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Let’s start this out with the most obvious statement of all: Gold Coast is a below-average football team. They are the type of young-ish team who have solid performances on their resume (beating the Cats and Eagles), as well as some absolute shockers (cf. the China demolition). Due to the incredibly close and even 2017 season, in spite of a 4-6 record, they only sit a little over a game outside of the eight entering the back half of the year.
So… could they somehow make finals?
Firstly, yes, mathematically they’re not out of it. Their percentage sucks but with a couple of realistic upsets going their way the next fortnight, they could sit just outside the top eight on percentage, and equal on wins with seventh, after the byes. But more substantively, they have some points in their favour.
On the HPN team strength ratings, Gold Coast currently sits as the 15th best team in the AFL, almost average with respect to offence and midfield performance, but near dead last defensively.
While there have been numerous young defections from the Suns’ ranks in the past two offseasons, they have managed to bolster their list with both promising young players and wily veterans looking for another chance, and have managed to continue developing the early talent that remains.
One of those wily vets, Jarrod Witts, has proven to be a revelation in 2017, breaking the Suns season record for hitouts in just ten (10!) games. In fact the Suns, for the first time in their history, aren’t terrible in the ruck stakes. Every year between their foundation in 2011, and 2016, they were one of the worst three sides for hitout differentials in the league. Witts has been solid as a near-sole ruck this year, taking the Suns to fourth in the league for hitout differential. While hitouts may not matter as much anymore, Witts has been also been able to provide a physical presence around the ground, sitting seventh at the club for tackles and fourth for 1%ers.
Previous rucks for the Suns have included Josh Fraser, Zac Smith, Dan Currie, Tom Nicholls, Charlie Dixon and Nobody, all of whom typically failed to get hand to ball anywhere near as often as their collective opponents. Nicholls, their number one ruck last year, was frequently pasted in the hitout stakes and really only took the hitout count honours against Stefan Martin/Josh Walker and against Jordan Roughead. We have to assume that getting a regular first look at the footy is a new and novel experience for the often beleaguered Suns mids.
It seems to have had a demonstrable effect on the performance of the Gold Coast midfield, not least in the performance of modern great Gary Ablett. Ryan Buckland from The Arc laid it out brilliantly this week, so we don’t have a whole lot to add, other than Ablett has been playing like he just hopped out of a time machine from 2009.
According to the soonish-to-be-released HPN Player Approximate Value formula, Ablett sits as the third most valuable player in the competition this year, on a per game basis (min. 50% of games). Aaron Hall and Jarryd Lyons are also having career years, the former perhaps in fringe contention for the All Australian squad, and the latter relishing his time as a first rotation mid. Both are significantly improved on their 2016 performances, providing about 25% more value to their team per game.
There is certainly room to improve for Gold Coast – their defence hasn’t quite worked out how to keep other teams out, especially with the absence of Sam Day, Rory Thompson and, briefly, co-captain Steve May. But Jack Leslie has begun to enter form in the past few weeks, and there are quarters where the backline doesn’t look terrible.
Part of their problem defensively may be their penchant to attack from the halfback line. As outlined by The Arc at ESPN a couple of weeks back, the Suns are like R. Kelly – all about the bounce. Adam Saad not only leads the league in bounces, but he has nearly double that of Charlie Cameron and Steven Motlop in second.
A high risk halfback strategy can lead to rapid rebounding and goals conceded. Notably, against the Eagles, they played a very cautious probing game from halfback, and tried to only pull the trigger when a clear opportunity presented. The 99 inside-50s in that game was the second-fewest combined total in a Suns game this season (the win over Carlton had 90).
So, why again, does HPN think that they can make finals?
In short, their remaining draw looks really juicy.
Using the HPN team ratings as a proxy for team strength, we can work out the remaining strength of schedule (SOS) for each side, similar as we do at the start of every year. Using this process, we have found that Gold Coast have the second softest draw remaining, and the strongest effect in raw win terms (they have an extra game remaining over North).
Frighteningly, GWS have the third weakest draw, just as they appear to be getting a few players back from injury. Gold Coast face just three predicted finalists on their run home – West Coast (whom they just beat), a potentially shaky Richmond, and Port Adelaide. Their “away” game against the Bulldogs is also in Cairns. To make the finals Gold Coast will likely need to win at least seven more games, and very likely eight more. At the present time HPN predicts that GS are likely to win about 4-5 more games – not enough to swing them into the eight at this stage:
However, we give the Suns about a 30% chance of getting 11 wins, and a 23% chance of getting 12 – which should be enough to make finals. This is a little bit higher than the chance that others give them – Plus Six One gives them around 11%, The Arc has them at a 9% chance of finals footy and FMI give them almost no shot. The HPN ratings are non-Elo based, so it’s expected that there would be some divergence here, plus the regressed residual of previous seasons’ ratings may still factor into Elo ratings at this point. GC would be hoping that it can break more HPN’s way.
In a neat inversion of the situation at this stage last year, North look a solid chance to improve their position in the back half of the year, too.
In short, for the Suns to make the finals they would need a number of things to break their way. Firstly, their defence needs to improve to be able to play all four quarters of a game, or they need to potentially look to attack less, done against the Eagles. Secondly, Witts, Ablett, Lyons and Hall need to continue on their merry ways, and Lynch needs to find his 2016 form again. Thirdly, they need to beat all of the teams in their rough ladder grouping – teams such as the Hawks this week, Carlton, St Kilda, Fremantle, Essendon, Sydney and Collingwood. Finally, they have to hope that other results start to fall their way – as do many of the teams in that aforementioned grouping.
It’s not going to be easy, but it is a little more possible than is being discussed right now.