In October 2018, the Gold Coast Suns were at their lowest.
Co-captains Tom Lynch and Steven May had gone to Victorian clubs, with the former being taken to task by then-teammate Touk Miller on the way out.
Since 2015, the club had lost Dion Prestia (Richmond), Charlie Dixon (Port Adelaide), Jaeger O’Meara (Hawthorn), Adam Saad (Essendon) and Gary Ablett (Geelong) in trades.
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The departures of Lynch and May capped a difficult first season at the helm of coach Stuart Dew, with the team winning just four of 22 games and finishing second to last.
As the old adage goes, however, “the darkest hour is just before dawn”, and the seeds planted in the midst of this exodus have, four years later, seemed to reap tremendous rewards.
Rather than turn their backs on the Suns, the current crop of marquee players almost all decide to keep the faith.
Touk Miller has signed a five-year deal, cementing himself as a likely ‘Sunshine for Life’ amid another superb season that could see him named All-Australian for the second time in as many years.
Ben King, a player who was sometimes dubbed almost a fait accompli for asking Victoria for a trade, has recommitted himself for two more years in a huge show of faith as he recovers from an ACL injury.
Then, this week, Jack Lukosius put pen to paper on a four-year extension, dodging interest from his home state of South Australia and capping a trio of contract calls that speak volumes about the Suns’ progress on and off the field.
“There are two questions players ask when their contract is up; the first is do I like it here and second is there a reason to leave? Suns director of football Wayne Campbell said. foxfooty.com.au this week.
“I think our job as a football department is to create the best possible environment so that they enjoy it and know that they are getting the most out of themselves.
“I think right now they’re looking at it and we really appreciate the environment, the people, the coach, the high performance, the wellbeing, the analytics, all that stuff is really good.”
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So, at the end of 2018, what seeds were planted?
“I think there were some big things that happened. David Swallow signed and I’m not sure there was a more admired person who played for Gold Coast,” Campbell said.
“He put his flag in the ground, then Touk and Wittsy (Jarrod Witts) who are now our co-captains, These three…they went, ‘this is where I want to be and I’m ready to put in the hard yards and hard work to help change it.
Ultimately, 16 players who were at the club in 2018 were – for a myriad of reasons – not there when the 2019 season started.
Even the Suns would admit there was a chance they were cutting too deep, with Jarryd Lyons being written off they would naturally want to go back four years later.
The intent, however, was clear; the capital project acquired through the departures of Lynch and May helped solidify a conscious decision the club made at the end of 2018 to sign young players at the same time and give them some kind of ownership in the club, almost as if the team was rebuilding its culture from the ground up.
Another key decision made was to target experienced players of good character in order to set a standard off the pitch as well as on it; Two examples from this 2018 trading period are George Horlin-Smith and Anthony Miles.
Players could make mistakes (within reason), but if they owned and dealt with them, that was key.
As the culture of the club began to solidify on the pitch, the next step was the culture and experience that came with it.
Brad Reid was named the 2020 Head of Personal Excellence and led a department that has played a huge role in ensuring Suns players are invested off the field in their own development, increasing their resilience and independence and , in turn, potentially diminishing the pull of the “go home” factor.
It’s an investment the Suns had to make given the sheer number of non-Sunshine State natives, but executed with flying colors judging by signed contracts.
There are plenty of names in this space who have played a part – Jackson Kornberg, Ben Mabon and Alex Rigby to name a few – but Rhyce Shaw’s impact on the club has been profound.
Talk to those in and around the Suns and Shaw’s performance as head of development since joining in 2021 might just qualify him as the best rookie Stuart Dew has made in his time at the helm, both on and off the court. .
Dew worked with Shaw during the couple’s time at Sydney Swans and once the latter left North Melbourne as head coach for personal reasons towards the end of 2020, Dew pushed hard to recruit his former coworker.
“If he’s not the best at it (player development), I don’t know who would be,” Campbell said of Shaw.
“He (Dew) saw an opportunity to improve the club, but also to help someone who had been so good to him and to the footy given the circumstances. For him to move his family to the Gold Coast and occupy a position for which he is eminently qualified was great for everyone, great for our club, great for Rhyce, great for his family.
“Then you have the wealth of his experience as a player, coach, development coach, senior coach, to lead our development program. He has a very good sense of the game, he has an even better sense of people. He cares.
“It’s just story after story of players going to him for advice on handball or life or whatever. People would then say, ‘well, if I go somewhere else, do I ‘Have Rhyce Shaw with me?’ It’s a bit dramatic for him, but you probably can’t overestimate his importance to our football club.
THE DEW DOES THE REBOOT
Few football departments in recent times have faced as much pressure as the Gold Coast Suns in 2022.
Steven King and Brad Miller have joined the club ahead of the 2022 season, bringing new pairs of eyes, while Josh Drummond, Tate Kaesler and others have worked hard to ensure the Suns’ game can finally withstand the most teams.
The presence of David Bailey, the club’s head of fitness who joined the club at the start of 2020 and had extensive domestic cricket experience, helps them do so consistently (at least until this stage of the season).
At the head of the lot is Stuart Dew.
No senior coach entered the year under more external pressure to perform and it was multiplied tenfold by the sudden availability of Alastair Clarkson, who had started a year off after his four-flag move to Hawthorn but was and still remains a virtual certainty to return to the ranks of coaches in 2023.
The fact that the Suns have put together the season they have is a testament to Dew’s mental toughness.
“It takes a whole village, but the senior coach is by far the most important person in the organization. In terms of retention, he has to get the majority of the applause for this because the senior coach sets the tone for the footy department and for the playgroup,” Campbell said.
“Given the circumstances you alluded to in terms of pressure and the last year of his current contract, he has done an incredible job.
“The place has a good high performance feel about it and he, as the head coach, has to take a lot of credit for that.”
CONTRACTUAL CALLS REMAIN
Next for the Suns? The biggest contract call of all will be Stuart Dew.
It would take a monumental collapse from here for the Suns to end the season on a bitter disappointment and Dew has surely done more than enough to warrant a contract extension.
That the team played the way it did without its biggest star in Ben King due to injury is another feather in Dew’s hat, as well as those of Mabior Chol and Levi Casboult.
Dew’s future is now much better than it was 15 weeks ago.
From a field perspective, Izak Rankine is the one who quickly rose to the top of the priority list.
The Suns selected Rankine with the No. 3 pick in the 2018 draft and, after struggling with injury throughout his first season, burst onto the scene in 2020, scoring five goals in his first two games.
Rankine found himself in and out of the squad in 2021 as he struggled to replicate the form he initially showed, but it looks like things have clicked for him in 2022.
He and Matt Rowell played leading roles against the West Coast Eagles in the first round before a corkie sidelined the 22-year-old for three weeks.
In recent weeks, Rankine has been a revelation, with the numbers confirming this breakthrough.
He quickly became a key person for the future of the team. Speaking this week, Dew was confident a deal would be done, while Campbell hoped the small forward would stay put.
“I think it’s the culmination of three years of work and many different people who have contributed to Izak…he’s everything we wanted him to be,” Campbell said.
“It was really good conversations with him and his manager about sitting down and seeing how he is doing. He wants to know where his value is and we want to see where his value is.
“Now we kind of know and now it’s Craig’s[list manager Craig Cameron’s]turn to have a conversation. We’re really positive about it. Izak loves it here, he bought a house here , we are really comfortable and really confident.
After Rankine, the future of star pair Rowell and Noah Anderson will be the next to try to solidify, with both out of contract at the end of 2023.
The pair were taken with the first two picks in the 2019 draft, with the great friends developing very well together at the Suns barring injury.
Both are ‘essential’ to the team’s long-term future in Campbell’s words and, although the salary cap is getting tighter with each new signing, there is still plenty of room to come up with attractive offers for the pair.
Eventually, after a period of darkness that at times seemed permanent, dawn begins to arrive for the Suns.
Considering the team’s current position, both on and off the pitch, it would be something of a surprise to see stars leave.
That statement in itself speaks to how far we’ve come since late 2018, when the reverse was painfully true.