21/02/2024

The Gold Coast Suns celebrate their first AFLW win. (Photo: Gold Coast Suns; Design: Will Cuckson)

Ahead of the entry of four new teams into the AFLW competition, The Inner Sanctum is looking back at the stories of the entries of the six past expansion teams. This is The New Frontier, where players, coaches and staff broke new ground and created something from nothing.

The Gold Coast Suns were built as a football club barely over a decade ago. Expanding into the women’s competition in 2020, it was crucial to get it right from the start.

It was a tight-knit group that joined the club from the very first draft crop. Unlike many of the Victorian sides, they didn’t have a direct state league side to draw from.

But the Suns could look to their academy system, which has given them 12 current AFLW players.

It helped to create the foundation that the club now sits upon, entering its fourth season in the competition. In a fairly different footballing landscape from those of Victoria and South Australia, the state and junior leagues were abuzz with the news of the Suns’ entry.

Academy graduate Serene Watson felt that in her underage year, battling hard with Bond University in the QAFLW to make her case.

“Leading up to the draft, it was pretty daunting,” Watson told the The Inner Sanctum.

“Especially in that under 18s year, it was a big thing to perform well to showcase ourselves, knowing we were going to get drafted.”

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She wasn’t the only one however, in what would be a strong draft year for the Sunshine State.

Charlotte Hammans, Ellie Hampson, Lily Postlethwaite, Belle Dawes, Cathy Svarc, Tahlia Hickie, Dakota Davidson, Maria Moloney, Dee Heslop, Jade Pregelj, Tarni White and Watson are all Queenslanders taken either in that draft or as open age signings.

It made for a highly competitive season, but also ensured the bonds the players made carried through to the AFLW.

“It was pretty exciting,” Watson said.

“The year before our under 18s year at Queensland, Brisbane was the only team in Queensland. Thinking about that… there was only going to be a certain amount of spots that could get drafted.

“Having faces that you know is a lot more relaxing. I think it would have been a lot harder had I gone to a Melbourne team, and I didn’t really know many people.”

But for every group of talented youngsters, there needs to be firm leadership to guide them to success.

The Suns looked to Jamie Stanton, Paige Parker, Tiarna Ernst, Leah Kaslar, Emma Pittman and Jasmyn Hewett to add that to the inaugural team.

Sam Virgo may have been more important in adding seniority than anyone.

Named as the Suns’ first AFLW captain alongside Kaslar, she had the unique advantage of working with a number of the club’s draftees at the Queensland national championships team.

Watson in particular shared a special bond with her new captain.

“She [Virgo] has been my biggest mentor ever, we still talk daily now. I’m very lucky to have her in my life,” Watson said.

“Having those people you can rely on, it’s a lot more helpful when they know how to push you harder because you’ve been around them for so long.”

Draft day

As an expansion side, the Suns came into the 2019 AFLW Draft with eight selections, ready to stock up on the best Queensland had to offer.

Entering the Queensland pool with the fourth selection, the list management team ultimately decided on Watson.

At 174cm, she gained attention as a tall option in defence, with the ability to push up the ground and play a rebounding role on a wing.

She would be named in the under-18 All-Australian team twice before becoming Gold Coast’s first ever draft pick.

“I ended up having a couple of conversations with the Suns, and they were pretty happy with me to get drafted,” Watson recalled.

“We had chats through it all, and they said they were happy for me to fly to Melbourne and go to the draft. That was pretty exciting. I got to take my family, my mum, dad, and brother, with me to the draft.

“Waiting for your name to be called, it was pretty nerve-wracking. But as soon as it was, all the nerves were gone, I was so happy.

“But I had David Lake at the time, who was our coach, and Sam Virgo… there with me. As soon as my name got called, it was a bit of relief and pressure off my shoulders.”

It was straight into pre-season from there for the completed inaugural list, with Round 1 approaching quickly in February.

With minimal time to gel together, it was all stations go.

“Our first pre-season was pretty hectic, you never really know what you’re coming in for until you’re in it,” Watson said.

“We had a lot of experience, the likes of Sam Virgo, Jamie Stanton, Leah Kaslar, who had been through a couple of pre-seasons before. Coming in, we were just focused on being the best we could be.

“A first year team coming into the comp was pretty daunting, coming against all these other teams that have been playing for four years together.

“We were just focusing on building a good foundation, and from there we wanted to be the best we could be. We got through it pretty well.”

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Jet-setting to the Giants

Like the teams that had come before them, the Suns were slated to take on an inaugural AFLW side in the Giants in Round 1.

GWS was fresh off a lean year in 2019, having only won two matches. Both teams had plenty to prove to kick off the newly expanded competition.

With nerves all about, Watson leaned on her mentor’s guidance to prepare for her first AFLW game after being told she’d be making her debut.

“With people like Sam Virgo around me, I was going up to her and going ‘what do I do, how do I deal with the pressure and the nerves?’” Watson said.

“And she said take it all in, it’s a once in a lifetime experience. You only debut once in an AFLW environment.

“I really enjoyed the week leading up to it, the flight down, the accommodation, all of it. I was lucky enough to have my family there as well, which helps settle the nerves as well.”

It wasn’t an easy introduction to the competition for the girls from the Sunshine State, dealing with some of the worst weather the AFLW had seen.

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It kept both teams limited to just one goal apiece, with the Suns inevitably going down by a singular point.

While Watson said the group was hurting after coming so close in their first ever game, it didn’t take them long to bounce back.

They would host fellow expansion team Richmond the following week for their first game at Metricon Stadium.

This time, the Suns would take home their first ever four points.

“In that week, coming off, we lost to GWS by one point, which was pretty devastating,” Watson explained.

“We obviously all really wanted to win. Coming in against a very established team as Richmond – with the whole boys’ club and how big Richmond is as a club – there was a lot of talk around it.

“We were lucky enough to have it at Metricon Stadium, and I think that helped settle a lot of nerves. We got a pretty big community supporting us through it as well. It was a beautiful day as well, which helped.

“We were just all on fire, and celebrating the first win for the AFLW girls was a once in a lifetime experience. We were all just super psyched for it.

“Even the girls that didn’t play… we all won the game at the end of the day. It was very exciting, and something we’ll never forget.”

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Riding high after its first AFLW victory, Gold Coast would be next slated to play its first Q Clash against competition powerhouse Brisbane.

The Lions had played in the first two Grand Finals in 2017 and 2018, with 2019 being the only blip in their time in the AFLW so far.

Having lost a number of experienced players to the Suns, there were always going to be plenty of fire in the encounter.

What no one could have expected though, was just how hard the new girls on the block would push them, ultimately playing out a draw.

“We all watch the Q Clash in the men’s, and it’s obviously pretty fiery,” Watson said.

“That was a lot of our talk in the lead up to it. The rivalry is so big, it was literally the biggest Q Clash ever.

“I think we were all stoked to get a draw. We were trying while having heaps of fun to get the win.”

First season finals for just the second time

Gold Coast, just like Geelong before it, qualified for finals in its first season. To this day, both clubs are the only expansion teams to do so.

Round 4 saw the Suns travel to Arden Street, battling hard against the Kangaroos but ultimately dropping the match by 13 points.

The next week was a loss to Geelong in Mackay, before finishing strongly with a smashing of fellow new kids West Coast to sit fourth in their conference.

With all games in Round 6 played in front of no spectators due to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the future of the season was uncertain.

The AFL ultimately decided to go to finals with the top four teams from each conference, giving the Suns their golden opportunity.

“It was pretty crazy, because we had to wait around for that final fixture to come out,” Watson said.

“When we found out we were playing finals, it was pretty exciting. We had a pretty big year that year with our travel, we were all over the shop.

“We’d literally travelled to Perth the week before, trained for four days, and had to go straight back over. That’s a six, seven hour flight from the Gold Coast, so a pretty big flight.”

Gold Coast would be tasked with perhaps the most unfavourable match-up of anyone: an away trip against the undefeated Fremantle.

Very few saw the club stand a chance, and that was reflected in the results; a 70-point drubbing.

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Much like Geelong’s experience, while the result did the club no favours, it was a game-changing opportunity.

“It was an unreal experience,” Watson said.

“We really wanted to win, but for the club in our first year, it was so exciting for us to be able to achieve something like that.

“Despite the score, we got so much out of it. We knew we were capable of doing it, and we know that we’re capable of doing it again.”

It may have left more of an impact on the team than initially thought though, as they went on to lose every game in 2021. The 11-game losing streak finally ended in season six, with now captain Tara Bohanna’s last quarter heroics.

Inaugural coach David Lake stepped down after the winless season, with Cameron Joyce returning for his second season at the helm on Saturday.

Winning three and a half games in season six, Gold Coast looks to be heading back in the right direction. But after losing a number of its own players to expansion sides – particularly Port Adelaide – it might be an uphill battle.

Watson has still got full faith in the coach and the group come Saturday’s game against North Melbourne.

“Joycey coming in… he was really strong on building a foundation,” she said.

“He’s had a very strong plan that we’ve all memorised in our heads… we could say it in our sleep to be honest.

“Him coming in, he’s very strong on our united piece. He just really wants the best for us.

“We’re ready to bounce back, and it’s just a growing game. The comp’s growing and we’re growing.”

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