AFL.com.au spent last week embedded at Gold Coast ahead of the club's clash with West Coast at Optus Stadium, with full access to players, coaches, staff, meetings and training sessions. This is part one of a two-part story on their first-year players from behind the scenes with the SUNS.
Izak Rankine suffered the first major injury setback of his life. Jack Lukosius played the opening six games of the season. Ben King has had to be patient in the NEAFL.
Jez McLennan is learning how to balance his instincts with the SUNS' game plan. Caleb Graham is finally settled in one position. And Sam Fletcher, well, he was playing for Box Hill in the VFL until eight weeks ago.
It has been mixed fortunes for Gold Coast's 2018 draft class since arriving at the club. But as six of the 13 new players the SUNS picked up last off-season, they carry plenty of the club's hopes.
The SUNS are in their third iteration of their list build since entering the competition in 2011, but now feel they have the pieces, people and processes in place to get it right. And having attacked last year's draft with a suite of early selections, its new faces are crucial to that.
The SUNS didn't spend long backing over their round six defeat to the Brisbane Lions. They lost by more the previous week against Adelaide, but were more disappointed in their effort against the Lions in the QClash.
Stuart Dew stood at the front of their meeting room on Monday morning and reminded the SUNS they needed to prepare as well after wins as losses. "We're not measuring us against ourselves," he said. "We're measuring us against the AFL."
After only a few minutes, the SUNS broke into line groups, with Rankine, Lukosius and King in the forwards meeting with assistant coach Ashley Prescott and development coach Tim Clarke.
King is new to this squad: until a couple of weeks ago, the exciting talent had played as a defender.
Prescott asked each player to write on the whiteboard two focus areas for their week. Rankine jotted down his goalkicking and tackling.
The 19-year-old has made an immediate impression since the SUNS took him last year with the draft choice they were given for losing free agent and former captain Tom Lynch to Richmond.
"People instantly warm to him," Dew says. "He's not afraid to be himself, and we definitely want to be an environment where people can be themselves. We don't want to turn him into a robot."
Rankine didn't say much in the forwards meeting, with experienced SUNS goalkicker Alex Sexton the most vocal, asking questions of his teammates.
The hamstring tear robbed Rankine of a round one debut but saw him win over many at the club.
"We said to him that he's probably got more respect because of the way he's attacked his recovery," Dew said.
Rankine was ready to play in the NEAFL last weekend but the SUNS were conservative with him as they were travelling to Darwin. However, he had a setback at training this week and faces another month out.
"The worst went through my mind when I did the [original] injury and I was pretty upset," Rankine said.
"I was ready to play round one. But this has made me realise how fit I can actually be. My endurance is a lot better and I'm feeling stronger."
He had a familiar face with him during his initial stint on the sidelines. Rankine spent the first month of his time at the SUNS living with Lukosius and King at chief executive Mark Evans' house (Rankine used his pace to race up the stairs and grab the biggest room with an ensuite), before shifting to teammate Sean Lemmens' place after Christmas.
Lemmens returned to the NEAFL last week after an ankle injury, with his progress in the rehab group noted on a board near the SUNS' gym: 'Lemmo vs. his mind. Swim the English channel in three weeks', with a target for how many laps of the pool he needed to do to finish.
Lemmens, whose girlfriend is one of Rankine's cousins, completed the task a couple of weeks ago, made harder by the fact he isn't a keen swimmer.
He has gotten used to Rankine's company at home. Most nights after being at the club, Rankine will pick up his guitar and write some music, and is keen to record a song with teammate Callum Ah Chee, also a talented guitarist.
He's also had more time to add to his tattoo collection: an image on his arm of an astronaut heading towards the sky with the Aboriginal colours represents reaching for the stars; the numerals behind his ear are of his dad's birthday; and the Thai symbol on his hand means protection from demons and bad fortune. "I got injured after that," he smiled.
Rankine was the only player in last year's draft to be a dual All Australian, and the speedy half-forward/midfielder was seen by many as the crop's most talented player.
"Before I came people would say 'You don't want to go there' but as soon as I got here I've loved it," he said. "Everyone thought it'd be a bit scary to move and being away from home. But I was happy coming here and starting with a fresh club to help them get better."
When the SUNS draftees first got to the club at the end of last year, they were asked to stand in front of their teammates and show three photos of significance to them.
King put up a picture of his family, one of him playing football and a shot of his dog.
The SUNS added 'Family' to their set of values last year, after Pearce Hanley spoke to the group about how the club had become his family being so far away from his Irish homeland. King has felt that.
"Dad was up here for work and he dropped into training and the amount of boys and coaches who walked up and introduced themselves was great. Having mum and dad on board with how good the people and the club are means a lot to me," King said.
Gold Coast has made that a priority. Last month, Dew, SUNS football manager Jon Haines, fitness boss Alex Rigby and list manager Craig Cameron presented to King and his family a four-year development plan for the versatile tall.
It is a new feature this year and extremely detailed, and something they'll do with every first-year player and their family, plus second and third-year SUNS.
King's focused on building King's weight (eventually aiming for 98kg), breaking down the expectations on his first year (a plan for eight-12 senior games) and highlighting the progress of key position players such as West Coast's Jeremy McGovern and Geelong's Tom Hawkins in their early years to provide context to his rate of progress, and also included a look at what the SUNS hope their 2022 team will look like.
"The very best key forwards and key defenders, if you take out Dustin Fletcher and Lance Franklin, their stats don't make for great reading," Haines said.
"This gave his parents some comfort that we're looking at his long-term development, because it would have been really easy to play him already."
When Haines, Dew and Evans joined the SUNS recruiters at King's house two nights before the draft, the perceptive teenager started to get his head around moving to Queensland from Melbourne.
"They said 'We're going to pick you' which was a crazy moment. Mum was a little bit upset, she was quite worried about the unknown of me moving," King said.
The No.6 selection had his own thoughts, too. King had seen Lynch and fellow co-captain Steven May leave last year, on top of recent departures such as Gary Ablett, Jaeger O'Meara, Dion Prestia and Josh Caddy.
"You don't get a great picture of the SUNS in Melbourne, and before I came up I was definitely questioning why these players were leaving," he said. "But immediately I got here and it changed my perception of the Gold Coast a lot."
Most days after training he goes to the beach for a dip for recovery before heading back to Evans' place, where one night a week King and Lukosius will cook for the SUNS' CEO and his wife, Lynne.
"They've looked after us really well. I didn't really know what to expect if he's going to be strict or if I'm going to feel uncomfortable because he's the CEO. He's not like that at all," King said.
More hands make for less work. The SUNS' first-year players spend one night every two weeks doing a cooking class.
This time, nasi goreng was on the menu of Ben Parker, the club's full-time chef and dietician who provides daily lunches, post-game meals and nutrition tips to players from the SUNS' kitchen.
He started by dividing the tasks. King diced the onions, Rankine cracked the eggs and flipped the omelettes, Fletcher cut the chicken and Graham pulled apart the lettuce. Lukosius came 20 minutes late after a weights session ran over time. "You're going well, I'm going to grab a shower. Be back soon," he quipped.
Graham is the only SUNS draftee from last year to still be living with his parents. His whole family moved from Cairns at the end of 2016 down to the Gold Coast, largely due to his growing involvement with the SUNS' Academy program.
The SUNS had priority access over Graham, a developing tall, last year. He played in a number of different positions – the ruck, in attack and down back – in an inconsistent season, but they liked his aggression and character.
They have prioritised that in their recruiting. "You don't need choirboys, but we know what it means in terms of performance character, social character and emotional character," Haines said.
Graham took on another role in his early days with Gold Coast, too, turning local tour guide for the new SUNS from interstate.
"I tried to help out with a few things but they found their own cafes and places pretty quickly. They're showing me around now," he said.