For the first time in their existence, Gold Coast will head into an AFL season with a weight of expectation upon them.
Last year’s eight-win campaign has catapulted the Suns from also-rans into finals outsiders and made club chairman John Witheriff’s goal of a premiership by 2015 seem not quite as outrageous as it did when he proclaimed it at the end of the 2012 season.
As well as the wins, the Suns claimed their first major awards last year thanks to Gary Ablett’s Brownlow Medal and outstanding teenager Jaeger O’Meara’s Rising Star gong.
But amid the good there were also setbacks with Jared Brennan’s retirement after an up-and-down past two seasons and Campbell Brown’s sacking after the ex-Hawthorn player broke teammate Steven May’s jaw in a brawl outside a Los Angeles nightclub in December.
Coach Guy McKenna took a keen interest in how the group reacted to the Brown affair, in what was the first true crisis his young list had come across.
“Everyone certainly would’ve been stopped in their tracks for five minutes and held their breath,” McKenna told AAP.
“You certainly didn’t want it to happen but it’s happened, that was it and you take the next step forward.
“It’s behind them and they move forward. That’s probably the resilience they’ve built up over the past few years, there’s been some heavy defeats along the way.”
McKenna doesn’t buy into the argument his team’s year can only be measured as a success in 2014 if they break into the top eight.
The former West Coast defender feels September footy will come, but only if the players focus on improving their efforts once more.
“We basically had a six-goal turnaround (last year),” McKenna said.
“We reduced the opposition by three goals defensively better than we did the season before and then offensively we scored three goals better as well. Are we going to have that same improvement again this year?
“If it’s a goal-and-a-half improvement either way, again that’s a step forward.
“If we do, that – based on numbers – it will give us a chance and we should finish in the top eight.
“I have 12 blokes now with over 50 games to choose from. Last year I only had six. So just that alone says we’re better off.
“There’s a natural progression, a natural maturation to this group which says we should improve.”
The club is also having to deal with off-field speculation over the future of former rugby league international Karmichael Hunt.
With just one season left on his contract with the Suns, there’s talk he may return to the NRL with youngsters such as O’Meara, Harley Bennell and even teenage sensation Jack Martin seemingly eclipsing the 27-year-old’s ability.
“He hasn’t had the greatest pre-season but when he is fit and he is hard, he is a legitimate AFL footballer,” McKenna said.
“We have no doubts about that. That’s his challenge – staying pace with the group.”
Just as with O’Meara, there’s been plenty of buzz around his fellow West Australian Martin, with many claiming the 17-year-old is the best of the Suns’ youngsters.
McKenna believes the club’s experience in developing young talent should stand Martin in good stead.
“He’s got trailblazers in Jaeger O’Meara and David Swallow,” he said.
“Fair to say those boys ahead of him have turned out okay and that’s not just those two, that’s the group around them as well.”
Coach: Guy McKenna
Captain: Gary Ablett
Last three years: 17-17-14
Key five: Gary Ablett, Jaeger O’Meara, Rory Thompson, Charlie Dixon, Tom Lynch
One to watch: Jack Martin. Fellow young gun Jaeger O’Meara set the bar incredibly high with his standout debut campaign in 2013 and Martin looks good enough to clear it as well this year.
Ins: Kade Kolodashnij (Launceston Tas), Sean Lemmens (Port Adelaide SANFL), Jack Leslie (Gippsland U18), Jack Martin (Claremont WAFL).
Outs: Jared Brennan (retired), Jacob Gilbee (delisted), Kyal Horsley (delisted), Liam Patrick (delisted), Maverick Weller (St Kilda), Joel Wilkinson (delisted).
Best 22: B: Seb Tape, Steven May, Trent McKenzie
HB: Danny Stanley, Rory Thompson, Matt Shaw
C: Jarrod Harbrow, David Swallow, Harley Bennell
HF: Brandon Matera, Tom Lynch, Jack Martin
F: Sam Day, Charlie Dixon, Aaron Hall
R: Zac Smith, Gary Ablett, Jaeger O’Meara
I: Dion Prestia, Michael Rischitelli, Nathan Bock, Tom Nicholls
Predicted finish: 13th
To win the flag: $67
To make the top eight: $4