AFL 2024: Gold Coast Suns forming Fortress on Gold Coast as Essendon wastes chances

It’s time to use the F-word, Suns fans.

No, no finale. Not yet. Fortress.

Gold Coast are now 5-0 at People First Stadium and this has been their finest hour yet. Sunday’s 11-point victory over an in-form Essendon lacked the elegance and composure of previous home games but, in context, was their most impressive of the season.

The Suns have been undefeated at home for the most part this year, but from afar, the Bombers seemed to be the real litmus test. If they pass that one, we can start talking about the word that starts with F.

They had previously comfortably defeated Richmond, Adelaide, West Coast and Hawthorn at home. The arm wrestling match on Sunday showed for the first time that the Suns are under great pressure and have to defend their fortress in Carrara.

There were more than a few opportunities for things to go wrong.

When Nick Hind was awarded a goal in the third period after Suns players insisted his shot had been touched, it sent shivers down the spine of the Carrara crowd.

On the home straight, Jed Walter seemed to be a sure candidate for a decisive goal after a textbook tackle with the ball – but the referee left his whistle in his pocket.

And then came perhaps the toughest decision of all. As Sam Durham marked at 50m and attempted to turn onto his right foot, he was tackled by Charlie Ballard, who thought he deserved a free kick. Instead, the Bombers midfielder was marched to the top of the goal area and his subsequent goal brought the visitors level.

At this point, a win for Essendon seemed out of the question. But despite the enormous pressure, the Suns held firm. Perhaps fittingly, it was a decisive decision by the hosts that sealed the victory.

Brayden Fiorini may have feared he was costing his team the game with his bizarre lapse in the third quarter while running toward goal, when he passed the ball up the middle on a 1-on-3 and left Bailey Humphrey free in the box.

But the winger’s quick reaction to demand the ball following a late Suns free kick – which should have been awarded to Touk Miller – brought his captain to the top of the goal area where he was able to score.

Damien Hardwick will have a lot to analyse in the coming days. His team often came under pressure due to too much handball in the defensive half and the transition game left a lot to be desired at times. Some decisions were poor and the momentum swings almost cost them the game.

But deep down, the Suns coach will be encouraged by the determination his team showed under the Bomber’s welding torch.

The Suns were behind on many of their usual KPIs. The AFL’s best team lost the battle for the 50 metres infield 54-58 and also lost the clearance at home for the first time this season 28-30.

This victory was not due to the merit of their superstar midfielders, but rather to a poor defensive performance and a little class from the lesser-known teams.

Sam Collins put Kyle Langford in the pocket and kept him there all night. The Bombers’ attacking spearhead went almost unnoticed in an attacking line that saw the ball nearly 60 times and was substituted midway through the final quarter.

Bombers captain Zach Merrett looked to be making a comeback with a brilliant third-quarter spurt, but his three errors – which could and perhaps should have been goals – proved costly.

It was a microcosm of the Bombers’ night. When they had the momentum in the first and third quarters, they just couldn’t translate it on the scoreboard.

On the other hand, 100-year-old Ben Long scored four goals, the best performance of his career, and was one of many unsung match winners for the Suns.

After a poor day against the Blues last weekend, Noah Anderson came to life in the second half and played a key role in slowing the Bombers’ momentum in the final quarter with some brilliant preparatory work.

The Suns beat the Bombers with a different game plan and they must now apply it away to St Kilda next weekend. They are a known quantity at People First Stadium and the next challenge is to end a 12-game losing streak away from home.

Do that, and then Suns fans can start thinking about the other word that starts with “F.”

SUNS PROTECT DESPERATE DONS

— Hannah Davis

Gold Coast beat a desperate Essendon side in a thrilling game at People First Stadium to catapult themselves into the top eight and cement their chances as finals contenders.

The 91-80 win – their first against the Bombers since 2016 – was the result of a comeback by the entire team and the highest goal tally of his career by Ben Long, who scored in 100 games.

Gold Coast ended the four-game winning streak of the top two teams and remains unbeaten at home, with their season record now at 7-5.

The Bombers started with a bang, scoring the day’s first major through the boot of former Sun Peter Wright, who played 66 games for Gold Coast over six seasons until moving south in 2021.

Essendon effortlessly built connections in the mid corridor and again it was Wright who delivered the ball that helped Harrison Jones score his club’s second goal.

At the start of the first period, the defensive structure under Sam Collins seemed to be Gold Coast’s saving grace before Long’s milestone goal put the home side on notice. However, they still finished the first period one behind.

Trailing by nine points, Mac Andrew continued to build up its defense, recording 17 possessions and one tackle in the first half.

Long took advantage and scored his second goal of the day after a long, high ball slipped out of his hands in a one-on-one duel, giving the team the lead for the first time all game.

A few unorthodox football plays followed – including a tunnel ball-like pass from Jake Stringer under the legs in a three-on-one duel – and it was an even game until the Suns went into halftime with an eight-point lead.

Less than two minutes into the second half, Ben King put his team 14 points ahead after intercepting a pass from Andrew inside the defensive 50-metre box. The young defender added to his brilliance by driving up the pitch and playing a pinpoint pass to the in-form Long at the top of the 50-metre line, who effortlessly converted the ball.

Inaccuracy was the theme of the third period for Essendon as Zach Merrett missed a set piece shot followed by another crucial miss from Nic Martin. It took 15 minutes for Essendon to finally find some magic at the hands of Jye Caldwell who blasted the ball through from around 40 metres.

What the Bombers lacked in precision was their desperation, as Nik Cox scored a wonder goal to reduce the game back to five points.

There was an uproar from Gold Coast fans when Charlie Ballard was awarded a penalty for tackling Sam Durham, who he thought had played on when he received a ball inside the 50-metre line. A big hit from Durham, followed by another from Menzie, brought People First Stadium to life and the game was tied at 67-67.

The closing moments were a rollercoaster of emotions, with both sides bringing joy and sorrow to their fans in equal measure. A misdirected shot from Stringer put the game in the Suns’ hands before Matt Guelfi brought them to within five points with two and a half minutes to go. But a 50-metre penalty for not returning the ball to the right player sealed Essendon’s doom.

The Bombers now turn their attention to a series of games against top eight contenders, starting with the Blues before a bye match, while Gold Coast take on St Kilda at Marvel Stadium.

Insufficient evidence speaks for the visitors

A controversial goal by Nick Hind gave Essendon more momentum in the third period but is likely to have an even greater impact on the game. Ned Moyle claimed to have touched Hind’s goal and immediately raised his hand to suggest the referees consider a goal review, but his claims went unanswered as officials felt there was insufficient evidence to prove his case.

MILESTONE: BEST PERFORMANCE IN CAREER

Playing in his 100th AFL game, Ben Long kicked a career-high four goals on the night, along with 13 possessions and four marks. Along with King, Long was a key target player inside 50 for the home side and his accuracy was spot on.

GOLD COAST: 2.2, 6.4, 9.6, 14.7 (91)

ESSENDONN: 3.5, 4.8, 6.13, 11.14 (80)

GOALS

To sunbathe: B. Long 4, B. Humphry, B. King 4, B. Ainsworth, J. Lukosius 2, T. Berry, T. Miller

Bomber: P. Wright, H. Jones, J. Kelly, N. Cox 3, J. Caldwell,

N. Hind, S. Durham, J. Menzie, M. Guelfi

PREFERABLY

to sunbathe: Andrew, Collins, Long, Walter, King, Berry, Miller

Bomber: Merrett, Cox, Hind, Martin, Heppell

Number of spectators: 21,759

Originally published as “Gold Coast Suns form fortress on Gold Coast as Essendon misses chances”

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