GOLD Coast's recent 10-day stint in Darwin gave the club another chance to strengthen its ties with an Academy zone that has already paid generous dividends.

While getting pick No.2 (Noah Anderson) in the 2019 AFL Draft, along with an array of other high-end draft capital, was the jewel in the AFL's assistance package, access to the Top End was the hidden gem.

Since having Darwin as part of its Academy zone for three years – it's now a Next Generation Academy zone – Gold Coast has cashed in.

Mal Rosas jnr and Joel Jeffrey have played semi-regular senior football, while Sandy Brock and Lloyd Johnston are both rookies in their second and first years, respectively.

"We're very happy with the progress of all of them," Gold Coast list manager Craig Cameron told

"Joel's one out of the box in terms of his talent, 'Mally' is playing pretty consistent AFL footy, and the other boys are developing nicely."

Gold Coast has worked closely with AFL Northern Territory to foster the relationship with Darwin as a region – where they're a perfect four-from-four in the past two years – and to stay across its player talent.

The SUNS have invited coaches from the NT to Carrara to sit in on their AFL and AFLW programs to develop their craft.

They've also got scouts at junior competitions, including the under-15 Michael Long Cup, as well as hosting boys and girls on the Gold Coast before they become draft eligible.

All this is in the name of exposing players to an AFL system before it potentially becomes a reality.

The 10 days spent in Darwin around matches against the Western Bulldogs and Adelaide was put to good use.

While the SUNS are keen to attract players via their Academy, they're also eager to expand their footprint in the region and capture a percentage of the supporter base.

Jy Farrar, who recently extended his contract until the end of 2025, has many connections to Darwin and was beaming when asked about the club's relationship.

"All of us black fullas at the club have got a connection to Darwin, and people who are Darwin born are playing for us, so to have that connection is pretty special," Farrar said.

"The Territory doesn't have a team yet, but we fly that flag for the Territory. We want to be the Territory's team until they get their own team.

"We love our time up here, we love coming up here and we love getting to the communities and schools and showing our faces, and I'm sure they get a kick out of it as much as we do."

Ben Long was born in Darwin, while Jed Anderson moved there at the age of 12 after growing up in Katherine, also strengthening the SUNS' links.

After beating the Bulldogs in round 11, players explored the Territory – including a trip to the Tiwi Islands – two days later. They then visited Darwin schools on the Tuesday afternoon, mobbed by children of all ages as they conducted clinics.

It wasn't long ago one of those youngsters was Johnston, who only took up the sport at the age of 14 after moving to the Territory's capital from Borroloola, in the Gulf of Carpentaria, to "get a better education".

Two years later Johnston found himself in the NT Thunder's Academy program where he was then told there was interest from an AFL club.

"It literally changed my whole lifestyle," Johnston said.

"I used to roam the streets at night.

"When I heard that message I went home and told my parents and they asked if that was my dream and I said 'yes'.

"It literally changed my whole lifestyle, the way I lived, the way I ate.

"I was a little clown in middle school and when I hit Year 10, I thought I was top shit, but once I had this, I tried to get a better education, be good at school.

"That's when I started behaving in school, doing my work."

It transferred to his football, with the smooth-moving Johnston knuckling down and not missing sessions.

He played for Wanderers in the NTFL, was scouted by SUNS, and then joined the senior team when they played there in 2022.

Johnston trained with Gold Coast for the week and set up the drinks on game days against Hawthorn and North Melbourne.

"I'm so proud of myself to come this far," he said six months into his first season.

"Four years ago, I didn't know what to do with my life.

"I probably thought I'd be living at home with mum and dad with no job, but it just goes to show your life can change just like that if you put the hard work in.

"All I want to do now is help kids to make it, do the things I've done to make it. That's all I want young kids to do, just kids to follow their dreams and make them come true."


Cameron said there's some Top End talent coming in the next few years capable of making it on to the SUNS' list.

"The more we can list, the more that inspires the market for the kids to have a crack.

"When we go up now, Lloyd can talk to the next level of kids and show them what it takes, and that's pretty special."