The Gold Coast Suns injury list may have looked horrific earlier in the season, but now with 45 fit players the club is looking to field two full teams in the AFL and VFL this coming weekend.
With the long-awaited VFL debut of No. 7 draft pick Elijah Hollands, return from injury for exciting Category B rookie Hewago ‘Ace’ Oea and the highly anticipated club debut of the quarantined midseason rookie Ned Moyle, the club will more than likely be able to field an entire reserves side from its playing list.
This is a significant milestone for the young club because it shows the progress that was demanded from the AFL Commission at the end of the 2018 season in terms of reducing the number of injuries and building a more resilient list.
However, injuries are still lingering after foundation Sun Rory Thompson ruptured his ACL in his good knee last year after missing 2019 with the same injury to the opposite knee, effectively wiping out his 2021 season and bringing his future into question.
The same injury cursed second-year Suns academy graduates Connor Budarick and Matt Conroy in the early rounds of this season. That came just before the bombshell that all Suns fans feared most: captain Jarrod Witts went down, and some were beginning to question why the club was suddenly suffering so many knee injuries.
And yet the fact of the matter is that all of these injuries were incurred in freakish accidents across a range of grounds and situations, with some coming during games and others during practice or match simulation. Perhaps most importantly, there appears to be no common denominator.
Furthermore, the players could not be in better hands with long-time Suns physiotherapist Alex Rigby managing the recovery and rehabilitation of the club’s injured players, having also worked in that role with the Melbourne Rebels and Cricket Australia.
From the time he became high-performance manager at the Suns in September 2018, Rigby has plotted the long-term fitness of the Suns list, both reducing injuries over the long term and increasing the team’s overall fitness loading.
Rigby has taken an extremely conservative approach to injury rehabilitation with some of the club’s stars, with Matt Rowell nursed through two key injuries and Izak Rankine red-shirted in his first year so that both could build a base of fitness to withstand the rigours of AFL.
Hollands is 16 months removed from his own ACL injury, with Suns medical staff taking a circumspect approach to getting him on the field given they inherited his rehabilitation nine months in and wanted him to take the extra months to tick every box in his recovery as well as prepare him for his first senior football match.
Such a long-view approach to fitness and resilience has benefitted the players who are regularly playing week to week to the point where a player like Jack Bowes could return so quickly from a hamstring injury that might previously have put him out for over a month.
The major benefit of the AFL, allowing the Suns to have an extended rookie list, is going to start to come to fruition this week, as the selectors have 90 per cent of the list to choose from. The VFL side will be the most stacked in the competition, with all spots taken by listed players.
The side will line up roughly like this:
B: Jy Farrar, Jack Hombsch, Jarrod Harbrow
HB: Jez McLennan, Caleb Graham, Aiden Fyfe
C: Jeremy Sharp, Will Brodie, Rory Atkins
HF: Elijah Hollands, Joel Jeffrey, Jacob Townsend
F: Josh Corbett, Patrick Murtagh, Malcolm Rosas Jnr
R: Ned Moyle, Brayden Fiorini, Alex Davies
Int: Hewago Paul-Oea, Darcy MacPherson, Jordan Murdoch, Luke Towey
It cannot be underestimated that the Suns list suffered development-wise during COVID with the cancellation of the second-tier competition – yes, all clubs suffered developmentally, but the Suns were coming off a very low base – and this year’s truncated VFL season has seen the club field some substandard teams.
Unlike other clubs in the VFL, the Suns have chosen to continue to use their under-19s players as top-ups instead of recruiting VFL-only players, which has seen the club having to resort to 17-year-olds while the first-choice academy players were away on NAB League duties.
A full complement of players who can play in their chosen positions and build on-field relationships with players who they may be playing alongside in coming years at senior level is invaluable to development.
For Hollands and Moyle to come into a team that has been building synergy and goes into this weekend’s match-up with Aspley as favourites, suddenly the Suns look pretty good heading into their final 12 games.
So why is this so important? The Suns have 11 players who are yet to make their AFL debuts, nine of whom are playing VFL this week and several of whom are playing for their AFL careers alongside a group of veterans whose AFL careers are coming to an end.
More injuries will come, that is a given, but there are eight young Suns Academy players who have just been named in the Allies squad who have been gathering excellent experience playing VFL and NAB League that will now either go on to play in the National Championships or fill spots in the VFL or else play senior footy for their QAFL sides.
This year’s academy crop is the deepest yet, with tall forward Will Bella, pacy outside midfielder Austin Harris, key defender Jack Johnston, rebounding halfback Bodhi Uwland, damaging small forward Max Pescud, top-age ruckman Tom Hofert, VFL inside midfielder Bailey Reeves and squad bolter Brinn Little selected in the 39-player Allies squad, the largest contingent of all.
But the Suns have further access to NT players, such as key forward Ned Stevens, while they may also match a bid on Gold Coast local Jye Lockett – yes, Plugger’s nephew – who is playing for GWV Rebels in the NAB League.
While the senior team is currently underwhelming and results aren’t showing progression, the lower end of the list and potential future players has never looked better.