According to my high school history class excursion, Ballarat is famous for two things: The Eureka Stockade and…. Um…. Damn, sorry Mr Thomas, I completely forgot the second one.

Whatever it was, it probably wasn’t as important as this game to Gold Coast supporters, and those who travelled and risked being stuck over the border would be delighted to come away with a win.

One silver lining to the covid cloud is seeing regional grounds play host to AFL footy, and the scenic mountains and old industrial buildings provided a fantastic backdrop for a game that meant a lot to both teams.

As the two newest entries into the AFL, Gold Coast and GWS are often measured against each other’s standard, which may be a bit unfair in some respects, but that’s just the way it is. With GWS needing a win to have a shot at getting back into the eight, and Gold Coast keen for the four points to stave off the constant criticism that seems to cling tighter than a surf lifesaver’s speedos, there was a lot more riding on this game than the fact it was 9th versus 14th would suggest.

 

The opening

You don’t have to like Toby Greene—and many don’t—but it’s hard to argue that you wouldn’t want him in your side. The opening few minutes were a bit of back and forth as both sides had a period of feeling out before Greene took a mark at around 65 out, runs around into a worse angle. Dermie on commentary called it as he was kicking, and his prognostication proved to be prophetic as he punched it between the posts from 55.

GWS continued to surge forward with regularity, but couldn’t quite manage a conversion, in no small part due to the pressure that the Suns were bringing to every contest. This pressure allowed them to get a few turnovers and push into their forward 50 to get a scramble through Ainsworth to a surprisingly open Touk Miller who converted to open the scoring for the Suns.

 

The Mid Game

More back and forth to open the second quarter, with the wind causing a bit of an issue on how the players are reading the ball in flight. Either that or they’re just having to adjust to the temperature going from almost nice in the sun and feeling like an arctic explorer as soon as the clouds come over and the wind picks up.

It took a nice long run from Tom Green through the middle to break the lines of the Gold Coast structure and find Himmelberg just out of range. Himmelberg threaded the needle to Whitfield between the Suns defenders, including a charging Jack Bowes who put a heavy body on him as he collected the mark. Whitfield got straight back up though and kicked a bit of an odd inside-out shot on his non-preferred right to put through the Giants’ second. While he seemed determined to play on, he kept squinting and looked like he wasn’t quite right, which was confirmed shortly after when he was subbed out due to concussion at the break.

It’s refreshing to see players able to use the most appropriate leg for the position, but the style of that kick was odd to say the least. Still six points though, so no complaints here.

Gold Coast once again increased their pressure on the ball carrier, and were able to force some nice turnovers to arrest the Giants’ forward movement. They went on a bit of a tear as the second quarter wound down, putting on four unanswered goals, with Sexton getting his first and a delightful dribbler out of the pack from Rory Atkins before Sexton popped up again with a back-of-the-pack snap that was the end result of a rapid Markov run from half back. Try saying that three times fast (I’ll settle for once if your name is Jonathan Brown). Sam Day stood tall in the square to take a nice contested mark to kick Gold Coasts fourth on the trot to see them go into half time with an eleven point lead.

The long break reinvigorated the Giants though, and they came out with some fire They quickly moved the ball forward through the corridor and a kind bounce coupled with some nice stepping from Toby Greene saw Himmelberg snap truly and kick the ball into what looked like a dairy pasture.

Gold Coast responded quickly though and while their forward 50 entries were a bit scrappy, there were enough to get the ball to Chris Burgess who was on the right side of a 50/50 in the back call. He seemed to line up his kick with the point post and off the boot it looked destined to end up nearly out on the full, but he judged the wind with all the expertise of a PGA Tour caddy and it curled back perfectly to slot through and keep GC’s lead above a goal. Everyone seemed to enjoy that one, and even David Rodan’s smile seemed wider than usual as he signalled the goal.

The Suns midfield was steadily gaining control around the stoppages, led by the bloke that everyone claims to have always liked in Touk Miller. This game them lots of forward movement and value when sticking to an attacking structure while GWS looked like they had abandoned their corridor movement in favour of keeping the ball on the skinny side and looking to take contested marks.

Sam Day took a regulation mark to set up his second goal, but the spearing pass into his leading lane from Lukosious will have Suns fans salivating. A long bomb to the spot 20 metres in front of goal is like turning up to your cousins wedding with a joke tie on—you won’t get many complaints, but everyone will be disappointed you didn’t put in a little more effort than that. Lukosious’ delivery though was like turning up to the wedding in a tailored tux, dancing a spirited foxtrot with the mother of the bride before announcing that you were picking up the bar tab for the evening and gave out uber vouchers for everyone to get home. The sharp low pass had just enough flight for Day to get under it, was placed just too far in front of the Giant’s defensive structure and perfectly weighted to drop into Day’s loving embrace. It was glorious.

GWS managed to rally and finally return to their open-style of movement that saw them use the corridor as part of their transition game. The change saw them pile on four goals to end the quarter, including a goal-line snipe from Toby Greene that Matt Rowell will be looking over the footage to understand what he did wrong to allow Greene to get that spot. The answer is “not much” and an argument could even be made that Greene gave him a shove in the numbers, but not many umpires will be comfortable calling that when it’s on the blind side of play.

 

The finish

GWS went into the final quarter with all the momentum and loads of belief. In the past, we’ve seen Gold Coast fade in exactly this sort of situation, unable to match the intensity that an opponent might bring in the tight games. This is a very different side, however, and their win over premiership-aspirant Richmond seems to have been the tonic they needed to believe they can match it with this GWS side that is fighting for a finals berth.

Touk Miller once again proved that he is the heart of the team, roving the pack and receiving a handball in traffic to convert a deceptively easy-looking shot from around 40 out. The way he kicks so cleanly made it seem almost a foregone conclusion as soon as it came off his boot, and pegged the margin back to seven points to ratchet up the pressure on GWs and bring the belief into his teammates.

Gold Coast shifted into once again protecting the corridor, but GWS just reverted to their skinny-side play that allowed them to take advantage of the Gold Coast defence pushing up to stop the quick movement of the ball. As their forward 50 entries mounted, it seemed almost inevitable that Greene would again make his presence felt, taking his opportunity from some forward pressure and kicking truly during a tackle.

Gold Coast refused to go away though, and responded by lifting once more as Rowell showed that he could do the same thing as Greene, but instead of a 15-metre snap he converted from 40 metres while being tacked and off a single step for the ball to bounce through and bring the margin back to five points with under four minutes on the clock.

I’m sure no one needs reminding about how classy Rowell is, but that goal shows just how consistent he is under pressure. His team is behind, time is running out and he can feel his opponent’s arms collecting him into a tackle, but he still has the confidence and presence of mind to kick the ball straight at the Mr Burns-looking goal umpire and bounce it through. Seems like a likeable kid too.

Gold Coast’s pressure paid dividends again shortly after as they managed to hassle the GWS defence out of taking advantage of a Ben King dropped mark to turn it into a forward entry and a shot from the goal square to David Swallow. In the play, he actually hit the post, but in his desperation, GWS defender Isaac Cumming put his hands in the back of Swallow and he was rewarded with an easy shot from the square.

It’s hard to be upset at Cummings here though. Watching it live, it seemed a stiff penalty, but the replay showed a definite (if slight) push. Without that pressure though, Swallow would almost certainly have goaled, so nothing of value was lost. If given the choice, a defender will often risk giving away a free kick over seeing an opponent stroll into an open goal.

Swallow’s shot gave the suns the lead for the first time in the quarter with just under three minutes to play, but GWS won the centre clearance to surge forward again through a beautiful bit of ruckwork with Mumford tapping to a running Callan Ward, but the accountability of the GC defence made every matchup a contest. GWS leaned into the sort of gritty play that these moments often require.

Ballard managed to recover the ball and kick a 60 metre clearing punt that dribbled across the boundary line that saw a few Giants fans plead for a deliberate free, and based on how the rule has been interpreted this season they may feel a bit sour at not getting it. They managed to mount another forward pish though, with Jessie Hogan popping up for a contested mark and Brent Daniels managing to collect the ball and find some space inside the forward 50. A moment of indecision between taking his shot and dropping the ball ahead of a hard-running Jeremy Finlayson meant that Jack Bowes managed to take an easy mark a the top of the goal square, and showing why having a stay-at-home backman can sometimes be the smart move. No idea if that was structural or Bowes own decision to play that role, but it likely won the game for the Suns by denying GWS even a dribbling point to level the score.

Bowes must have been feeling very proud of himself, but as any of the New South Welshmen in attendance could tell you, pride comes before the fall, as he tried to finesse a pass to a teammate near the boundary, only for the ball to go out on the full and Stewie Dew in the box to drop his head into his hands to cover what was surely a choice selection of words that you only hear in a dock-worker game of euchre. Worse still, with the game on the line it was livewire Toby Greene once again stepping up to take the shot.

Greene seems to thrive on the pressure of these moments, so you would have to be either an eternal optimist or completely oblivious to think the game was in the bag for the suns as he lined up his kick with under two minutes remaining in the match. It’s the sort of moment every kid dreams of, you’re a point down, tight angle and swirling winds. Unfortunately for Greene, the wind seemed to hold up the bend on his kick and Charlie Ballard took a mark in the goal square that was remarkably uncontested. It’s likely that Mumford and Hogan misread the flight of the ball, but there absolutely needed to be someone in front if the ball was to drop short due to the cross breeze.

Ballard learned from Bowes though, and simply launched it forward on the skinny side, happy to see it go out for a throw in.

With such a tight margin and tired bodies, clean football was sacrificed for sheer gut-running and pure willpower. Touk Miller once again stepped up, collecting three possessions in the pack to try and find someone able to shift the ball out of defence, but it only resulted in a Himmelberg mark on the wing to set up another GWS forward drive with the clock showing a single minute remaining in the match and GC leading by the smallest of margins.

Josh Kelly showed why he’s considered the Rolls Royce of the competition with a clearance from the pack to find Hopper who blindly bombed the ball forward in hopes of finding a target or at least setting up a behind to level the score.

Once again, Gold Coast’s ability to stick to their structure paid off though, with Will Powell taking a contested mark, though Bowes might consider himself extremely lucky that his leap for the mark wasn’t considered an unrealistic attempt as he climbed on the back of Phil Davis. Take it as an even-up from Greene not getting penalised for the push on Rowell, but that one was probably a free kick 70% of the time from my eyes.

Powell decided that being effective was more important than being clever by a long bomb to the boundary side, but GWs managed to recover and surge in once again. The GWS forward line was more congested than I was the last time I tried the Atkins diet, with about as much chance of anything getting through.

Both sides traded long kicks as the clock dropped below 30 seconds, but a late surge saw a scrappy kick sit up for Finlayson, only for Jesse Hogan to fly right into him and crash the pack to spill the ball. Phil Davis recovered the ball for GWS and saw the every-present Toby Greene surging forward with Daniels in support and to an outnumbered Bowes who tried to contest the ball. It was all too late though as just as he contacted the ball, the siren sounded to give Gold Coast the win by a point that saw Stewie Dew the happiest I’ve seen him since four ‘n’ twenty started doing steak and bacon pies at the G.

The difference

Strategically, both teams seem to play a very similar game style. They launched their attacks from half back runs through the middle to take advantage of players caught in the overlap. Markov was the key playmaker for the suns, but his pace was sometimes as problematic for his teammates as it was for the players chasing him.

GWS relied on the movement of Josh Kelly and Tom Greene to transition into attack, but the Gold Coast defensive structure was able to make a contest of a lot of these forward entries. They didn’t win them all, but sometimes in the modern game, making a contest is all you can ask of defenders.

That pace difference and the back lines’ willingness to man up quickly proved to be the difference, forcing rushed or awkward shots from the GWs forward line while transitioning quickly to allow the Gold Coast attack to take advantage of more open space.

In the middle

Miller vs Kelly, Rowell vs Taranto and Hopper vs Swallow. That is worth the price of admission to any match. Unfortunately, the coaches didn’t want to give us that, and the stars very rarely lined up on each other, preferring to play a bit looser around the contest.

Both squads had impact, with Hopper and Kelly doing plenty of heavy lifting to match Miller and Ellis in contested possessions, but while Kelly’s in and under work was brilliant, he does his best for the squad when he can move outside as well. He was not afforded that space very often in this match, so he wasn’t able to bring players into the flow of the game as often as Miller and Swallow were able to do.

You would be hard-pressed to criticise any of the mids from either team though, especially in such a tight contest. Gold Coast seemed to be slightly more keen to have every single player tackle and pressure the ball carrier though, while a few players for the Giants looked a little less enthusiastic about putting in that extra burst. There are two schools of thought with that though, especially when GC were so keen to have multiple players tackling the person with the ball. If they can get it out, the opposition has the advantage in players able to influence the play, but if it sticks, it really, really sucks to be the meat in that sandwich. It’s hard enough to take a hit from an 80kg professional athlete moving at pace, but just as you bounce off from that contact you feel another equally fit and determined player hit you and squeeze the breath from your body… it’s just not enjoyable to anyone but the most devoted bondage enthusiasts… I mean… so I’ve heard anyway… From a friend—oh, no, you don’t know them. They’re from.. umm… Cairns.. or something.

It’s the sort of thing that gets forgotten in a win, but forms part of the review in a loss that will have players a little nervous as they enter the film room.

 

It’s Miller time

If there is anyone left sleeping on Touk Miller, give up on it already. He’s a genuine star who reads the play amazingly well, and always seems to be willing to put in the maximum effort.

The way he approaches the contest is interesting, as he’s often playing a middle ground between an inside and outside midfielder, which has hen move from the position that would allow him to get a quick handball to the in-and under if the ball is stifled and then extract it to either find a nearby open teammate by hand or step back and around to run off the pack.

Combine this with his ability to hit the scoreboard and you have a player that would find a home in any side in the comp if he wanted to. It’s to the credit of GC that he seems keen to be a member of the side for quite a while yet, as in the past players with his level of ability and interest have often been open to offers. Keep the lad happy and this Suns side will continue to rise.

 

The injuries

Hugh Greenwood seems to have hyperextended his knee in the first quarter after Shane Mumford looked like he pushed Sam Day into the contest and collected Greenwood’s knee while Greenwood was watching the ball in flight and battling Phil Davis. If it was any other player, it’d barely rate a mention, but Mumford has gained a bit of a reputation for being careless to an unacceptable level in some areas of the media (and outright accusations of thuggery in others). For what it’s worth, this one looked like just an unfortunate incident, but no doubt it’ll be a point of discussion during the week.

Greenwood missed last week for the birth of his child, so hopefully he’ll be mobile enough to get in some nappy duty. I don’t imagine any great supply of sympathy at home in this situation. “I hurt my knee” doesn’t hold a lot of water against “I pushed another human out of my nether regions”. Any childless blokes reading this, note that down. You do not want to learn that the hard way.

Lachie Whitfield took a heavy knock in his mark and shot at goal that saw him subbed off with concussion. With the current protocols, he will miss some football to recover. Sydney and Essendon would be matches that the Giants would have pencilled in for a win earlier in the season, but both teams are in brilliant form, and could very well upset the Giants and ruin their chances at finals, especially without the impact of Whitfield.

 

Other bits

I love how much David Rodan seems to enjoy his job. Bloke has a massive smile every time he signals a goal, and I’m all for it. Live your best life David, you glorious man you. Any criticism I ever level at the umpires, know that you will always be the exception.

The Covid situation in Sydney and the potential of being unable to get home would be a factor in the mental state of the GWS players, but it’s possibly outweighed by the sheer volume in schadenfreude directed at them from Victorians. I’m honestly shocked there wasn’t a moment in the game when a few hundred locals lifted their kilts and waved their nether regions Braveheart-style at the visitors from NSW. Any level of joy at the misfortune of others isn’t classy, but on the other hand it seems to have done wonders for the mental health of people in Melbourne when they can throw shade at Sydney-siders. The Sydnetians rarely seem to acknowledge the rivalry though, but then again most seem to rarely acknowledge anything west of the Paramatta Red Rooster restaurant, so Melbourne shouldn’t feel particularly singled out.

Isaac Cummings has been in the system a while, but this season he seems to have gone from a decent player to one who has some nice moments of impact. His disposal can still sometimes be problematic, but when you’re a defender kicking into the play with 30-odd players in front of you, that can happen, but his ability to hit a running target by foot and with low, hard passes that are hard to intercept has improved by a noticeable margin this year. He also seems like he’s caught a bit of Toby Greene’s hunger for the contest, and isn’t shy about a bit of niggle and bump himself, which will serve him well in his future.

In contrast, Jesse Hogan seemed to struggle to adjust to the conditions all day. He got quite a bit of the ball with 17 touches and eight marks (five contested) but had trouble finding teammates, running at less than 50% efficiency.

Ben King had a bit of a stinker, but the focus on him frees up Sam Day to have an impact. A couple more preseasons though and King will likely add the strength he needs to avoid being pushed out of the contest to his already high level of skill and ability to read the ball in flight. The conditions didn’t suit his game in this one, but still, only getting four touches might be forgiven, but adding zero tackles to it is a harder one to stomach.

 

Up Next

GWS return to play the latest “battle of the bridge” in Ballarat against a Sydney side riding high on confidence after taking care of the ladder-leading (at the time) Bulldogs.

GWS will have the advantage of understanding how the Ballarat ground plays, and will likely spend a fair bit of their week kicking around with the ever-present breeze that blasts through the city like a girlfriend warming her cold feet on your warm back under the blankets on a winter night.

What would have been a lock-in tip for GWS is now up in the air, but I think they’ll have a bit of sting in them after this loss and use it to see off Sydney, though that’s not a confident tip by any means.

Gold Coast head home to host that same Bulldogs side now smarting from the loss of the game and top spot. They will be buoyed by their win, while the dogs will be looking to keep Melbourne honest as they set up a run into the finals. The Bulldogs have just a little too much to play for in my book, and while the Suns will make a game of it, the smart money puts the sons of the West just ahead of the Suns in the North.