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Inside the Suns' brutal six-day New Zealand camp

SUNS TV: New Zealand Camp 2018 SUNS TV takes you through the journey of the 2018 camp in Queenstown, New Zealand

GOLD Coast players had just finished a gruelling 16km, almost four-hour hike in wet and windy conditions up Queenstown's Ben Lomond Track.

Some had just sat down in their hotel room, others had got in the shower when the message went around: "be in the foyer, ASAP. Bring your runners." 

Five minutes later more than 40 weary bodies assembled for another 10km of hiking that would include a brutal 2.5km run up the incredibly steep Queenstown Hill.

Ben Ainsworth could barely breathe at points. Geelong recruit George Horlin-Smith had to be nursed up the final climb, so heavy were his legs. Jack-in-the-box Werribee recruit Josh Corbett kept barking encouragement despite gasping for breath.

Getting to the top after that mental and physical obstacle was something to be proud of. 

"Expect anything". 

No complaining, no self-doubt.

On day five of the club's six-day camp in New Zealand's south island, this "curveball" came to symbolise the Suns' total revamp of pre-season training and shift in mindset.

This is a club that finished 17th last season, won just once in its final 17 rounds and lost captains Tom Lynch and Steven May in the off-season. 

Things need to change.

What coach Stuart Dew and football manager Jon Haines began 14 months ago when they got their respective jobs has taken another big step in the seven weeks since returning to prepare for the 2019 season. 

With 13 new players and 11 new football staff to integrate, this camp was far different from the last time Gold Coast headed overseas in 2013 to the high-altitude town of Flagstaff in Arizona. 

Resilience is something Gold Coast showed little of last season – and yes, the Suns copped injuries and had a travel-heavy first 10 weeks that made things tough – and is something they're desperate to develop.

New high performance manager Alex Rigby's pre-season program has seen the Suns collectively cover 50 percent more kilometres than at the same stage last year.

They've been challenged physically and mentally. 

"To get them in a different environment, beautiful landscape, different kind of physical challenges but also mental ones," is the way Dew summed up the camp.

After covering the Suns for AFL Media since shortly after their inception, I was invited to attend the entire camp, from meeting in the team's Brisbane hotel the night before their early departure, right the way through to their return to the Queensland capital six days later.

Like the players I had little idea of what was in store. They'd been told to pack their club apparel, a sleeping bag, running shoes and no football boots.

Dew, Rigby and Haines – who was in North America on an education trip – want to challenge the players, and dealing with the unexpected was to play a big role.

Before taking off, Sam Collins, the personable defender who has come from Fremantle via Werribee says "do you know what we're doing on this trip, Fish?" He wasn't the only one to ask.

Collins is a big book reader and stopped at the airport newsagent to see if there was a new purchase to get him through the flight, but alas, there wasn't.

Upon arrival we were whisked away in a bus halfway up nearby Coronet Peak to be told we weren't staying in a hotel that evening, but to pack a backpack and begin an 11km run to that night's campsite.

The packs and sleeping bags would be transported but the commute was difficult. 

Players split off into five groups they had drafted weeks ago and began to run on the narrow single trails, many of which were on steep downhills.

Most of the staff jumped in, including new coaches Josh Drummond, Tate Kaesler, Tim Clarke, Josh Francou and Andrew Swallow. Some of them carried injuries from their playing days, but on reflection it was a "one in, all in" mentality.

Dew also ran that day.

Aside from building my own relationships, one thing I was looking for was how the new players meshed.

Izak Rankine is a breath of fresh air. The No.3 draft pick buzzed around from one group of players to the next the entire trip. He's cheeky and can have a laugh at himself.

On the first night the tour operators dropped 200 golf balls for players to aim at a target on the other side of a ravine that was once the site for the world's first commercial bungy jump (AJ Hackett). 

Rankine had either never played golf or has some serious kinks to work out in his swing, but either way it didn't stop the 18-year-old from being the second man up to hit five balls – and maybe miss once or twice – in front of his new teammates. Everyone got a good laugh, but no one more than Rankine himself.

Jack Hombsch spent six years at Port Adelaide after one at GWS, has played a total of 98 games but moved from his home state to head north with a year to run on his deal. 

As we strode out a 5km walk back into the centre of Queenstown in 30-degree heat on day two, Hombsch explained how being from Adelaide, he had a perception of what the city of Gold Coast would be like to live in – but has been blown away by its diversity and lifestyle options.

He's just 25, but like fellow recruits Horlin-Smith and Anthony Miles, already has some gravitas within the group.

Hombsch likes chatting with South Australian draftees Rankine, Jack Lukosius and Jez McLennan. Horlin-Smith can literally talk to anyone, and often does. It's evident those two have a calming influence on players around them, even as they were being put through difficult challenges.

"We're in the mountains for two days and you don't have a phone, so you talk to each other and get to know each other really well," Hombsch said.

"You gravitate towards people and get pushed out of your comfort zone and have conversations to more people, share a tent with someone else for two nights.

"It's a great opportunity to get to know each other."

Like Rankine, Corbett has stamped his personality already. He has endless energy.

Even after the players were told to get on a boat to head out for a second straight night of camping – something that could have been a crushing blow when they were so close to a hotel, bed and shower – there was blanket excitement about what lied ahead.

"It's like Christmas, there's a new surprise every day," Corbett beamed. 

With limited phone coverage and an agreement between players to stay off social media posting, time spent together was at a premium.

There's no other time 35 players could sit around a campfire table and play a game with two rocks at 9pm.

"It's given blokes a chance to spend time with guys they don't know as well," Swallow said.

It wasn't all smooth sailing, though. 

On a 16km hike on day three, players were chastised by the coaches for splitting up and not keeping their team members within a close proximity.

They also had to repeat a gruelling challenge of piggybacking teammates up an 80m hill. It was hard but to their credit there was no moaning, just a want to get it right the second time.

Former Geelong speedster Jordan Murdoch gashed his knee on the first afternoon playing his part in a three-man human bridge to help teammates cross a river without getting their feet wet. 

Bullocking second-year forward Brayden Crossley had a boil lanced – something that brought tears to my eyes thinking about it, but not to the man in question when it actually happened.

With Lynch and May leaving during the off-season, one intriguing storyline is not only who will not only skipper the Suns in 2019, but who will be in their leadership group.

David Swallow, Touk Miller, Pearce Hanley and Jarrod Witts remain from the 2018 leaders, so there's spots up for grabs.

Back on Queenstown Hill, Miller ran back down the final 100m ascent on two or three occasions to help struggling teammates reach the top.

Witts has not only a physical presence, but so much more over the group. He might not have fit in his tent the first two nights – he had to sleep with his feet out the door – but the 208cm ruckman fits into what the Suns are doing in every other way. 

When he speaks, players listen.

While six days together in New Zealand might have nothing to do with where Gold Coast finishes in 2019, it laid a foundation for change.


The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs