After a number of disappointing years, and with the departure of their marquee star, the Gold Coast Suns have been the epitome of an off-Broadway show in 2018.
Due to the Commonwealth Games happening on the Gold Coast (remember that? We barely do), the Suns have hosted games at four venues other than their own home ground, and played to crowds of 3,722, 6060, 6,833 and 10,689 in stadia from Cairns to Ballarat to Shanghai.
The Suns have every game played on 7Mate in Queensland, but have not yet graced a free to air broadcast in Victoria. They’ve had a fraction more coverage in the western states, hitting the screens in two games in each state while playing their local sides (failing to win a game out of the four). They’ll be on NSW and ACT screens this weekend against the Giants, but they’ll only appear on Victorian or Tasmanian screens once this year, in round 20 against the Demons (who have already thrashed them once in 2018).
They’re also not going very well, and that’s consistent with previous years, meaning we can all be forgiven for not paying any attention.
However, under the surface of similarly unimpressive results, the Suns have quietly and completely changed the way they play under new coach Stuart Dew. It is a change so extreme even for a club with a new coach, that it’s well worth examining them for a reason other than attempting to psychoanalyse Tom Lynch.
Stuart Dew has his team using the ball like Stuart Dew did
Stuart Dew as a player was known, more than anything, for his booming, punishing long kicks, illustrated most perfectly by his fabled cameo in the 2008 grand final.
Over his career, he kicked the ball 1880 times and handballed it just 827 times, a kick to handball ratio of 2.27, well ahead of the league average. In his debut season as coach, he’s got the Suns very much into a “kick first” mindset, seemingly in his own image.
The kick to handball ratio are one indicator, but Gold Coast in 2018 have exhibited an unprecedented cumulative change across all the most pure “style” indicators we are tracking among our Team Statistics. Those are:
- Contested Possession Ratio (percentage of all possessions which are contested)
- Kick to Handball Ratio (kicks per handball)
- Kick to Uncontested Mark Ratio (kicks per uncontested mark)
- Opposition Kick to Uncontested Mark Ratio (opposition kicks per uncontested mark)
None of these indicators necessarily correlates with success, and there are good and bad teams at each end of the spectrum. For example, West Coast are a very kicking focused team, while Melbourne handball more than nearly any other team. West Coast find a lot of uncontested marks per kick, while Melbourne and Richmond find far fewer. There’s no one correct approach; just approaches that fit the talent a team has.
In terms of style, Gold Coast have gone from one extreme to the other within the league:
|Contested Possession Ratio||16th||1st|
|Kick to Handball Ratio||13th||2nd|
|Kicks to Uncontested Mark Ratio||15th||2nd|
|Opposition Kick to Uncontested Mark Ratio||11th||3rd|
They’re kicking a lot more, their possessions are far more contested, they’re taking far fewer uncontested marks per kick, and allowing far fewer uncontested marks per kick to their opposition.
This largely resembles the Richmond of 2017, who finished with the highest kick to handball ratio and the highest kick to uncontested mark ratio.
Overall, the statistics give the impression that they’ve shifted from ball-retention and looking for uncontested players, to one of the league’s most direct game styles, built around kicking immediately and not to loose players, and sticking tightly to opponents to deny marks.
Tackles is an increasingly suspect measure (in terms of how they’re defined and recorded), but they’re further supporting evidence of style change here, because Gold Coast leads the league in tackles per game this year after being last in 2017.
There’s always an aspect of “follow the premier” in football, and it appears that Gold Coast are diving right into this. It appears that they try to play direct, pressure heavy football.
We only have to look at the Suns’ ladder position to understand that a change in style doesn’t always augur a change in fortune, but the change is still extreme even for a side with a new coach. Indeed, it’s unprecedented in the 21st century.
If a club were to move from 1 to 18 or vice versa on all four of these measures from one year to the next, it would be a 68 position change on this table. Gold Coast’s cumulative movement of 45 places is the largest absolute shift in league rankings we’ve recorded since 2000, just ahead of Brenton Sanderson’s first year at the Crows which shifted them 44 places.
Dew has turned the Suns’ approach to football upside down.
Despite this, the Suns have 3 wins and 7 losses, a win behind this point in 2017, albeit with the excuse of a lack of home games so far. So, bearing in mind what this style change says about how they’re trying to play, let’s break them down across the park.
Defence has become the strength
Last year Gold Coast’s defensive record was just about the worst in the competition, according to the defence component of the HPN Team Ratings (points conceded per inside 50 conceded). This year they’ve been beleaguered but better than average. We currently place them about 5th on opponent-adjusted defensive rating, meaning they’ve been better than most at defending inside 50s.
In addition to any possibility that the new coach has brought more expertise or a stronger emphasis in defensive structure, we can attribute some of this improvement to personnel. None of the defenders currently achieving decent defensive standards according to Player Approximate Value (PAV) played more than 18 games last year.
|Player||2017 (22 games)||2018 (10 games)|
|Saad||22||0 (not at club)|
|Weller||0 (not at club)||10|
Thompson and May have been the pillars of the side for years when they can both get on the park, and are ably aided this year by an intriguing mix of lesser lights such as Harbrow, Kolodjashnij, Joyce, Rischitelli, Bowes, Hall, and Weller. Continuity hasn’t been perfect but a stable core consisting around May and Thompson seems to have steadied the defensive ship. Most of these names are quite young; perhaps one of the youngest defensive units in the league (outside of the Dogs).
With captain and best defender Steven May now out for over a month, however, this might get more difficult, but the signs are at least encouraging that they might be building something that’s sustainable for the future.
Out of options up forward
The tradeoff for improved defence seems to have been that Gold Coast’s ability to score has utterly atrophied. Either the kicking centric style isn’t giving the forward line good quality supply, or they’re struggling to convert the supply they’re getting. Or maybe both.
Last year the Suns were in the top half of the league measured by the offence component of HPN Team Ratings (points scored per inside 50). This was a reasonable return, built on Lynch, Wright, Witts, Hall, Matera, and occasionally Ablett. This year, they’re currently dead last in the same measure.
Their problems should become obvious from that list of who performed in 2017. Hall has played 6 games this year, but he has been used more around the ground (he’s averaging 4 rebound 50s per game). Ablett and Matera have left the club and not been replaced with as much offensive quality, with apologies to Aaron Young.
Sam Day has been the notional second key forward for parts of the year, contributing 9 goals and about a mark inside 50 per game. He’s had injury issues, and still has potential, but is also turning 26 this year.
Peter Wright, injured at the start of the year, is toiling away in the NEAFL as a part time ruck (mostly out of necessity), and he hasn’t scored a goal in his three matches. During Wright’s draft year, according to Emma Quayle’s book The Draftees, much was made of Wright disliking being asked to ruck just because he’s 2 metres tall, and he apparently always saw himself as a pure forward. He may have matured and changed attitudes towards ruck craft since then, but on the other hand, he kicked 31 goals last year, playing every game, and finishing second in goalkicking behind Lynch.
Wright is now in a 5th week and 4th potential senior game back from injury, and his continued absence from a struggling Suns forward line is bewildering. That’s especially so given the distinct possibility that Tom Lynch leaves in 12 games time, making Wright by default the most promising vaguely mature tall forward option.
What about Lynch himself? Here’s a bit of trivia: The last time the Suns won without Lynch was Round 23, 2013 when they beat GWS by 83 points.
Let’s repeat that:
The Suns haven’t won since 2013 without Tom Lynch.
They’ve lost every one of the eight games he’s missed since then. It’s fair to say he’s been the (sorry) Lynchpin of Gold Coast’s attack since their inception. Unfortunately, his output has declined from its 2016 high, when he averaged 3 goals and 7 marks (2.8 contested) per game. So far this year he’s down at 2.14 goals and just the 4.4 marks (1.4 contested) per game. It’s a significant drop, and given the loss of other offensive options it’s hard to see Gold Coast regularly kicking much of a score.
Notably, with just the one genuine marking target, the Suns are by a wide margin the worst team in the league for marks per inside 50. At 0.139 marks inside 50 per inside 50 entry, they’re twice as far from average as the second worst team, Carlton (0.173), from the league average (0.207).
We’ve spoken before about the fact that teams can succeed up forward without high numbers of marks inside 50 per entry, but most good sides are at least average here. The Suns are a very long way adrift of the pack. Multiply their inside 50 marking deficit across an assumed 50 inside 50s per game, and it’s less than 7 marks for the Suns, compared to a bit over 10 marks as a league average expectation per game. That’s three less good chances to shoot at goal every week, and can make a big difference.
The Suns have a handful of good smaller forwards, both realised (Jack Martin) and promising (Ben Ainsworth), but without a forward that can at least bring the ball to ground (let alone to create space by drawing defenders away) it makes their lives very hard.
Same old midfield
The Suns’ midfield is not going well and this hasn’t changed from last year just because they’ve got a high contested possession ratio and aren’t conceding so many uncontested marks. They are in midfield HPN Team Rating by far the weakest side in the middle, winning only 79% of the inside 50s of their opponent. Last year they were slightly better and sat second last, but only because the Lions were even worse. For every four inside 50s they give their forwards, they’re forcing their back line to defend five of them.
The trouble isn’t clearances, in which they have a slight per-game edge. Jarrod Witts is a quality tap ruckman, and the Suns have won 119% of their opponents’ hitouts this year, with Witts also getting a share of clearances himself. This year his stat line is eerily similar to (but slightly behind) Brodie Grundy, the man who kept him out of the Collingwood side. The territory battle is clearly being lost after the clearance, in general play.
Unsurprisingly the Suns average the most turnovers per game. They have also had the second least total disposals, behind Carlton and ahead of West Coast and North. Where they differ from the likes of the Eagles and North (ie, good teams) is that they’re not gaining territory effectively with their limited uncontested possessions and high kick counts.
One notable factor is they’re not taking contested marks from those kicks, with the Suns sitting last in the league, compared to West Coast’s 1st and North’s 8th.
The Suns midfielders are getting the ball and pretty much just kicking it, just like their coach used to do. When we look at our player rate statistics, every core midfielder for Gold Coast except Barlow (in one game) has a kick to handball ratio over 0.500, meaning none of them handpass more than they kick it. Whatever trying to do to move the ball upfield, so far it’s not working.
The core midfield contributors for the Suns have been Jarryd Lyons, Touk Miller and David Swallow. Lyons has rated as their best player after Witts on midfield Player Approximate Value but was bizarrely dumped to the NEAFL for the match against Geelong and isn’t being recalled against GWS. Also rating highly for midfield contribution in a limited number of games have been Brad Scheer, Michael Barlow and Brayden Fiorini.
The above names probably form the ideal extended midfield group at the Suns, but realistically they’ll be pinning their hopes on either a trade coup or their extremely young and currently very marginal recruits coming to improve them in the middle, because their midfield hasn’t gotten the job done for years now.
The promise is still ahead
Instead of looking back to their first era under McKenna, it’s more helpful to look at Gold Coast starting from scratch, with a similar balance of players to back then. From the eight or so players who remain from their inaugural season, only Swallow, Thompson, Day and May are likely to be valuable players at the club for much longer.
Gold Coast’s crop of four top-10 draftees from the 2016 Draft haven’t established themselves at AFL level yet, but most have shown promising signs. The Suns have a lot of largely untested talent which will be fighting for a spot on the first Suns finals side. They’ll also likely end up with three top-25 picks in this draft. Their Academy is starting to produce talent.
This should provide the Suns with a good enough base to work with, but success might still take a bit of time. It appears that they are bottoming out right now, but with a few years of relatively uncompromised drafts ahead, it’s not the worst time to do so.