Round 5 of the 2021 AFL season is done and the pundits are circling the bottom five teams, ready to stick a fork in the teams that look done.
The beleaguered Kangaroos have slumped to five straight losses, which is universally seen as season-cooked as far as finals are concerned, with only the 2017 Swans overcoming a worse start to the year to go on to make finals in recent memory.
Victorian media will spend most of this week eviscerating Collingwood, writing off Hawthorn and talking up Essendon but just not for 2021.
There will even be some coach speculation, although Ben Rutten and John Noble will be safe, with Nathan Buckley and Alastair Clarkson coming off losses to far better teams.
Anzac Day will invariably take some pressure off for the winning side out of the Magpies and Bombers game, while the Hawks may start favourites against the Crows in Launceston.
Then there’s the other bottom five team, with the Suns’ latest effort to fuel the doomsayers who perennially denigrate the Gold Coast at the first opportunity, which will then intensify as the Gold Coast host the 2021 surprise packet, Sydney Swans.
However, in all the ennui about coaches under the pump, lists in need of rebuilding and years since Essendon won a final, there seems to be no deep analysis about where the Suns are at.
What’s wrong with the Suns?
The first half against the Bulldogs demonstrated that the Suns can be picked apart by bigger, more experienced and more mature sides that have achieved a team identity over several seasons of success.
But it is no longer the youth that expose the Gold Coast against other sides, with 20 year old Noah Anderson the youngest in the 22, albeit one of six under 21 players named (including unactivated sub, Sam Flanders).
The two inescapable issues that Stuart Dew has at the selection table, aside from the injury curse, is that only six players from the Bulldogs game have over 100 games – with three of them playing a significant number of those games at other clubs – and these players simply haven’t played anywhere near enough football together.
Compounding this is the fact that with no NEAFL season in 2020 and the 2021 VFL season only getting underway this weekend, there has been very little in-game scope for players to develop a team identity unless it was in the AFL side last year.
This is why Dew went with the same 17 players seemingly regardless of form with no reserve grade to draw on and only scratch matches against opponents who needed to borrow Suns players to make up the numbers.
The injury factor
The injury crisis is inescapable when analysing why the season hasn’t gone as well as hoped, with the club’s three ruckmen all going down with knee injuries, plus four first-choice defenders and the top choices at the past two drafts also out with knees for an indeterminate time.
Put it this way. Had Matt Rowell played every game this season so far, the Suns are probably on four wins. With Jarrod Witts as well, who knows how the Dogs game might have played out?
In 2020, in spite of whatever else went on, the Suns had one of the shortest injury lists, after years of having one of the longest, yet the curse seems to be back with a cruel vengeance (there is a superstition that Christopher Skase commissioned the Carrara Light Towers, but never paid for them, hence dooming all teams that played at the ground).
Where is the cavalry?
The forerunners arrived at the club at the end of 2018 via the special concessions in the form of Sam Collins, Josh Corbett and Chris Burgess, who the club was able to prelist after negotiating with the players ahead of the draft.
Collins is the club champion best and fairest from 2020, while Burgess has made his way into the senior team by dint of his swingman utility and ruck chopout, while Corbett has overcome some injury issues to win his spot back with a three goal performance in a losing team.
Mature-ager Jy Farrar was the revelation of the round in defence for the Suns, with the 24 year old second gamer manning up on much taller opponents and playing a starring role in the team’s second half resurgence, showing that the indigenous speedster from Halls Creek (cousin of Shane McAdam and Sam Petrevski-Seton) has done well under the mentorship of club stalwart, Jarrod Harbrow.
Former State Champion decathlete Patrick Murtagh showed enough in the VFL match against Footscray that he can chop out in the ruck and provide a forward threat, with the 21-year-old emerging key tall forward taking eight marks and having six shots on goal, albeit for only a 2.2 return, plus he was able to influence the stoppages with his big bodied presence.
Out of favour former first round draft picks, Brayden Fiorini and Will Brodie, were the pick of the Suns midfielders in the VFL, although neither are expected to get an AFL call-up with the Suns’ current mids performing admirably.
The Suns did have some experience left in the VFL, with recent recruit Rory Atkins having a strong game as he returns to full fitness from offseason surgery, while Jordan Murdoch and Jack Hombsch led an otherwise teenage backline admirably.
Injury room prognosis
The Suns have three players with TBC status who fans will be keen to have a timeline on for a late season return, with Matt Rowell expected to make a 2021 comeback, Sam Day hopeful of playing again this year, while 2020 pick #7 Elijah Hollands expected to come back through the VFL on his way to and AFL debut.
Jacob Townsend will be out until June with a facial fracture, while Sean Lemmens should exit his concussion protocol this week to resume his spot and Zac Smith could return as soon as Round 7, which makes him the only Suns ruckman available for the rest of the season.
Play the kids?
There are 11 Suns listed players who have not yet debuted, plus another couple of teenagers who have played but aren’t in the best 22 right now.
2019 high draft picks Sam Flanders and Jeremy Sharp are already blooded and have massive ceilings, however, they both need to take the VFL by storm before they get called into the senior team, while small forwards Mally Rosas and Hewago Oea (Ace) have been looking most likely to press their case for a debut, with both Academy graduates impressing on Saturday.
2020 Suns Academy graduates Aiden Fyfe and Rhys Nicholls are both high ceiling prospects, but at 18 years of age and having just made their VFL debuts, this pair have bright futures in Suns colours but should be considered as long term investments.
Unfortunately, highly rated pair Alex Davies and Joel Jeffrey found the pace of VFL tough sledding and despite being rated as first-round potential they are both looking like they need to develop against the semi-pros until they can bring their talent to bear.
Overdue for an opportunity, yet cruelled by untimely injury, Jez McLennan – picked at the end of the first round in 2018 – is pressing his case for a senior debut with strong form in the VFL and shapes as a potential Harbrow replacement in the longer term.
Midseason rookie draft
The Suns now have four possible vacancies coming up in June, with ruck likely to be the main priority if for nothing else than to ensure that the VFL side have a dedicated ruckman to lead the young greenhorns.
For the same reason, tall defenders are going to be targeted, although because the list is already at 49 players even a second player would need to be the right level of potential.
The problems addressed in the Dew rebuilding years have now turned into side effects of the solutions.
There’s little doubt that the Suns veterans have formed a brand of footy that is recognisable and can challenge good teams for long stretches of games, yet the team is yet to develop an identity that they can intimidate teams with because they have yet to set a baseline for what it takes to win the kinds of games they are currently losing.
The brand is distinct when it is unveiled, fast-moving footy, taking metres up the guts, chains of slick possession and scoring goals from forward pressure.
When it is not quite on, a team like the Bulldogs can pick it apart and be devastating on the rebound, while the Blues stifled it by taking away the quick transition from defence and the Crows midfield outlasted them.
The Suns haven’t kicked over 100 points since March 31st, 2018, when Tom Lynch kicked eight goals against Carlton at Docklands. You don’t have to be Leigh Matthews to know that teams who cannot find four goals a quarter don’t win many games.