2023 Greatest 23s: Can return of the King propel the Suns into September finally?

The countdown to Spherical 1, 2023 has formally begun – so all through January, I’ll be all 18 AFL golf equipment and doing my finest to place collectively an optimum crew for the brand new yr.

I’ll take accidents and suspensions under consideration, however this gained’t be a predicted crew for Spherical 1 – consider it extra as a information to what your crew’s finest 23 (the 22 beginning gamers plus the brand new unrestricted substitute) might seem like because the yr unfolds.

Immediately’s version options everybody’s favorite punching bag, Gold Coast. Try the hyperlinks under in case your crew has already been completed, or when you’re simply concerned about my rambling ideas about why Jake Soligo ought to play wing for the Crows subsequent yr.

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While you add a star key ahead to a youthful record that has been slowly enhancing during the last 4 years, that’s often an indication prosperity is close to.

For the Suns, that’s precisely what they’ve in entrance of them with Ben King returning after a pre-season knee damage worn out his 2022. Mabior Chol and Levi Casboult carried out admirably to fill the void, however whether or not each keep within the crew as a part of a three-pronged ahead line or Casboult is ushered out, King is the long-term chief of the Suns’ assault.

The Suns have put collectively a succesful defence, possess a burgeoning midfield with key pillars getting higher yearly, and in Jarrod Witts have one of many recreation’s best ruckmen. Already the highest-scoring aspect outdoors the eight in 2022, King’s return is perhaps simply the additional push they should take that remaining step from aggressive outfit to worthy finalist.

After all, that is Gold Coast they’re speaking about: at each important juncture of their historical past, the Suns have crashed and burned. One thing feels completely different about this iteration of Suns, although; solely time will inform whether or not the sunshine on the finish of the tunnel is simply one other oncoming practice.

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The Suns aren’t fairly the completed article in defence, rating twelfth for factors towards in 2022: however all the appropriate items are there to counsel the unit is heading in the right direction. After the nadir of 2019 the place they conceded probably the most factors within the league by greater than 200, they’ve steadily improved to complete 2020 in 14th and 2021 in thirteenth. Small beneficial properties, however hey, you are taking what you will get.

Central to all of it is Sam Collins, who repeatedly flies underneath the radar as the most effective key backs within the recreation. He attended the second-most defensive one-on-ones within the recreation final yr, behind solely Brisbane’s Harris Andrews, and misplaced on common two of each 9. Contemplating he stands the opposition’s primary ahead week in, week out, that’s an distinctive strike price.

Collins is a lock, however the problem for the Suns will probably be to discover a succesful second tall of their backline to ease the strain on the proficient Charlie Ballard. With the appropriate match-up, Ballard was distinctive as an intercepting defender, however was regularly requested to punch above his weight and stand high quality opponents. He carried out admirably, even clamping down on Charlie Curnow and Jesse Hogan in consecutive weeks early within the season, however within the vein of Jake Lever, he has too many aerial attributes, and reads the play too effectively, to be decreased to easily a lockdown again.

It’s a toss-up between Caleb Graham and new recruit, and former Large, Jake Stein for that second tall function for my part, particularly now that Rory Thompson’s physique has formally ended his taking part in days. I’ve given the nod to Stein partly on account of his additional mobility, and partly as a result of I bear in mind him being good within the Giants’ 2021 elimination remaining win over Sydney and am adamant he’s an AFL-standard participant.

He’s removed from a family identify, however Sean Lemmens has been a continuing presence within the Suns’ backline underneath Stuart Dew, and is the closest factor they’ve acquired to a shutdown small defender till Connor Budarick returns from his second ACL rupture in 18 months.

With Wil Powell tipped to spend extra time across the ball subsequent yr, Lemmens turns into all of the extra essential as an skilled presence behind the ball.

Talking of skilled presences behind the ball, Brandon Ellis appears to be like set to complete his profession as a wise, exact distributor at half-back. After beginning on the Suns on a wing following two premierships with Richmond, Ellis stands proud significantly in a youthful crew with just about no finals expertise, and after spending time within the backline as cowl final yr, could be a really perfect variety head to marshal the Suns’ defence whereas additionally possessing the power to begin game-breaking chains.

I stay firmly of the idea {that a} related function is the place Jack Lukosius most closely fits on this crew. King’s damage noticed Dew experiment with him as a ahead, and with simply eight targets in 13 video games final yr, the outcomes weren’t nice.

He’s too good a ball-user to not be performed able the place he can get sufficient of it as attainable; whether or not that’s pushing as much as a wing or taking kick-ins from defence, a distributing function much like his distinctive 2021 would seemingly profit each participant and membership.

He remained within the Suns’ midfield rotation final yr, however with an inflow of latest gamers positive to spend time in there, now is perhaps the time for David Swallow to, like Ellis, make a transfer to defence. One of many few Suns to have lasted the journey with the membership, their inaugural decide 1 was the following man in behind the Suns’ ‘Fab 4’ (extra on them in a second) at centre bounces final yr, however even when he’s slowly shunted out of that group, he nonetheless has loads left to offer for a younger aspect on the rise.

Jack Lukosius kicks

Jack Lukosius. (Picture by Chris Hyde/Getty Pictures)


The Suns turned an distinctive clearance crew final yr; they ranked fifth for getting the ball out of the centre, and fourth from stoppages in whole. Consequently, they averaged the fifth-most inside 50s within the AFL, probably the most of any non-finalist and marginally higher than eventual preliminary finalists Brisbane, Sydney and Collingwood.

There’s no cause for Dew to steer away from a profitable system. Jarrod Witts is a titan as ruckman and co-captain, although their backup ruck shares stay as concerningly naked as they had been when he missed most of 2021 with a knee damage at hand their season a hammer blow. Matt Rowell is an utter contested beast who wins greater than two-thirds of his possessions on the coalface, Noah Anderson the smooth-moving handball receiver who might simply win a Brownlow when he fixes his at occasions dodgy kicking, and Touk Miller the toughest two-way runner within the recreation who does every part brilliantly.

Solely Clayton Oliver had extra clearances in final yr’s home-and-away season than Miller, whereas he additionally completed second behind Anderson on the Suns for inside 50s, second behind Rowell for tackles, first for contested possessions, second behind Anderson for uncontested possessions, and third behind Ben Ainsworth and the now-departed Izak Rankine for purpose assists.

Just about the one factor he doesn’t do is kick targets himself, though to be honest to him, Anderson and Rowell don’t actually both.

The Suns’ ‘Fab 4’ attended extra centre bounces than every other four-man mixture within the league by a good distance: actually, solely Melbourne’s Gawn-Oliver-Petracca-Viney quadrant of brutality even comes shut. The Suns aren’t fairly in that league simply but, however they’re not all that distant, and shutting quick.

Recent from Brisbane searching for extra alternatives, Tom Berry must also be a part of that rotation, maybe taking up Swallow’s minutes, whereas high 2022 draftee Bailey Humphrey and the rising Elijah Hollands may even seemingly get their probabilities within the engine room infrequently.

After a dominant VFL finals collection, Sam Flanders may also have to see extra alternatives lest he start searching for a brand new house. Additional down the pecking order is Brayden Fiorini, who has proved a ball magnet repeatedly when given on-ball alternatives however doesn’t appear to be in Dew’s plans.

The wings are extra fascinating, particularly if Ellis does certainly proceed at half-back. Dew has already flagged a transfer for the proficient Wil Powell onto one wing, which might lead to a breakout for the neat-kicking, pacy teenager.

I’d like to see Lukosius take the opposite, but when not him, then certainly Jeremy Sharp will probably be given additional alternatives to make that spot his personal after dropping his place within the crew halfway via 2022. Sharp isn’t good, however he’s an elite runner and was distinctive by foot as a junior.

The mark towards him with Dew appears to be his incapacity to search out his personal ball in a gameplan constructed on profitable the laborious ball, however the Suns had been eager sufficient to maintain him that they vetoed a commerce with Fremantle to carry him to his contract. That certainly suggests he’s of their plans indirectly, form or kind.

Touk Miller of the Suns.

Touk Miller of the Suns runs the ball through the AFL AAMI Neighborhood Collection match between the Gold Coast Suns and the Geelong Cats. (Picture by Chris Hyde/Getty Pictures)


Ben King‘s return has the potential to be a game-changer for the Suns in 2023, however Dew will first must resolve whether or not to maintain the ahead line construction that labored effectively with out him final yr, or look so as to add additional peak and marking energy to the assault.

You possibly can pencil Mabior Chol in both manner: the Suns’ main goalkicker final yr was an impressive acquisition from Richmond, along with his energy within the air and sheer athleticism each on the lead and when the ball hit the bottom making him a nightmare match-up. Groups must be cautious about transferring one of the best defender onto King, as a result of Chol hasn’t but taken a recreation by the scruff of the throat, and you are feeling it’s only a matter of time till he does.

With no King, Levi Casboult was a life-saver as a key pillar deep in assault: remarkably, his 35 targets had been greater than he managed in anyone season of a decade spent with Carlton. 33 earlier than Spherical 1 begins, although, he was all the time only a short-term possibility, and whereas Chol and King are cellular sufficient to permit Casboult to play deeper, it’s laborious to see the Suns risking change into too top-heavy by taking part in all of them, and the previous Blue is the plain option to make manner.

There’s no Izak Rankine at floor stage anymore, having jumped ship to Adelaide, however Malcolm Rosas confirmed sufficient in 15 video games final yr to counsel he can do an affordable job taking over the mantle of small ahead in chief. Rosas doesn’t win as a lot of the ball as Rankine, and nor does he have fairly the identical effectiveness by foot, however Dew’s ahead line has all the time been about strain when the ball goes to floor, and Rosas doesn’t have to be Stephen Milne 2.0 to offer that.

That’s certainly the function earmarked for brand spanking new recruit Ben Lengthy, too. Lured from the Saints, Lengthy is an old-skill no frills participant who assaults the ball laborious and the person more durable. The Suns don’t actually have an excessive amount of of a nasty streak of their crew, so having Lengthy as a succesful enforcer might show helpful in a scrap, and Lengthy’s arrival may simply push Nick Holman, who performs the same scrappy function as a strain ahead, to the fringes.

It is going to be fascinating to see whether or not Rankine’s commerce prompts a transfer nearer to purpose for Ben Ainsworth. The enigmatic Solar had in all probability his finest yr in 2022 as a high-roaming half-forward, good for a purpose a recreation however not often spending sufficient time near the large sticks to impression the scoreboard additional.

He did, although, lead the Suns for marks and end fourth for inside 50s, so it’s seemingly Dew will proceed to develop him as a quasi-on-baller till he’s able to take the following step and change into a everlasting midfielder relatively than flip him right into a pure goalsneak.

He might need solely performed 5 video games final yr, however Joel Jeffrey did loads in that point to counsel he’s value persisting with as a 3rd tall. His five-goal haul towards the Western Bulldogs took benefit of a measurement mismatch and the Canine’ lack of respect for him. Harmful at floor stage, mercurial close to targets and deceptively sturdy overhead, Jeffrey appears a much more versatile possibility within the ahead line than the larger, slower Casboult.

King’s return, although, is the important thing. The Suns completed third-last in 2021 for common inside 50s, and he nonetheless managed 47 targets from the restricted alternatives afford to him – and as a standalone tall, too.

Now, with the Suns offering their forwards much more probabilities AND with Chol to take among the warmth off, if King can return to the shape he displayed earlier than his knee damage, the sky is the restrict. For him, and the Suns themselves.

Ben King

Ben King. (Picture by Graham Denholm/AFL Images by way of Getty Pictures)

Gold Coast Suns Greatest 23 2023

Backs: Sean Lemmens, Sam Collins, Jake Stein

Half-backs: Brandon Ellis, Charlie Ballard, David Swallow

Centres: Jack Lukosius, Matt Rowell, Wil Powell

Followers: Jarrod Witts (c), Noah Anderson, Touk Miller (c)

Half-forwards: Elijah Hollands, Mabior Chol, Ben Ainsworth

Forwards: Joel Jeffrey, Ben King, Malcolm Rosas

Interchange: Tom Berry, Sam Flanders, Bailey Humphrey, Ben Lengthy

Substitute: Jeremy Sharp

Emergencies: Levi Casboult, Alex Davies, Sam Day

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