I have no compunctions about calling the Gold Coast Suns the problem children of the AFL. Welcome to part three of my season review series, today’s team the Gold Coast Suns.
This season was the third and final year of draft concessions for the Suns, as well as the penultimate year of coach Stuart Dew’s contract.
It was a year defined by atrocious losses and solid victories, a year marred by the conjecture surrounding the contracts of their highly touted draft picks, and a year of speculation surrounding the possibility of a move north for the greatest coaching talent in a generation in Alastair Clarkson.
Read on for my season review of the Gold Coast Suns.
Touk Miller in the guts
Touk Miller is a heart and soul player for the Suns. There were multiple matches where he just willed his side over the line. In particular his match against the Giants in Round 17 was massive, with two goals, 35 disposals and 14 tackles emblematic of the performances the hard running midfielder put in this season.
Miller was dramatically more damaging in an inside midfielder role. Whereas previously his quick hands separated him, it was his kicking and follow up efforts that left sides in his wake. He was finally club champion in a standout season that will only be marred by his ineligibility to win the Brownlow Medal.
Miller went to another level in the absence of key personnel this year and the only reason he is not more highly rated is because he is outside the Melbourne bubble, thus allowing him to contend without any added pressure.
Ben King and the mosquito fleet
Ben King is a super star. Of that, there is little debate. It is an absolute travesty that he kicked 47 goals and didn’t poll in the best and fairest voting at the end of the season. But it was not just King standing by his lonesome (though it felt that way at times) – he had the assistance of talented small and medium forwards in Alex Sexton (21 goals), Josh Corbett (23 goals), Izak Rankine (17 goals) and Brayden Ainsworth (12 goals) rounding out the top six goal scorers for the Suns.
Their performances become all the more impressive when you consider the midfield/forward roles that they were forced to play as well as their lowly position on the ladder. The Suns also have Joel Jeffrey, Malcom Rojas, and Sam Day waiting in the wings to take a greater role in the future.
If they can manage to get a more equitable distribution of goals, they can certainly push higher up the ladder and hopefully challenge for the eight next year.
Now, I don’t want to sound like Thom Roker here but the Suns really do have a good academy. Players like Conor Budarick, Malcolm Rojas (who recently extended), Joel Jeffrey, Hewago Paul Oea, and Alex Davies all shaping up as fantastic current or future first team players.
This academy is the biggest reason to keep the Suns where they are as it is providing ample talent for the club. I also know that the majority of the picks they will use at this year’s draft will go to the academy selections they have available. The one issue has been because of the COVID pandemic the development of these players has been stunted.
It seems every year the Suns are derailed by injuries and this season was no different, with Jarrod Witts going down with a season-ending ACL injury in Round 3.
Losing their captain, on top of early season injuries to Zac Smith and Matt Conroy was catastrophic for the Suns, leaving them decidedly light on in both the key position stocks and ruckmen, forcing them to rely on the medium talls in Josh Corbett and Chris Burgess, both of whom are sub-195 centimetres and not rucks in the slightest.
They did get Zac Smith back but he was frequently dropped for the increased pressure provided by Corbett and Burgess, who had more effective follow up in the centre or the ground.
In addition to this, we also had long term injuries to Conor Budarick (ACL), Brandon Ellis (hamstring), and Rory Thompson failing to get up yet again with another season derailed by injury. I don’t know whether the Suns constantly walk under ladders or past black cats but they need to ask questions of the injury management at the club, otherwise they will never flourish.
Making matters worse was a knee injury to Matt Rowell in Round 1. He returned a shell of himself later in the season in a new half forward/midfield role. He played 12 games, averaged 14.1 disposals, and kicked two goals.
It was a far cry from the Brownlow-Rising Star double that some were predicting he would obtain but he just seemed a little more reluctant after two long-term injuries in a syndesmosis and knee injury in consecutive years.
Another aspect is other players have gone ahead of Rowell, meaning he doesn’t have to do as much as he needed to last year. Exacerbating matters is the stunted growth of Izak Rankine who kicked 16 goals but was dropped towards the end of the year.
I am perhaps being a little harsh on these Suns players but they’ve had a privileged draft run and it’s about time they begin to show something, otherwise, I am left asking questions of the off-field management.
AFL assistance package
The AFL is desperate for the Gold Coast Suns to succeed despite them being in the black hole of Australian sport. Now, I’m not saying that the draft picks, ability to not have to match academy picks, extended rookie list and salary cap relief aren’t helping. I am saying that the AFL did not go far enough.
The Suns desperately need soft cap relief so they can hire good off-field strength and conditioning staff. The AFL have clearly set their hearts on having a Gold Coast side but the mistake they made was introducing the Greater Western Sydney side a year after that and now they are left rueing those decisions.
Will they keep their young talent?
Not if they put out another season like this one. They will lose one of Ben King, Izak Rankine and Jack Lukosius, all of whom are out of contract at the end of next year. The good news is they have the young core coming through their academy but they’ve been unable to develop them as there is no reserve league for them to play in.
It would almost be worth allowing the Suns side to enter the QAFL, allowing the players coming back from injury to develop more effectively. I think it is still 50-50 as to whether they can keep these players, particularly if they have another season like this one, but it is still up in the air as to how severe the damage will be next year.
I am certain the AFL will try everything to keep their talent up on the Gold Coast but they need to provide more assistance in the off-field department to develop culture and ensure they can thrive in the quagmire of Australian sport.
Will luring Clarko work?
Alastair Clarkson has been linked to every man and his dog since being forcibly ousted from Hawthorn. He has also been unequivocal that he will not coach next year, instead taking the Hawks to the cleaners. But recently news has come out that the Suns have tabled a $2 million per year offer for Clarkson to coach the Suns and provide them with the cache to keep the talent up there.
I actually believe he’d be a pretty good selection for the Suns as he provides a little more discipline, and his early experience at Hawthorn shows he knows how to coach a side with a bountiful draft haul. However, in order to do this, the Suns will require assistance from AFL head office either in subsidising their soft cap or waiving the fees for going over the soft cap.
But if Gillon McLachlan goes from the CEO chair I believe the Suns will find it significantly harder to get any assistance from the AFL.
Best win: Round 16 vs Richmond
In the second half of the year, the Suns beat a Richmond side with something to play for. The Tigers were charging towards the end of the game and the young Suns were able to hold their nerve and run out ten-point winners.
Making the win all the more significant was that it was after the bye, a part of the season that has been decidedly poor for the Suns in recent history. As a result, it was the best win of the season.
Best and fairest: Touk Miller
I have been clear – I rate the pocket sized dynamo and he earned his first club champion award this week in a cantor. He was huge for the Suns this year frequently winning games off his own boot and he will be a fantastic choice as captain when Jarrod Witts is ready to hand over. Miller is the very heart and soul of the Suns franchise.
The Suns may have fallen just short of their best season ever but some of the losses this year were woeful. Given the amount of young talent they have on their list, they should be recording more than seven wins as Stuart Dew fell to the lowest winning percentage of all three coaches at the Suns.
The only grade that I can give is an F with an asterisk. If they can dramatically improve their performance next year they may point to the changes made this year as the important steps towards finals.
Way-too-early prediction: 9th-18th
The Suns need to show something in this coming year, otherwise they will be the Launceston Llamas soon enough. This is why I have given them such a large range of positions as they could also potentially tank to give Clarkson the best draft hand.
But I think if they want to keep their players from the 2018 draft and onwards they will need to edge their way slightly closer to the eight and reduce the gap between their best and worst footy.
There you have it, folks. Part 3 is done and dusted. Come back tomorrow for Part 4: my review of the Adelaide Crows.