Coaches, by necessity, are glass-half-full people. If they were to dwell on what has and could go wrong, they would go out of their minds. “Senior AFL coaching takes grown men to places they should never go,” former St Kilda president Rod Butterss once said. Looking on the bright side of life is a matter not of choice but self-preservation.
But there is a fine line between focusing on the positives and burying one’s head in the sand. Stuart Dew is no fool. Nor is he deluded enough to think his Gold Coast team is a tweak or two away from morphing suddenly into a premiership contender. But listening to the Suns coach after Saturday’s match at Marvel Stadium, you would swear his team had run over the top of Western Bulldogs and not suffered a 62-point humbling.
Dew conceded “there’s definitely some things to address” but was sufficiently buoyed by his interpretation of events to conclude that “we’ll have some good stuff to reinforce”. The heart he took from the fixture stemmed from Gold Coast’s refusal to replicate their non-attendance in the first half, in which they were outscored by 11 goals to one, and actually compete thereafter.
“I pointed out it was a career-defining half, and for the club as well, to respond,” Dew said. “So it could have gone two ways. And I’m sure at different periods late in the second quarter, people watching, people at the ground, would have thought this was 100-plus. We were determined not to let that happen.”
The Suns, to their credit, did not let that happen. But their dogged second half, during which they were shaded by just one point, should not be held up as a beacon of their development. Nor, heaven forbid, a comeback of sorts that should in some perverse way define them. Because performances this lamentable, albeit on Saturday against one of the finer sides in the competition, has defined Gold Coast for a decade now and continues to do so.
The Suns were outright uncompetitive at times in the first half against the Bulldogs. The question, in yet another season when something – anything – is expected, must be asked why. They might not all be available for selection at the present time, but there is no greater concentration of the nation’s young talent, on paper at least, than at Gold Coast.
The fact is, the Suns should be way, way better than they are. What they are now is what they always have been: oh so unexceptional. The concessions they have received, in terms of priority draft picks and assistance packages, has not paved the way for on-field achievement. The comparison with Gold Coast’s fellow expansion club, Greater Western Sydney, will remain a millstone around their neck until something worthwhile is achieved. September football would be a good place to start.
The current Suns are still young and the softly, softly approach might yet bring out the best in a crop that will be seen at their best in a year or two. But we have been here before with a club that has turned deception into an art form.
In 2021, when the Suns should be expecting excellence of themselves, one might expect Dew’s rhetoric to be demanding and unapologetic in the face of unacceptable defeat. Instead it is upbeat and forgiving. “What we can say is that a side that responds is a side that has some pride. They’ve got some confidence about where we need to get to.”
Dew’s contract is up at the end of 2022, having last year secured a two-year extension to a tenure that began in 2018. Upon re-signing his head coach after round six, Gold Coast chairman Tony Cochrane could see nothing but positives. “We know that we have the right coach to lead this club to our first finals campaign and a premiership,” Cochrane said. “He has done a fantastic job during a challenging first two years and everyone can see we are writing our own history and are playing exciting, hard-running footy.”
There must be something in the water on the Gold Coast. The Suns would go on to finish 14th in 2020 which, though an improvement on 18th, 17th and 17th in the three seasons prior, was hardly the performance of a team writing their own history.
Western Bulldogs are in the midst of their best start to a season for three quarters of a century. They had already triumphed this season by more than 62 points and will doubtless do so again as they mount their charge for a premiership to sit alongside their 2016 trophy. The Suns should not be judged on this loss alone, but perhaps nor should they be so relaxed about a pattern of non-performance that does not look like being arrested any time soon.
They are now 1-4 with games against Sydney, Brisbane and Geelong to come in the next five weeks. Dew will need all the optimism he can muster. Unless the Suns can spin on a dime or, more to the point, believe their own press, their season might be as good as over by round 10.