Hardwick
The new system employed by coach Damien Hardwick (centre with ball) has the Gold Coast Suns buzzing. Image by Darren England/AAP PHOTOS
  • Australian rules football

Meat the coach: Dimma’s Suns AFL rebuild takes hold

Murray Wenzel February 29, 2024

Could the answer to Gold Coast’s historical AFL struggles be wedged alongside the sausages in a weekly meat tray?

Or will the new floor plan at Suns HQ be the difference between booking holidays in September and a maiden finals campaign in the club’s 14th season?

Both are products of the Damien Hardwick “system”, the buzzword at Carrara since he was lured back into coaching only months after stepping away from his post at Richmond last year.

The triple premiership tactician has brought with him a whole new meaning to the tired football cliche “within the four walls”.

One of his first orders was to have some internal walls knocked down, others constructed and new offices built to promote a more harmonious and interactive workplace.

Players now sit at individual study desks in meetings so they aren’t scrawling notes into a book balancing on their knees.

His arrival, as well as that of new chairman Bob East, has even prompted an overhaul of the Suns’ business strategy.

Now it simply prioritises winning AFL and AFLW premierships, believing their previous crusades, namely grassroots and player development, will naturally occur below that.

And then there’s Wednesday’s meat tray races, but we’ll get to that later.

It’s a system that breathed life into Punt Road, where the football was “quick and manic, with some method” and reaped the club three flags in four years.

Those are Brandon Ellis’s words, the two-time premiership player who moved north in 2020 and is unashamedly happy his old coach has now joined him.

Ellis
 Brandon Ellis is delighted his former Richmond coach Damien Hardwick is now his mentor at the Suns. Image by Darren England/AAP PHOTOS 

“We’ve got the right man for the job now and there’s no ceiling on this year or the years to come,” the straight-talking Gold Coast wing told AAP.

“We have the list, the talent. 

“Dewy (axed coach Stuart Dew) did a fantastic job to get us where we are now, but we needed someone who had been there and had the experience to take us to the next level.

“Gold Coast sports fans wants to jump on something; they’re crying out for some success.

“They’re going to love our game style we’re going to bring and we’re going to have a lot more wins than losses.

“It’s going to be a lot different to what everyone’s seen.”

Ellis remembers when it all suddenly clicked at Richmond, who flirted with a finals appearance for two years after falling a handful of wins short.

He says it can work for the Suns too.

“At the end of 2015, thought we needed to train harder, be out on the ground longer, do everything harder. 

“But it wasn’t the answer.

“Less is more, is what Dimma learnt. 

“Embracing your perfection, allowing everyone to be themselves, creating a safe and fun environment, be vulnerable, get the best out of them.

“It filtered down from Cotch (captain Trent Cotchin) and literally it changed with a click of the fingers.

“We went from 13th (with an 8-14 record) in 2016 to winning a flag in 2017. 

“Everyone might say it seems like the Suns are so far away.

“But you can be so close as well; there’s proof in the pudding in Richmond.”

While it may have been pudding in Richmond, it’s steak and sausages on the Gold Coast.

Asked for examples of how Hardwick has encouraged the same things of his new students, Ellis jumped straight to a new favourite he said was never on the menu in Melbourne.

“Yeah, meat tray races,” he said.

Players and high-performance staff are on the hook this season, with any blooper moments commanding a cry of “meat tray”.

They must then bring one in on Wednesday morning, complete with a receipt showing the prize’s value of at least $100.

Players are then assigned an animal in an automated, computerised race and they cheer their charge home.

“It’s good fun, takes your mind off footy for a bit and lets you just be humans,” Ellis said of the spectacle.

“And you have to bring your receipts, there’s no hiding.”

A bit like on the footy field, where Hardwick commands certain standards but is one of the first to crack a joke.

It’s rubbed off on foundation player David Swallow, who is yet to play a single finals game in 13 AFL seasons.

“That’s what it does, right? New coach with fresh ideas and game plan,” he said.

“For those that have been around longer, it’s a different stimulus.

“And he comes with a reputation; he’s been there and done it and that helps as well.

“He’s got the runs on the board.”