AFL.com.au spent last week embedded at Gold Coast ahead of the club's clash with West Coast at Optus Stadium. Nothing was off-limits, with full access to players, coaches, staff, meetings and training sessions. This is part two of a two-part story on their first-year players from behind the scenes with the SUNS.
Gold Coast players filed past the run of offices in the middle of their open-plan bottom floor. "It's meeting time!" said energetic youngster Wil Powell, one of the liveliest members of the SUNS' list.
This meeting was a little different, though. It's run by the players, for the players. George Horlin-Smith, who joined the club last year after eight seasons at Geelong, led the gathering to announce who has been voted as the week's 'Sherpa'.
Players vote after every game for which teammate has best lived out the team's values on the field in the NEAFL and AFL line-ups, and then explain why in a new initiative. Emerging midfielder Brayden Fiorini was given it for his efforts against the Lions.
"I voted for you based off your voice. We were down and out but still communicated well," said Touk Miller.
"Even when you came forward you wanted to know what was happening, where to be and were asking questions all the time," Alex Sexton added.
Senior assistant coach Dean Solomon chipped in, saying Fiorini also adds the most voice on the bench.
Feedback comes in many forms. Coach Stuart Dew puts a note on his door at the start of every week with set appointments with about 12 players. Generally they are the players in line for a recall or in danger of being dropped, but Dew also tries to chat with the rest of the list informally.
He is comfortable leaving responsibility with line and development coaches for more thorough game reviews.
For Jack Lukosius, that meant a 20-minute meeting in forwards coach Ashley Prescott's office, alongside development coach Tim Clarke.
They rolled through edits of Lukosius' performance. When the No.2 pick from last year's NAB AFL Draft had his hands on his hips after one bit of play, Prescott told him to get moving. "Activate yourself," he said.
Lukosius is hard on himself. When he ran under the ball for a marking contest, he described it as "a half-hearted effort". Prescott is more forgiving.
"What I see there is you running out and staying in line with the ball. It's a good lead up the ground," he says.
Prescott and Clarke commended the six-gamer for taking time to help set up debutant Josh Corbett in the forward structure, and tracked Lukosius' long run from half-back, when he was involved in a contest and followed the ball to the SUNS' goalsquare and kicked a goal.
"It's top-end stuff," Prescott said. "That's digging in big time for the team. That's SUNS footy."
Lukosius, a hard-working and skilful key forward, last year watched the Brisbane and Gold Coast clash in round 22 knowing he was a good chance to end up with the loser. The SUNS lost that game but gained the South Australian talent with their first choice.
He got familiar with the idea of moving to the SUNS, and got to know their recruiting team well, including list manager Craig Cameron and recruiting manager Kall Burns.
"I had questions and I asked them throughout the draft process," he said.
"They haven't had the results on the field and have had some key players leaving, so it can be hard to find positives when you look at it like that.
"But once I've come here I've realised the shuffle that's happened with lots of players leaving and getting people in, and I can see we're on the right path."
He debuted in round one, kicked his first goal in round five, but was spending nearly a full quarter on the bench in games as the SUNS managed his game time before omitting him last week.
"We want him to get to the end of the year and springboard into next year in good physical shape," Dew said. "He never complains. I don't think Jack gets flustered. He just puts his head down and does the work."
Off the field, Lukosius has settled into Queensland. He brought over most of his wardrobe, and took a lot of it back during his Christmas break after realising he spent most of his time in shorts and a t-shirt.
"I wore a jumper for the first time the other day," he says.
He also left his PlayStation at home, conscious that he wanted to spend his early weeks at the club getting to know teammates. "That lasted about four days before we got one of the guys at the club to lend us theirs," he says.
Lukosius understands his place in the SUNS' plans. He also sees the club's short, and so far unsuccessful, history as part of the appeal.
"Everything's still to capture. We're very determined. We're not going to take mediocracy, not going to accept losing," he says.
"Maybe in the past they might have accepted losing being a young club coming through. But now I think they've decided enough is enough and it's really exciting because I don't want to be a part of a losing team. No one does."
THE SUNS' upstairs café looks out onto the club's new training oval, which they have only recently gained access to.
It was the warm-up athletics track for the Commonwealth Games last year, an event that helped deliver the SUNS their state-of-the-art facility that's a two-minute walk to their home ground Metricon Stadium.
The design inside of the Gold Coast hub is deliberately open-plan: players need to pass through coaches' desks to attend meetings, encouraging interaction.
The SUNS players mingle around their lounge area, but put away their phones in individual mailboxes when arriving at the club.
Large TV screens inside the facility are also used to educate and coach. They flick between behind-the-goals vision outlining passages of play intrinsic to the SUNS' game-plan, and also show targets for different groups of players.
One day, each of the SUNS' key defenders are ranked on the screens for the amount of contests they won, halved and lost the previous game.
In the kitchen, Jez McLennan and SUNS NEAFL coach Nick Malceski chatted over lunch. McLennan was the SUNS' fourth pick at the draft last year after they traded up the board to snare him.
He didn't actually see his name called at the draft, having had internet issues at home. He answered a random number that happened to be Dew welcoming him to the club.
He started his time at the SUNS with a few weeks at teammate Lachie Weller's place, before shifting in with CEO Mark Evans, and then finally settling in with Powell, who lives with his family. The pair go surfing together regularly, with McLennan previously building his own board at school.
He's a jumping and intercepting half-back from South Australia, and is getting his head around how the SUNS want to play.
"It hasn't been all smooth sailing. Studying the game plan was the hardest part. I tend to take a while to pick up things, and also I've taken a bit more time than others to jell into the footy club," he said.
Malceski is supportive, telling McLennan to keep working on his weapon but to round off other areas.
"And what have we spoken about being your main focus this week?" Malceski asked McLennan.
"It's to have my opponent and the ball in my vision, so just having touch with him if he rolls behind me and always being aware of where he is," McLennan answered.
Sam Fletcher was devastated. Although he didn't think he was a certainty to be picked up in either of last year's national or rookie drafts, the midfielder was preparing himself to get a chance.
He had played for Vic Country in the under-18 carnival, featured in the Dandenong Stingrays' TAC Cup flag and been added to the NAB AFL Academy. But no club called his name.
"I was completely shattered. I was so invested in it. It was pretty heartbreaking for a while. It knocked me about and it's all doom and gloom for a little bit," he said.
The hardest part was the day after the rookie draft, when he laid out his working clothes in his room and it struck him no club had wanted him. "It took me a while to move on."
But he had to, and he signed with Box Hill's VFL side. He managed only a couple of practice games with them before he won a chance with the SUNS, who scoped him out and added him to their list as a supplemental selection period pick in the middle of March, only days before round one.
"I played a practice game on a Saturday, met the SUNS on the Sunday and by Monday I flew up here to have a medical screening and meet the coach and staff," Fletcher said.
"It was a nervous wait until Wednesday night when I got the call saying I was in. By Sundday I was living up on the Gold Coast and was an AFL player. It was a bloody whirlwind."
He's had to adapt quickly to the change, helped by the SUNS' personal excellence team, which is the biggest in the competition. It has five members, headed by former Lions premiership player Shaun Hart, and will soon add a sixth.
They have moved from a welfare mentality – the club says there was a culture of entitlement in the past – to fostering independence: they want to equip the players with skills away from the field so not to rely on others, something important to Dew.
They are particularly engaged with the first-year players, helping them settle into accommodation, organising transport, advising them on tertiary education. Hart, during one session, even runs alongside Fletcher for his sprint work in the rehab group.
Fletcher's path was completely unique to his fellow first-year SUNS. But he shares the same feelings about the club.
"Not getting drafted definitely drives me a little bit. Not to show people wrong, but I appreciate the opportunity more," he says.
"When I missed out it really hurt to not get that chance, now I have one I want to take it with both hands, maybe more than the person who's had a more privileged road. It's an exciting place to be."