Stuart Dew stood at the front of players, coaches and additional staff in the meeting room at Gold Coast's headquarters last Thursday, nearly two hours before the SUNS' first competitive match of the year – a practice game against Essendon.
The SUNS coach had handed the reins of the game over to assistants Steven King, who led the team preparation for the most part, and Josh Drummond, but Dew wanted to add something before the group dispersed for its warm-up.
"We have three players playing for us for the first time today – Bailey Humphrey, Tom Berry and Ben Long. Usually we'd say 'look after them'," Dew said with a smirk, "but these guys don't need any looking after."
The trio all went on to play well against the Bombers, with No.6 pick Humphrey looking comfortable and new recruits Long and Berry bringing hardness and toughness to the line-up.
But Dew's message struck a chord deeper than just the three new faces: the SUNS, 13 years into their existence and about to enter their sixth campaign under Dew, don't want any looking after either. They are a group that is confident they are now ready to make the next step, a squad still young but growing up.
That was clear as AFL.com.au spent last week with the SUNS in the lead-up to, and during, the clash with the Bombers as Gold Coast prepared itself for 2023.
AFTER a pre-season that included plenty of running, a mountain climb and a triathlon, the SUNS slipped seamlessly back into game-week mode ahead of the Bombers' visit to their home.
That meant a main training on Monday followed by line meetings with individual groups, a Tuesday stacked with craft sessions (and team photos) and a light captain's run on Wednesday ahead of the Thursday afternoon match.
Former Melbourne and Richmond forward, and now the forwards coach at the SUNS, Brad Miller gathered his group together after the main training session to run through their priorities for the Bombers clash. A video of highlights from last season – containing pressure acts and selfless moments more than spectacular goals – was played to the group before he asked for some feedback for himself and development coach Jackson Kornberg.
He split the forwards into four packs of four and then asked each group to come up with three things they wanted him and Kornberg to continue to do in their coaching, and three things to stop. After 10 minutes, the pair returned and sat in front of their players to hear the feedback.
Mabior Chol led his group, while Brodie McLaughlin, the newest SUN after being signed in the pre-season supplemental selection period, was the nominated talker in a group containing Jack Lukosius, Ben King and Ben Ainsworth.
Miller then told his forwards that there remained spots up for grabs, while hardened SUN Nick Holman offered the same sentiment. "Not everyone is going to play in round one, so look after each other. It's a long year," he said.
In match committee, the SUNS' growing depth across the field became obvious. So, too, did the logistics required in these longer practice matches – which players play three quarters? Which players feature in four? How do the SUNS prepare the second team whilst the first is playing?
Thirteen coaches and fitness staff packed into the SUNS' coaching room, where the teams were selected on an expansive whiteboard. The move of Lukosius into the forward line has created a nice headache for a selection panel that has a stacked squad of tall forwards to choose from, especially when King returns from his knee reconstruction.
For the Essendon game, two teams were picked in the same spots. Levi Casboult was selected for the first with Chris Burgess to fill his role in the secondary game, while Ainsworth was in the opening game and Alex Sexton in the same spot afterwards. On the wing, Elijah Hollands, looking for a breakout season, was named ahead of second-year SUN Oskar Faulkhead.
Improving ruckman Ned Moyle was on a different schedule, set to come on for a few minutes a quarter in the opening half to replace Jarrod Witts before taking on more of a role after that. Wayne Campbell, the SUNS football manager, got involved as well, throwing up questions about each proposed line-up.
Humphrey, who has had some minor interruptions during his first pre-season, blitzed the SUNS' most recent match simulation and has already won over his coaches. His impressive form saw them throw him in against the Bombers. "He's got that something different for us," Dew said.
The SUNS are gathering their points of difference. Sam Flanders has been a standout over summer and brings some extra pop to a midfield group containing Noah Anderson, Matt Rowell and more. Alex Davies' height and strength also adds something new to their mix, while the SUNS are working out how to best use Mac Andrew, whose athleticism and size make him one of their most versatile options. All will be given chances this year as the SUNS look to build on their equal best ever year in the AFL, after they won 10 games last season.
But they haven't taken their eye off the basics, and the craft sessions showed that. First was the forwards, who practiced their set shot goalkicking routines from different corners of the forward 50. At the end, Miller asked his players to remember their best kick.
"My last one was my best," said Chol. "I felt really comfortable and the connection was right." King spoke more about technique. "I can remember looking down at the ball and how it looked straight in line with my foot," he said.
The midfield group sharpened their hand-to-foot skills by practicing short kicks with tennis balls – Rowell and Anderson paired up – before the defenders stepped through some set-ups and organisation, with Charlie Ballard a central figure in their planning, bouncing off assistants Rhyce Shaw and Tate Kaesler.
Afterwards, former North Melbourne coach Shaw gathered the group and picked out younger trio Sandy Brock, Lloyd Johnston and Bodhi Uwland to explain their biggest learning from the session. The focus on finer details are part of a bigger emphasis on skill work this pre-season.
"There was a lot of running in the off-season and come pre-season we probably started match simulation a bit later than we have in the past. We just did a lot more 'small side' games so we can get a lot more touches of the footy in our hands," said midfielder Brayden Fiorini.
"Our skills have probably let us down in the past; we feel like we can outrun any team, it's probably just that execution part. So that's been a main focus."
Fiorini is one of the more senior players in the SUNS' group as he enters his eighth year at the club, with their leadership spread over generations.
Touk Miller is a presence, as is his co-captain Witts, who is understated but whose voice carries through the group. Anderson, who recently signed a four-year contract extension, shapes as a future captain and has his own way with his teammates – still youthful but understanding of his emerging place and voice – while Sam Collins is also a leader in a different, more vocal way.
An image of the recent NFL Superbowl flashed on screen in front of the players before they ran out to face the Bombers.
"What sort of teammate do you want to be today?" Steven King asked.
The picture was of Kansas City running back Jerick McKinnon, who took a knee late in championship decider to conserve time and ensure victory for his team, turning down the chance of scoring a touchdown - and the individual glory that would have come with it - to deny the opposition a chance of a late comeback.
The next image was of Anthony Davis, a LA Lakers basketballer, who was the only teammate of LeBron James not pictured celebrating when James broke the all-time NBA points record last month. The reference ties into the SUNS' selfless values, which are plastered on walls and ingrained in players' minds.
"Put yourself in the shoes of Essendon. How do you want them to describe us as opponents when they walk into their game review meeting next Monday?" King asked.
There was little other focus on the Bombers, rather an internal view on embracing the mess that practice matches usually bring and having a 'next contest' mindset.
The same approach was taken boundary-side, too, as Dew manned the magnet board working through what he described as the "Da Vinci code" of managed game time for a large proportion of his list across the game.
Essendon won the contest by five points in a match that included five periods of play. After some cramping kicked in, the Bombers opted to stop, with the SUNS finishing their night with some intra-club match practice and extra running into the night under the watch of fitness boss Alex Rigby.
The match result was of little consequence, with the score not taken into account on the SUNS' bench. The coaches were looking for moments and signs – of excitement and growth.
When Davies was caught holding the ball and then ran to the bench, King told him to keep taking the player on. "Keep going Al, I want to see you get caught another three times today," King said.
When some forward defensive set ups worked well, Dew called it out to assistant Miller. "That was a good edit," he said, as Miller moved to the data analysts' desk and swiftly rewatched the clip so he could praise his players at the break.
Information was kept to a dot-point level at breaks so not to overload the players, but instruction was clear and concise, without the emotion that will undoubtedly rise once the home and away season begins.
As Dew noted, it was the first of many tests to come.