'Make every minute count': 36 hours on the road with the Suns

TWENTY-TWO hours before Gold Coast played Carlton on Sunday afternoon, CEO Mark Evans said something to the club's travelling AFLW party that would encapsulate their whole weekend.

Following an afternoon of travel and a light training run at Ikon Park, the Suns headed to their accommodation at Melbourne's Pullman on the Park, where Evans was there to greet them at the front door.

A total of 46 players and staff had made the trip south on a chartered flight from Gold Coast, hoping to keep their finals chances alive against the Blues the following day.

Gold Coast captain Hannah Dunn speaks with her teammates ahead of the round nine, 2022 clash against Carlton. Picture: AFL Photos

It was just after 7pm on Saturday night and as everyone entered the hotel lobby, we were quickly ushered into a huge dining room that had been dedicated to the Suns.

With bodies and bags of gear seemingly everywhere, energetic forward Kate Surman grabbed a fistful of envelopes that contained room keys and started calling names to distribute them.

Minutes later, and just seconds before most of the players had spotted the buffet of food they desperately craved, coach Cameron Joyce told everyone Evans wanted to say a few words.

Moving into an adjoining meeting room, which was a cosy fit with so many bodies, his talk quickly took on a serious tone.

Over five years of watching Evans up-close at the Suns, I've usually seen him in one of two modes – the upbeat CEO spruiking a new partnership or commitment for the club, or the professional, straight-faced version that's having to deal with a controversy or answer to criticism of his club.

Gold Coast CEO Mark Evans speaks to the media at Metricon Stadium on May 18, 2020. Picture: AFL Photos

This time was different. He was dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved blue jumper as opposed to the perfectly pressed suit he often sports. And the words about to come out had a little more 'heart'.

"I know you've all had a long day, but I thought this was important," he started.

"We're judged on what happens from here. Whether we make finals or not almost doesn't matter, but how we play and how we finish the season will dictate what type of story is written about our season.

"Is it a 'Gold Coast improved a bit, won a few games, but they fell away badly' or a 'Gold Coast have really turned the corner here. They've won games and fought out the season'?

"Each game takes about 80 minutes, so you've got 160 minutes left. Make every minute count."

It was the last line he laboured on and the one that hit home most. It wasn't ranting and raving, it was almost a plea. "Make every minute count."

Evans was referring to what happened on the playing field, but after being invited by the club to take a look 'behind the scenes' on its away trip to Melbourne, I would learn that it applied to the entire weekend.

Minutes are precious on the road, they're not wasted. And every single one of them is accounted for.

BEHIND THE SCENES The hard conversations when Suns don't shine

Hitting the road

It started at just after noon on Saturday, when the entire party arrived at Coolangatta's Gold Coast Airport. Not just the 23 players, but another 23 staff that included head of women's football Fiona Sessarago, Joyce, his coaching staff, a doctor, two physiotherapists, three trainers, two property stewards, two from the media department, football operations staff and one from player welfare.

And there was the woman that made everything run so smoothly – football operations coordinator Ariana Reilly. 'Ari' does all the little things. Organises buses, gets boarding passes, books accommodation, has food and snacks at the ready. If you don't know how something has happened, the answer is usually her.

Not your standard charter flight with rivals Gold Coast (left) and Brisbane (right) on the same plane to Melbourne. Picture: Supplied

The new COVID-19 world means teams travel on chartered flights, and this time the Suns would walk across the tarmac to their plane alongside Brisbane – who had a match rescheduled to Melbourne after its home venue at Maroochydore had been impacted by floods.

But with no in-flight service, the Suns are prepared, with snacks including small packets of chips, pretzels, muesli bars, apples and bananas to choose from before boarding. Players walk past the bench full of food and take what they want, before the leftovers are collected and taken for later in the day.

Straight up the stairs and on to the plane, it was Suns on the right and Lions on the left!

There was little engagement between the teams – why would there be? – apart from a bear hug between friends Ellie Hampson and Jade Ellenger before boarding.

Touchdown in Melbourne

With some severe turbulence about 30 minutes before landing behind us, it was time to disembark. As everyone filed across the tarmac at Tullamarine's Jet Base, just around the back of the main terminal and where most charter flights land and take-off from, both teams were greeted by waiting buses.

That's right, a 30-second walk from plane to bus without having to go through a terminal and collect luggage. Very smooth and very time-efficient.

On the 20-minute bus ride to Ikon Park, Alison Drennan sat next to Janet Baird, who was preparing to play her first AFLW game in 12 months the following day.

Drennan, the laidback midfielder with a relentless approach to training and playing, asked her younger teammate how she was feeling ahead of her return.

The response came back that Baird she was nervous, so Drennan spent the next 10 minutes talking her through it.

Viv Saad sat with headphones on while noise and chatter surrounded her. It was already clear how many different approaches 23 players could have to prepare for training and playing.

Stretching the legs

With an hour lost to daylight saving, it was 5pm by the time we arrived at Carlton's home ground for their final training run.

After finding their dressing-room for the following day, Joyce led everyone to an adjoining room underneath a grandstand for a team meeting prior to the session.

His main point of emphasis was the structure for a stoppage inside Gold Coast's defensive 50m arc. It's the only specifics Joyce goes into. He brings up a slide from a recent game, freezes it, and shows everyone what he expects. There's no questions. They all seem to get it, but time will tell.

Suns players go for a light training run at Ikon Park before their clash with Carlton. Picture: Supplied

He talks about match-ups and tells the team Daisy D'Arcy has the job on Darcy Vescio and that Jamie Stanton will go with dynamic Blue Maddy Prespakis. None of this is a surprise to the players involved, or probably most of their teammates, but just hearing the names brought the match into laser focus.

The chattiness of the bus was exchanged for serious faces now. There wasn't a phone in sight.

Joyce mentions Baird and reminds her of a rundown tackle she executed at training earlier in the week and says that's all he and the team want from her – to do the simple things. There's an eruption of applause and support. You could see the smile crack across her face.

Finally, Joyce hammered home one thing – pressure. Gold Coast averaged 75 tackles a game and Carlton 45, a team that loved to play uncontested footy and possess the ball. He wanted his players to overwhelm the Blues with pressure in this contrast of styles.

Suddenly the players were splitting off into line meetings, with midfield coach Sam Iles taking his 10 players up a flight of stairs and into a grandstand.

Midfield coach Sam Iles discuss match-ups and structures at a line meeting the day before the game. Picture: Supplied

He also emphasised the defensive 50 stoppage set-up. Jacqui Yorston, new to the wing role, asks two or three times on specific examples. She understands the concepts but wants specifics. Kalinda Howarth, also new to that role, asks plenty. Stanton, the senior voice in the midfield, also seeks clarity.

By 5.40pm the players are on the field, finally stretching their legs out more than four hours after they first met at the airport.

There's a lot more buzz, some goalkicking. Howarth bends one with her right foot from the left boundary line. Tara Bohanna slots one from 30m out. The Suns have a challenge during each session to have one snap at goal, one set shot and one on the run that will count towards a running tally. Howarth seems most pleased when her snap sails through, screeching in delight.

With the light run behind them, everyone boards the bus headed for the Pullman.

Multi-tasking at meal times

After Evans' talk, there's a 90-minute window to eat dinner in the same room.

This is where my head really turns.

Earlier in the day the team's WhatsApp group gets a message from Jasmine, one of the physiotherapists, offering up 15-minute massage blocks from 7.15pm-8.30pm with the three trainers.

There's also 20-minute treatment slots from 7.20pm-8.40pm with the two physios. These options will be repeated on Sunday morning.

They're snapped up in a hurry. First in, first served.

I wasn't shocked players would get treatment the day before a game; that made sense.  Seeing the five treatment tables taking up half the team's dining room, however, was an eye-opener.

It was fantastic. Five treatment tables in one half of the room, next to a table tennis table, and five huge round dinner tables, that could seat 10 people each, in the other half.

Gold Coast players warm up ahead of the round nine, 2022 game against Carlton. Picture: AFL Photos

It was very casual and allowed players to cycle from eating to treatment or vice-versa.

While some ate from the selection of lasagne, stir fry, roast vegetables and salad, others hit the tables.

While all this was going on, a big screen TV was showing Melbourne's demolition of Fremantle. At first a couple of people were saying "get a look at this", and by the time the final quarter rolled around, 10-12 players and quite a few staff were glued on as the Demons chased down an AFLW record score.

Before the players headed to their rooms for the night, Sessarago appeared, like a pharmacist, distributing rapid antigen tests (RAT) that every person – staff and players – in the group would have to take.

The test had to be taken on Sunday morning prior to 9.30am and the result, a picture, sent to Sessarago with the date, time and initials on the test.

Game day

Sunday would start with the RAT and then a 7am-9am window for breakfast before the team had a light walk – towards the nearby MCG – to stretch their legs.

Charlie Rowbottom had clearly just woken up and is playfully chipped by Iles. "I woke up at 6am and went back to sleep for two seconds and next thing it was nine," the teenager mumbled with a smirk.

While the players walk, Joyce and the coaches head to a nearby café to discuss their contingencies against Carlton.

What will they do with the Prespakis tag when she inevitably drifts forward? (Stanton will stay in the midfield and will hand over to a defender.) In what scenario will they drop a spare player into defence? Could this be a day to use Rowbottom as a deep forward when she's resting from the midfield? (Yes.)

Joyce has a blank A4 pad that he takes notes in. He asks each line coach what they need to be wary of.

He writes down all these answers and will return to the hotel, type them up, and give each coach a copy.

That way, once the hustle and bustle of the game is underway, there's a reference for specific scenarios outside the norm. Quick answers to look up.

Gold Coast players watch from the bench during round nine, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

The coaches have a good giggle at the mug of long black coffee I order that could probably fit my entire head in.

Iles leaves the meeting at 10am – he has an Academy match to prepare for, meaning he will arrive at Ikon Park literally on the first bounce at 5.10pm.

By 10.20am – and the players long before this – we return to the hotel for the only 'spare' time in the 36 hours. This is a block when some players will see their line coaches to discuss anything, and others will rest in their room. It's very low key until the 12.30pm lunch.

Preparing for the game

Another buffet, with a mix of chicken wraps and stirfry, awaits. This meal is trickier for players to figure out exactly what they want, and and how much of it, with their match warm-up less than four hours away.

Kate Surman and Bess Keaney talk about life issues outside footy, mixing full-time work with their AFL commitments and personal relationships. It's a tricky balancing act both are pleased with how they handle.

Serene Watson is playing table tennis with some coaches and is an absolute ball of energy.

Forward-line revelation Tara Bohanna is talking about an upcoming wedding for a friend of hers.

Stanton explains to me the value of game-day treatment. "It's honestly what keeps a couple of us going. It's the most important part of the week," she said.

By 2.30pm it's time to check out, have one final team meeting where the same messages as the day before are reinforced one last time, and on to the bus bound for Ikon.

The game doesn't go to plan, and Joyce has a difficult post-match conversation with the players.

They head back to Tullamarine's Jet Base for a 9pm departure that turns into 9.30 for an arrival back at Gold Coast just after 11pm.

Many of the players will get to bed after midnight and then arise early to work their jobs.

As Evans said, make every minute count – when you're on the road, you have no choice.

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