GOLD COAST 0.3.4 0.3.7 1.7.11 1.11.15 (90)ESSENDON 0.4.0 0.8.2 0.11.5 0.13.11 (89)
Nine pointersGold Coast: Ablett. Essendon: none.
Goals Gold Coast: Shaw 2 Day 2 J Hall 2 Boston 2 Swallow Matera Lynch. Essendon: Carlisle 3 Howlett 3 Daniher 2 Hardingham 2 Kavanagh Steinberg Ryder.
Best Gold Coast: Ablett Rischitelli Swallow Stanley Harbrow McKenzie. Essendon: Zaharakis Stanton Howlett Carlisle Ryder Hurley.
Injuries Gold Coast: Lemmens (shoulder). Essendon: Browne (knee).
Umpires: Ryan Kamolins Jeffery.
Venue: Metricon Stadium, Gold Coast.
HERE are two teams with points to prove this year. High expectations surround the Suns, with a maturing list now in their fourth year in the AFL, spearheaded by the game's best player and captain. Essendon, of course, have to somehow shrug off last year's supplements scandal, with their players still under an ASADA cloud.
And in the end, only a point separated them: the Suns stole the match, with a rushed behind off a Gary Ablett missile from just outside the 50-metre arc, on the siren, sealing the result after they had trailed for most of the match. Pre-season games seldom muster such tension in the dying moments.
Both sides approached the match with intent. Captain and dual Brownlow medallist Ablett took his place in the Suns' squad alongside most of the club's best players, including Tom Lynch and Brandon Matera, both of whom missed large chunks of last season. Harley Bennell and Dion Prestia were missing with calf injuries, while defender Rory Thompson has an adductor strain.
Essendon was minus captain Jobe Watson, as well as Brendon Goddard and new recruit/veteran Paul Chapman, all of whom were rested. But David Zaharakis, Dyson Heppell, Michael Hurley and Patrick Ryder were all present, along with Zach Merrett, the club's first draft pick last year at number 26, and rookie ruck Fraser Thurlow.
It all pointed towards a high-quality hit-out, and it didn't disappoint. The football was quick, and it was physical – at least for the first half. Towering above it all early on was Joe Daniher, a significantly more imposing figure than the stripling of last year.
Daniher kicked the first goal of the game after clunking a mark at full stretch, then followed up with a snap around his body after gathering at ground level. At the beginning of the second quarter, he missed a simple shot in front after a reflex intercept, then shanked a second behind from another mark.
Also good for the Dons were Jake Carlisle, who showed great soccer skills in chipping through a ball ahead of Matthew Warnock, and Thurlow, who competed hard, doing his long-term chances no harm as a second-ruck option.
Slowly, the Suns worked their way into the game, with rookie Josh Hall kicking their first from a free-kick, then Matt Shaw kicking a further two, the second late in the quarter after winning a race to the ball in the goal square. But they also missed opportunities. The Dons kicked four straight.
In the second, Essendon's greater accuracy and fluency began to tell, kicking another four goals (along with Daniher's two misses) to the Suns' four behinds. Zaharakis and Stanton played dominant roles, while, of the younger players, Zach and Jackson Merrett were both lively.
The player to inevitably attract most attention for the Suns was Western Australian Jack Martin, who – like fellow under-aged draftee Jaeger O'Meara before him – saw out his first season at Metricon in the reserves. He won't play many more games there. Martin didn't dazzle, but he's quick, balanced and always keeps his feet.
The Suns charged home in the second half, coming from 28 points down in the third quarter to nearly steal the match that looked gone. More important was the form of Ablett, the sight of Michael Rischitelli at full fitness after a difficult 2013, and the second-half performance of Sam Day.
The Bombers won't be too disappointed to let the result slip. Zaharakis had an incredible match for the Bombers with 43 possessions, Ryder was dominant in the ruck, and while Daniher faded, his early form will have fans salivating at what he can produce when the real stuff begins next month.