Every AFL season is somewhat unpredictable, but 2020 might be the wildest so far.
The two most-recent premiers, Richmond and West Coast, are in early trouble with just one win apiece.
But four of the teams that missed last year’s finals are sitting in the top eight. Most notably, last year’s wooden-spooner, Gold Coast, is second.
Is this the dawning of the new Suns?
Everyone knows who Matt Rowell is now
There’s always a lot of buzz around the new top draftees. Very often that hype can fall flat.
The best young players are usually able to dominate against fellow juniors, but few can immediately outshine seasoned professionals.
Matt Rowell is one of those few.
It’s easy to get carried away, but Rowell is entering unprecedented territory for a first-year player.
“He’s never played a bad game — this is basically just him every week, it’s amazing,” a club staffer told the ABC.
“Sam Walsh was the safe pick in his draft, but Rowell was the only pick last year.”
At 178cm, Rowell is shorter than most modern midfielders. He struggles a bit overhead, averaging just one mark a game. He’s yet to take a contested mark or a single mark inside 50.
But what he lacks in height, he more than makes up for in heart. He chases hard and applies his will to the contest.
Rowell has six goals from his four games so far, with most of them kicked on the run from distance.
That’s probably unsustainable. In last year’s under-18 TAC Cup, he managed less than a goal every two games.
But his strength is something that won’t disappear.
The Suns aren’t a one-man band though.
Rowell has formed a good one-two punch with former Crow Hugh Greenwood, whose physicality is also troubling opponents.
Fellow recent recruit Lachie Weller has shown steady improvement, reducing the load on Touk Miller, Will Brodie and David Swallow.
The Suns are second for stoppage clearance differential so far this year — up from 14th last season.
While more scoring is generated from intercepts than stoppages in the AFL, getting their hands to the ball first has made a real difference for the Suns.
The strong foundation
When Stuart Dew was appointed Gold Coast’s coach, he wasn’t the only change to the club’s football administration. List manager Scott Clayton and football operations manager Marcus Ashcroft left, replaced by former GWS list manager Craig Cameron and Jon Haines.
It was just about a complete reset for the franchise.
In the past three seasons, the Suns have acquired 38 new players, roughly 13 a year. That’s almost an entire AFL list.
Most analysis has focused on the departing Suns, which have included stars like Tom Lynch and Steven May.
But that’s only been part of the story.
A significant proportion of the new crop are high draft picks.
The Suns have seven top-five picks and 15 top-20 picks on their current list. Not all draftees are successful, but the odds are much better for players taken early in the draft.
Having multiple bites at the cherry is a solid strategy.
The Suns focused on a lot of youth when they first joined the league, with only a few established stars such as Gary Ablett. Recently, they’ve pivoted to journeymen like Greenwood, Brandon Ellis and Sam Collins to build a sturdy backbone.
The players recruited under the new regime have outperformed their predecessors.
The squad is now a blend of long-term Suns such as Swallow and Alex Sexton, Eade-era holdovers such as Miller and Jarrod Witts, and the new crop led by Rowell.
Ellis and Collins have provided stability down back, fulfilling similar roles to those played by Daniel Cross at Melbourne and Luke Hodge at Brisbane in recent years.
Up forward, the arrival of Ben King has seemingly rejuvenated inaugural Sun Sam Day, who has performed extremely well in one-on-one contests. They’re complementing each other well, creating space for the Suns’ small forwards to work around them.
In just two years, the least-watchable team in the league has become one of the most watchable.
A false dawn?
This isn’t the first time Dew’s Suns have made a fast start. They’ve boasted a winning record after round five in the past two seasons — a feat they’re guaranteed to match this year.
The challenge now is to sustain it.
Last year, they lost 18 consecutive games after winning three of the first four. Those early wins were against relatively weak sides. Is the same thing happening this year? The Crows, Dockers and Eagles have all been poor so far.
To make the finals, the Suns will likely need to win at least six of their final 13 games against some much tougher sides. But even if they don’t, they look in better shape now than at any point in their short history.