While the Gold Coast SUNS have recorded a third consecutive season of club-best win/loss records, the opportunity for non-selected players to keep the best 21 on their toes has been pivotal to the SUNS success.

Throughout the 2023 season, the entire SUNS list have had their chance to pitch their cases against AFLW opposition with weekly match scrimmages against fellow AFLW sides.

In pre-season, the SUNS engaged three of Queensland’s finest up-and-coming coaching talents - Emily Otto, Tammie Lauritsen and Jess Malouf - to join as assistants alongside coach James Barrett to continue club’s commitment to providing its players with the tools they need to succeed and continually improve.

For Otto, as one of the finest rising coaching talents in the state with experience at the Burleigh Bombers, Bond University and recently with the Southport VFL program, the chance to step into a professional environment was an offer she couldn’t refuse.

“While I was at Southport, I got a call from (Head Coach) Cam Joyce. He had a vision to create a more professional environment for the girls so it’s much the same whether you’re playing in the AFLW or in the match scrimmages, and every player has that high-quality resource base, the best chance to improve and work their way back into the team,” Otto said.

After being named Female Community Coach and Queensland Female Coach of the Year earlier in 2023, putting the vision into action, and working closely with SUNS Assistant Coach Sam Iles, has been a remarkable resource.

“I would like to coach professionally one day and this has been a fantastic opportunity. Learning from Sam, he’s been a direct mentor and so knowledgeable… it’s been an unreal experience,” Otto added.

“What’s been really good so far is seeing how big on player education Cam is, how they encourage 1-on-1 feedback with a personal approach. It’s been nice to see what that looks like at the next level and allows me to take that into what’s next for me to be able to hit those messages at that level. 

Otto, alongside Lauritsen, was one of three Queensland coaches selected earlier in 2023 to take part in the national She Can Coach Program, designed as a pathway for female community coaches to the professional level.

Having the chance as part of the program, which has has also produced talents like SUNS Assistant Coach Jen Revell, to simulate what life in the coach’s box is like for an AFL match at Heritage Bank Stadium earlier in the year, opened Lauritsen to the demands of coaching at the elite level.

“Alongside Cam Joyce, we looked at the men’s game, picked it apart, laid game plans and replicated a line coach to head coach game day communication scenario,” Lauritsen said.

“It took it to the next level, having that experience on how to run different commentary in a coach’s box in game.”

The Morningside Panthers player-turned-QAFL Development Coach says she can already see the benefits of the plans the SUNS have laid in 2023.

“It’s got a long way to go, but you can see the initial stages of how it’s benefiting the group. Having the ability for the girls to play on the weekend when they don’t have a game is essential - there’s no practice like game practice.

“For the program to grow as a whole, getting those games regularly against opposition is critical.

“Personally, it’s given me insights into the elite program and preparation leading into games which I have learnt a lot from.”

While both Otto and Lauritsen have had previous coaching experience at state league level, this opportunity was a first step across the white line for former Southport Sharks captain Malouf, which she has taken with both hands.

“I’ve always wanted to go into coaching. I guess the opportunity came about from networking throughout my playing career, I’d be involved in the QAFLW before it was the QAFLW and going back (Head of Women’s Football) Fiona (Sessarago) had also coached me in representative teams,” Malouf said.

“I didn’t know what to expect going into it but I couldn’t think of a better place to have my first taste of coaching.”

For Malouf, understanding the nuances of the job on the other side of the fence has been a key takeaway from the experience, highlighted by a “sink or swim” moment leading the coaching panel a fortnight ago in the absence of regular coach James Barrett.

“I was thrown in the deep end that day, but we got some really good feedback from that day and I couldn’t think of a better coaching debut,” Malouf said.

“With our match scrimmages, the other clubs are pretty amazed at how similarly it’s run to our AFLW program. We try to replicate what it is like on AFLW game day.

“The players have the same preparation, resourcing, know they’ll have the proper nutrition after that game so it’s the whole experience.

“It gives them the best chance to get back into the AFLW team and I’ve been really impressed with how Cam, and the SUNS staff, have set this up to mirror the AFLW.

“James has been nothing but supportive throughout the whole process. He’s a massive advocate of having female coaches in female footy and he’s said he’s there to help us get the experience to take those roles on.”