The Gold Coast Suns are a team in trouble. Sadly, it’s nothing new for the second youngest club in the competition. Their first seven years in the league have delivered no finals appearances. With their headline act dealing with a personal situation that will certainly see him leave the club, the Suns find themselves faced with more problems than just their superstar wanting out.
Both CEO Mark Evans and newly appointed senior coach Stuart Dew are confronted with the monumental task of rebuilding a team that very few stars want to play for. Like it or not, Ablett is headed home this trade period. Brandon Matera and Adam Saad look set to pack their bags in the coming week as well, leaving precious few pieces for Dew to work with. As other teams secure crucial pieces to their game plans, it’s as though Dew will be equipped to play checkers while the other AFL coaches prepare to play chess.
It will take some courage and patience to turn this team around. There is no quick fix here, and none on the immediate horizon. The Gold Coast’s silence throughout the first week of the AFL trade period hammers home the fact they are looking at future plans, but must wait to see what pieces they have to play with.. They do have a pair of exceptional bookends in Steven May and Tom Lynch. Those two are the only real standouts in a team that finished 17th this season, after sitting 15th in 2016, and sixteenth in 2015.
To say the Suns have to improve is an understatement. They’re based in a rugby league stronghold, and their continued presence in the lower regions of the ladder does not aid in recruiting kids as supporters. Whilst I am sure everyone at the club has some sort of plan for improvement, it is obviously easier said than done. They lured the initial big fish in Ablett, and he continued to build on his stellar career, notching another Brownlow medal during his Gold Coast tenure, but the growth of the overall list in his time there hasn’t just stagnated; it’s gone backwards.
Gold Coast targeted some high quality veterans in their infancy. Names like Jared Brennan, Nathan Bock, Jarrod Harbrow, Campbell Brown and Michael Rischitelli complemented a talented group of youngsters. New stars like David Swallow, Dion Prestia, Charlie Dixon, Josh Caddy and Harley Bennell displayed immense potential, and looked set to capably carry the Gold Coast team for the next ten years. Looking at the names of those young players, only one remains – Swallow, and he is just now starting to perform again after almost two years on the sidelines injured.
Prestia and Caddy have enjoyed premiership success with Richmond, Dixon is now the star forward for the retooling Port Adelaide, whilst Bennell continues to make his way back to football with Fremantle. The Suns tried for a good mix of youth and experience, but the veterans fell away and the young talent simply ran.
The Suns also gambled on an untried, former, and now current rugby player, Karmichael Hunt. Remember him? Hunt worked hard for the Suns; his work ethic was lauded by all at the club, but he was not the answer to any of their on-field issues. Like Israel Folau in Greater Western Sydney, he provided little more than novelty value, though he did play a huge hand in one of the Suns’ greatest moments. Hunt’s goal after the siren against Richmond in Cairns to give them an unlikely win in 2012 remains one of the Suns’ greatest moments. How sad is it that?
The acquisition of both Jaeger O’Meara and Jack Martin in 2011 and 2012 respectively, from ‘mini-drafts’ looked like inspired moves. O’Meara, in particular, looked like a footballer immediately. He was smooth and silky, with the poise of a veteran. Thoughts of him, Ablett and Swallow wreaking havoc together in the middle of the ground were not too much of a stretch. Again, plans went awry. O’Meara joined Swallow on the sidelines for an extended period, leaving Gaz to shoulder the load.
O’Meara has since limped his way to Hawthorn where his knees continue to hamper him. On a bright note, however, Martin had his best season in 2017 after injury problems of his own hampered the start to his AFL career. Still, his output is nowhere near what was expected when the Suns gambled their national draft position to gain access to him.
Along the way, the Suns added names like Tom Murphy, Pearce Hanley, Matt Rosa, Greg Broughton and Jarrod Witts. These are not names that are going to improve your club. Gold Coast was looking like the waiting room at the AFL players’ retirement home.
We now sit at a crossroads for the Suns. Their list of valuable assets is small.
Tom Lynch is a star, but there is already so much talk about him leaving when his contract expires at the end of the 2018 season. Steven May is brick wall with legs, and one of the hardest men to beat one on one in the game. They possess pick 2 in this year’s national draft, and have previous first rounders on their list developing their games. However, the Suns have become experts in developing young players, only to watch them leave. What’s to say these youngsters won’t do the same? And if they do, how do the Suns stop this from becoming a never-ending cycle? A new strategy is required.
The first step is to re-sign Lynch. He is easily their best prospect, with some believing he could become a great of the game. He is about to enter his peak years and is on the radar of almost every team with money to spend in 2018. It’ll take a lot of work throughout the season, and some signs of on-field improvement to keep him in Queensland. The AFL has already said there’s ambassadorial money available for Lynch if he stays – in the vicinity of $1M. The Suns need Lynch’s signature, as playing with him could be the only lure for other players to join them, or to stay.
Second step – raid some talent. The Suns have the opportunity to sign players such as Rory Sloane, Andrew Gaff, or Tom Liberatore in the next off-season unless they sign contract extensions. They need to cease being the competition’s whipping boys and starting poaching quality mature players of their own. We have hardly heard a peep from the Suns over the last few days in terms of acquiring players. This is just not good enough.
Third step – Trade down in the draft. What’s that? Crazy, you say? Have a look at the Suns’ track record with top ten national draft picks.
In 2010 the Suns had six of the top ten picks. Four of those six are no longer with the club.
2011 saw Jaeger O’Meara selected in the mini-draft. He is gone. The Suns traded their 4th overall selection to obtain the rights to O’Meara. They had no other top ten pick.
2012 offered Jack Martin from the mini draft. The Suns traded their 2nd overall pick to obtain the rights to Martin. They had no other top ten pick.
2013. Kade Kolodjashnij was pick 5. He’s from Tasmania.
2014. Peter Wright was pick 8. Victorian.
2015. Callum Ah Chee was pick 8. He’s from W.A.
2016. Ben Ainsworth (Vic), Jack Scrimshaw (Vic), Will Brodie (Vic) and Jack Bowes (Qld) were all top ten picks. The jury is out on these guys, but the hope would be that Bowes, a Suns academy player, will commit long term to remain near home, and the others will stay as well.
A pessimist would look at the projected top picks in the 2017 draft and think, given the lack of Queensland talent in the mix, they’re probably going to lose whomever they pick up this year as well. Draft a Victorian, develop them, and then they leave; that’s what’s happening currently. The Suns may be better off using these sought-after picks to secure themselves players who want to come to their club through trade and build with them in mind. They need players with good heads on their shoulders, those who aren’t daunted by a world that extends past Melbourne’s city limits. You don’t find many at 17-18 years of age with that mindset. At 23 and above, it may be different.
Fourth step – solidify club culture. Dew and Evans need to cement their roles and new additions, George Stone and Shaun Hart need to be in for the long haul. No chopping, changing or sacking. A stable club is an attractive club. This is not Westeros; chaos is not a ladder. A united club approach to everything is required in order for players to even contemplate joining and/or staying.
This reboot of the Gold Coast Suns is by no means a last roll of the dice for them. The franchise is a valuable piece of the AFL puzzle, and will take quite a few more years to establish the kind of following expected of an AFL team. To do this, however, there needs to be some form of success. Greater Western Sydney are struggling to establish a fan base even with success. Without it, the Suns’ chances are slim.
The new coach and the CEO are aware that the Suns have an uphill battle ahead. They are not the destination club the AFL thought they could be. Their main selling points were warm weather, beaches and a relaxed lifestyle. No genuine AFL coverage, no culture, and no player retention have been their downfall. There’s nothing relaxed and laid back about building a winning team.
New leadership is in place - the challenge now is to steer this team towards success. Whilst not an insurmountable challenge, it is surely a daunting one. It’s time for the Suns to reset.
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