AFL witnesses rare outbreak of fun footy as lesser lights deliver on entertainment

Many moons have waxed and waned since the Gold Coast Suns were a talking point following a round of football that did not question their very existence. For years the expansion club has been hard to take seriously, a team slightly less threatening than a Carlton forward’s set shot. But on Saturday night, they radiated energy like sweat on a humid Darwin night, kicking nine unanswered goals either side of half-time to defeat Adelaide by six goals.

For so much of their history, the Gold Coast has been a broken team with the soul of a Docklands’ ATM, wrecked by defections – the most recent of whom, the exciting Izak Rankine, lined up against them on Saturday night – and largely an afterthought for broadcasters. It is difficult to conceive of anyone who has watched Gold Coast for most of their 13 years in the competition doing so for enjoyment, but halfway through the 2023 season, the primary experience of watching the Suns is… well, fun.

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Down by 35 points in the second quarter, the midfield battle abruptly became a pas de deux for Noah Anderson and Matt Rowell, who took on the air of an on-ball brigade now justly aware of their full measure of not only grace, but also grunt. Come the end of the night they would combine 31 contested possessions and 18 clearances, helping set up five goals from Jack Lukosius, who (apologies to Kim Carnes) knows just what it takes to make a Crow blush.

As well as being fun to watch, the Gold Coast also showed some substance in withstanding a comeback from Adelaide in the last quarter, that saw them concede the lead before kicking five of the last six gaols of the game and give their hopes of a historic finals appearance a huge boost. It also provided more than a little relief for their coach, Stuart Dew, who revealed that he had sent a text message to recently departed Richmond coach, Damien Hardwick, saying “thanks for the timing, mate”.

Hardwick’s former team was involved in the other highpoint of the round on Sunday against the GWS Giants at the Sydney Showgrounds (like their fellow expansion team on the Gold Coast, GWS has had to suffer the ignominy of not being housed in a government-funded $715m stadium).

While the outcome of the game was for the most part as substantial as the search process for an AFL executive, it delivered on that word again – entertainment. Having clawed their way back from 16 points down at the last change, the Giants found themselves level with Richmond in the shadows of the last quarter. For a match that seemingly didn’t have any chance of reversing low expectations, it led to the type of football that was… well, fun.

In a sport full of platitudes about risk and leaving it all on the field, football too often delivers the type of dirge presented in prime time on Friday night between Melbourne and Carlton; a game that barely offered up an Instagramable highlight that would energise even the most ardent supporter.

Jack Riewoldt celebrates a goal in western Sydney.
Jack Riewoldt celebrates a goal in western Sydney. Photograph: Steven Markham/AAP

But Sunday’s last quarter, between two teams towards the bottom of the ladder, had a go-big-or-go-home energy. It was one of risk of dare and of desperation – all prerequisites of the creative process. And fittingly, it was one that’s deadlock was broken by a player who embodies the frantic pace in which the last few minutes were played.

Marlion Pickett’s exquisite forward craft and goal gave Richmond just their fourth win of the year, and the first for interim coach, Andrew McQualter. Outside of Pickett and Tim Taranto, who stuffed the stats sheet in his first game against his old club, Richmond’s win was due in part to their 34-year-old forward, Jack Riewoldt.

Riewoldt’s last few seasons have been of gradually diminishing worth, but on Sunday, the once-Tiger enfant terrible played with the uninhibited joy of a child. He once again looked like the man trying to direct traffic in a city where he doesn’t speak the local language, marking strongly and setting up goals when he didn’t kick five of his own.

The result won’t likely have any bearing on what is shaping up as a tight and enthralling race to make the eight, but in a week that began with the AFL running Hawthorn’s racism review through a woodchipper, it was nice to be reminded that football can still be… well, fun.