Much has been made of Gold Coast’s poor record without its phenomenal captain Gary Ablett. Since he went down in round 16, the club’s chances of a maiden finals appearance is in jeopardy despite a solid season which saw it positioned within the top 8 for several rounds in the middle of the year. However, while the matches against the Western Bulldogs and Brisbane were reminiscent of their fledgling years, many are overlooking the circumstances leading into those games in their haste to write off the Suns.
The Suns achieved a magnificent victory against perennial finals contenders Collingwood in round 16 – despite losing Ablett in the third quarter to a shoulder injury. Further crippled by injuries to Charlie Dixon, Trent McKenzie and Sean Lemmens, they were left with no fit players on the interchange bench in the final term. In an age where player rotations and time on the field is monitored to the second, the team only made 78 changes for the match and none in the last 20 minutes of the match.
The Suns are ranked 13th in the AFL for first quarter victories, only managing to win 41.2% of them, but when the depleted (without the influential McKenzie and Ablett) line-up faced off against the Bulldogs the Suns kept the game close; equalling scoring shots despite being down 2.3 to 5.1 in the first quarter. The remainder of the game was a close fought contest until, unsurprisingly given the toll taken on the Suns’ player’s bodies in round 16, the Bulldogs pulled away, slamming on six goals to the Suns two in the final term.
The malaise carried over to round 17, in which the Suns were positioned as favourites against Brisbane, despite further injuries – this time to the damaging Kade Kolodjashnij and the experienced Michael Rischitelli who was a late withdrawal. Gold Coast was lucky to only be down by 41 points at the end of the first quarter as the Lions harassed, out-worked and out-ran their crosstown rivals. Slim hopes of a revival were quashed when Dixon injured his groin in the first quarter, and first ruckman Zac Smith was benched from part-way through the second quarter with an ankle injury.
The Suns are ranked 18th for disposal efficiency in the AFL in 2014 at 70.4%. Yet, contrary to perception, in only five of the 15 matches Ablett played did he rank inside the top 10 for his team for clean use of ball. In 11 of Ablett’s 15 games he ranked below the Suns’ team average, with scintillating games against North Melbourne (89.3%), Adelaide (84%) and Collingwood (84.2%) contributing to his overall average of 69%.
A player’s ability to dispose of the ball cleanly is directly influenced by the amount of pressure that they are placed under by opposition players. Ablett receives a tremendous amount of pressure when pursuing and in possession of the ball, and of the top five winners of the ball in the league, he’s ranked second behind Scott Pendlebury (75.5%) for efficiency.
What Ablett does in practical terms is draw attention and heat away from his team-mates. He wins the hard ball and draws one, and sometimes two or more players, to him and gives his fellow players space to use the ball cleanly. The lack of his presence on the field undoubtedly influences the output of the Suns’ young players, and the amount of pressure they are placed under. Yet Ablett is not the only player missing from their arsenal.
The question has been raised if there is a flaw in Gold Coast’s recruitment process; whether the club has relied too heavily on Ablett. That view is simplistic, and overlooks an unfortunate slew of injuries to players who were recruited to bolster the Suns across the ground. In 2011, the Gold Coast recruited a number of experienced players to help support its young list.
Campbell Brown had played 159 games with the Hawks, and managed 46 for the Suns. Were it not for off-field transgressions that ultimately resulted in his release in December 2013, Brown at only 29 years of age would still be playing good AFL football. Jared Brennan played 119 games for Brisbane, and managed 54 for the Suns, and retired for family reasons rather than injuries in 2013. Nathan Bock was taken from Adelaide, an All-Australian defender with 113 games for the Crows – he played 21 games in his debut season, and was the vice-captain of the fledgling club. Bock suffered a freak on-field accident when he severely broke his leg in 2012, and complications from that injury ultimately ended his career this month.
Add into this equation Rischitelli (173 games) and Jarrod Harbrow (143 games), and you’ll see that Gold Coast recruited well to bolster the young players on its list. It’s circumstances that haven’t gone its way, with many of the important recruits succumbing to injury and retirement, leaving only 13 other players who have more than 50 games under their belts. Of those, Brandon Matera, Smith and McKenzie are injured.
While Ablett’s loss is undeniable, to list it as the primary motivator behind the Suns’ losses in the past two weeks overlooks the unfortunate combination of circumstances that contributed to lack lustre performances.
Against St Kilda, the injured Smith will be replaced with 17-gamer Daniel Gorringe and versatile forward Dixon by 14-gamer Tim Sumner. The good news is that the Suns will be bolstered against the Saints by the return of McKenzie and Rischitelli, who will add much needed experience to a line-up that has floundered under pressure in the previous two rounds. The curse of inconsistency has troubled many of the teams competing for the lower spots in the eight, and after Adelaide’s surprise loss to the Eagles, the Suns are still a good chance to see September. It is ultimately now essential that the team rallies against an in-form St Kilda this weekend to keep its final’s hopes alive.