AFL fans have looked on in amazement as expansion team the Gold Coast Suns have, in only their third year of competition, broken through and are winning games at a startling rate for such a young team. The media has all but exhausted the clichéd headlines. In the meantime, Greater Western Sydney are in their second year and certainly expectations have now been adjusted for when they too will finally break through. Fortunately, offsetting these expectations is company at the bottom of the ladder for them in Melbourne and others.
The talk invariably goes to what big-name players they should target that will be able to lift their profile and help them win games.
The code-switching strategy has faded into obscurity and will probably go down as a failure. On the other hand, the Gary Ablett Jr move to Gold Coast has been a resounding success. So what approach should GWS take?
Lance Franklin has been mentioned as a possible candidate, as has Jack Riewoldt. The theme seems to be a hunt for high-profile, high-impact tall players. But building a successful new team is not just about money and profile – those are always helpful but the most important thing needed is leadership.
Gold Coast [whoops] hit the jackpot with Ablett, as he ticks all the boxes: (1) he’s possibly a once-in-a-generation talent, (2) his huge work rate and clearance ability (and ease to spot on the field) makes him a huge draw-card as a player, (3) he came at just the right stage in his career – having enjoyed success at Geelong and established himself there, but with several years left in the tank, and (4) most importantly, he’s on on-field leader who has lifted an already-talented young midfield to be very competitive and one of the key reasons for Gold Coast’s fast track to success.
So on my key criteria of talent, draw-card, experience and leadership, Ablett scores 4/4 as a star recruit for an expansion team.
The other players who seem to be in the mix don’t even come close. While GWS does need experienced talls, it would be a huge mistake to bet the farm on Franklin. While his talent is beyond question, he’s not an on-field leader, he plays mostly on one side of the field, and he comes with baggage and risk.
The profile of the ideal recruit for GWS is an elite midfielder aged about 25-26 who has played finals (preferably a premiership winner) and has a strong on-field presence and leadership skills. That immediately reduces the field to a few teams, and a few players. Luke [whoops] Hodge would be great but is a touch old and battle worn, but Scott Pendlebury should certainly be considered. An interesting strategy might be to target one of the Sydney midfielders (Kieren Jack, Josh Kennedy) – they spread the workload well, so this might be an opportunity for one player to step out of the group and establish themselves as a leader elsewhere, as well as get some intra-city rivalry happening.