Clouds surround the AFL's struggling Gold Coast Suns

There are many questions about the state of the Gold Coast Suns, on and off the field. Photo: Matt Roberts/AFL Photos/via Getty Images
There are many questions about the state of the Gold Coast Suns, on and off the field. Photo: Matt Roberts/AFL Photos/via Getty Images

Gold Coast picked a particularly bad moment to deliver arguably its worst performance of the season against Port Adelaide last Saturday.

In front of scarcely more than 7000 people at its Metricon Stadium home, Gold Coast looked lifeless and apathetic as it limped to a paltry four-goal final tally against the Power, thrashed by 50 points.

Just two goals had been the sum total of three quarters' effort, though that is a word used loosely.

It bordered on embarrassing. But in terms of where the Suns sit in the AFL landscape, the worst was yet to come. And it arrived the following afternoon more than 2000 kilometres away in Launceston, Tasmania.

That was where Essendon edged out Hawthorn before a crowd more than double the size of that which turned out to watch the Suns. Significantly, the vast bulk of that crowd was barracking not for the Hawks, who have been playing home games there for 20 years now, but the away team, passionately and very vocally.

That wasn't a great look for Hawthorn. And there's no doubt the fact the Bombers were playing in the Apple Isle for the first time since 1992 played a part.

But it also suggested that there's a level of support for AFL football in Tasmania still mostly dormant, and which Hawthorn and North Melbourne in its home games in Hobart, haven't quite been able to convert.

Whether you agree with that hypothesis or not, a big, boisterous crowd at the game offered more ammunition to the forces lobbying the AFL harder than ever these days for a genuine Tasmanian team, not a Victorian-based side which deigns to play a handful of games there each year.

For the Suns, the timing was excruciatingly bad. With only five games played last weekend, it meant their stinker of a showing drew more attention than usual.

There was intense scrutiny of the senior list. The performance of coach Stuart Dew. The worth of his team of assistant coaches. And, yet again, the entire rationale of an AFL team based in an area which has chewed up and spat out so many franchises from so many different sports. And this time, the contrast with the goings-on in Tassie simply couldn't be avoided. Particularly one aspect.

There's been endless debate about the business case for a new AFL team in Tasmania. It certainly hasn't been strengthened by the COVID pandemic, which has played havoc with the league and club revenues. Even the last three weeks of football played outside the heartland of Melbourne has cost the AFL on its own an estimated $15 million.

There's reservations about how far the talent pool would be extended with an extra club, and the logistical complications of an uneven number of teams. That might at some point indeed help the cause of another aspirant to an AFL licence, the Northern Territory.

Can the AFL possibly sustain 20 teams? Not in the current climate. But philosophically, there's differences becoming more pronounced between Australian football's status in areas which have grown with the game, and those where the code doesn't have that heritage - places like the Gold Coast and western expanses of Sydney, where GWS resides.

The truth is, the Suns haven't done a lot wrong as a club in recent times, particularly with their list, re-signing a clutch of their best young players, enticing the likes of more senior faces such as Hugh Greenwood, Brandon Ellis and Lachie Weller, all of whom have been good value.

But their chronic inconsistency, at times falling into near-lethargy, has been helped by the lack of a passionate, engaged populace surrounding the place. There's not as much buzz around the club as others when it does pull off an impressive victory or two. Conversely, there's not nearly as much external pressure applied when things are going badly.

AFL clubs, and players, can't exist in a vacuum, even if internally the expectations and demands may be the same.

If players, even sub-consciously, know shocking performances aren't going to be treated publicly with the same disdain and with the same pressure applied they would be in heritage states like Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and yes, Tasmania, does life become too comfortable just being an AFL footballer with a healthy pay cheque?

AFL clubs in non-traditional environments are hard work. The Swans have been in Sydney nearly 40 years now, but still tread a fine line in terms of their place in the sporting pecking order if performance slips too far for too long.

The Giants have already played in a grand final, but the bigger picture task of building support and ongoing interest in western Sydney is very much still a work in progress. Gold Coast, now in its 11th season in the AFL, is in many ways no more advanced than during its first.

And the Suns' latest travails, given the harsh economic environment induced by the pandemic and the mounting support for a team from an area always a more natural football fit, are spectacularly poorly timed. The consequences may end up being far more than just another downtable finish.

This story Clouds surround the AFL's struggling Gold Coast Suns | Rohan Connolly first appeared on The Canberra Times.