It was a Saturday afternoon battle between two sides that are at the back end of their respective rebuilds and are on the fast track back to relevance. The high-octane Adelaide Crows have the inside track, but these plucky Suns refuse to die, and with a new man at the helm, their maiden finals berth could only be weeks away. To get there, they’d need to conquer the Adelaide Oval fortress, a place where the Crows are near-invincible.
At quarter time, it looked like the Crows by how far, and triple figures was a realistic possibility. However, the Suns rolled up their sleeves and got to work reeling the Crows back in, and before too long, the Suns were less than two goals in arrears. But like good teams do, Adelaide weathered the storm, got their game back on track, and walked away with a hard-fought 28-point victory.
Here is what I loved from the finals defining battle between the Crows and the Suns.
THE YOUNG GUNS
Both teams are now at the back end of their respective rebuilds. Why am I telling you this? Because for a few seasons, young talent has been stockpiled at West Lakes and Surfer’s Paradise, and right now, the flowers are blossoming in a big way.
For the Crows, I want to focus on five players. Darcy Fogarty, Mitchell Hinge, Jake Soligo, Riley Thilthorpe, and Max Michalanney.
For all of Tex Walker’s brilliance this year, unfortunately, it has come at the expense of the natural development of the Crows’ other two key forwards, Fogarty and Thilthorpe. That’s not a criticism, because you should strike while the iron is hot, but I do have some small concerns when Walker decides to call it quits. Those concerns were put on ice on Saturday, because while Walker was well held by Sam Collins, both Fogarty stepped up and played a major role in the victory. Fogarty was the better of the two, with three goals from five shots at goal, to go with 19 disposals, ten marks, and eight tackles, six of which were inside forward 50. Thilthorpe’s goal kicking let him down, going 0 for 3 in front of the big sticks, but he still threw his weight around, spending time in the ruck, and gathering 15 touches, five marks, and four tackles.
Always remember, Mitchell Hinge was delisted by Brisbane. With Daniel Rich on the way out, how much do you think they’d love to have him patrolling the back half like he has been able to do so brilliantly this season? Saturday was the best game of Hinge’s career, and in many ways, it’s thanks to the absence of those around him. Hinge was everywhere, gaining 31 disposals, 15 contested possessions, seven marks, six score involvements, and 451 metres gained. Anyone can add a top 10 draft pick to their stocks, but finding a diamond in the rough takes careful precision. In Hinge and Ben Keays, Adelaide has struck gold, not once, but twice.
Then we come to the babies of the Crows clan, Jake Soligo, and Max Michalanney. Soligo has signed a major long-term contract, been dropped to the seconds, fined for making contact with an umpire, taken the AFL world by storm on more than a few occasions, and grown an ultra-impressive mullet, so it’s fair to say it’s been an eventful year for him. Saturday was a big step forward, with 16 disposals (10 contested), six marks, six tackles, and five clearances. That may not look like much on paper, but it was Soligo’s defensive work that was the most impressive, as it was the one part of his game that needed the most work. For Michalanney, it was more of the same from a career already so impressive in its infancy. Michalanney has only missed one match thus far and has needed to take on some big responsibilities at various points, more so since the injury to Tom Doedee. Michalanney registered 19 disposals and four marks on Saturday, but more importantly, he was always calm and poised with ball in hand, and much like his other 18 games, mistakes were a rarity.
For the Suns, we’ll talk about Will Powell, Sam Flanders, Mac Andrew, and Noah Anderson.
Starting with the defence, Charlie Ballard has enjoyed another breakout season, but he’s had a few down weeks, and part of that is the addition of Mac Andrew, who is looking more at home with each passing week. Sure, there were some off moments, which can happen with a young man still learning his craft, but some of Adelaide’s forward 50 entries were undefendable, and when Andrew was able to put his work in, he did so excellently. Andrew finished the afternoon with 15 disposals, eight marks and seven one-percenters, which doesn’t look like much on paper, but keep in mind that this was Andrew’s 18th AFL match, and he still has a lot left to learn, but he’s taking major steps in the right direction.
Rumours swirled in the aftermath of Stuart Dew’s sacking, that he didn’t see eye-to-eye on the career trajectory of Sam Flanders. I will always be a Dew supporter, but on Saturday’s performance, maybe Dew was wrong about stupid, sexy Flanders (IYKYK). Flanders was a shining light in a new-look Suns midfield, gathering 27 disposals, 12 contested possessions, four inside 50s, 20 pressure acts, and 331 metres gained.
But you can’t talk about young Suns midfielders without talking about the best of the bunch, Noah Anderson. Anderson wasn’t his team’s best on Saturday (but was close enough to it), with 22 disposals, 354 metres gained, and five defensive rebounds, but it’s his work across the whole of 2023 that makes Anderson so valuable now, and for many years to come. Everyone lauded Matt Rowell’s leadership potential in his draft year, but Anderson, the man drafted with the very next pick, has, I believe, overtaken Rowell in the future Suns captain sweepstakes.
It really sucks that he got injured, and is likely now out of the long term, but before he was prematurely taken out of the game, Will Powell was brilliant. Powell only spent 85 of the 130 game time minutes on the field, but in that time, he managed 20 disposals (17 kicks, and at 85% disposal efficiency), nine intercept possessions, eight marks, five defensive rebounds, and 493 metres gained. I only hope Powell shakes off his injury curse and forges a standout career for himself.
In Flanders, Anderson, Powell, Matt Rowell, Darcy MacPherson, Elijah Hollands, Bailey Humphrey, and Jy Farrar, the Suns have more than enough young guns that can rotate through the middle of the grind for the next decade plus. And they’re only just getting started.
THE COMEBACK OF CROUCH
I’ll be honest. I thought we’d seen the last of Matt Crouch at AFL level. Having watched him regularly dominate for the Crows SANFL side, I knew there was plenty of talent there, but questions always lingered that if a rebuilding Adelaide seemingly didn’t want him, why would a contender need someone that can absolutely grab the hard ball, but doesn’t appear to do enough damage by foot, and doesn’t possess the speed needed for the top level.
But in three games, Crouch has shown that not only does he belong in the AFL, it might still be at West Lakes where he plies his trade. Crouch has averaged 28 disposals, 11 contested possessions, nine score involvements, eight tackles, and seven clearances in his last three weeks, but more importantly, he has given the Crows another experienced head around the ball, and with his teammates taking the slack of speed and ball use, Crouch can simply focus on doing what he does best. And that’s all that matters.
I remember the first time I ever laid eyes on Jack Lukosius. It was the 2017 SANFL Preliminary Final. Lukosius’ Woodville-West Torrens lost the game, but in his league debut, Lukosius was absolutely spectacular. Regularly leaping at the football, Lukosius took strong marks at will and kicked four of his team’s eight goals. For a kid of barely 17 years of age to do all that in his first game, and on such a big occasion, says a lot about the calibre of player coming through the system.
Rightfully taken with pick 2 in the 2018 draft, I was quite surprised to see Lukosius begin his career as a rebounding defender. I figured maybe the Suns were getting maximum forward-half time into Ben King, given Lukosius’ exploits at junior level, and he’d slot into his rightful place the year after. However, Lukosius stayed in defence, and despite his lethally accurate foot, he felt a little wasted playing behind the ball. I tried to tell everyone that Lukosius was far better suited as a high-leaping key forward, but I was shot down at every turn.
Fast forward to 2023, and it has been vindication at its finest. With 36 goals from his 20 matches, Lukosius has proven that what I saw from the SANFL version of Lukosius was no fluke. This is a natural forward, capable of kicking goals wherever he is on the field, and this combination with King can wreak havoc on opposition defenders for a decade to come.
Having said all of that, whenever Lukosius was alongside a Crows debutant, he could do nothing except watch his opponent take all before him. Put simply, James Borlase’s first AFL game could not have gone better, blanketing every Suns forward that came his way. In the first quarter, it was Lukosius, and Borlase grabbed eight disposals to Lukosius’ three. Then Borlase went to Levi Casboult, and it was rinse and repeat. Ben King came and went, and it was back to Casboult where Borlase stayed for the rest of the game. Borlase finished with 18 disposals (at 100% efficiency), nine marks, and eight one-percenters, and while Casboult, King, and Lukosius all finished with two goals each, Borlase more than held his own in the back half.
When Jordon Butts joined Nick Murray and Tom Doedee on the sidelines for the remainder of the season, Adelaide’s defence seemed to be on the brink of disaster. But in Borlase, the Crows have found a player. A player that has been waiting in the wings seemingly forever, but was always overlooked, and looked to be destined for the scrap heap before his career had the chance to get off the ground. Borlase has the size, strength, and game awareness to be a defensive force for years to come, and gives the Crows an extra weapon to an already impressive defensive arsenal.
SPITTER THE TAGGER
Let’s not mince words here. It was an excellent coaching move from Steven King to blanket Adelaide captain Jordan Dawson with his most loyal follower, David Swallow. With Anderson, Rowell, Powell, and MacPherson around the ball, veteran Swallow isn’t as needed in the midfield anymore. But what he can be, at least for the foreseeable future, is a defensive-minded tagger, and he has plenty of experience to ensure that his direct opponent doesn’t have as much influence on the contest as you would expect.
Swallow only touched the ball 11 times on Saturday, but that is almost irrelevant. His opponent Dawson only had 23 disposals, and while that looks pretty good in isolation, Dawson couldn’t get his game going to the lofty standards he has set this season, and he registered eight clangers, highlighting the efforts Swallow went, to curb Dawson’s influence.
You’ll read all week about Hawthorn’s Finn Maginness and his efforts in curbing Nick Daicos, but when you bring up taggers, don’t sleep on David Swallow. On Saturday’s evidence, Swallow makes the Suns infinitely better by stopping, not starting.
SLOANE THE SUB
This new tactical sub-rule is going to be a huge blessing for the competition’s senior citizens. Players that are done and dusted after 200 games can now claw their way to 250 matches, simply by strategically playing fewer minutes each week. From the clubs’ perspective, having the luxury of unleashing a savvy veteran into the contest late in proceedings can give them that little extra edge they may need to get across the line, whilst having an extra coach on the bench to provide valuable analysis to the rest of the playing group.
This is especially evident for Rory Sloane, who is still giving plenty of grunt around the ball when he is inserted, but for the majority of the game, he is able to give his young teammates more time to develop in the midfield, and he can provide instant feedback when they come off the ground. For two weeks in a row, Sloane has needed to be activated sooner than expected, but he still averages 12 disposals, five contested possessions, four clearances, and one “ridiculous” screamer across the same period.
Both sides can take positives and negatives away from Saturday afternoon. Gold Coast started so poorly that I worried they’d be blown off the park and the vultures would once again come for the carcass. But in a pleasing sign of their improvement, they rallied themselves back into the game, and with a little more experience under the belts, could’ve fully chased the Crows down. They ultimately fell short, but at this stage of their development, they need to take positives from the losses.
For the Crows, they kept their finals hopes alive, and they did so by having to fight for it. When everything was clicking, Adelaide looked scintillating, but the middle part of the game didn’t go their way. Their defence is depleted, yet they kept Gold Coast to nine goals for the game. They’ve put together some impressive four-quarter performances, but they’re still a young team, and doing it consistently, which didn’t happen on Saturday, will be the key to becoming the feared and respected team they aspire to be.
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