The AFL free agency period has officially begun, with Adelaide Crows defender Jake Kelly and Richmond Tigers tall Mabior Chol the first players to find new homes for 2022.
The Gold Coast Suns will indirectly mark the tenth anniversary of their AFL debut when they host Carlton at Metricon Stadium this Saturday night as part of a huge Round 4 of the 2021 AFL season.
It seemed like only yesterday the club, which had the working name GC17, took to the field for its first ever AFL match which was played against the Blues on a warm Saturday evening at the Gabba, with the visitors winning by a whopping 119 points.
The Gold Coast Football Club was borne out of North Melbourne’s refusal to fully relocate to the Gold Coast at the end of the 2007 season, after which then-AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou announced that a new team would be based on the holiday strip and be operational by 2011.
As the club’s entry into the AFL loomed, speculation began as to which players would take the bait and sacrifice their current careers at their football clubs to make a name for themselves on the Gold Coast.
Several names that were first thrown up included Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin, then a rising star forward at Hawthorn, as well as St Kilda captain Nick Riewoldt, who played his junior football on the holiday strip, and Adelaide Crows forward Kurt Tippett, who grew up in Queensland.
But there was one name that constantly came up in media circles – Geelong Cats superstar Gary Ablett Jr, who had just won the 2009 Brownlow Medal and whose contract with the club was to run out at the end of the 2010 season.
A week after the Cats lost to Collingwood in the preliminary final, the club’s worst fears were confirmed when it was announced that Ablett, then 26, would leave Kardinia Park after having signed a five-year, $9 million contract with the Gold Coast Suns.
He made the move knowing that there would be risks associated with offering his hand in setting up the AFL’s 17th franchise, some of which included leaving a highly successful club and knowing that he and his new club would cop some criticism and heavy defeats along the way.
His achievements in the game saw him named captain of the club, while he switched from the #29 he wore at the Cats to #9.
Ablett, however, wasn’t the first player to announce that he would join the Suns. Instead, it was Adelaide Crows defender Nathan Bock who became their first ever signing.
Others to join the club for its infant years included Nathan Krakouer, Michael Rischitelli, Campbell Brown, Jarrod Harbrow, Josh Fraser and Jared Brennan, while 2006 Brisbane Broncos premiership player Karmichael Hunt made the stunning switch to the AFL as well.
At the national draft, top pick David Swallow, Harley Bennell, Sam Day, Josh Caddy, Dion Prestia, Tom Lynch (the one that now plays for Richmond) and Daniel Gorringe, among others, would be drafted to the club, while Nathan Ablett, the younger brother of Gary Jr, would attempt unsuccessfully to resurrect his career on the holiday strip.
Then came the much-anticipated countdown to the club’s AFL debut, which was to be against Carlton at the Gabba on Saturday, April 2, 2011 in Round 2 of the premiership season (the Suns had a bye in Round 1).
As momentous as it was to be not just for the Suns, but also AFL football in Queensland, there was another milestone that was being celebrated that evening – with Carlton captain and 2010 Brownlow Medallist Chris Judd bringing up his 200th AFL match.
Coincidentally, his milestone match came in his first appearance at the Gabba since the infamous “pressure point” incident involving Michael Rischitelli (then at the Brisbane Lions) in the 2009 finals which saw him suspended for the first three rounds of the 2010 season.
Rischitelli was named in the inaugural Suns side for the clash against the Blues, as was Ablett, Hawthorn premiership defender Brown, NRL convert Hunt, Charlie Dixon, top draft pick Swallow and future Richmond premiership player Prestia.
Despite all the hype and excitement surrounding the new Gold Coast Suns team, fears of a lopsided result pre-match turned out to be true when, in front of 27,914 fans, the Blues kicked nine goals to one in the first quarter en route to an embarrassingly easy 119-point win.
Charlie Dixon, now at Port Adelaide, entered the record books as the first ever player to kick a goal for the Suns, while Ablett gathered 23 disposals in his first official outing for his new club.
For Blues captain Chris Judd, it was the perfect way to celebrate his 200th AFL match, at the end of which he was chaired off the field.
It would not take long for the Suns to register their first win in the AFL, when they travelled to AAMI Stadium to face Port Adelaide on a Saturday afternoon in Round 5.
They had to do it the hard way, though, coming from 40 points down deep in the third quarter to pull a miracle out of the hat, winning by three points after Port’s Justin Westhoff missed a set shot at goal after the final siren.
Ablett would claim a second Brownlow Medal in 2013, winning by just a solitary vote from Geelong Cats captain Joel Selwood.
History will also tell us that the Suns are yet to play in a finals series, their best season being in 2014 when they finished 12th with ten wins from twenty-two matches.
Despite that, inaugural coach Guy McKenna was controversially sacked after a promising season (they sat as high as third on the ladder after Round 10, with seven wins and two losses) was brought undone by injuries to key players, including Ablett.
The Suns women’s team has however played one finals match, losing to Fremantle by 70 points in the quarter-final last year.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the Suns’ first AFL match, with Jarrod Harbrow, Zac Smith (via a stint at the Geelong Cats between 2016 and 2019) and David Swallow the only players who played in their inaugural match ten years ago still at the club today.
Harbrow and Swallow both played in last Friday night’s loss to the Adelaide Crows at the Oval, which was played exactly a decade to the day (April 2) since the club contested its first ever AFL premiership match.
Which takes us to the present now, where Stuart Dew’s side took the fight right up to the Crows, bursting out of the blocks and threatening to replicate its stunning win in the corresponding match last season before losing a hard-fought clash by just ten points.
While this has seen their record drop into the red with one win and two losses, they have otherwise shown some encouraging signs early in the season, pushing the West Coast Eagles in Perth in Round 1 and thrashing North Melbourne by 59 points at home in Round 2.
However, their top draft pick from 2019, Matt Rowell, has again been struck down by injury, suffering a sore knee in Perth with no timeframe given on his return to the side.
In recent seasons the Suns have made a habit of starting seasons strongly, only for the wheels to fall off.
Last season, they won four of their first seven matches, but won only one thereafter to finish 14th despite playing just five games outside of Queensland due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now in his fourth season as Suns coach, Dew has earned praise for the way he has rebuilt the Suns in the post-Gary Ablett Jr era, continually developing the younger players and moulding them into players who will remain with the club for a very long time.
They get the chance to notch their second win for the season when they face Carlton in the anniversary match at Metricon Stadium this Saturday night, but it will not come easy with the Blues to enter this match off the back of a 45-point thrashing of Fremantle last Sunday.
Best-on-ground performances from their captain, Patrick Cripps, and a seven-goal haul from forward Harry McKay, fired the Bluebaggers to their first win for the season as they continue to improve under third-year coach David Teague.
That followed on from modest losses to Richmond and Collingwood in the opening two rounds, which had many questioning the direction in which they were heading, with the club having not reached the finals on merit since 2011*.
For the Blues it will be a return to the south-east Queensland hub where they were based after Round 5 last year, owing to Victoria’s second wave of coronavirus cases which forced all ten state-based clubs to evacuate and move to the sunshine state (or in Hawthorn’s case, South Australia).
With both the Gold Coast Suns and Carlton sitting on one win each going into Round 4, a win will go a long way towards what is hoped to be a continued season of progress for either side in 2021, making Saturday night’s clash a must-watch.
So can the Suns mark their tenth anniversary with a win over the same side that thrashed them by 119 points all the way back in 2011, or will we see the same result though with a smaller margin as to be expected?
* NOTE: in 2013, Carlton were promoted to the finals after Essendon were disqualified over irregularities over its supplements program.