 years of high draft picks, commentators everywhere are giving the credit to the club’s first-rounders. But is it just lazy analysis?

Interestingly there are junior superstars with massive potential currently spinning their wheels in the reserves because the Suns have a core of standard-setting veterans whose draft year didn’t end up with full-page newspaper spreads or exhaustive online draft profiling.

Here is the boiler room of unsexy picks and second-chance washouts who are propelling the Gold Coast Suns towards a finals debut in the 2020s.

Jarrod Witts
He came up through Collingwood’s now-defunct junior pathway in New South Wales despite growing up a Swans fan and actually playing for GWS in junior competitions as well as being in elite cricket programs.

However, Collingwood’s ruck development over the rebuilding years after their flag was almost too good, with Nathan Buckley unable to fit Brodie Grundy, Mason Cox and big Witta in the same side, so at the end of 2016 – when all attention was on the Suns’ four top-ten draft picks – a trade of late picks was made for the second tallest player in the AFL.

In 2019 as captain of the Gold Coast, Witts broke the all-time record for the average number of hit-outs in a home-and-away season ahead of some of the goliaths of the modern era. He may have flaws, but the Suns have found a true leader and dominant ruckman.

Jarrod Witts

Jarrod Witts (Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

Alex Sexton
Secton may be Dermot Brereton’s favourite whipping boy, but the guy is a deadset forward line sniper, winning the club goal-kicking record twice and, more importantly, playing a role as a team leader since entering the list at the end of the club’s inaugural season.

Secco came to the Suns via the local zone, which was to become the academy pathway, so he’s literally a homegrown product who cost no more than a sixth-round pick. In fact he’s one of five former Redland juniors currently on AFL lists from a 12-year golden period when 17 players from the club were drafted to AFL clubs.

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Sean Lemmens
Lemmens came to the Suns in the 2013 draft via their second-round pick at No. 27 from the Port Adelaide Magpies. Across his first five seasons he played under three head coaches in a variety of positions, never able to nail down one position despite having attributes for the midfield, forward line and defence.

After a contract year blown away by COVID, the birth of his daughter, the hub and slight injuries, Lemmens has come back in 2021 as a shutdown small defender, having done jobs on Charlie Cameron, Liam Ryan and Jaidyn Stephenson. He’s one of the hardest tacklers in the AFL, and with the mentoring of fellow Indigenous player Jarrod Harbrow he has found a new gear in defence.

Touk Miller
Miller entered the 2014 draft as captain of Vic Metro and the grand finalist Calder Cannons, yet 14 clubs passed him over before the Gold Coast Suns made the inspired selection at Pick 29, which subsequent draft analyst redrafts have rated in their top ten.

Missing only ten games in his first six seasons, his speed and natural tackling pressure have seen him gain a reputation as an elite tagger, particularly in his QClash heroics against Lions captain (and Suns reject) Dayne Zorko. Rewarded by his peers with the vice-captaincy for the second year running at only 25 years of age, Touk is leading the team to future success and the young crew are right behind him.

Darcy Macpherson
Macpherson could be excused for having a massive chip on his shoulder after being passed over by the Western Bulldogs as an eligible father-son and then watching his dad’s old team storm to a flag the next season. However, the tenacity his old man showed on the field certainly didn’t miss the pup, with Darcy tearing up the NEAFL as a goalscoring small forward with tackling pressure and spunk.

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After being picked 21st in the 2015 rookie draft, albeit seven spots behind undrafted Tom Papley and a spot ahead of Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, ‘Son of Super’ Macpherson has climbed up the slippery ladder onto the senior list against the torrent of high draft picks.

Darcy has totted up 53 games and at still only 23 years of age is keeping some very highly rated kids in the reserves.

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Nick Holman
Holman was Vic Country MVP in 2013 and duly selected in the third round for Carlton. He played his debut AFL game alongside Chris Judd the next year in the final game after a solid VFL season, then came back into the side in mid-2015 for his first and only win for the Blues, ironically against the Suns.

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Two seasons in the SANFL for Centrals earned him a rookie draft lifeline from the Suns, with the development of four years in the system changing his game from mid-sized forward to ferocious tackling machine.

The medical sub rule has breathed new life into Holman’s game, which is seemingly made to be a momentum shifter against tired legs, as evidenced when he booted a brilliant goal in the Eagles game to spark the Suns into action in the final term and again against the Kangaroos with seven marks in just a half of footy.

Charlie Ballard
Ballard was a skinny midfielder for the South Australian under-16s and touted as a high draft pick. However, he grew and grew and is possibly still growing, hitting 194 centimetres in his draft year and now standing at 197 centimetres.

The downside of his sudden growth spurt was that he went from top prospect as a high-marking wingman to a sometimes clumsy skinny halfback flanker, although he was given plaudits for marking up on an emerging Jack Lukosius and keeping the young hotshot (also close mate) goalless, which no other opponent had managed that year at any level from school to National Championships to SANFL.

He was selected by the Gold Coast Suns with the third-round pick they got back from Freo after sending Pick 2 for Lachie Weller. Chucky has become one of the game’s elite intercepting defenders and is regarded at the club as a central plank in their long-term plans, signed to the end of 2025.

Gold Coast Suns players huddle

(Photo by Graham Denholm/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Sam Collins
Collins was delisted by the Fremantle Dockers in 2017 after 14 AFL games in two seasons and winning the best and fairest award for Peel Thunder. Having been overlooked in his initial draft year and then passed over by all 18 clubs after Freo dumped him, there seems to have been a mark on his character (Dockers fans claim it was his attitude), because players of his calibre do not belong in the VFL, as his 2018 campaign proved.

Suddenly wanted by many clubs, Collins agreed to join the Suns as part of their pre-draft concessions, and after winning the 2020 club best and fairest he is the vice-captain of the Suns in 2021. Drafted to be a Steven May replacement, Collins has now moved to that level of key defender bracket, which exceeds all expectations. Imagine how good he’d become playing alongside a fit Rory Thompson!

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Sam Collins (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Hugh Greenwood
Greenwood joined the throngs of players moving to the Gold Coast from South Australia – nine of the 23 against the Kangaroos were either from SA, played in SA or were born there, plus half the coaches and the club chairman).

In the space of one truncated season Greenwood transformed the Suns’ centre clearance outcomes and tackling pressure, as he had in Adelaide when he joined them in their grand final year, averaging over five clearances, seven tackles and 18 disposals (70 per cent contested).

Considering he’s just four preseasons removed from playing professional basketball and also became a new father in one of footy’s most challenging seasons, it’s a tremendous achievement and there’s a sense that the best is yet to come.

Oleg Markov
Markov was born in Belarus, but his parents defected to Australia the following year – and the use of the word ‘defected’ is intentional, for Oleg’s parents, Dmitri and Valentina, were elite athletes in pole vault and the decathlon when they came to Australia in 1997 to eventually claim citizenship in 1999. This set little Oleg on a separate path to his supremely gifted athletic parents – although he excelled at athletics himself – with the lure of footy in South Australia too much for a kid in North Adelaide.

Richmond picked him up for a third-rounder, but after just 23 games in five seasons and with no premiership medallions, Markov has come to the Suns to fulfil a role that the club has sorely needed since Adam Saad returned to Victoria. Oleg might just be the fastest player in the AFL, and what he brings to the young Suns is immeasurable in terms of experience and character.

Oleg Markov

Oleg Markov (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

So, Wittsy gives the team first use, Secco finds goals from nothing, Lemmens is closing down dangerous small forwards, Miller is the linkman in the mids, Macpherson excels in forward pressure, Holman is the new supersub, Ballard is a fearless intercept marker, Collins is going at All Australian levels, Greenwood has turned around the midfield and Markov is giving the Suns halfback rebound with elite pace.

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There is no doubting that the commentators are right to get excited about the ball skills of Noah Anderson, the deft kicking of Jack Lukosius, the mercurial goal kicking of Izak Rankine, the jinking runs of Jack Bowes, the timely goals from Ben Ainsworth and even the toughness of David Swallow, but they were all top-ten draft picks expected to succeed, whereas the players profiled were given only half a chance and many needed a second chance altogether.

Don’t believe the hype when flustered former players turned media personalities flail and ultimately fail to pinpoint the reasons behind the Suns becoming a wildcard team. When they list the past half-dozen top-ten draft picks they prove that they haven’t delved into what is really driving the rise of the Suns, much less the team dynamic among the competition’s largest list.

Now, with injuries mounting, watch where the coach turns next: young first-round talent or trusted backups overlooked in their draft years or else traded by their former clubs for a packet of chips.

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