It’s a funny thing with the Gold Coast fans – I get the feeling they’re more protective of their team, players, and organisation than any other supporters.
Whether that is due to the constant barrage from the AFL Media and fans online, questioning their club’s very existence, or the fact that this will be the 13th season of the side’s AFL life and they are yet to play finals, is unclear.
Maybe a bit from Column A and a bit from Column B?
As we head into the 2023 season, Stuart Dew and his players would be desperate to finally taste September football. It is difficult to build a club from the ground up. It is more difficult to do so in an area like the Gold Coast, with a history of failed sports franchises. Some would say it is damn near impossible to grow a club unless the side achieves some type of on-field success.
And that is where we now find this Gold Coast team. They are in desperate need of becoming a winning team. They have been on the other side of the equation for way too long.
After years of watching players walk in and walk out a couple of years later, they seem to have finally formed a solid nucleus of players capable of barging their way into the top eight. These blokes have bought in and put their faith in the team, and each other, to create a winning system. The hard work of Touk ‘No Days Off’ Miller, the re-signing of Matt Rowell, and the return from injury of Ben King… things finally seem to be falling into place.
Don’t jinx it, HB… don’t jinx it!
Can this be the year they finally break through and become a team everyone wants to see? Let’s jump in.
It’s that time of year, already.
Christmas and New Year are now disappearing in the rearview mirror, it is time to get serious. The holidays are finished for AFL players, and the hard stuff is well underway. Yes, the teams had been training for well over a month prior to Christmas, but as we head further into 2023, the ante is upped and the intensity increases.
This is where premierships are won and lost. This is where improvements are made and lists come together. This is where the culture is set. New faces, new colours, old heads with renewed passion… so much feeds into the making of a contender. And as the days tick down toward to the intra-club clashes, practice games, and eventually the real stuff, questions are raised about each team and how they’re going to perform in 2023.
We don’t do things by halves here, at The Mongrel. When we do a season preview, we go all out to make sure it is the best, most comprehensive coverage you’ll receive. We pride ourselves on it. If you are going to read one season preview for your team, or any team, this series provides it.
The way it works is as follows.
Each club has a minimum of 15 questions asked about their 2023 season, their coaches, their players, and their expectations. The answers are not glossed over. We dive deep on each and every one – some singular answers would normally be long enough for an entire column. The first five questions/answers are free for you to consume. The next 10-14 for each club are for our members, including a special appearance from Mrs Mongrel to throw her two cents in the mix.
You will not read a deeper season preview than this – I guarantee it.
And with that, let’s jump into The Big Questions relating to the Suns in 2023.
WHAT IS THE EXPECTATION FOR BEN KING IN 2023?
I oscillate between hope and fear with this one.
On the plus side, King has had over the full 12 months to recover from his ACL injury. Sometimes, you get a player coming back after nine or ten months and, although their body is deemed fine, it takes a little longer to start feeling comfortable with the mental side of coming back from an injury such as a knee reconstruction.
On the negative side, he is returning from an ACL injury, and that is never, ever easy, not matter how great your rehab has been.
Allow me to elaborate a little for those lucky enough to have never had a knee reconstruction.
At first, you feel as though the recovery will be a quick one. You get the surgery, you’re told it is successful, and after walking and getting around a bit, things start to feel normal-ish. It feels tight through the knee, but overall, you’re up and getting around and you start working on strength and flexibility. Months into the rehabilitation, your resolve starts to fade a little. This is NOT a quick recovery – you are not a miracle of modern medicine – you’re the same as everyone else. You have to do the work and be patient. It’s tiring and frustrating. You must keep going.
You get close to being declared right – you push hard, but sometimes you overcompensate and that can cause other issues. Finally, the docs are content that the knee is stable and you’ve done the work to strengthen the muscles around it that deteriorated with the lack of movement. You’re declared fit. You head back out onto the park and you run, jump and turn… and that’s where you feel it. It may be all in your head, but it is as though you are waiting for something to pop or buckle. Will the next move be the one that sees you crash to the turf, holding your knee again? It happened before – why won’t it happen again?
You fly for marks, but you’re always a little wary when you land. Sometimes you hit the deck when you possibly could have landed on your feet. You run a wide arc, trying not to turn too suddenly. The body may be able, but the mind is simply not ready to take the risk. As a result, you hold back a little – it makes you less of a player. You’re more cautious. You’re not entirely yourself.
And that is the battle Ben King will be working through with the sports psychologist as he prepares to resume what should be a stellar career.
He was the brightest star in the Suns’ sky when he went down injured, and whilst the team has made significant strides without him, it is clear that he is the difference between this side being the same old Suns and one that can push for finals.
Whether that is too much o place on his shoulders upon his return will be something worth keeping an eye on.
In 2021, King averaged over two goals per game and was trending upwards. If he is able to continue that trend as the Suns’ main target inside 50, things could be looking up. But I hate to place that expectation on him – all I really want to see is King get the first dozen or so games out of the way, find confidence in his body, and realise that he can still do what he was doing prior to being hurt. Hell, maybe he can do a little more.
And if we can somehow silence the little man sitting on his shoulder telling him to be careful, the key to the Suns’ finals hopes may just be able to take them to the Promised Land after all.
COULD WE SEE LEVI IN THE BACK HALF?
He was handy up forward in 2022, wasn’t he?
Levi Casboult was recruited as insurance, and he paid off handsomely… or as handsome as Levi gets, I suppose. Sure, he had some quieter games, but he was a consistent force in the air, often bringing the footy to ground when unable to mark it, to give the smalls a chance. On his merry way, he finished with 35 goals for the season – a fantastic result!
But with Ben King back in the side, and Mabior Chol jumping out of the box in 2022, where does this leave Levi in the Suns team? 2022 demonstrated that he is better than just an insurance policy – could they find a spot for him down back?
There is a strong argument that Casboult played his best stretch for Carlton as a defender. Able to hit the packs without someone hanging all over him, Carlton’s 2019 experiment of having the big fella stationed across half back was a success. From Round Eight through to 13 that season, Levi averaged 6.16 intercepts and 8.33 spoils per game.
For context, the leaders at the Suns in 2022 in those categories were Caleb Graham in one percenters (10.2) and Sam Collins in intercepts (7.32).
Levi’s brief flurry with defence had him averaging numbers that would have had him second in one-percenters last season (even in front of Sam Collins!) and third in intercepts. It is a weapon at Stuart Dew’s disposal that no one is really mentioning. Levi is a lot more versatile than people give him credit for.
Whilst there are other options the Suns can try forward, having Levi crashing into packs and killing contests in defence provides the Suns with a solid three-headed monster when it comes to big defenders. At 32, this is not a long-term project for the club, but with a big body and the ability to attack the footy in the air with abandon, moving Casboult to defence to aid his teammates may be the best way to light a fire under him in 2023.
What impact this has on others will be of interest, as well. I’ve often wondered how good Charlie Ballard could be if permitted to completely zone off his direct opponent and wander the back half. He has a habit of finding the footy even when it appears he is not the best-positioned bloke in the contest. Imagine how potent he’d be without really having to worry about defending one-on-one? He would be having a picnic back there with Casboult doing the heavy lifting that used to be allocated to him. If he was able to do that, I have a feeling a Best and Fairest could soon be on the cards for him if he had that luxury.
CAN BEN AINSWORTH MAKE PEOPLE FORGET ABOUT IZAK RANKINE?
I’ve said it before – Izak Rankine was always the sizzle. Ben Ainsworth had a bit more steak on the plate.
Whilst Rankine was a highlight package waiting to happen, there were things Ben Ainsworth was doing at Gold Coast that went largely unnoticed by the AFL Media and those who relentlessly feast on it. Rankine was mercurial, but Ainsworth learnt that there is more to being a good footballer than just the fancy stuff and his efforts to chase and set up his teammates were not lost on astute followers of the game.
The stats that jump out the most were Ainsworth’s unselfishness around goal, finishing second to only Christian Petracca in terms of goal assists for the season last year. Rankine may have finished with more goals (+4) but on the whole, Ainsworth was more of a team man in 2022. And that is the type of play that can and should elevate him to the status he now deserves amongst the league’s smaller forwards.
Ainsworth was still at over a goal per game, making him one of just four players to average a goal and a goal assist per game. The others were Tom Hawkins, Tom Papley, and our old mate – “I’m staying… I’m staying… goodbye” – Izak Rankine.
Whilst I am sure the Suns would have loved to lock Rankine away as another pillar of the side they’re building, the fact he has flown the coop should not have anyone panicking, by any stretch. Some teams can cover losses – others cannot. In the past, the Suns have struggled to fill the holes left behind by players who have wandered off to greener (or yellow and blacker) pastures, but in this case, the presence of Ben Ainsworth remains in place to cover for the loss of Rankine.
Overall result – better with both of them, but still pretty damn good with one. And it may even allow Ainsworth a little more room to grow.
When you add in the presence of Malcolm Rosas and perhaps Joel Jeffrey, the Suns have a bit of firepower at their disposal. Rankine leaving was about the fifth or sixth worst thing that could happen. You’d take that.
WHERE DO WE NOW SEE MATT ROWELL GOING FORWARD?
It would be easy to sit back and throw shade at Matt Rowell for not scaling the heights he was meant to, wouldn’t it?
But that would mean two things. Number one – it would indicate I have no idea what I am talking about, and number two – it would open me up to verbal, and perhaps physical assault from Mrs Mongrel, given her adoration of the young man.
More on the second one later – firstly, we should cover why those who talk down Rowell’s current standing in the game need to go away and get a clue.
Here is the thing – in 2022, Matt Rowell moved into the role of defensive midfielder. It was his job to position himself mostly on defensive side of his man, and protect the dangerous area behind his own ruckman. Not that Jarrod Witts was going to lose many hit outs decisively, but on the off-chance he did, guess who was there to ensure there was someone to deal with the fast break and make the opposition earn the footy?
That’s right, your old pal, Matt Rowell.
So, given that role, of course his numbers were going to be down, and of course his impact was going to be reduced. You cannot ask a player to focus on one aspect of the game and criticise him for not producing in another. Look over at Touk Miller to see the opposite effect – his damaging numbers (clearances, inside 50s) were up as a result of not having to focus so much on the defensive side of the game.
But that didn’t stop people from lamenting Rowell’s form. Far out… there were those who were still expecting Rowell to be the bloke who tore the game up in a three-week span in 2020. In this structure, that simply wasn’t going to happen.
For the record, Rowell averaged 18.55 touches per game in 2022 – above his 2020 average (though shorter games and one game prematurely ending due to injury need to be factored in) but the big win was his defensive pressure.
Rowell’s 7.18 tackles per game were good enough to position him third overall in the AFL, behind the maniacal Adelaide pair of Sam Berry and Rory Laird. That was the role he was allocated, and whilst some may not like it, he performed it admirably. If he is able to continue to bring the heat in 2022, we may see him able to move from the role of defensive midfielder as the Suns cycle through players capable of playing that position.
Look, I would be lying if I said that anything under 20 touches per game for Rowell in 2023 would not be disappointing. Whilst he has been asked to sacrifice fr the team, his talents are too valuable to be used solely to curtail the opposition. The Suns have players like Alex Davies, Tom Berry, or even Jed Anderson who would relish the chance to play more in the middle, even if it meant their focus was mostly on the defensive aspects of stoppages. That would allow Rowell to move into a more attacking position, much as it allowed Miller to.
People who believe that the career of Matt Rowell plateaued after his injuries are not looking at the big picture. He could run around with impunity and rack up touches, but if the Suns midfield is leaking breakaway clearances, what good would that do?
Matt Rowell put his hand up, and took the hit to his own game and numbers in order to have the team better balanced in the middle of the ground. The result was Touk Miller going ever so close to winning a Brownlow, and Noah Anderson having a career-best year, as well
And that might remind a few of the naysayers that players like Rowell – disciplined and committed – are often just doing as they’re asked within the structure. Criticising them is more a reflection on those doing it than the intended target, at times.
WHAT IS THE BEST POSITION FOR JACK LUKOSIUS?
Over the past couple of seasons, we have seen Jack Lukosius do everything for Gold Coast except cut the oranges… and even then, his hands were pretty sticky a couple of times – maybe he dabbled in the role?
He’s been a defender, with some success. He was their designated kicker from full-back, again with moderate success. He was a wingman, with slightly more success, and he was a key forward… with zero success.
At this stage of his career, Jack Lukosius is a true Jack of All Trades and a master of none. Yet to bed down a position, he floats around the field doing nothing of significance, whilst bouncing between looking flustered and desperate to disinterested and lackadaisical.
He is a riddle wrapped up in a question, sitting on a conundrum, having a cigarette. I call these players “nowhere men”.
So, given what we’ve seen, where do you put this bloke to capitalise on his obvious talents? I am sure Stuart Dew racks his brain thinking about this. Or maybe he is thinking about whether he should go back to the kitchen and eat the whole tray of lasagne.
The issue in Lukosius’ game I see is that he tends to make these powerful, penetrating thrusts… of the football (hehe) but when it comes to shorter, 25-metre passes, his skills sometimes let him down. It’s almost as though it is too easy for him, at times. Not to compare him to a former Sun in this regard, but Aaron Hall does something similar at North Melbourne – they both have brain fades. Although, in fairness, Hall does it way more often and costs his team more.
I cannot shake the feeling that Lukosius belongs on a wing. He is handy overhead without being powerful. He has speed without being lightning-quick. And when he finds the footy in space, he is capable of getting it out the back over the defenders’ heads to give his forwards a chance to run onto it. He is not a key forward – if he is going to play near goal, it has to be as the third forward behind King and Chol. I don’t quite think he is a defender – he looks annoyed at being there, at times.
The wing gives Lukosius a chance to play to his strengths, but it is important that he is given time and allowed to grow into the role. To switch him all over the field every couple of weeks… it probably saps his confidence and doesn’t give his teammates the chance to get to know where Jack likes to get the footy and where he likes to run.
This bloke is not Jimmy Bartel. He is not Mr Fix-It. Jimmy Bartel was an everywhere man. Lukosius, as it stands right now, is the opposite. He remains, however, a highly-skilled hybrid type player who could play the wing role like Jordan Dawson did in Adelaide through the first two months of the 2022 season.
And if he can do that at even remotely the same standard, the Suns will be asking why he didn’t play there all along.
This ends the free component of the article. The next five or so thousand words are for our members. Want to join us?