As ANZAC round continues, Sydney were looking at this game as a chance to solidify a top four spot on the ladder, but a young Gold Coast side broke a three-game losing streak to get their second win for the season in fairly impressive fashion.

Led by Touk Miller in the middle and with spearhead Ben King kicking a bag of five majors, the Suns just had too much run for the undermanned Swans, and made them pay for poor execution and a limited number of contributors.

 

ANZAC tradition

Anzac round games are actually pretty good in my opinion. I watch a bit of American sport, and their gung-ho, over-the-top worshipping of their armed forces seems a bit off to me. I think in Australia we balance it well between recognising and thanking those who fight on our behalf, while also acknowledging that war is hell, and recognise the sacrifice made by those who fight and those who give their lives.

I’m also glad we include the NZ national anthem in the ceremony. I think that most Aussies see NZ as that little cousin you used to hang out with as a kid. You may give them shit occasionally, but if they’re in trouble, you will always answer their call. I think that’s been reinforced even more in the pandemic where both countries have done a pretty good job by global standards.

It does seem like the rivalry is kind of one way though. Like when people from Adelaide say how much they hate Melbourne, but ask a Melburnian about the tension and they probably have no idea what it’s about, beyond stating once again that Port’s 39 SANFL premierships don’t count in the AFL.

But anyway, glad our sibling Kiwis got recognised.

 

So many injuries

It’d be dishonest to ignore how depleted Sydney were coming into this match. While an injury list is something every team has to deal with, Sydney had a lot of solid players out before the first bounce, and it got worse as the game went on.

With Franklin, Hickey and McCartin all out from last week’s side, there’s a big chunk of spine missing to go with the rebounding run of Rampe and the forward speed of Ronke. Throw in Naismith and they had to go with third-string ruckman, Sinclair (who I thought actually did very well, but linking up with mids is about knowing each other’s moves back-to-front, and Sinclair hasn’t played a full season since 2018).

Sydney did welcome back Isaac Heeney and James Rowbottom. Heeney in particular is a huge boost to have in the team, but it seemed that his hand injury is far from recovered. He came in with a fingerless glove on that the AFL hasn’t seen the like since Travis Cloke when he was at Collingwood, except it wasn’t one of the sticky ones he used, but rather something more like the Easton-branded gloves that were popular in the 90’s. He should have thrown on some coloured bike pants underneath his shorts and a pair of black Puma Kings to complete the ensemble.

During the game, George Hewitt took a hard hit from a clash of heads and was assessed off the field. They subbed him out, so he likely failed a concussion test.

It seemed that Nick Blakey was intended to be the second ruckman, having taken a few taps early in the first quarter, but a big clash of bodies in the first quarter saw him get a knee driven right into his thigh. Watching it live, it looked really bad as he cartwheeled over it and struggled to get the leg to bear his weight. He’s probably got some very nasty bruising from it, which may sound minor, but when a big part of your game is based on mobility and leaping, a muscle bleeding into itself isn’t something you can just play through as normal.

I don’t know if he had some painkillers or not, but getting back onto the ground would have been a tough ask, however, he did it. He went forward and seemed to take Sam Reid’s role well, offering options frequently. Blakey already has a lot of hype around him, but seeing him keep at it while obviously hobbling will do his reputation no harm amongst his teammates. He didn’t have much impact on the stat sheet, but that sort of toughness from a young lad that is listed as 80kg (I reckon someone else may have had a toe on the scale there, too) lifts all the blokes around him.

Gold Coast are missing best 22 players too though, including Day, Smith, Witts, Townsend as well as highly-touted rookies/second-year men, Elijah Hollands and Matt Rowell. As bad as these are though, I’d say Sydney are far more affected in both experience and their outs being core elements of their game plan, especially with the two game-day injuries.

Still, as the saying goes, you can only play the team on the park, and the Suns had a lot more players willing to put in than Sydney did.

 

Rucks and the guts

For Sydney, Sinclair and Reid dominated the taps with 54 to Callum and Sam chipping in with 18 vs the combined tally of 20 for the whole Gold Coast team. They were simply a class above in getting hands to the ball, and did so at centre bounces as well as around the ground stoppages.

The problem is that this domination did not translate into clearances.

With Sinclair in his first game for Sydney since Round 18 last year, it might be easy to imagine that he’s just not quite in sync with his midfielders to give them the service they wanted, and as mentioned earlier, I don’t think Reid was supposed to be the one helping him out in the taps, so he’d be struggling to adjust on the fly.

Sydney did win the centre clearances 12-10, but much of that was a result of the hard work done by Luke Parker and Josh Kennedy to read the ruck battle. Kennedy finished with 42 touches, and showed a lot of class with his decision-making. He seemed to know exactly when a long option needed to be taken, but wasn’t’ afraid for a short handball when they needed to work their way out of a pack.

Kennedy also had a game-high 11 clearances and put on some nice tackles in an attempt to stop the run of the Suns midfield.

Luke Parker assisted with 36 touches (18 contested) but from there on, the contribution of Sydney’s runners gets a bit thinner.

Chad Warner chipped in too, but he seemed to be splitting his time between making his own space, and trying to negate a rampant Touk Miller’s impact.

Touk Miller was by far the best on ground today. He’s having a fantastic season, especially for someone that seems to be flying so far under the radar. He picked up 16 first-quarter touches at 70% efficiency. His work was just as good as an inside mid as it was when he found space, with 17 of his 36 disposals being in the contest.

Miller was complemented by Swallow in a similar role, with both willing to earn their own ball as well as run to present options. Swallow also provided solid leadership on the field, instructing his players on their best options while being constantly moving and hassling opponents who seemed to be glancing at the bench longingly.

 

The difference: I50s

Sydney actually won the inside 50 entry count 53-52, but the quality of those entries and the ability to lock it in there could not have been more contrasting.

Sydney were often blasting it in, only for it to be intercepted and banged back out. Part of this may be that Blakey wasn’t able to play the contested marking forward like Reid does (or Franklin for that matter), but even with Buddy in the side, he’d be hard pressed to put many on the board with the ugly disposal into the 50 that Sydney served up today.

There are three key stats that tell the story here:

 

Marks inside 50:

Gold Coast: 15 to Sydney: 8

If you have a midfield that can draw a key forward to the ball and hit them on the chest more than five times a game, chances are they’d be happy with that. I don’t think Sydney managed to do more than five for their whole forward line today. Far too often the inside 50 kick was to a pack of Gold Coast players, and even when it was to a Swan, Gold Coast was far too well set up around the contest. They would often have a couple of players doing the hard stuff, but kept their structure outside the contest to allow them to move the ball out of the zone rapidly.

Efficiency inside 50:

Gold Coast: 57.7% to Sydney: 24.5%

Sydney were just terrible at finding good, running players to move the ball into an attacking zone. So often a dropped mark was put into a spot that wasn’t to Sydney’s advantage. A basic tenet of forward craft is that if you have to bring the ball to ground, keep it in front unless you can see a teammate running towards the back of the contest. Sydney too often did the opposite, allowing Brandon Ellis, Jack Bowes, and Oleg Markov to launch a rebounding attack that went end-to-end alarmingly often.

Tackles inside 50:

Gold Coast: 21 to Sydney: 8

An old poet Keats once wrote that “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”, and I’m pretty sure he was talking about forwards who put physical pressure on defenders. Nothing gets a coach (or a supporter) more heated than a forward who just lets the defence break their tackles, or worse still, gives only a token chase before calling someone else can do it while they meander back to position.

Nick Holman put on a clinic in forward pressure today, making 13 tackles with many of them in attack. Rankine and Miller also were ferocious with their tackling, and that physicality seemed to have a few Sydney defenders a little hesitant to take them on.

 

Touk Miller

As I’ve said earlier, Miller is criminally underrated in most circles. He’s putting in career-best numbers across the board, and his ability to put pressure on opposition players is inspiring to watch.

There was a key play where he managed to chase down Papley just before he was about to kick into the forward 50 and tackle him before he could dispose of the ball effectively. Papley is as quick as they come, and a very difficult player to hold when he’s up to speed, yet Miller just dump and rolled him with eyes on the next contest before he was even standing up again.

His partnership with David Swallow is stronger than ever, with both working in tandem brilliantly. Throw in some nice wingmen running by in Lukosius and Anderson, and there’s a lot to like about the Gold Coast centre line.

 

Forwards

Ben King is in his third season, and starting to become the spearhead that has been expected of him since he was drafted.

At just 87kgs for his 202cm, he could probably stand to get on the protein a bit, but his mobility and bodywork are already good enough for him to be the number 1 key forward in the squad for a generation.

Kicking five in this game, he looked dangerous every time the ball came into the forward 50. A large part of this is the quality of delivery from the mids, as well as the forwards like Rankine and Ainsworth frequently looking to spot him up when they were collecting a loose ball in attack.

Rankine and Ainsworth were dangerous in their own right as well, contributing two goals and 3.1 respectively.

 

Defence

A running defender is such an important part of the modern game. A fast, rebounding playmaker lets a team transition from defence to attack quick enough to catch the opposition out of position and get the ball into an open forward line. Sydney often rely on Dane Rampe in this role, but with his injury, it seemed few were willing or able to take on the responsibility of quarterbacking the transition game, while still being accountable for their opponent.

GC didn’t have this problem, and were very ably served by ex-Tiger, Oleg Markov.

Now, every running defender likes a good old 1-2. The give-get-give racks up the stats and also shows that you’re putting in the effort to the coach. Markov was relentless in his ability to be a viable option outside the contest, as well as earn his own ball in defence, but one play showed his commitment. He collected the ball, gave a nice 1-2 to get it back, throws out a don’t argue, gives it off with a kick forward, runs up to link up again after a couple of handballs, kicks to an open player just out of 50 who finds David Swallow, and Markov is still running to be an option (maybe even a better chance of conversion and closer to goal than Swallow) but Swallow puts it through anyway.

Any coach seeing that has to be impressed with effort like that, and it just kills opposition morale to see someone just burn off the half-dozen players pursuing him. It’d be interesting to see which assistant coach gave him the green light for that style of play, because I’m not sure Stuey Dew is terribly familiar with that sort of run.

 

GC on the up

Now, If this were, say, St Kilda, some sporting commentators may already be claiming that such rare form as this puts the team into flag contention and a clean sweep of the All-Australian team. Gold Coast seem to be a little more grounded in their self-assessment though, and in all honesty, Sydney have had a horror injury run, both before and during the game.

Having said that, there is a lot to enjoy in watching this Gold Coast team play. King, Miller and Ainsworth all had some nice leaps that should be added to highlight reels for the season, the defence is having some great run and gun moments and the younger brigade is moving into veteran-levels of confidence.

There’s still a ways to go, but it’s starting to feel a bit like the 2015 GWS team in terms of potential. The Suns aren’t a Ferrari just yet, more like an older Toyota Supra that someone has been tuning in their back yard. Like that car though, GC will surprise a few people with the pace and potential of their fast and furious transition game.

 

Other bits

Logan McDonald being omitted while Franklin is still injured might be the best thing for a young lad coming into the game, but it could also be a bit of a blow to his confidence. Still, he seems to have a good head on his shoulders, and Longmire knows a fair bit about this full forward caper.

Isaac Heeney had some great moments, such as in the first quarter where he managed to collect the ball while off-balance and offload it to a teammate running past at full speed, all within a fraction of a second. For all that though, he had some shocking moments too, especially when kicking. The commentary team seemed to suggest that the glove on his hand may have been responsible, but the fact the glove is covering a hand that had a fairly bad injury last week could be more of the problem I reckon.

 

Next up

Sydney will be even more depleted when they take on Geelong up in Sydney. Geelong just finished absolutely thrashing West Coast, and I think the Swans may dread a similar result. Longmire will likely play a fairly slow game to contain a very dangerous Geelong side, but I just can’t see where his forward options or defensive pressure will come from. Sydney will be desperate to respond though, so I don’t think they’ll get buried, but I’d say they’ll get beaten.

Gold Coast will take on Collingwood at the G in a game that is a very hard one to pick. Both teams have a bit of Jekyll and Hyde about them, but I think GC may be in line for an upset win here as Collingwood are likely to put absolutely everything into their Anzac day game.

 

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