In a game more suited to the twilight slot on a Sunday evening, the Gold Coast Suns journeyed to Optus Stadium and took home the chocolates against an increasingly beleaguered West Coast side. Following an opening term that promised a match of high pressure, if nothing else, the Suns blew away their opponent with relative ease in the second quarter, kicking eight goals to one in a period of football that gave their fans yet another glimpse of the quality their team is capable of.
For the fifth week in a row, West Coast entered the quarter-time break with a score of 2.3.15, a remarkable record that would be celebrated were it not for the fact that their second quarters have been truly horrible. I mean that they’ve been seriously terrible. As a supporter, almost sickening; and tonight was no exception, as the Suns essentially did as they pleased, winning the clearance battle 12 to three and the contested possession battle 43 to 16. At the end of this dominance were forwards Ben King and Jack Lukosius, who kicked five of their combined six goals in the second quarter as the Suns obliterated a West Coast team seemingly incapable of halting any momentum swings against them.
The Suns had winners all over the park, from Charlie Ballard providing a level of defence that would make Durex nervous, to the midfield dominance of Matt Rowell, whose form will surely inspire a fascination with grass not seen since Cheech and Chong ruled the silver screen back in the late 1970s. Ruckman Jarrod Witts was the best big man on the park and elder statesmen David Swallow and Sam Day proved that they still have plenty of good days ahead of them.
Before we get carried away about the Suns, though, we need to address the elephant in the room. Every season since 2016, the Suns have entered round nine with at least a 3-5 win-loss record. From round nine onwards, however, they have a winning record of just one in five – that is, they have won just one of every five games they have played after round nine every season since 2016. This year, and particularly following the form they have built in their 70-point win over West Coast, presents the Suns with another opportunity to create history. Their next three rounds have them facing Brisbane, the Western Bulldogs and Adelaide. If they win two of those, they might just set themselves up for a historic tilt at September action.
Enough about the next few weeks. Let’s get stuck into the four points from the game.
Gold Coast’s Big 5
Coming into their round nine clash, the Suns ranked amongst the best in the competition in a few key categories; clearances and contested possessions. Ask anyone who has seen even a quarter of Gold Coast football over the last season and a bit and they would be able to tell you why this is the case; Rowell, Witts, Noah Anderson and Touk Miller. Where other teams may aim to share the midfield burden amongst a group of seven or eight players, the Suns, under coach Stewart Dew, have instead sought to place the weight of expectation on those who specialise in working at the coalface. In the absence of Miller, Swallow has stepped up and provided the experienced body that Anderson and Rowell still require. Tonight’s game was yet another example of why this midfield group works.
Amongst them, Anderson, Rowell and Swallow combined for more than 20 clearances, more than 30 contested possessions and almost 25 score involvements, a stat-line that no six Eagles, let alone three, could compete with. Throw in that Witts had 48 hit outs, 14 contested possessions (the second-most of the game) and seven score involvements of his own, and it’s a truly dominant performance from the Suns’ midfield brigade.
If Rowell, Witts and Anderson (with Swallow) make up the Suns’ big three in the midfield, then King and Lukosius are the big two up forward. King has long been regarded as an elite key forward of the competition, and with a clear run from injury seems to be building a level of form that will prove this statement correct. Lukosius, meanwhile, has been more of a slow burn. The number two pick from the same draft as King (who went at number five), Lukosius originally seemed destined to hold down a defensive post with his elite kicking seen as a weapon to be utilised from defensive 50. However, as is often the case for players of his size (six-foot-five in the old language) Lukosius has found himself being moved around from key defensive post, to loose man in defence and even up onto the wing.
This changing of roles saw him enter season 2023 under a bit of pressure grasp a place in the side and make it his own. A switch into forward line seems to have done the trick. While his goal-kicking still has a little work to do (he’s kicked 11.15 for the year so far) Lukosius has combined well with King and leads the Suns for score involvements, playing up the field and using his ability by foot to hurt opposition teams.
West Coast’s 2ndQuarter Woes
As I mentioned in the introduction, tonight was the fifth week in a row that West Coast have entered quarter-time with a score of 2.3.15. Only once – last week against Richmond – have they entered the half-time break with more than three goals (coincidentally, that was the only time over the last five weeks that West Coast entered quarter-time with a lead. Needless to say, the Eagles weren’t in front at half time). On average, West Coast have coughed up just over six goals per game across the last five in second quarters alone. This means that they are consistently entering half-time with the game done and dusted.
Tonight’s effort, where they gave up eight goals to one off the back of a contested possession and clearance disappearing act, the like of which would make Houdini jealous, is one that will surely stick in the craw of their midfield unit, if not the rest of the team. I know, I’m a supporter. West Coast have a truly astonishing injury list which means that young players are having to play roles they’re not yet ready for, and other players more suited to the fringes are having to be relied upon to try and do the heavy lifting, but I have to be honest, the consistency with which they all seem to go missing (the second quarter, and a little bit of the last quarter) would be impressive if it weren’t so soul crushing to watch.
The Land of Rising Sun
Coming into tonight’s match, I thought there was one very conspicuous aspect of the Suns’ forward line – it was bloody tall. Going by their heights on the AFL website, the Suns had four players six-foot-five or taller in their forward six – King (202cm), Mabior Chol (200cm), Day (196cm) and Lukosius (195cm). Admittedly, it’s not the first time this season that a side has tried to take advantage of West Coast’s lack of size behind the ball (Tom Barrass and Harry Edwards were the Eagles only tall defenders over six-foot-five), but it was certainly a selection that carried with it some risk. If the Suns could bring the ball into attack with speed and velocity, it would give their tall forwards a considerable advantage, however, if the Eagles could slow their ball movement down and give their defence enough time to set up and get numbers behind the ball, the size advantage of the Suns forwards could be mitigated, and even used against them on the counter-attack.
Of course, for anyone who has read this far into the review, you know which way the penny dropped. Between them, the Suns tall forwards managed 15 scoring shots for 9.6, with nine contested marks and almost 30 score involvements. As much as Barrass tried to wrangle the West Coast defence, his efforts, mighty as they were (he broke the 2023 record for spoils with 19 on the night) were far from enough. Edwards, in his first game of the year, will be better for the run and got better as the match wore on, while Josh Rotham seemed much more at home playing as the third/fourth tall defender, but still made some crucial errors.
At times, though, it wouldn’t have mattered who was playing in West Coast’s defensive 50, such was the ease with which the Suns were able to move the ball through the middle. There’s a probably apocryphal tale of a key defender about 20 years ago who, feeling under siege and believing his midfield’s lack of pressure was at fault, threw his arms up in the air and screamed to the heavens “MIDFIELDERS!!!”. I think at one point tonight, I almost saw Barrass do the same.
Does Tim Kelly get any help?
Maybe you read my piece on Tim Kelly from a couple of weeks ago, or maybe you didn’t, I don’t want to judge (but if you haven’t, please read it). In it, I made the point that West Coast paid a superstar price for a star player. And don’t get me wrong, Tim Kelly is a star! Tonight proved it again. He finished with 26 possessions and a goal, 17 contested possessions (a game-high, by the way), seven clearances and the second most pressure acts of any Eagle. Coming into tonight’s game he sat second in the competition for ground-ball gets and following tonight’s game, could well be first by the end of round nine.
Suffice it to say, Kelly had a good game tonight, and is having a great season this year. The problem for him is that there has been little to no help. Above, I mentioned that he had a game-high 17 contested possessions. The next best Eagles were Jack Petrucelle – a speedy half-forward flank thrown into the midfield after half-time – and Reuben Ginbey – a nine-game veteran – with nine a piece. There were five Suns in between Kelly and his two teammates.
Partially, of course, injuries are to blame for the gulf in class in the Eagles’ midfield. Their best-contested ball winners – captain Luke Shuey, Elliott Yeo and Nic Naitanui – were all in the stands and watching from afar tonight. However, that doesn’t let off the hook a player like Dom Sheed who is an experienced player, attended 21 centre bounces for no centre clearances, and only managed seven contested possessions. Kelly has been fighting the good fight for West Coast this year, and if there was a best-and-fairest vote conducted now he would surely win it by the length of the Flemington straight, but a critical mass will be reached at some point this year where the weight he is lifting will prove too much. One can only hope reinforcements are sent soon.
It was disappointing to see Jamaine Jones get subbed out of the game due to a suspected broken nose, following a collision with Gold Coast’s Wil Powell. To add insult to an ever-expanding injury list, Jack Darling looks to have injured his arm and will face some time on the sidelines too. Surely West Coast have a shortlist on who walked under a ladder inside while opening an umbrella and staring into the eyes of a black cat?
Bailey Humphrey had a nice night tonight, finishing with 20 touches and a goal. He looks a really good young player, explosive with nice touch and good goal instincts. Definitely one to keep an eye on.
I feel like I’ve really glossed over the game of Charlie Ballard, so allow me now to say a few words. He was incredible tonight, probably the best game I’ve seen him play. Admittedly, he’s been in pretty good form all year, and at 23 years of age is only going to get better. He looks to have built a nice bit of chemistry with fellow defender Sam Collins, and together they probably hold the key to the Suns finals prospects.
An almost night for Malcolm Rosas, finishing with 1.3. If he keeps getting to dangerous spots, and the Suns talls stay in the form they’re currently in, he could be appointment viewing.
My best-on-ground was, far and away, Matt Rowell. As good as Ballard was tonight, Rowell was exceptional. He got clearances when they mattered, made impactful tackles when he had to, and for an annoying amount of time just seemed to have the ball on a string. Hopefully tonight is a portent of something more special to come.
From an Eagles point-of-view, really impressed with the game of Ginbey. Admittedly, only 12 touches but to have racked up 16 tackles and five clearances shows just how strong his young body is.
It was also nice to see Oscar Allen kick two goals and remain the only player in the competition to have kicked multiple goals through each of the first nine rounds. In a team that truly stinks, that’s a fair effort.
The Suns head back home to take on Brisbane in the first Q-Clash of the year, while the Eagles will venture to the newest AFL state – Tasmania – to take on the Hawks.
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