“ARE YOU READY!” was the bellow from the lead GWS cheer member in the lead up to the bounce. It was a good sign that someone was keen for the contest. Poor bloke had yelled himself hoarse by halftime, but he probably went home feeling like he’d done his part for his team.

Before the season kicked off, you may have expected a team to come into this match searching for their first win, questions about players being felt out by other sides, and a coach with his future being the subject of hushed whispers and rumour, though you might not have expected GWS and Cameron to be the ones in that position.

And yet, sometimes all it takes is a little bit of fortune to spark some belief, and GWS made it happen in this match to ease up the pressure, and maybe even make some inroads on getting players like Taranto to stay a Giant, while the scrutiny shifts back to Dew and the Suns. That may not be a bad thing though, as they’ve been dealing with it for so long, the absence of speculation about contracts and was probably a little disconcerting for them.

The Opening

There’s an old saying that you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, and the one this GWS side left on the Suns outfit is a lasting one.

The most immediate impression was left by Brayden Preuss in his first outing for the Giants, and one of the rare occasions he’s been in the middle for the opening bounce. His deft tap to Tom Green was the sort of introduction that GWS were hoping for when they picked him up after he spent his whole career waiting for a chance to take over from first Todd Goldstein then Max Gawn. Many, many people questioned the wisdom of leaving North due to lack of opportunity, only to land under the guy that some are claiming to be the ruckman of a generation, but as far as learning opportunities go, it’s a pretty good one.

The opening few minutes set the story for the game. Green pushed the ball forward and Gold Coast defended well, but despite pushing up the ground often, they couldn’t find a good avenue to attack and were eventually caught out as GWS ran the ball out of defence.

The dangerous Touk Miller has long-time tagging machine Matt De Boer,  for company, with Lachie Ash swapping onto him regularly. Miller has turned heads for a while, but this level of preparation shows just how respected he is by opposing teams. It wasn’t a light tag either, with both looking to take every opportunity to get body-on-body contact, especially when both of them were in the vicinity. It was the sort of close double-teaming that would not have been out of place at a swingers convention…. So I’ve been told…

It was all about the Giants early on though, as they managed to hit the scoreboard hard by piling on the first five goals of the match. The first started with a long kick from Callum Ward on the wing, looking for Himmelberg at full forward. The ball went to ground and Taranto managed to somehow hassle himself into possessing the ball and finding some space, then drawing multiple defenders to free up Jesse Hogan for an easy snap from 15 metres out.

GWS didn’t waste any time getting their second either, with another quality tap from Preuss that allowed Josh Kelly to collect the ball and give a delightful handball to a running Tom Green. Green then kicks to Himmelberg with a low, hard pass that folds Himmelberg around the ball, rather than having him mark it out of any desire of his own. It was solid gold delivery and Himmelberg did it justice to get GWS their second in as many minutes.

Stephen Coniglio seemed to like the look of the pass too, as he drilled one into James Peatling in the 21-year-old’s first match of the season. It must have shook him a little though, as he pinged the ball off the woodwork with his shot, but it showed that Coniglio had dialled in his sights, and was looking to have a bit of a day out.

Gold Coast kept up a strong defence, but struggled to clear the ball beyond halfway as players flooded back to help out. Repeated forward entries took a toll and allowed De Boer,  to leave Miller and collect a pinpoint handball from Coniglio in the pack, sprint into space and kick a clean goal.

Three things would have had alarm bells ringing in the Suns’ coaches box at this point;

  1. De Boer,  was in good enough touch that he was willing to run off Miller confidently.
  2. Coniglio was able to collect the ball among a pack of players, spot De Boer,  running at a full sprint, and a bare fraction of a second later, hit him with a handpass that he was able to collect without even a minor hesitation in his sprint.
  3. They had only a single clearance for the match against GWS’s nine.

That’s no way to win a game, and no doubt the runner was advising the midfield group of the same thing as they reset for another bounce. Chol came into the ruck and managed to out-leap Preuss as the ball came down well to his side of the line and had him flat-footed. Chol pushed the ball forward, though GWS managed to collect, but Gold Coast still managed to push the ball into their forward line. Unfortunately, Levi Casboult infringed on Sam Taylor, and sent the ball back out with a free to the Suns.

The Suns were getting frustrated and wasted a chance with the ball deep in their forward line when Ben Ainsworth got a little too physical with Connor Idun, allowing him a free kick to clear the area, kicking long and tumbling the ball in front of Coniglio on the wing. Coniglio ran forward quickly and saw Lachlan Keeffe goal side on his opponent, and quickly kicked to the big fella’s advantage, giving the defence no way to spoil the 206cm ruckman’s mark dead in front just outside the goal square. Keeffe easily converted from that range and Gold Coast were looking concerned about their ability to find the scoreboard.

Miller was doing everything possible to have an impact, finally finding space and weaving through traffic on the wing to find Ainsworth on the 50 arc. Ainsworth spotted Chol in an open leading lane and hits him with a bullet pass for a mark, but Chol takes one step too many on his kick and is forced to lean back on the ball or kick into the man on the mark. He leans back a bit too much and sacrifices his accuracy, missing to the left, but opening Gold Coast’s account for the day.

GWS kept pushing though, and their dominance at the stoppages continued, with Whitfield collecting from a contested boundary throw in to spear a pass to Tom Green inside the attacking 50, which Green converted with ease, just to show he was feeling pretty good about his day so far, and rightfully so.

As the quarter wound down, Casboult pulled out a trademark contested grab that showed why Gold Coast wanted him in their squad. He had quality defenders in Sam Taylor and Nick Haynes sandwiching him and attempting to spoil from both sides, but still managed a mark that won’t be in many highlight reels, but was as difficult to do as any speccy you’ll see from the high-fliers in the league. Despite being just 10 metres out, he chose an around the corner style of kick that would have had Stewie Dew prepping a spray had it missed, but Levi was spared being mauled by the great grizzly bear of a man, and put through Gold Coast’s first.

 

Pushing forward

Dew did give the whole team a bit of a rev-up though, challenging them to do more at the contest and work for each other around the ball. The additional pressure gave GWS less space to work with keeping the ball bouncing back and forth between attacking 50s before Josh Kelly took a long bomb from 40 out on the boundary that sailed well across the face. Bobby Hill sat under it, but was well covered by Sean Lemmens. Hill positioned himself well though, protecting the drop of the ball and leaning back into Lemmens, who managed to push Hill off the spot, but didn’t get near the ball himself. Hill put a bit of mayo on the contact, making sure the umpire noticed and was rewarded with a shot from 15 for another GWS goal.

Team confidence is no small thing, and GWS were riding high. A big play came from a perfect Taranto tackle on Lachie Weller on the wing. As Weller collected the ball at speed, Taranto latched onto him with one arm and then pivoted around to shut the steel trap with the other. Weller stood up in the tackle very well, but Taranto’s momentum and sudden drop pulled him down with him, and was unlucky not to get the free. Taranto gathered the ball through and streaked forward to kick inside 50 with a bit of a rough entry and GC rebounded, only for Josh Kelly to leap sideways in front of Weller and punch the ball over the line to lock the ball into their forward line. From the boundary throw in, a spoil on Coniglio spilled in front of Whitfield who collected and kicked long to the square where Keeffe was standing tall. Here’s where the confidence comes in. Jesse Hogan loves a flying mark, and could have tried for this one, but he trusted his bigger teammate to get a hand to it, which he did, paddling the ball into Hogan’s lap and giving him an easy shot that he converted. More on that later.

Rowell was working hard all game, but his team struggled to give him room to work with Miller being tightly marked and GWS’s midfield covering the avenues out of the pack well. Still, Rowell is a quality player and eventually found a way to break through the contest and sprint from half back, reject several options in favour of Lukosius on his own 80 metres from goal. Lukosius then wheeled quickly to kick a low dart to Sexton 35 out, dead in front, which Sexton converted for his first goal of the year.

Gold Coast didn’t have much time to reflect on their goal though, as GWS pushed forward quickly. Gold Coast had thrown Chol back in defence to contest the height of Keeffe, and he positioned himself fairly well. He was testing the “disputation” rule with a withering glare at the umps when Peatling leapt into his back far too early to take the mark, but stopping Chol from jumping, giving Himmelberg a much easier chance at taking the grab, which he converted into his team’s eighth goal. At any other time in the history of the game, he’d have let his displeasure at that non-call be known (and it may even have been worth giving away the 50, Himmelberg wasn’t going to miss anyway), but the zero back-chat interpretation is here to stay, and no umpire has ever changed their mind because of a player giving them some lip.

Plus, with leagues around the country screaming out for umpires to rock up and take their money, showing that even the big league won’t tolerate the arguments with the umpires lets the people who pull on the offensively-yellow shirt on a weekend that they might make it through a game without copping it too badly. If you think your league is a polite one, give boundary umpiring a go for a game and at some stage, you’re guaranteed to hear all sorts of interesting insults directed your way.

The current rule is a pain in the arse, sure. It’s also playing into the “diva” reputation of some of the umpires, but overall, if it helps the people who officiate the grass-roots level of the game at the thousands of ovals around the country every weekend, well it’s good for the game overall.

 

Levi Casboult was Gold Coast’s best avenue to attack, and his job was made a little easier when Nick Haynes coming off limping and wincing as the doctor prodded his swollen (and unstrapped) ankle.

Much commentary was made about him not strapping his ankles. For anyone not familiar, the twisting and turning in the game, along with the height of the stops and instability of landing on them from a jump mean that rolling your ankle is a constant danger. Strapping the ankle with tape in a stirrup and/or figure 8 shape stops the ankle rolling over so easily. With the speed of the modern game, it’s even easier to step on a bit of harder ground at an angle that causes the stud to slip under you and for the ankle to bend a little too far. That’s why it was so surprising to many people watching that Haynes hadn’t taped himself up.

The pre-game tape-up is almost a ritual for a lot of players. Ankles are most common, with almost everyone getting them done. Then there’s anyone with shoulder history getting those strapped to avoid dislocation or awkward pulls. Knees are always a concern, and plenty of players with knee issues will strap those too. Wrists, thighs, thumbs, elbows… Every team across the country will have that one player who gets a little too familiar with the Elastoplast and trots out every week looking like the live test dummy for the local paramedic’s search and rescue course. Maybe Haynes just didn’t want to be that guy. He may rethink his position after being subbed out of the game a little later on though.

Casboult’s pack mark gave him a shot from 30, which he converted to bring the margin back to just over five goals, keeping his team’s hopes alive after a slow start for the Suns.

Some days, Casboult looks like he has magic hands. He throws them at a descending ball, and despite being surrounded by quality defenders, plucks the mark anyway. On his day, he is unbeatable in the air.

Last gasp

Another rev up during the break and Gold Coast came out swinging once again. Casboult managed a trademark contested grab for a goal that gave Gold Coast a sniff and started to get his teammates feeling the mood when he put through an easy 15 metre shot. Converting the easy ones was always the main critique of Casboult’s stint in the Navy Blue, so getting his set shots right will bring a smile to the Gold Coast supporters’ faces.

That smile was quickly wiped away as Gold Coast won the centre clearance and a long kick from Ainsworth seemed destined to land in Casboult’s hands, but Connor Idun positioned himself just well enough to spoil Casboult’s run at the ball, and he infringed on Noah Anderson’s attempt to mark. GWS quickly moved the ball end-to-end through the long kicking of Callum Ward, and the hard running of Taranto to collect the ball from Ash to easily pick out Jesse Hogan alone in the pocket. Hogan missed his kick, but the ease of movement from goal line to goal shot seemed to deflate the confidence of the squad.

The Suns switched to a slower, possession-based game style to stop the GWS attacking run on the rebound, but the persistent pressure that GWS were bringing caused several spills and halted their forward movement. Gold Coast had a lot of control of the play in the second, but couldn’t quite get the score on the board.

Something had to happen, and it was the long kick from Jesse Hogan 80 metres out that came to ground and ran through the hands of O’Halloran, Peatling and Ash before their constant movement opened up Green for a snap across his body, kicking GWS’s ninth goal of the game, and consolidating their momentum with a few minutes left on the clock for the quarter.

Cruising to victory

The five-goal margin didn’t indicate how well Gold Coast had played during the third quarter, but the scoreboard doesn’t reward effort, only results. The Suns were further discouraged when GWS won the tap for the restart, quickly moved the ball to Ash who took a long shot from 60, falling just short. GWS locked the ball in their forward line though, and a high ball to Himmelberg was paddled down to a waiting Taranto, giving him an easy handball and a stroll into goals for his first of the day.

While the replay shows how well-timed the handball was, it didn’t show how Taranto made that goal his own. He saw the contest beginning from 40 metres away and sprinted to put himself in position to gather the ball if Himmelberg couldn’t mark it. The timing and effort were superb, and will no doubt be mentioned in the team review back at Giants HQ.

What will also give them reasons to feel positive is the team goal that they manufactured shortly afterward, with Green, Taranto and Hill weaving through traffic together like sharks through a school of whiting to draw the defence too high, freeing up Keeffe and leaving Xavier O’Hallorhan and Himmelberg all alone in front of goal. Keeffe gets the ball to Himmelberg who decides he is a benevolent teammate and gifts a stroll-in goal to the young lad, his first of 2022.

Gold Coast looked like they dropped their heads a bit after that, with GWS absorbing the pressure the Suns were bringing, and responding with goals on the board. GWS also seemed to think the match was in the bag when Himmelberg took a strong mark from a long Preuss kick to convert and blow the lead out to 52 points.

GWS put the cue in the rack a bit at that point, but to the Suns’ credit, they continued to keep pushing, and managed to get the next three goals through two frees to Chol from Keeffe and Preuss along with a fantastic contested mark and goal to Nick Holman.

As the clock ran out, a long kick from Casboult attempted to find Chol who gathered the ball and was tackled, but deemed to be a dangerous tackle. His shot from 55 was as clean as you’d like, bringing the margin a little closer with less than a minute left on the clock, salvaging some pride if not the game.

While the final difference was 26 points, some of that can be attributed to GWS taking the foot off the pedal in the last ten minutes after blowing the margin beyond 50 points. Getting to that stage shows their ability, but giving up percentage isn’t something they will want to do too often in a season that is likely to throw up all sorts of random challenges.

Ruck battle

Few Rucks can claim to have had the apprenticeship that Braydon Preuss has had. Between Goldstein and Gawn, he’s had time to learn from two very accomplished ruckmen in the modern era. His game reflected that, and despite not having the gas tank of his two mentors, he managed to influence the game with some deft taps, and pure power at the contest.

There’s no point pretending Preuss is going to be an extra midfielder, because he just isn’t. He’s too bulky and doesn’t seem to have the endurance. What he does have is 120kg of angry apex predator in him, and this is the first match of his I can recall where he managed to combine his physicality at the contest, his dexterity in the ruck and his marking ability when forward of centre. If he can finish off his set shots better, he’ll be a dangerous part of a side already stacked with talent inside the centre square.

Witts worked hard all day, but Preuss takes the chocolates in this matchup, with more hit outs, clearances, tackles, disposals, marks and shots at goal. His five score involvements were excellent too, to cap off an all-round dominant performance from a player that has waited a long time to have a shot at being the number one ruck in a side.

If he can back up this performance and stay on the park, it’s going to be hard to deny him that mantle.

Midfield matchups

Miller, Rowell, Anderson, Ellis, Atkins and Sharp worked very hard, but it’s hard to claim too many winning matchups against Ward, Ash, De Boer, Coniglio, Kelly, Taranto and Green.

Rowell was brilliant in bursts, but with Miller tagged out of the game by Ash and de Boer, he couldn’t be inside and outside simultaneously.

Gold Coast’s first goal of their second quarter was one instance where the Suns looked decisive, quick, and confident in their kicking skills. It’s no coincidence that it started with Rowell, and while Lukosius had the football smarts to move the ball quickly, Rowell was shouting the play out to him as he did it. There are already plenty of columns filled with praise for Rowell, and to my mind it’s well deserved for his current ability, but his footy brain is extraordinary.

He had some Larry Bird-like ability to evaluate the movements of the players and predict where the avenue to goal would open up in several moves. All the more impressive because Larry Bird only had to worry about nine other bodies, while Rowell had to deal with a score of players, with several of them aiming to bury him into the turf at the time. He won’t just be special, he’ll be amazing when he’s in his prime.

Coniglio, Taranto and Green all had claims to be best on ground, and while Taranto’s 36 disposals, eight tackles and seven clearances were instrumental in the victory, Coniglio put on a masterclass with 32 touches, ten clearances, five tackles,

Coniglio’s 32 touches and ten clearances had a massive impact, his three misses have him slightly shaded by Taranto, who had more touches, tackles and 12 score involvements. If he had his kicking boots on and turned his three behinds into a goal or two, you’d have him at unbackable odds to take the three Charlie votes in this match.

Green was also massive for most of the match, adding clever movement to some team-lifting goals. And stats just short of the other two.

Forward craft

A confident forward line is ten times as dangerous as a talented, but uncoordinated one.

Early on, Hogan and Himmelberg were trying to take the same marks, leading into the same lanes, and mostly trying to play the same roles. It wasn’t a disaster, but it was very inefficient. Neither had the confidence to call out the play to the other, to tell one of them to stay down, take the back or front position, or even to lead away to drag their defender with them.

Once Himmelberg went further up the ground and Keeffe rested forward, Hogan looked like he’d accepted the role of opportunistic forward rather than the spearhead target, and it worked very well. He positioned himself in front of the pack so the ruckman could tap the ball to him and create opportunities. That level of trust between players—to believe that they’ll win their own ball or at least bring it into a place that you can take advantage from—is the number one thing that separates winning teams from also-rans. If multiple players are getting in each other’s way, it’s because they want to earn their own ball rather than trust their teammate to do it alone, and find a way to take an advantage from it when out-numbered.

The forward line is where it’s most obvious, but even further up the ground when Taranto or de Boer, were laying tackles, Coniglio and Green could have rushed in to add another body to the wrestle, but instead stuck to their structure a few metres away, ready to pounce if the ball spilled out. They would jump in if needed, but mostly trusted their teammates to create opportunities.

By comparison, Gold Coast’s forward line suffered from the problems that Hogan and Himmelberg had at the start of the match, but didn’t really work their way out of it until the game was beyond their reach and GWS had put the cue in the rack.

This was also due to the amount of hassle that GWS’ small forwards were bringing, with Peatling, Bruhn and even Hill laying on strong tackles when the opportunity presented itself.

While Chol got some late goals, it was Levi Casboult who was the better option up forward for the Suns. He’s always been a brilliant contested mark, but his finishing has been… well inconsistent is a nice way of putting it, though long-time Blues fans may throw a few extra expletives in there too.

If this match is an indication of how Casboult will go in the Suns’ uniform, they’ve got a very good pick up.

Under the pump

David Swallow seems like a quality bloke. He’s hard-working, supportive, and has the tackling ability of a bear trap that people often leave unacknowledged. Unfortunately, Gold Coast need a bit more from him. This is a match where he should have been able to spend time in the middle helping Miller break his tags while Rowell and Ainsworth provided outside options. He didn’t, and whether that was due to coaching instruction or some other factor, his output isn’t where it needs to be for this team.

Even if he was playing as instructed, few players get a reprieve for lacking impact just because they were doing as they were told, especially when the coach is under pressure. It isn’t fair, but if you’re looking for fairness, pick up a dictionary and check between “faeces” and “fart”, because the AFL isn’t the place you’ll find it.

Marbior Chol’s late three goals will look good on the stat sheet, but weren’t a realistic contribution to giving his team a chance at winning. Still, three goals is three goals, and he won’t be under too much pressure just yet.

Alex Sexton may need to throw a lamb leg behind Dew to distract him though, and make his escape while he’s busy reducing that to gnawed bone. Six touches and a goal isn’t enough from a player of his experience.

The question of the crowd

There’s no sugar-coating it; 4,014 is a pitiful crowd. By comparison, Adelaide v Dockers in the AFLW prelim attracted 5,452 and Melbourne v Brisbane had 6,436 bums in seats. Hell, it’s less than a third of last round’s clash between North Melbourne and a West Coast squad with more debutantes than a highland ball.

Now, there are a couple of mitigating circumstances. Firstly, it’s the first game there in almost a year due to COVID-related restrictions. People just got out of the habit.

Secondly, getting to Homebush isn’t convenient for many people at the best of times, especially when Sydney breeds toll roads faster than a teenage couple that subscribes to the “rhythm method”. The inconvenience is amplified with the current setting up for the Easter show. There are detours, parking restrictions, and carnies setting up vending machines that turn children into grown adults that have to find a career in toy marketing to survive.

Plus, (and no offence intended to the Suns fans on here) Gold Coast has shown a lot of promise, but they haven’t become a “must see” team for the non-diehard fans of GWS. That’s not to say they can’t become that, and honestly, I’d love to see a genuine rivalry develop between GWS and GC, but for the moment it’s just not quite there.

Lastly, there’s been loads of flooding and crap weather for ages around the area. As great as a day at the footy is, when you have to deal with the inconveniences mentioned above, plus adding a $20 per-beer-and-pie cost, heading off to the beach or a brewery beer garden offers a fairly attractive alternative.

Having said all that, it’s still a terrible crowd, and I hope it’s not an indicator of any lessening of interest in the team due to their upper-middle position, because it’ll hit them even harder when an eventual falloff comes at some stage.

Up Next

With a win on the board, GWS make the long trek to the other side of the country to take on the Dockers at Optus stadium. The Dockers easily accounted for West Coast at the same ground, but the Eagles are still reeling from an unsettled list and a number of injuries that have probably caused an increase to their health insurance premiums.

GWS is a bigger challenge for the Dockers, and despite the long trip, I think GWS have the grunt to get a win in the west. GWS by 15 points.

The Suns v will hope Casboult can make his old side regret letting him leave when they take on Carlton at Metricon. With an undefeated season so far, Carlton will be coming into this match full of confidence and rightful favourites, but it would be a very brave Blues fan that looked too far beyond this match. Carlton have promise, they have talent, they have a team working very well together…. But they also have a long history of letting their supporters down just when they looked to be making a run at finals.

Still, they just have a little too much form to ignore, and I think they’ll take the win by 22.

 

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